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775: Susan Cain Uncovers the Surprising and Uplifting Power of Sorrow and Longing

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Susan Cain explains how embracing bittersweetness helps us lead more creative, connected, and fulfilling careers and lives.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two simple shifts to make you more courageous
  2. How a bias for positivity is holding us back
  3. How to keep your brain from wallowing in negativity

About Susan

Susan Cain is the #1 bestselling author of Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which spent eight years on The New York Times best seller list, and has been translated into 40 languages. Susan’s TED talks have been viewed over 40 million times. LinkedIn named her the Top 6th Influencer in the World, just behind Richard Branson and Melinda French Gates. Susan partners with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant and Dan Pink to curate the Next Big Idea Book Club. They donate all their proceeds to children’s literacy programs. Visit Susan at susancain.net.

Resources Mentioned

Susan Cain Interview Transcript

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

Susan Cain
Thank you so much, Pete. It is awesome to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and some insights from your latest book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. And congratulations on hitting number one on New York Times’ Best Seller list, that’s pretty fantastic. Good job.

Susan Cain
Thank you so much.

Pete Mockaitis
But maybe, first, I’m dying to know, and I think many of the listeners are as well, so you’re also quite famous for your book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. And you do public speaking all the time, and I understand that wasn’t your favorite thing to do. Could you maybe tell us how you found some growth and development there? And did you learn to enjoy it all the more?

Susan Cain
Oh, God, yeah. I mean, so you have to know where I was starting from because it wasn’t just that I didn’t enjoy speaking. It was that, like, I can sometimes literally vomit before a speech, and I would always lose five pounds in the week before a speech because I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep. Like, it was very intense. And I used to be a lawyer before I became a writer, so during all that time I was a lawyer, I just gritted my teeth through that suffering.

But then when I became a writer, and like I really cared about getting my message out. I didn’t want my phobia to stand in the way, so I kind of tackled this issue that I had. And here’s the secret, and what I’m about to say applies to any fear that your listeners might have, any fear. The way to overcome any fear is you have to expose yourself to the thing you fear, you can’t hide from it, but you have to do it in very, very small, very manageable doses.

So, you can’t start by giving a TED Talk if your fear is public speaking. You have to start by going to the nicest Toastmasters meeting you’ve ever seen. Or, in my case, I went to this seminar for people with public speaking anxiety, where everybody was really nice and all you had to do was, like you’d start by this really small exercises. Like, the first day, you’d get up and say your name and sit back down, “Congratulations. You’re done.” 

And you’d ratch it up little by little by little by little by little from there, and, in this way, you’re basically training your brain that the thing that it reacted to, as if it were a saber-toothed tiger, you’re basically training your brain, “Oh, it’s not a dangerous tiger. It’s a daffodil, and it’s okay.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Susan Cain
Yeah. And so, it’s just sort of a long process but anyone can do it. That’s the great news.

Pete Mockaitis
As I put my brain in that situation, I think one of the funnest parts for me would be just creatively ideating and trying to determine what might be that next super tiny step. And it’s so funny, it’s just like, I’m thinking about virtual reality, like you can’t do it for real. You can even do it there. So, that’s nifty.

Susan Cain
It’s interesting to me though that you described that as fun. So, let me ask you this. Were you ever a nervous public speaker, or no? And the reason I asked this is because I never would’ve described the process as fun while I was in it. It was more like something I needed to do.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think the doing it is as much fun so much as the thinking, “Oh, there is a super tiny step. That’s something I could feel like I can get a victory on that is not terrifyingly overwhelming.”

Susan Cain
Right. Right. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
But, yeah, the doing would be difficult. I’d say I never had the vomits pre-public speaking but I…

Susan Cain
I never heard it called the vomits.

Pete Mockaitis
But I did…I certainly felt nerves. And I guess I somehow managed to convince myself that I was excited and then I believed it, and it’s a rush. I remember a speaking mentor said, “When it comes to public speaking, it’s like, man, sometimes there’s this electricity and sometimes you get electrocuted,” in terms of how it seems to go, and that’s been my experience. I’ve had some talks that didn’t go as well.

And, in a way, those have been super helpful in terms of taking a real good look, like, “What went wrong there?” And all of it was sort of like assumptions I had made about the audience in advance, like, “Oh, they’re not already jazzed about this topic,” and it’s more of a general audience, and so it’s oopsies, lessons learned. But one fun thing about talking about on How to be Awesome at Your Job is all the listeners already care about being awesome at their jobs, so we got that covered.

Susan Cain
Right. Yeah, so you already know what they’re excited about, hearing about. Well, I’ll give one other public speaking hack that I think is really huge for people who are afraid of public speaking, which is that if you are afraid of it, it is because you are attuning excessively to being judged. You’re like your relationship with the audience emotionally is that they’re the judge or perhaps the executioner, and you’re like the penitent before them. That is not a helpful relationship obviously.

What I would try to turn that into is to think in advance, like, “What…” from your heart, like really think at a heart level, “What is it that I want to convey? What can I say that’s going to be truly helpful today? Even if it’s just helpful to one person in the audience, what could I do that could truly elevate someone’s life?” And then you’re going out there in the spirit of like, “What can I give?” as opposed to “How will I be judged?” And it’s a completely different energy. Completely. It’s very transformative.

I don’t find that that works if you’re in a state of extreme, extreme anxiety, but once you get to the point where it’s stamped down and you’re in the realm of manageable butterflies, shifting your energy that way is really transformative.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Well, Susan, you’re already providing fantastic insights, and we’re not even on the main topic yet, so this is going great. Well, all right, tell us, Bittersweet, could you maybe kick us off by sharing a particularly surprising discovery you made while researching and putting this together that has been really striking for folks?

Susan Cain
I think our culture, I know our culture, is so confused, so kind of bedazzled by the idea of being positive at all times that it doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between this incredibly productive and creative state of bittersweet melancholy versus clinical depression. We don’t have a language for distinguishing between the two. We don’t have a way of thinking about it.

Even if you look in the field of psychology, you’ll find psychologists talking about this around the edges but in the center of the field. And yet, like the state of bittersweet melancholy that I’m talking about in my book is one of the greatest power sources that we have of creativity and of human connection, and of a sense of self-transcendence and spirituality, so lots of the goodies that lots of people want, both for their work lives, their creative lives, their emotional lives, and yet we’re living in a culture that’s telling you that the only way to get there is through a kind of relentless upbeat optimism. And that’s just not true.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That sounds like a thesis statement. I love it. Well, then could you paint a clear picture for us and draw as bright a distinction as we can between depression and bittersweet?

Susan Cain
Yeah. So, with depression, you’re in a state where it’s a kind of emotional black hole. You’re in a state of despair. You’re in a state of hopelessness. You’re not in a state of like being in touch with things. You’re in a state of like, “I’m worthless. Life is hopeless. I’m cut off. There’s nothing to be done.” When you’re in a state of bittersweetness, you’re acutely aware of both the sorrow and the joy in this world, and the fact that they’re forever paired but with that comes an acute awareness of beauty and an ability to transform pain into beauty.

So, it’s actually a very hopeful state. It’s a state of meaning. It’s the reason that after 9/11, for example, we suddenly had a lot of people signing up for jobs as firefighters. And after the pandemic, we’ve suddenly had a lot of people enrolling in medical school and nursing school. And neither of those responses make sense on their face. That’s kind of like here are people reacting to a dispiriting and dangerous situation by signing up for more danger, like signing up to be at the heart of the danger.

But what they’re really doing is they’re turning in the direction of meaning, which is what people have the capacity to do. We have the capacity to respond to life’s difficulties by turning in that direction of meaning in our careers and in our life orientation.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And I love it if we could continue of painting a picture of what you call bittersweet. I guess as I’m thinking about 9/11, for instance, and where I was and what’s going on, like I felt confusion, sadness, shock, anger. It wasn’t like bittersweet as like, “Oh, my baby is growing up,” and so that’s what I first think about when it’s like, “Oh, she doesn’t want to be held as much,” or kind whatever. And so, that’s kind of what leaps to mind when I have the word bittersweet to me. Can you unpack a bit more of the vibe, the texture, the look, the sound, the feel of bittersweet as you describe it?

Susan Cain
Yeah. And actually, the example of your baby growing up is, I think it’s a fantastic example because bittersweetness really is…it’s about, as I say, the pairing of joy and sorrow, and the fact that that’s what this life is, but it’s also about the recognition that everyone and everything we love most will not stay the same, will not live forever, all of that. And then what comes with that is this beauty.

I have a bittersweet quiz that it’s at the beginning of my book and it’s also on my website for people who just want to take it quickly, which is SusanCain.net but I can give you a few questions from it to give you a sense. So, one question is, “Do you react intensely to music, art, or nature?” Another question is, “Do you draw comfort or inspiration from rainy days?” That’s sort of like cozy, poetic, rainy day vibe. And another one is, “Do you like sad music?”

We actually know that people listen to the happy songs on their playlist about 175 times, but they listen to these sad songs 800 times. And we know that it’s the sad music that gives us the goosebumps and the chills as opposed to the happy music. And I love the happy music and the dance music is great. It’s just that there’s something in that vein of art created with a tinge of melancholy that gets people in the real heart. It’s just something for creatives to know, in general. It’s like sort of the secret to the creative sauce.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. When you talked about happy and sad songs, I think that really does nail it because I’m imagining like your wedding playlist, like, “Too high,” “Hot damn.” So, there’s that, and so that’s fun. But then as I’m thinking, like sad songs, the first thing that came to mind was “Champagne High” by Sister Hazel, which, if you look at the lyrics, it’s really heart-wrenching.

It’s about a person who is at someone else’s – geez, I’m getting choked up – he’s at someone else’s wedding that he was in love with, and he had hoped to reconnect but it just didn’t quite work out, like, “Dude,” like, “Whoa.” Like, if you put yourself there, it is deeper and it’s hitting the heart. And, at the same time, it’s not all just gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s like, “Ah, we had something beautiful, didn’t we?” And so, there it is.

Susan Cain
Yeah, because what you’re really talking about is longing, which is the real key to human DNA. That’s really what drives us at the end of the day. Look at every single religion, they’re all about the longing for the more perfect and beautiful world. It’s like you’re longing for the Garden of Eden, you’re longing for Mecca, you’re longing for Zion.

The Sufis long for the beloved of the soul, that’s what they call the divine. And then we do that creatively, too. We have Dorothy is longing for somewhere over the rainbow. That’s really what glamor is, if there’s anybody listening, where you’re in a kind of glamor field, and that’s what you need to understand what glamor really is.

Glamor is like a pictorial representation of that perfect state, of perfect love, and perfect beauty in an otherworldly sense that we long for. That’s why there’s the kind of iconic image of the shiny convertible driving around the bend to nowhere. And inside the convertible, sits the beautiful couple, and it’s like a representation of this perfect love, and they’re driving around the bend to the perfect unseen. That’s what drives people.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting, as I think about such a scene, one’s emotional response would be, “Ahh, I want that.”

Susan Cain
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, “Oh, I’ll never have that.” And then maybe that’s the distinction right there. The latter, I don’t know if it has a bit of hopelessness going on. And so, it’s interesting, like what we’re talking about is so deep and human, it almost feels inappropriate to, I don’t know, weaponize or utilize this, but that’s what you’re saying. It’s, like, it is a force. And so, if we think about the context of people wanting to be awesome at their job, how do we tap into this in a way that we find brings about more wholeness and awesomeness?

Susan Cain
Well, first of all, if you want to understand your co-workers, you have to understand, which is one of the, obviously, the great ways of being awesome at your job is to work well and really care about the people you’re working with. You have to understand this is at the heart of their nature and it’s at the heart of your nature, too. And it creates spaces for people to show up that way, if you’re a team leader, for example.

But, also, it’s like, let’s say even before you get to your job and you’re thinking about what the right job is for you, and maybe you’re not sure, and maybe you don’t know if you’re in the right job or if you’re even in the right career, I would ask yourself, like, “What do you long for? What are you longing for?” And pay attention to the symbols in your life.

If it’s okay, I’ll tell you a quick story from my life to sort of illustrate what I’m talking about. So, I used to be a corporate lawyer before I became a writer, and I was totally in the wrong field for me but I got really caught up in it, the way one does. You know how it is. You’re like in a field and then everyone you know is in that field, and you’re doing it 24/7, so you’re living in this hermetically sealed bubble. You can’t see outside of it.

So, I was caught up in it, I was trying really hard to make partner, I was working all the time for years. And then this day came when a partner in the firm…I wrote all about this. He came and he told me I wasn’t going to be making partner. And, at the time, like I received this news as a catastrophe but I went home the next day, or a little bit after that, I left the firm. I took a leave of absence and a few weeks after that I ended a relationship, a seven-year relationship that had always felt wrong.

And so, now I’m like floating around, like no career, no love, I’m in my early 30s, and I’ve fallen into this relationship with another guy. He’s a musician, he’s a lyricist, a very lit up type of person, and it becomes a kind of obsession, and I can’t shake it, and I can’t stop thinking about him. There’s nothing I can do to extricate myself from this obsession.

And then a friend of mine says to me, she’s like, “If you’re this obsessed with this person, it’s not only because the person himself. It’s because he represents something you’re longing for. So, what are you longing for?” And it was like the minute she said that, I knew the answer. He was a musician. He was, like, he represented this life of art and writing that I’d wanted to be part of. Since I was four years old, I’d wanted to be a writer, and I had put all that on hold for decades.

And as soon as I understood that, the obsession fell away, I started writing for real, and that was it. That’s a kind of dramatic version of it but I think we can all be asking ourselves those questions all the time. Like, you’re working really hard so that you can get a house. Like, what does the house mean to you? What does it symbolize to you? What are you longing for? And make sure you’re orienting your life around, really, what your heart’s longing is telling you because career years have a way of adding up really quickly, and you want to make sure you’re putting them in the right direction.

Pete Mockaitis
And we can often take such wildly circuitous routes to what we’re longing for. Like, did the musician relationship end up working out?

Susan Cain
No, no, and that was fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I thought…I didn’t want to, ”Yes, he’s my husband.”

Susan Cain
No, no, no, it was actually not so long after that that I met my husband. It’s all good, happily ever after.

Pete Mockaitis
If we’re doing something in order to meet another longing, which you may be aware of or not aware of, we could probably be better served just by going directly after that which we’re longing for.

Susan Cain
If you knew what it was.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that’s where I’m going next. What are your pro tips on surfacing that?

Susan Cain
Well, most of all, really, to pay attention to what it is. Like, what is the key question that you keep asking yourself? What’s the thing that you’re staking everything for? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to you underneath it all? What’s the life you truly want? What does home look like to you? I would ask yourself that question. Getting to this fundamental, like, existential longing that we all have. We’re all longing for home in some kind of way. That’s how humans are designed. So, what does home look like to you?

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share with us a few articulations of that from folks that you’ve spoken with, heard about, talked to?

Susan Cain
Gosh, let me think of some good ones for you.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I’m saying is I imagine you’d say, “What I’m longing for is a Ferrari.” It’s like, “Hmm, that’s probably quite not the core of it.”

Susan Cain
Well, it’s funny that you say…that you give that example of the Ferrari because I actually wrote in the book about this seminar that I attended about longing for love. It was given by this great writer, Alain de Botton, and he actually gives the example of a Ferrari owner. It’s like very often the person who’s buying the Ferrari, they’re not necessarily after the Ferrari. Like, they’re after love and admiration. That’s often what’s motivating them.

So, it’s like always looking two or three steps underneath. Very often, when you feel like absolutely driven by something, there’s often something going on underneath it, to ask yourself what the true motivation is, what the true source is.

Susan Cain
So, here’s another example of somebody who I interviewed. So, she had been working at an international consumer goods company, doing sort of consumer research for some years. And, in this work, she…part of what you do with consumer research is you’re listening to the stories of your consumers, you’re asking them a lot of questions, which is something she found that she loved doing. She loved listening. She loved drawing them out. She loved hearing their stories. And the more she did this and the more she listened to the women’s stories and the women’s dissatisfactions, the more with their lives that they were talking to her about, the more it tapped some kind of like a primal longing in her to go back home – she was from the Middle East originally. She had come from a family where there’d been a lot of suffering and abuse of the women in the family, and she realized what she wanted to do was like a kind of healing work of the kinds of women who had been in her family, who these women in the consumer research job had reminded her of, that they kind of set this longing, a light in her.

And so, she goes back to the Middle East and she starts…and I’m being vague about where she’s from because she doesn’t want me to use her name, but she starts a not-for-profit where she’s helping refugees and helping former women prisoners, and she’s doing this work for them but what she’s really doing is trying to correct some of the wrongs that had been done to the women of her family. And it was like that was when she started to feel whole is when she did that kind of work.

Whereas, the whole time she’d been at the consumer research firm, she was like fascinated by the stories but felt a kind of a kind of…she called it like a numbness and a deadness inside, and she started to come alive when she did that kind of work. But what ignited in her was the moments of listening to these women’s stories and realizing that was like touching off the longing in her.

Pete Mockaitis
So, is that kind of the pathway that often goes when you zero in on the longing and then you go pursue that well, wholeness and aliveness is on the other side?

Susan Cain
It often is on the other side, yeah, because it’s telling you like where your sense of the love that you’re seeking, the full love that you’re seeking, where it is for you. The moments that you have longing are often a clue to what those are. Just the way, like by analogy, if you pay attention to the people who you envy.

Like, envy is not such a nice emotion but it’s an incredibly instructive emotion because, like with career envy, you’re not going to have career envy over somebody who has a job that you don’t want. You’re just going to feel happy for that person. If you’re feeling envy, you might feel ashamed of yourself for feeling that way but it is a great clue that they’re doing something that you wished that you were doing, so it’s a great sign. And longing is the same way, the same type of sign.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, there are many flavors of longing but is love at the root of them all? Or, is that kind of one of several kind of key flavors or archetypes?

Susan Cain
I would say there’s different manifestations of the same thing. For some people, it looks more like love, and for some people it’s more like beauty, and for some people it’s more like truth. But it’s this sense of like what perfection looks like to you, like a kind of otherworldly perfection.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, this wholeness, how do you know when you got it?

Susan Cain
You just know.

Pete Mockaitis
I thought you’d say that.

Susan Cain
You just know, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
“Like, I feel pretty whole.”

Susan Cain
It doesn’t mean that you’re like, “Okay, now, I‘m going to sit on the couch forever because I’m whole.” It doesn’t mean that. W
hat it means is that you’re on the right journey instead of on the wrong journey, so you’re still journeying but you’re like on the right path.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then can we talk about some perhaps practical do’s and don’ts when it comes to inside our own heads and emotions if we experience some sadness, some disappointments, there are some distinctions there between that and bittersweet? And so, how do we think about running our brains and our emotions optimally in that, I guess, it could continually be possible to “wallow” or be – torn apart sounds dramatic but…? I’m thinking of my kids and Daniel Tiger and the big feelings right now.

It’s like as you’re exploring yourself, and you’re finding these breadcrumbs, how do you recommend that we explore, engage in a way that’s likely to lead to insight and constructive goodness versus, for lack of a better word, wallowing?

Susan Cain
Oh, I’m actually glad you’re using that word wallowing because I think that that is the fear that many people have if they tune into this aspect of their emotional lives. I think they’re afraid they’ll start wallowing and never come out, so they’d rather not go there at all. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just the remember the art is to balance it all out.

But one really great technique, just to keep it super practical, is the art of expressive writing, which basically means, especially when you’re feeling something that’s amiss, something that’s wrong, something that’s upsetting you, whatever it is, to just quickly write it down and don’t try to write it well. You might rip it up as soon as you’re done writing. But the very act of articulating what you are feeling, what you’re experiencing, is incredibly transformative.

And we know this from the work of the psychologist, James Pennebaker, at UT Austin, who’s done all these incredible studies, finding that when people do this, it improves their health, it improves their career success, it improves their sense of wellbeing. He did this one study where he looked at a group of 50-something-year-old engineers who had been laid off, so they were quite depressed about it. And he asked half of them to do what I just described, to write down what they were truly thinking every morning, and then the other half would just write what they had eaten for breakfast that day.

And the first group who had written down truly the expressive writing, they were, I think it was three times more likely to have found work several months later. They had lower blood pressure. They had a greater sense of wellbeing, like just these astonishing findings that you can’t even believe are true except he repeated these studies again and again in all different circumstances.

So, this is something that we could be doing privately. This is something we could be bringing to our teams. We could be distributing blank notebooks and having time for people to kind of, in an alone together way, write down what we’re thinking. We can invite people to share if they want to but they don’t have to do it. But it’s just creating spaces for people to show up to themselves if not to each other in a fully whole way.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, with the expressive writing of what we’re feeling, that’s just sort of the extent of the prompt, “Hey, what are you feeling?”

Susan Cain
That is the extent of the prompt, yeah, “What is it?” And if there’s something that’s upsetting to you right now, write it down. Just get it out. Don’t worry about the grammar, the spelling, or anything. Just get it out. Get it out. What ends up happening, you don’t really need the prompt. What ends up happening is that people just instinctively start writing in a way that is trying to make sense of their experiences. At a certain point, they start doing that for themselves. Like, they start using words, like, “Oh, what I’ve learned is,” or, “What I’m thinking actually have been was…” and that may be where some of the magic lies.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting because I’m thinking right now, I’m kind of sick, I don’t like it.

 Susan Cain
Oh, sorry to hear that. 

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Susan Cain
You don’t look or sound sick. What’s up?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. We’re getting better. We’re getting…oh, maybe I have some COVID to sinus infections going through the whole family.

Susan Cain
Oh, my gosh. You’re very matter of fact about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ve had COVID before and so, and the worst is behind us but, yeah. And so, that’s unpleasant.

Susan Cain
Yeah, I’m sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, as I think about it, you can arrive at, on the surface level, it might not seem like there’s much to it, “Yup, being sick sucks. That’s true.” But as I think about it more in terms of the, “Well, why? Well, what’s so troubling about that for me? Like, how do I feel diminished? And why does that matter to me?” then we start to get into some interesting themes that can be insightful and actionable.

Susan Cain
Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And I’ll give you a way to do that but also to then kind of do the same thing but sort of turn it outwards. And first let me set this up for you. There is this video that went viral a couple of years ago. It was put together by the Cleveland Clinic hospital to train their caregivers in empathy. And the way this video worked, it basically 
took you through the corridors of the hospital to show you random passersby, people you’d normally walk past and not really think about it.

But in this case, there were little captions underneath each person telling you what they’re going through at that moment. And sometimes it was something nice, like just found out he’s going to be a father for the first time. But because it’s a hospital, often the captions are more things like, under a little girl, she’s going to say goodbye to her father for the last time. Like, these incredibly heartrending captions, and you can’t watch this video without completely tearing up. It’s impossible.

But the thing I started doing after having seen that video, like the thing that really struck me about it is how anonymous all those people in the corridors normally would be, and all it took was like one little half a sentence caption to completely transform them into full-hearted protagonists of their stories, and that I was part of those stories.

So, I started just reminding myself all the time to wonder what people’s captions are. When I go to the grocery store, like the person is checking me out, checking out the groceries, “What are her captions?” And maybe you know them and maybe you don’t. But it’s a very transformative way to interact with people to be thinking in those terms. And with our colleagues at work, we can do that, take that a step farther because there actually are all kinds of clues, if not outright knowledge about what’s going on for them.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s powerful about that for me is just sort of the, I almost want to say, sort of like sacredness or sanctity of the human person in front of you. And being aware of that you…of course, these things…we’ve all got things going on, but calling them to mind can just be so transformative in how you interact with everyone always.

It’s like, “Okay, you are not just a person taking my credit card. Like, you are any number of these things could be going on for you. And as a person, you are worthy of respect and acknowledgement and sort of my attention as opposed to my phone, like clicking around my phone while you’re ringing things up.”

Susan Cain
Yeah. I’ll give you another one for people to do. This one could work for people to do either with their own selves or with teams or co-workers or whatever. And that is to begin your day by proactively engaging with beauty in one way or another. And this is actually a great exercise to do with a team because you could do it in a kind of show-and-tell type of way of everybody bringing something in that they find especially beautiful, whether it’s music or a snapshot or whatever it is.

But when you’re interacting with beauty, we actually know this from studies, it’s basically like tapping into the same brain centers that you experience when you’re falling in love. So, it’s like really tapping into your reward centers, and it’s tapping into a state that kind of predisposes you creatively. So, I did this the whole time I was writing my book. I was following all these art accounts on Twitter. And every morning, I would start my writing day by picking a favorite piece of art and sharing it on my social channels.

And not only did that get my brain in the right headspace to be creative, but also it was connecting me every morning, the first thing it was doing, I was like plugging into this community of people who cared about art and beauty the way I did, and that was incredibly sustaining, and it also grew our community together. So, that’s also the kind of technique that people don’t think about. It doesn’t have to do with bittersweetness per se but there is something about engaging with beauty that gets people interacting with each other in a kind of truer way, in a more whole way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I guess beauty can have many forms and flavors in terms of…is this research on visually? I guess it’s visually and then there’s music or auditorily. I suppose maybe there could be other modalities associated with beauty.

Susan Cain
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m trying to think if the studies that I’m talking about were only looking at visual art or other forms. I’m not sure, but I don’t see why it would be any different, really.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes I feel beauty with an excellent handwashing session. Like, if you have just fantastic soap and water that’s warm and just right. I don’t know, people talk about singing Happy Birthday, it’s like, “Oh, no, no, just treasure this moment. It’s so glorious.”

Susan Cain
Yeah. Well, it’s wherever you find it. I guess that’s why they make all those beautiful soaps.

Pete Mockaitis
Didn’t think we’d end up here, Susan. All right. Well, before we hear about some of your favorite things, any key things you really want to make sure folks, who are seeking to be awesome at their jobs, know about Bittersweet?

Susan Cain
I think we’ve covered a lot. I guess I would say for those who are on the creative side of the work life to just know that one great thing you can do creatively, like whatever pain you can’t get rid of, take that and make it your creative offering. That’s really what the great creatives have always done. There’s always been this kind of transformation, it’s a kind of like alchemy, so to tune in that way.

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

Susan Cain
I’ll give you the quote that I used as the epigraph for Bittersweet, which is kind of like my whole philosophy in this book. It comes from Leonard Cohen, and the quote is, “There is a crack in everything that’s where the light gets in.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Susan Cain
You’re welcome.

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

Susan Cain
I’ll give you one from one that I also talk about in Bittersweet, and it comes from Dacher Keltner, who’s this great psychologist at Berkeley, and he has studied what he calls the compassionate instinct. And he basically studies the way in which the expression of sorrow is a kind of bonding agent for humans, and that this is because we’re evolved to be able to take care of babies who are utterly vulnerable and dependent on us. But from that beginning comes our greater ability to respond to vulnerabilities of all kind.

So, what he figured out is that we all have a vagus nerve, which is this big bundle of nerves in our bodies. It’s extremely large, it’s extremely fundamental, it regulates our breathing, it regulates our digestion, and also, if you see another person or being in distress, your vagus nerve will become activated, so that on a preconscious level, you’re not going to feel good for as long as you see someone else in distress. You’re going to want to do something about it. So, I would say that’s my favorite research, this compassionate instinct that Dacher has found.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true. I saw someone fell off their bike today outside my office window, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, are you okay? Do I need to go down there?” Wait eight seconds. “Oh, they’re cool. They’re cool. They’re laughing it off. They’re getting on the bike. Okay. Okay.”

Susan Cain
Well, he used this term that he calls vagal superstars for people whose vagal nerves are really, really reactive, so maybe you’re one of those.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Susan Cain
One that’s coming to mind right now is the book Flow by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s the psychologist who basically discovered the idea that humans are really at their best, I’d say most happiest, but just like at our most switched on when we’re absorbed in an activity that’s completely engaging to us, and we’re kind of surfing this channel in between boredom and anxiety.

So, it’s difficult enough that we’re not bored but it’s not so difficult that it’s making us anxious. We’re just like completely happily switched on and engaged. And I will tell you that has been a life-transforming idea because ever since…as soon as I read it, I was like, “Oh, my God, yeah, I love that state.” But as soon as I thought of that as something to aspire to, I started sort of trying to structure my days so that I’m in a state of flow as much of the time as possible.

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

Susan Cain
Well, this is very boring, I guess, but it’s my laptop. But I will say my laptop is nothing without my cup of coffee next to it. So, my cup of coffee here and my candle here, so I think what I’m really saying is that I have these Pavlovian cues that I have used over the years to make myself love sitting down at work. Like, I love my candle, I love my coffee, I love my chocolate, and so I never work without these props on hand. And so, I associate the whole thing with pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to really connect with your readers, listeners; a Susan Cain original that is quoted often?

Susan Cain
I don’t know. I will say that I think that the work that I do, like with Quiet and with Bittersweet, the thing that keeps them…the thing that holds them in common is they’re both about the idea of finding a kind of hidden superpowers that tend to be undervalued in our culture that celebrates the loud and the shiny and the glib and the cheery. It’s saying there’s something underneath all of that where there are really deep riches to be had.

And if you think that…we all have different superpowers. And if your superpower happens to be in that mode, go forth and use it. Far from feeling ashamed of it, realize the power that you possess and go and use it.

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

Susan Cain
So, my website is SusanCain.net, and there is a newsletter that you can sign up for there, and lots of information, and also courses. I have these audio courses that you can take where I send you kind of little audio and written texts every morning. So, that’s at my website, SusanCain.net. And I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram so you can find me there, too.

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

Susan Cain
I’m going to say what I said before, like use your superpower, whatever it is. Figure out which one is yours and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Susan, this has been such a treat. Thank you for sharing and keep doing the great work you’re doing.

Susan Cain
Thank you so much, Pete. And I really hope you all feel better.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

773: How to Amplify Your Message Through Powerful Framing and Storytelling with Rene Rodriguez

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Rene Rodriguez reveals a powerful three-step formula for amplifying your influence and getting your message heard.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The surprising reason why your audience isn’t listening
  2. The most powerful communication skill in your arsenal
  3. How to craft a narrative and message that sticks 

About Rene

For over two decades, René has been researching and applying behavioral neuroscience as a dynamic keynote speaker, leadership advisor, world-class sales expert, and renowned speaker coach. He has also trained more than 100,000 people in applying behavioral psychology and neurology methodologies to solve some of the toughest challenges in leadership, sales, and change. 

Resources Mentioned

Rene Rodriguez Interview Transcript

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

Rene Rodriguez
Thanks for having me, Pete. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I’d love to kick us off right at the beginning with hearing one of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made about humans and influence over the course of your career, researching and teaching about this stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
One of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries, I love that question. I would say that one thing that everybody here has in common is that we all are trying to create change. Influence, leadership, selling, parenting, being a police officer, it’s all about trying to somehow create change. If you’re selling something, you want people to change what they’re purchasing, to buy you. If you’re parenting, don’t change, change this behavior to better behave, brush your teeth if you weren’t brushing your teeth. And leadership is about, most often, and management, is about changing behavior.

And a lot of times behavior change will most often is resisted. And a lot of times, if you’re getting people to want to change, the one thing that is probably the biggest is to help people save face in the process. That is probably the oddest discovery.

Pete Mockaitis
Save face. So, like they don’t need to be humiliated and beaten down, say, “I am so wrong.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, I guess this makes sense and it’s kind of like something else I’ve done before. All right. Cool.”

Rene Rodriguez
Well, if they don’t have to admit they’re wrong, you are much more likely to get massive change, and it’s kind of a deeper topic on how to get there but it’s really…I mean, think of what it requires though to get a leader to be okay with that, that they don’t have to get the people to admit they’re wrong. It’s a big requirement. It shows a lot of self-assurance and it shows a bigger view of a bigger picture that doesn’t matter who is right or who’s wrong. It’s a search for truth. And as long as we’re on that path, it’s okay.

And people, if you create a safe space for people to do that, most people will opt into it but very few will say, “Hey, I was wrong.” And what’s ironic is if you create a safe space for people to save face, later on they’ll say, “You know, before I used to look at it this way.” They’ll come to you. So, that’s my answer to the random question. I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us an example of how someone can make a change and not admit that they’re wrong, just like in practice? Like, what’s the example of how that unfolds?

Rene Rodriguez
I think it applies to kids, I think it applies in relationships, I think it applies in management leadership. So, I’d say an example would be a lot of times if, let’s say somebody just had a poor attitude, and they came to work. Trying to get somebody to admit, “Hey, you really have a poor attitude,” is a big sell. It’s a big sell. But if you both, let’s say, watched a movie, or a TED Talk, we had a couple of concepts that we share. One of them called the courage scale. But let’s just say to accomplish the same thing, a movie that really pinpointed in a third-party view that the effects of a negative attitude, and everybody watched it equally together.

And watching that creates sort of a self-diagnosis or self-assessment, and it’s much easier to get somebody to opt in the new behavior if they don’t have to admit they’re wrong. Like, most people will say, “Wow, that’s kind of how I’ve been. And nobody told me that but I watched a third-party kind of talk about it,” and they can safely do it. And it comes down to psychological safety. It’s really what it comes down to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then they can just sort of watch that and say, “Oh, okay, that’s cool. These people are sort of smiling and asking about each other’s day, or whatever those particular behaviors are associated with better attitude.” It’s like, “No, that seems to be working well for them, and my colleagues want to do that, and it seems worthwhile, I guess I’ll go ahead and do that too. Cool.”

Rene Rodriguez
Well, it’s moreover, if you watched the negative impact, like, “Wow, what a jerk that guy was, and look at the impact it had on the team,” and if it was presented in a way that goes, “Well, who am I?” If it caused self-reflection in a safe way, so usually the positive, unfortunately, I wish it was more persuasive, but if we looked at the negative impact of it from…so, we have this thing called the courage scale and it’s a really simple way of defining where you are from an attitude influence sort of energy perspective. Below the line would be, the bottom would be zero, that you got zero’s death, then you got guilt, shame, fear, apathy, anger, and then courage.

And so, all those things are sort of below this line that we call the taking side of life. And so, if you were to say if you met somebody below the line that usually lives their life in fear, anger, guilt, apathy, all those things, do they give you energy or do they take it away? And what most people would say, “Well, they take it away.” Well, how long does it take them to take it away? It’s seconds. You can be having a great day, and that person, you see their name on a caller ID, and instantly you’re like, “Oh, God.” Like, we all know that person.

And so, it becomes humorous, like we all know that person, we could see it in someone else. And then we see above the line, things like openness, willingness, reason, logic, joy, peace, enlightenment, which we all want to get to. But just those other things, can you think of somebody who lives the majority of their life above that line? And they go, “Yeah.” And so, when that person calls, how are you feeling? Immediately great. You can be having a horrible day, but that person calls and it puts a smile on your face.

And so, we talk about the difference between above the line and below the line as a simple example. In fact, my first TED Talk was on that. And then you watch that, and you watch people who typically are below the line, they self-reflect, they go, “Wow, I’ve really been below the line,” and they see the impact, and they just slowly start acting differently. But if you were to say, “Well, who’s been below the line? So, you were below the line, you were below the line, and now you’re going to change.” Well, now, the whole psychology has changed.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Okay, that’s good stuff. And then I also want to hear a story perhaps of someone that you’ve seen, maybe a client, or audience member or reader, who’s really had quite a transformation. They didn’t have the influence they wanted, they made some changes, and then they got it and saw some cool results.

Rene Rodriguez
Yes. So, the journey of influence is really, I think, really cool. And people ask, “Why influence?” And so, I always look at the opposite of it. So, look at a life without influence. You tell a joke, no one laughs. You sell a product, no one buys. You set a vision, and no one follows. The feeling that follows that is usually ones of insignificance. Some people might even fall into depression, high anxiety, questioning themselves, “Why am I here?” No purpose.

And the reason is because everything you’re doing seems to have no impact on the world. And so, then I go, “Okay. So, what’s the opposite of that? What does influence feel like?” You tell a joke, people laugh. You sell a product, people are buying. You cast a vision, and people follow. And now you realize that when you put something out into the world, it has an impact of some sort.

Now, we can use that impact in selling, you can use that impact in being a teacher, you can use that in leadership. Influence is that ability to influence an outcome of some sort. And so, when you look at the transformation of those that never knew the skill and never knew the sequence involved, or the science of it, there are a lot of people that sort of naturally picked it up over the years. They realize that you could act a certain way, speak in a certain sequence, and you’d get better results.

There are whole tons of reasons why that’s the case. My mission has always been, “How do you get those skills into the hands of people that are good but maybe have never been taught how to communicate?” Because in business, a lot of times, it’s the louder person that processes, maybe even half-baked ideas, but authoritatively they get listened to.

And then you have sort of the smarter introverted folks that maybe process silently what’s going on and fully bake an idea, but if they never speak up or communicate it in a way that people want to listen to, those ideas go by the wayside. And the benefit of the business isn’t achieved or felt, and the person doesn’t feel any sort of movement in their career, and so everybody loses.

So, I could tell you, we’ve got hundreds of stories. One of my favorites is Julia. So, one of my good friends and clients is a company by the name of PURIS. So, we’ve just named the number one most innovative food company in the world. So, Tesla was the innovative car company; they were food. So, they revolutionized pea protein. And what it’s doing is they make it taste good. The company is amazing. The research behind it was amazing. It’s incredible.

So, the CEO came to me, and said, “One of our content managers has got a TED Talk, and she’s 25 and has never given a talk.” I said, “Okay, so she’s going from never to her first talk, giving a TED Talk.” I said, “That’s great.” “Can you get her ready?” “Yes.” So, she came to our first session with 85 pages of research that she wanted to cover, and she was an amazing incredible nerd, and I loved it.

And I said, “Okay, Julia, you realize you have 13 to 17 minutes and you got 85 pages.” “I know. I don’t know how to get it all in.” I’m like, “Well, you’re not going to get it all in.” And we fought, arm-wrestled, back and forth on how to tell the story, what research to share, what not to share. And I finally found out that she was a basketball player and she got into a really bad accident and had traumatic brain injury. And that story began a whole journey of what it felt like to sort of make the comeback, but it was such an incredible story that it was what immediately captured attention, but she didn’t want to tell the story because it wasn’t about pea protein.

And I said, “Well, you have to understand if you want your audience to listen, because a lot of influence is about ‘What do I say?’ with very few, very little work is done as to ‘How do I prepare the audience to listen?’” And so, I gave the analogy, “Would you ever plant a seed on cement?” And, of course, we’d never do that. You’d till the soil first, get rid of the cement, find good soil. I said, “Well, there’s a sequence there. But most people plant their seeds of ideas in cement, in audiences that aren’t ready to listen.

And so, how do you get them ready? Well, a story like that than you can tell in just a couple minutes, people watching you go through this traumatic brain injury,” and she’s getting ready to play basketball, listening to her favorite song, and then, smack, she pauses, “And I was blinded by a car, traumatic big brain injury,” and she tells her whole story, but instantly you’re captivated by the story and sort of her journey through on her love for not being able to play basketball, but going back in to school and the comeback that the little pea made.

And this made this amazing story. In fact, I have the whole sort of video transformation on my website. And watching her tell that story, she came back, I said, “Okay, you tell the pea story with all the research, or you tell the basketball story to ten people, come back to me, and you tell me which one people liked.” And she came back, and she said, “Nobody wants to hear about peas. They want to hear about my car accident and basketball.”

I said, “Okay, so we’re going to use that as an opening to capture people’s attention, and then we can transition into the story.” And then that transitioned into some amazing stories that she told. And if you watched the two different people, it’s something that’s very, very inspiring to see once people learn how to tell the story.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to talk to you about storytelling in particular. And so, right now I’m wondering, that does seem like a captivating powerful story, “Whoa, how did you feel? What happened?” So, then how does one then make the connection to pea protein?

Rene Rodriguez
So, with her, it was literally using the journey of saying, “What that got me now back into what were my passions at school.” And those passions at school led her to her passion for health, and what gave her brain health, or what were the things that really led to a search internally for, which transitioned into the benefits of peas.

So, without going through the whole piece, they’re everything that we do comes from the past events that we’ve been through. All of our past events shaped what we’re attracted to and what we’re repelled by. And so, in one of the exercises, if people want to learn how to tell their story, is we’ll ask a very simple question of what makes you unique.

And so, well, we can do it together. So, like, what makes you unique?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Well, we here are on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, it’s like I’m a total dork with the stuff. I was reading books about success, goal-setting, leadership, communication, psychology, influence, whatever, as a teenager, and this was my thing. And I remember other folks had like basketball player posters on their walls, and I was like, “They don’t really make Tony Robbins or Stephen Covey posters, so I don’t know what to put on my wall. I guess I’ll just have more books on the shelf.”

Rene Rodriguez
I love it. So, you were a fan or personal development, leadership, all that stuff. So, what would you round that off as a uniqueness? Is it about learning? Would you say that that’s the value behind it? Where would you put that?

Pete Mockaitis
I do like learning and I’m really into it. And I guess it was happening. I got good grades, and I remember that someone asked me, “Oh, Pete, do you study a lot?” I was like, “Hmm, studying.” And it was funny, it sounds like a straightforward question but I thought, “Well, I guess I don’t even think about it as studying. I guess I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know, and then I feel like an attention, a curiosity, an uneasiness about that, and so I need to go ahead and close that gap.”

And I guess what one does when closing that gap is what you call studying, but it doesn’t really feel like, “Oh, got to crack the books and study.” It was like, “Okay, well, this transcription business is clear but the translation is not. What’s that about? Okay, what’s the page on the translation? Okay, okay.” And so, for biology or whatever. So, yeah, I guess it’s about curiosity and learning and stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
So, curiosity and learning, okay. So, let’s just pretend that those two are the ones we’ll focus on. And so, would you say that those are two personal values, that learning and being curious in life are very important words to you?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
So, then the research says, the neuroscience says that those are personal values, or at least reflect your personal values, they were formed between the ages of nine and 13. And so, then the next logical question is, “So, who’s around during that time period?” And that you’re looking for one of two kinds of stories, either we call a lighthouse story or a foghorn story.

And a lighthouse story is somebody that was there that really was the guiding light. They were always wanting to learn. They were the perfect example, the guiding light of this value. Or, the foghorn story. Maybe it was somebody that you needed and didn’t show up, somebody that didn’t value school, and you watched what happened to them. They weren’t curious. They thought they were a know-it-all. And you watch where that led their life.

And so, instead of saying, “Well, the world didn’t give it to me,” you say, “Then I’m going to be that for the world.” So, you became it. And so, it’s one of those two stories. So, what it would be for you? Who was around and what happened, age nine or 13, that really led to learning and curiosity?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think it’s more of a lighthouse story. That’s my dad, and I remember I could always escape the house by asking to go to the library. He would comply just about always with that request. And we were curious about all kinds of things from photography to chess or whatever, and would read books and do stuff together.

Rene Rodriguez
And so, you enjoyed those conversations with dad?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
So, how did it make you feel when you did that? So, what we’re looking for is what we call pathos. What was the feeling associated with that?

Pete Mockaitis
It felt really powerful. I remember it just like, “Holy crap, books make you better. Like, you can become better at anything by learning the stuff.” And there’s vast arrays of books and resources and people that can help you. So, it just felt like, in a way, anything is possible.

Rene Rodriguez
Love it. So, now, give me a little creative freedom. So, if I were to hear that story and I were to craft the message is saying, “So, what is this podcast about?” And so, you’re saying, “Well, here’s what it is. Here’s the ethos. Here’s the research. Here’s all these things,” which are what we call logos, very intellectually driven. You might start with, “Well, as a kid growing up, I was always really curious. My father was one of the most influential people in my life, and he really nurtured that curiosity. If I ever needed to go out of the house, my escape was a library.”

“And if I ever wanted to go to the library, he was always behind it, whether it was me learning about photograph, or learning about astronomy, or whatever it was, I always knew that he could do that. And every time he did that, I was overwhelmed with this feeling of power. I felt powerful. Like, knowledge really did equate to power because I could see the world differently. And now that, as I was growing up, my friends had basketball posters of Michael Jordan and Lebron James, I was looking for posters of Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins, and all of the people that were really sharing more of that knowledge.”

“And so, when I decided to do a podcast, I decided to do it around the theme of giving people the same gift that my father gave me, was finding those same knowledge sources to empower people to be better. And so, now that’s why we created the podcast.” So, now you see how the sequence sort of formed based on understanding those two words, tracing that back to a story, which we would call your origin story, and we did it very quickly, but it hits the brain in a very different way when it’s heard in that sequence.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s well put, hits the brain differently. It’s like I’m trying to articulate how it’s hit my brain because it’s like, I mean, it’s my story, I know it, it’s true. And yet I don’t think I’ve quite articulated it that way. There have been bits and pieces, but it’s got a…the hitting of the brain, it’s like a feeling of openness, or it’s kind of like a, “Oh, okay. So, that’s what this is.” It has a little bit more of emotional resonance, as opposed to…

Rene Rodriguez
Resistance.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Rene Rodriguez
Or cliché, right? Well, I like to help people learn, so we start with a message and it hits the brain differently, hits the part of the brain we call Broca’s area. And Broca’s area is a very tiny little speck in the brain that deciphers language. And we go, “So, yeah, I like to help people learn through my podcast,” and we go, “Okay, cool. So, every podcast does the same thing? Cool. Really unique, bro.”

But then when you start with a story, what it does is it triggers your entire sensory cortex. It triggers your limbic system, which triggers emotions. All those past things light your brain up. If you like a functional MRI scanner or a SPECT span, it lights your brain up like a Christmas tree. But what it also does is it lights up the brain of the listener because storytelling is involved.

And so, because our brains light up in the same way, it begins a process of neuro-coupling. And when neuro-coupling happens, there’s a coherence that happens between the two brains and safety is created, what we call psychological safety, “So, I know I’m not going to be judged. There seems to be an alignment of values. If I agree with the story or I like it, I’m attracted to the story and the values it represents at a deeper level,” and it bypasses the parts of the brain that resists, that don’t feel safe.

And so, that sequence is what we call the beginnings of the amplify formula to be able to begin to till the soil of the audience, meaning prep them to hear the message, which is, “Now I want to hear all about what your podcast is about because I have the backstory to what the frame is.” And so, that’s creating a frame or frame of reference. And that frame of reference, frames act as constructs of reality so I can understand reality in front of me.

Like, you have a podcast. Well, I understand the podcast based on what are the frame of reference I choose. But if you don’t provide a frame of reference, I’ll choose one. In fact, if I have a negative…let’s say I have a negative experience of podcasts, and I go, “Oh, gosh, another podcast.” Maybe that’s my frame of reference.

So, I hear your podcast through that filter. But if you provide the frame first, because that’s how the brain works, it needs a frame, and you provide it, the story with dad and what it did for you and your passions for learning and curiosity, and giving a gift back, I don’t pull from my negative frame. I pull from your origin story as the frame, and I hear the message completely different, totally different narrative.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. So, you said there’s amplify sequence, and it starts with some story and framing. Can you sort of give us the overview of the whole process sequence?

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah. So, the science behind it is pretty in depth in terms of understanding what I just said, which is part of influence, and it sounds crazy, it’s about understanding how we construct reality. And so, either I construct a reality that your product is valuable or not, or maybe I construct a value that my product and my time is more valuable than yours, so then why would I meet?

And so, how does it do that? It does that by choosing a frame of reference or the narrative around it. The narrative creates meaning, and then I understand it through that. Now, I’m not talking about a physical reality, like my table here is wood, this mic stand is metal. Those are physical realities, proven to physics and science. But the social reality of how I interpret the meaning behind something is created through narratives and frames.

And so, my brain, to understand it, I’ve got to pull a frame first that is a neurological sequence of understanding how I process information. And so, for example, I’m going to say a profession and you tell me what word comes to mind. Used car salesman.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it might not be fair to great professionals in the field.

Rene Rodriguez
Of course not.

Pete Mockaitis
But, you know, sleazy, dishonest.

Rene Rodriguez
Right. So, every time it’s usually something along that. So, what happened is you accessed your frames of reference which are societal frames of reference. That is pretty predictable that we get that because of the stigma that’s been created, that people say sleazy, dishonest, all those such of things. So, that frame of reference comes in front and acts as a filter to really filter out and create meaning around what’s said.

So, if I were to say, “Don’t worry, you can trust me. I’m a used car salesman,” most people will giggle, they’ll say, “Hahaha,” because it’s an incongruent message. And incongruency translates, typically, into lack of trust, when I’m saying one thing but I mean another, or my body is saying one thing and my words are saying something else. Like, “I’m really excited to be here today.” So, my tone is saying not but my words are saying I am. That’s an incongruency.

Sometimes we want to stand with power and authority and influence, but we stand with insecurity and submission. Those are body language cues that are being incongruent. And so, my grandfather was in Cuba, and he was watching the Cuban Revolution just begin, and so he wanted to get his family out of Cuba. So, he wrote a letter to the President of the United States, and said, “If you can get me and my family out of this country, I will come and fight for yours.”

So, somehow that letter made it to the right person and they pulled my grandfather out, along with my mother, her sister, and my grandmother. And so, he went and served in the American Armed Forces for eight years. After his time, he landed at Patrick Airforce Base in southern Florida, in Homestead, Florida, and realized very quickly that his American dream was really limited to how far he could walk because he didn’t have a car.

And so, there was somebody, though, that believed in my grandfather. He saw what he did for this country and got him into an older vehicle. And that older vehicle allowed him to stretch his reach by 25, 50, even 100 miles finding better employment, better pay, changing the trajectory of his life, my mother’s life, and, ultimately, my life. And that person who believed in my grandfather was a used car salesman.

And so, now, if you noticed, the brain didn’t have any of a chance to pull sleazy or dishonest because I did the work for you. I gave you a frame first, and so now you’re hearing that in the context of that frame.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talked about that reframing of the used car salesperson, I’m thinking now about this goofy movie, Cedar Rapids. It’s got Ed Helms and John C. Reilly and Anne Heche. And the idea is Ed Helms is going to the big city of Cedar Rapids because he’s been in a small-town environment for a long time, and it’s all about insurance.

And my frame for an insurance salesperson is, “Oh, geez, what a boring job. Insurance is a boring thing, and selling, not a lot of fun.” But then he tells a story about how his dad passed away, and it was an insurance person who was… I’m actually tearing up a little bit. An insurance person was like the hero for his family because they didn’t know what they were going to do. But when they had that insurance money come in suddenly, their worries associated with, if they could still go to school or whatever, were put to rest.

And so, life insurance salespeople are heroes to him, and doing this is like a dream. And it was a very powerful and a goofy fun movie. And so, there you have it. We have a story and we have a frame, and it totally…you’re right. It doesn’t give me an opportunity to grasp onto, “Yeah, life insurance sales is boring.”t

Rene Rodriguez
And so, if you think about if it changed the frame, frames dictate perception, and perception equals reality. And so, the superpower here is understanding storytelling. So, look at what just happened. You recalled the story and you got emotional.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, a ten-year-old movie that’s a comedy.

Rene Rodriguez
A ten-year-old movie. And so, what’s the science of storytelling? Well, think about it this way. The research says that upwards of 33%, sometimes even 50% of our waking hours, we spend daydreaming. And daydreaming is really scenario-planning. Like, “If I do this, then that. What color shirt shall I wear on the podcast? Well, should I be ready for that? Headphones or not? How do I get ready for this? Did I leave the stove on? Well, I better call this client.” We’re constantly running scenarios. That’s a prefrontal lobe activity. It’s a future simulator.

And a future simulator, for example, it’s powerful. Like, if I were to tell you I’ve got this new ice cream that’s from Ben & Jerry’s. It’s called Liver and Onions. Do you want some?

Pete Mockaitis
Not yet. I want to hear the magic you work on this, Rene.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, exactly. Now you’re expecting that. But, no, typically, you’d probably have a visceral response of saying, “Ugh, gross.” Even though you’ve never tried it, your brain went from a past experience, went out into the future, concocted liver and onions as an ice cream, and you taste it hypothetically as a scenario, and sends a signal back, saying, “Nah, we don’t like it.” And it happens in a split second.

And so, we’re constantly running these future simulations, and there’s only two situations that we stop doing that throughout the day. One is life and death situations. Somebody is in trouble, I’m in trouble, somebody’s got a gun on my head. I’ll stop and be very present. The other is through story. When somebody tells a story, the reason we stop daydreaming is because a storyteller is daydreaming for us, and we use daydreams, we use stories to create narratives, which create a simplified model of reality so we can understand what’s going on.

I’m here in my studio, I’m on a podcast. The reason I’m on a podcast is to grow my brand and awareness. And, hopefully, that will translate into access. We run these stories and scenarios. And so, if I’m listening to this as a listener, ask yourself and your business, “What things and stories are you a part of?” And when that story doesn’t match, how difficult it feels.

But think about this. If the stories create the narratives, and the narratives construct reality, and somebody tells me a good story, I’m allowing them into my brain to take a real estate and set whatever narrative they want. And the crazy thing is that we…the brain doesn’t know the difference between my story and reality.

Literally, you just cried recalling a movie that was done based on fake actors. A story bypasses all of that, and we take on the role of the protagonist, our empathy is triggered, sensory cortex is triggered, emotions are triggered, and we experience it as real. And we get into this process where we, over time, we take on even the belief systems and the decision-making process if we hear someone’s story or the thought process over and over and over and over again. We start acting as like, “Okay. Well, what would this person do?” And we forget that that’s their thinking and we take it on as our own.

And so, we can install narratives of love, narratives of hate, of racism, of giving back, of strong value proposition, of buying into a vision, the thoughts of new possibilities, new relationships, dating someone. You name it. It’s all done through story.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Rene, these implications are vast not just for getting someone to follow you or to buy. I’m thinking about just like in terms of just your emotional states and the stories you tell yourself associated with what’s going on around you. It’s like, “Am I a victim to this thing? Am I trapped here forever? Or, am I a hero or whatever.” We can construct it to story and feel completely different about the circumstances we’re presented with.

Rene Rodriguez
You nailed it. And the stories that we tell ourselves are the most powerful. The narratives that we choose, and so many people choose the narrative of victim. And there’s a term that I love to use called amor fati. And so, when we go through our program, we help people identify their story and then tie it to their business value proposition, which becomes a really powerful combination.

But some people go through…you want to help them sell more, or you want to help them be a better leader but they have these inner narratives that are either of a victim, they got a chip on their shoulder. Who knows what it is? It isn’t serving them in a way. Some people, me being Rodriguez, I grew up with a narrative that being Hispanic was people were against me. If it’s maybe a female growing up, that women are trying to be held back by men, or bald men don’t have it as easy as others. Whatever it is, whatever the narrative you’re running.

And what I always tell people, saying, “So, how do we set ourselves up in the best strategic position possible?” Part of that is we have to achieve amor fati. And amor fati is, literal transition is lover of fate. It’s a lover of your story. And I’ll give you one example of this. We had one woman come through our class, and she had a lazy eye. And you could tell right away, at first, she’s not looking at me, she’s bored. Ah, she’s got a lazy eye. So, no big deal. It’s really not that big of a deal, very common.

And halfway through day two, or actually at the beginning of day two, she said, I was in front of the room, talking, she goes, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed it but I do have a lazy eye. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed.” I’m like, “Yeah, noticed it right away.” And she like looked at me with a smile, like surprised that I would just say it, I’m like, “Of course, yeah, big deal.” I said, “So, tell me about your lazy eye.” And she’s like, “Well, it’s been an insecurity. I’ve tried to hide it. I don’t like looking at people in the eye because it just makes it obvious.”

And then she said, “But it helps me read 800 words a minute.” I’m like, “What?” She goes, “Yeah. This eye right here reads 800 words a minute.” I’m like, “Somebody Google the average…” somebody Googled it. It was 250 words a minute is the average, and a really good reader is 400. Well, this one reads 800. And so, I looked at her, and I said, “So, you’re saying you have a bionic eye?” And she looks at me and she goes, “What?” I’m like, “I want an eye that reads 800 words a minute.”

We looked at the audience, and they’re like, “I want that eye, too.” And she kind of smiles, I’m like, “You have a bionic eye, don’t you?” And she goes, “I never thought about it that way. I wish my other eye sees this and so I can look at people and read, and it’s kind of cool, and sometimes they don’t cooperate.” We all started laughing. And I said, “So, here’s your new narrative. Now for those of you who had real eyes…”

And she starts all her talks this way, “I was given the gift of a bionic eye. I got an eye over here, this baby right here,” she points to it, “reads 800 word a minute. Average reader reads 250, a really good, 400. I’m twice that. In fact, I read a 500-page book on the plane right over here. It’s fantastic. I’m going to read another one tomorrow, and the next day probably. With my left eye, it’s for distance so I can see all of you. Well, the challenge of the bionic eye is it has a mind of its own. Sometimes it doesn’t cooperate, kind of like my personality and probably a lot of you in this room here.”

“And so, if you’re wondering which eye to look at, just keep your eye on this one. That’s the one that’s looking at you.” And everybody just dies laughing. She’s standing there with this pride, a new narrative, something that used to be a story she told herself of insecurity. Now, she came up to me at this event, literally last week, ran up and hugged me, she goes, “That narrative, that story has changed my career and my life. I tell it at every event, I tell it at every meeting, and I stand differently. I’m just happy.” But to your point, the narratives we tell ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Rene, this is so powerful. I feel like we could, and could and maybe should, dig into this for hours. You’re invited back, Rene, already.

Rene Rodriguez
I’d love to.

Pete Mockaitis
So, all right, stories are powerful, they establish frame, which impact how we interpret stuff and how others we’re trying to influence interpret stuff. So, then what are the best practices associated with forming these stories? And maybe what are some watchouts? So, you walked through a bit of the process with me moments ago. Is that the primary pathway you recommend? Or, are there a few flavors on the menu to choose from?

Rene Rodriguez
So, there’s a real simple exercise, I can give it to you. I’ll try to do it auditorily. Is that a word?

Pete Mockaitis
I think so.

Rene Rodriguez
That’s a word. We just made it up, if not. And it’s a way to what we’re trying to uncover is what we call a signature story. And a signature story is a story as unique to you as your own signature. And so, what I do is I create a matrix. It’s basically a four by four, so four, one, two, three, four, by four lines. And at the top, on the far-left column, there’s going to be four phrases that we go down.

The first phrase is, “I believe.” The next phrase is, “I remember.” The next phrase is, “I was taught.” And the last one is, “I’m passionate about…” And so, those four phrases are what I call entry ramps into stories. And what I’ve come to learn over, gosh, we’ve trained tens of thousands of people on this, is that people know how to tell stories but sometimes they need the entry ramp.

And the entry ramp is what helps trigger the memory. And so, the first thing we start with is three beliefs, “I believe…” and we’ll just use three. For example, you chose “I believe in curiosity and learning.” And if you had a third, what would it be?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh.

Rene Rodriguez
First one that comes to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, spirituality. God stuff.

Rene Rodriguez
Spirituality. Faith, spirituality, right? So, across the top says, “I believe in…” the first column, second column says “learning,” third column says, “curiosity,” and the last is “faith.” And so, now we go down the matrix to the next question, which says, “I was taught…” and we go to the first belief. And then we want a story, something you were taught as a kid about learning. And in that little box, we read a little story. And you have to remember what you were taught as a kid about learning.

And then you go down one. What do you remember about…? Remember something you remember about learning, a story, and then something you were taught about learning. And the last one, something you’re passionate about when it comes to learning. And then we go back to the question of curiosity, “Something I remember as a kid about learning,” or curiosity, “Something I was taught about curiosity and something I’m passionate about when it comes to curiosity.”

Then the last column would be something “I remember about faith or spirituality, something I was taught about faith or spirituality, and something I’m passionate about.” And now you have nine signature stories to be able to draw from. But here’s the thing. What do you do with them, those stories? They’re nothing without a message to follow, and the third part of what we call the amplify formula, which is a tie-down.

And a tie-down answers the question of what this means to you is. Like, I can give you a story about all three worked together if you’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Rene Rodriguez
So, my second TED Talk actually has this story in it but it’s a story of Janice. Now, Janice was an executive of a very large organization. They wanted me to help her get ready for an interview to take on the CEO position of a billion-dollar organization within the larger conglomerate. And the interview is very intense, seven, eight, nine, ten hours sometimes with ten people in the room, all focused on her, drilling her with questions.

So, we started with a mock interview of three people in front of her, and asked her a question. First second, I sit off to the side, I look at facial expressions, sequencing, timing, storytelling, framing. I look at all the things that I look at. And the first question was, “Tell us something you’re proud of.” And she looks at us and answers very presidential – short, concise, and to the point.

“I got straight A’s my last year in school, one of my proudest moments,” was her answer. So, now, one thing we know about frames is that when we talk, if we don’t provide one, the listener will create one for us. They have to, that’s how they construct reality. So, they look at me, and said, “Rene…”

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right. Right there is like, “Okay, you worked really hard,” or, I mean, “You worked really hard or your parents were smart, or you had a good tutor.” It’s weird, I’m just making stuff up.

Rene Rodriguez
And immediately, right? And the brain can’t handle it. It’s like one of the things that…

Pete Mockaitis
Excuse me. Something fell off the shelf but we’re fine.

Rene Rodriguez
So, now you saw my reaction there, right? And so, I’m looking off, I paused, and so the listeners might say, “Hold on a second. Did we lose something?” I’ll sometimes get up and walk off the camera in the middle of a podcast, and the interviewer is looking at me like, “What happened?” and I’ll do this little training.

Pete Mockaitis
“Is he mad at me?”

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, is he mad at me? I did it on stage in front of 600 CEOs. I stopped in the middle, I’m like, I looked at them, I turned around and walked off stage. And then from behind stage, I said, “Now, I want you all to pay attention on how you feel and what’s going through your minds.” And I came back out, and I said, “What do you think happened?”

And I got five or six, ten responses, and all of them were different, “I thought you’re having a heart attack,” “I thought you might’ve forgotten your lines,” “It looked like you’re crying.” And they were all assumptions. And I do that to illustrate the point that your brain does not deal in narrative gaps. It has to fill it even if it’s false. And our world is full of narrative gaps right now.

And so, when she says, “I got straight A’s my last year in school,” there’s a huge narrative gap there. And I’m going to fill it based on my own past experience. So, they looked at me, “What do you think?” I said, “Oh, so straight A’s your last year in school? So, you’re a procrastinator? Are you going to procrastinate for us as well?” She looks at me like I’m crazy, and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did mommy and daddy pay for school so you didn’t have to work that hard?”

Or, even yours, “So, your mom and dad must’ve been really smart, rich, probably had good tutors. Lucky you.” So, who knows what these unfair narratives are? But the brain doesn’t have a choice. It has to fill it. And so, now pay attention to this. I said to her, and she’s got a tear in her eye when I said that to her, I said, “Look, I didn’t mean those things but you didn’t fill it for us. You didn’t tell us the frame or the narrative but I know it’s important to you, wasn’t it?”

She just nodded her head. And I said, “Why?” And then when she told them the story behind it, it changed everything. She looks at me and she said, “When you’ve been told you’re stupid your entire life by adults, you tend to believe them. And something happened my last year in school, where I looked myself in the mirror, and I said either I’m going to believe them forever or I’m going to do something about it. And I did something about it.”

So, now that frame completely shifts the message. And the message, now understood differently, changes the reality of the relationship between how I perceive her. And so, now I’m emotionally moved, I’m probably more connected with her. I mean, if you’re listening to this, you probably felt some sort of shift internally, maybe protective of her. Who knows what it is? But this pathos is an emotional connection there.

And so, then the next question is, “So, what do I do with that?” because that’s powerful. There’s a lot of emotion in the air but for what purpose? Most speakers, most leaders that learn how storytelling will stop at that but it doesn’t create influence. It creates emotional connection but influence is about affecting a behavior.
And so, the last part, the tie-down would be adding the step next, which is having a clear influence. Objective, to get the job. A tie-down answers a question of what this means to you is. So, I might share that story instead of saying, “Hey, tell us something you’re proud of,” and starting with, “Oh, I got straight A’s last year in school,” frames and narratives gone wild. Who knows what they’re going to believe?

Or, if I just go with a little contextualization, “Well, I was told I was dumb but then I decided to turn it around, and now I got straight A’s.” Everyone was like, “Wow, that’s great. Who’s next?” No action taken. But if you do all three, it sounds like this. “Tell us something you’re proud of.”

“Well, unfortunately,” start with the frame, “I was surrounded by a lot of adults who told me I wasn’t really smart. And when adults speak to you that way, you tend to act that way, and I didn’t do well in school. But something happened my last year in school, where I looked myself in the mirror, and I said either I’m going to believe them forever, or I’m going to do something about it. So, I went on and get the help that I needed, put my nose to the grindstone, and I’m proud to tell you that I got straight A’s my last year in school.”

Tie-down. “Now, I’m assuming if I do get a chance to work with you and your team, that there’s going to be times where we’re going to be facing some pretty big challenges, and maybe some insurmountable obstacles, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But I promise you this, if I get to be on your team, I’ll be out there next to you, if not in front, overcoming those challenges in the same way I overcame them in my own personal life, but this time for you and for your team.” Frame, message, tie-down. That’s the sequencing that creates influence.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that’s powerful. There’s so much gravitas, conviction, oomph, power there. It’s hard not to believe such a person as opposed to…and interviews are stomping grounds for BS, and you’re like, “Okay, all right. You believe that and I believe you. Let’s see if you can check the other boxes. Determination, conviction, totally covered. Let’s see. How about financial skill?” I don’t know, whatever is next on the checklist.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, all those things sort of come second nature. Once you believe the person, who they are, you start saying, “Okay. Well, let’s just make sure they check all the boxes so we can move forward.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, Rene, tell me, anything important you want to make sure to put out there before I ask about a couple of your favorite things?

Rene Rodriguez
We wrote a book, it just landed number two Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Pete Mockaitis
Amplify Your Influence.

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, and I think with MeetRene.com, follow me on social media, Instagram @seerenespeak right there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Perfect. And could you now share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Rene Rodriguez
Probably one of my favorites is from Stanley Kubrick, and he said that, “Our ability to eloquently talk about a subject matter can create the consoling illusion that we’ve mastered it.” To me, that keeps me humble because I can talk about all these things eloquently, and yet I can still struggle with every single one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Rene Rodriguez
One of my favorite books is Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play. It’s from Mahan Khalsa. He’s a Harvard guy that talks about how to really sell difficult complex technology solutions but his mentality behind the concept of let’s get real, let’s have real conversations, let’s deal in the reality here, let’s not just play. And, to me, it was one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.

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

Rene Rodriguez
Yeah, I would say this, that the challenge that we face in growing up, most of us here, was that the things that now are most important, we were told weren’t. They were called soft skills, the things that, like, “Oh,” the interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, all of those things, and we valued all the “hard skills” that school taught us.

Well, we know with the research right now that those hard skills aren’t the determining factor for success. They’re needed. Trust me, they are needed but they aren’t the differentiator. Your ability to deal with people, connect with people, build trust, and that is mostly done through vulnerability, through your story. When you can share your story, where you’ve been through, and where you come from, that creates the ground for trust, empathy, and most importantly, somewhere to move forward together.

Pete Mockaitis
Rene, thank you. This has been powerful and beautiful. I wish you much luck and that your book Amplify Your Influence is a huge success.

Rene Rodriguez
Thank you. Appreciate being on here. Thank you so much.

772: How to Build Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty with Gemma Leigh Roberts

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Gemma Leigh Roberts shares recent science behind resilience and how to bounce back from whatever the world throws at you.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you shouldn’t confuse grit with resilience 
  2. The challenges worth seeking out to build your resilience
  3. How to build resilience into daily routines 

About Gemma

Gemma Roberts is a chartered psychologist who has spent most of her working life teaching, writing, and speaking about what it takes to navigate challenges successfully, build resilience in the face of adversity, and create environments where each individual can thrive and perform at their peak, in their unique way. 

Her book, Mindset Matters: Developing Mental Agility and Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty, which will be released in May 2022, came from her Mindset Matters newsletter on LinkedIn, which now has 500,000 subscribers. 

She is also a LinkedIn Learning instructor, with her courses garnering over 3 million learners. She also hosts the We Got This: Work+Life audio series on LinkedIn.

Resources Mentioned

Gemma Roberts Interview Transcript

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

Gemma Roberts
Hello. Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom. And I’d like to start in March 2020 and hear your story right at the beginning of pandemic times, you start your Mindset Matters LinkedIn newsletter and things really take off. Can I hear the story?

Gemma Roberts
Yes. Well, I guess a lot changed in life around then. So, we had literally just gone into lockdown in the UK, the first lockdown that we went into following the outbreak of COVID-19, so it was a really scary time for lots of us, really challenging, I think, for most of us, it ended up being. And my research area is resilience, so that’s the area that I’ve worked in for the last decade but it was the area where I’ve been doing doctorate research.

So, I thought at that time that, actually, there’s so much that I could be sharing to help people navigate uncertainty, and I had access, kind of early access to LinkedIn newsletters because I’m a LinkedIn Learning instructor. It’s kind of the perfect time to share some of that advice, some of the edited space stuff that we know works, because what I was seeing is, actually, there was a lot being published or lots of people talking about resilience but it wasn’t necessarily accurate and it wasn’t necessarily that helpful because if we think about psychology, if we’re not careful, sometimes we can do more harm than good.

So, I actually thought of it as an obligation to put some helpful evidence-based useful information out there that, hopefully, would help people navigate uncertainty. I mean, at that point, we had no idea what we’re about to go through in the world, either the following two years. So, I had no idea how that was going to pan out. So, the newsletter grew quite quickly on LinkedIn Learning and I think, within 11 months, there were 250,000 subscribers.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Gemma Roberts
Yeah. And today, kind of two years on, it’s like 550,000 subscribers maybe. So, it really gained momentum quite quickly. And I honestly think that’s because of the topic because I talk…the newsletter is called Mindset Matters. And I think, at that point in time, myself included, we were all looking for advice about what to do in this new working world, what do we need to think about what’s going to help us thrive, or even just sometimes survive some of these challenges and changes that were going on.

So, the newsletter took off, which was amazing, and it actually turned into a book, which had literally just been released, which is very exciting. So, the book is also called Mindset Matters and I wrote that thinking about those people that were reading the newsletter. So, thinking about people who want advice on these key areas of psychology, or think about how we think about things, how we process information, how we can use that to our advantage in the working world, and kind of built out the five key topics that I talk about.

I guess I got it in the book, I got to go into a bit more detail, really, around what those topics are. I explore a bit more in terms of research and case studies but, ultimately, it’s a coaching manual. So, for each topic I talk about, there are coaching exercises in that, and I want it to feel, like for people who read it, I want it to feel like as close it can to having a coaching conversation with someone, and sitting down and testing out some strategies, seeing what works, tweaking things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for the story, and that sets things up nicely. I’m curious, when you said information going around is not accurate, well, can you bust a couple myths for us right off the bat here?

Gemma Roberts
Yeah. So, a lot of how we traditionally think about resilience is kind of pushing through. So, perseverance or grit or mental toughness, whereby we face a challenge and we need to kind of push through, get to the other side, make it through, get past it, but actually that’s not really what resilience is at all. It can be sometimes but that’s not entirely what resilience is.

So, resilience is positive adaptation following adversity. That’s the kind of broad definition, and sometimes we do need to push through, sometimes we do need to kind of figure out how we can take those next steps and just keep going. But, also, sometimes we need to stop, sometimes we need to accept what’s going on and we can’t change it, sometimes we need to rest, we need to build our resilience reserves up again, and sometimes we need to kind of break down to be able to build ourselves back up again as well. But that’s not really the bit of resilience that we hear about.

The other thing about resilience is we have been told, I guess, that it’s up to us, as individuals, to work on ourselves to become more resilient, and some of us have it and some of us don’t. Again, that’s not accurate. There is so much, in terms of context, that goes into resilience. There are things like support systems around you, or organizational context where you work, the business culture, line managers support, policies, processes, big changes going on in the world, like COVID, for example, changing a lot of our lives.

So, again, yes, I focus a lot on helping people to become more resilient themselves to things that they can do, but it’s also very important to take into account kind of what’s going on around you as well, and try and think about kind of the broader picture, which is not something that we were hearing a lot about at the start of the pandemic. And I think partly that’s because that’s where research is going. We’re still kind of getting there with resilience research. So, it’s not grit, resilience is not grit. It’s not pushing through. Sometimes it could be, but other times it could be something completely differently you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that clarification, that distinction there. So, positive adaptation following diversity. Yeah, lay it on us, how do we get more of that going?

Gemma Roberts
Well, there’s another little myth with resilience. So, not a myth necessarily but it’s kind of something that’s a bit unfortunate but it comes to building resilience. So, when I work with people, strictly to coaching context, quite often people want to build their resilience but they don’t want to face challenges because, ultimately, who does? Who wants to wake up in the morning and think, “Oh, I can’t wait for this great big challenge that’s going to come my way, and I’m not going to know what to do with it”?

Most of us, we might appreciate some more challenges but big ones can sometimes feel overwhelming. But the truth of it is that we need that adversity, we need challenges if we’re going to build our resilience muscles, if we’re going to learn the skills that we need to get through challenges. In a way, that’s very healthy for us. So, if we’re going to learn from the situation, so learn what we’re capable of, learn how it works for us when we react in different ways, and would we do that again, what different tools or strategies can we use in the future.

So, if you want to become more resilient, and I do recommend that for all of us because, I’m going to be honest, challenge, change, complexity, none of that’s going away in our lives. We will have to deal with that at one point or another. So, if we want to be resilient, which means we can deal with those situations more effectively and in a way that’s healthy for us, then we need to face challenges, we need adversity.

The key thing is if we had a choice, which we don’t, but if we had a choice, it’s we want challenges that stretch us, they stretch our abilities, they can be really uncomfortable, take us outside of our comfort zone, but aren’t necessarily overwhelming. Because once we get to that overwhelming phase, it’s quite difficult to focus on building those kinds of personal tools that we need to be resilient and, actually, we get thrown a bit more into survival mode.

But the key is looking out for those, I guess, stretching challenges in our lives that are going to help us to develop, help us to grow, help us to learn something about ourselves and the environment around us as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we’re on the lookout for the stretching challenges and, ideally, that’s the nature of the challenges we get. This reminds of that Stephen Covey chart, in terms of the comfort zone, growth zone, panic zone. So, got that in my mind’s eye. And so, I’m curious, like sometimes in my own experience, sometimes even the same challenge in, I guess, a different context, I don’t know, in terms of there’s more stuff going on, I’m kind of sick – I’m a little sick right now – it can be like overwhelming, exhausting, it doesn’t feel like a positive adaptation has happened afterwards.

Just like, “Aargh, I barely made it through that thing, and I just want to sleep for days now,” versus, “Okay, victory. I’m stronger now.” So, can you zero in on what are some of the, I don’t know, levers or adjustments we can make so that we more often find ourselves in the, “Yes, that was a positive adaptation following the adversity zone,” as opposed to, “Aargh, that almost killed me, and I just need to sleep forever now”?

Gemma Roberts
That, Pete, is a really key point because this all comes back to that context part and resilience changing over time. And resilience is a process. It’s not a thing we have or don’t have necessarily. We can have skills that help us but the resilience process is dealing with that challenge or dealing with that adversity, and it doesn’t always happen quickly. Sometimes we look back years down the line, I think, actually, “Yeah, I guess I kind of learned something from that.” We don’t necessarily do learning, if at all, but if we’re consciously trying to learn from the situation, we don’t always necessarily do it straight away.

So, there’s kind of two things that you mentioned. So, one of them is, “Why is it that some days we feel like we can deal with challenges, and, on other days, the exact same challenge will feel like the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and it’s the thing that sends us over the edge?” And the answer to that is that, again, it’s contextual.

So, some of it has to do with us as individuals, so what’s going on with us. How many other challenges are you dealing with at once? Are they big challenges? Are they reoccurring? Have you got lots and lots of little things going on that you’re struggling to kind of switch your attention between? Or is there one huge thing going on in your life which is taking over everything else?

Because when we’ve got lots of things going in our lives, and we’ve got one big challenge going on in our life, it can make other smaller things, sometimes, feel a lot bigger, or we’ve might’ve used all of our resilience reserves, all of our energy that we’ve got dealing with those things, and we just haven’t got any left when other things strike. So, that’s why we respond to challenges, the exact same challenge, in a different way on a different day. So, that’s something to keep in mind.

But also, the situations around us are changing all the time as well, so, yes, there could be stuff going on with us, our energy, our mood, our health, things like our physical health, like you might be finding at the moment. So, sometimes when our physical health is impacted, or things like we haven’t had enough sleep, or our nutrition is not so great at the moment, we might find that kind of psychologically responding to things, we just haven’t got that resource. You kind of feel like you’ve got an empty tank, you’re running on empty so that can happen. But this is why it’s so important.

So, when I talk about resilience, it is a complex topic because it’s a process. It’s how we do the thing, it’s how we overcome adversity, and turn that into a positive adaptation, either now or the future. It’s not a thing you have inside you where you can tick off the list, and say, “Yes, I’m resilient 100% of the time.”

And I often say to people that thinking about resilience, that the goal really shouldn’t be wanting to be more resilient or wanting to be resilient because, firstly, how do you measure that? I don’t know because I’ve not faced every challenge I’m going to face in my life. I don’t know if something, it comes my way. Think about the pandemic, for example. I don’t know how I’m necessarily going to react to that.

But, also, it’s never done. You’re never…it’s not like, I don’t know, having…I’ve got brown eyes, for example. Yup, frankly, I’ve got brown eyes, that’s done. That’s probably not going to change my life now unless I wear contact lenses. The goal really should be learning about yourself, so learning about how resilience works for you because, again, it works differently for all of us.

So, what I need today to be resilient, even if I had exactly the same situation as you, will be different to what you need today to do that. So, it’s first about we learn what we need but it’s, secondly, about learning tools, strategies, techniques that we can use at different points in time when we need them. So, the goal really should be learning about your own resilience and learning tools and strategies and keeping them in your back pocket for when you need them to cope with different challenges.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s cover those tools, strategies, and techniques both in the moment as well as preparatory, like you mentioned sleep and nutrition. Like, if I wanted to be maximally equipped to take on a big old challenge, what are some of the things I should do in advance? Like, I’m thinking of a training montage or key practices and habits. So, it’s like, when that thing comes up, “Oh, what do you know? I have built a deep reserve and capability to not be just sort of wiped out by that.” What are some of those key levers there?

Gemma Roberts
Of course, there are things like sleep and nutrition, for example, which I know I’ve already mentioned. But I’ve got two young children, so telling me that I need more sleep to be resilient, I know that. I cognitively am aware of that. Equally, I may not be able to prescribe that for myself every day because it’s not always in my control.

So, it’s having a bank of things to think about. So, sleep, nutrition, exercise, they’re good for any kind of health we’re talking about, whether it’s physical, whether it’s psychological, for sure. When it comes to building resilience and the actual act of dealing with challenges or overcoming challenges, it’s really important that you have taken some time to think about the challenges that you have faced in the past, so this is a little bit of building self-awareness and also some reflection as well.

So, either at the time where that challenge is happening, or you can even think back to where challenges have happened before, think about how you dealt with it, what was helpful for you, what wasn’t helpful for you. Ask yourself questions, like, “Would I do the same thing again? Would I change anything? Like, if I was in exactly the same situation again, what would I do differently?” And that’s not about regret. It’s not about regretting, necessarily, how you handled that situation. It’s about saying, “What did I learn from that? And what would I take with me? And what would I leave behind when it comes to facing challenges again?”

So, this reflection is really important. And, again, like I said earlier about resilience, that reflection is never done. We have to keep doing this. But when it comes to our minds and how they work and mindset, we have to keep doing the work. But there’s also some really handy tools that you could use, some coaching techniques. Things like gratitude, for example, has been shown to help to boost resilience.

Because if you imagine that whether facing a huge challenge or lots of little challenges, sometimes that becomes overwhelming, and sometimes it takes our thinking and we can’t rethink outside of that. But even doing something really simple, like reflecting, either talking about, writing down something or three things that you’re grateful for that day can help you to shift that mindset. So, it shifts you just for a moment away from looking at what’s not going so well, towards actually something that could be going well in your life.

And these could be super simple things. It could be a phone conversation with someone you care about, or great coffee on the way to work, or a walk out in nature, or watching some TV program that you want to watch. They don’t have to be huge. Or, bedtime story with your children. So, there’s techniques like that that can help. And, also, another thing that I always recommend people focus on if you want to think about, “How do I equip myself to face future challenges?” there is a really underrated part of resilience which we rarely hear about that comes out of research and it’s part of my research as well and it’s in other published research, and that’s support, so people around you.

And I think, today more than ever, after going through a period of time where lots of us haven’t been out be around people we care about, necessarily, kind of face to face, and there has been some distance at times, I think we’re craving that even more so than ever. And, actually, in my book, some of the coaching strategies that I go through, I talk about support.

So, a really simple one, for example, is thinking about creating your own board of supporters. So, this means, imagine you’re running a company and you’ve got a board of directors that advise you on different parts of that business, they’ve got different areas of expertise. In the resilience world, we want a board of supporters, so you want to imagine your own table and you’ve got so many seats, whether that’s five seats, 10 seats, you can choose. I tend to work with ten. And you want people on that table that you trust and they support you in different ways.

So, for example, you might have someone who has expertise in something that you’re doing in life, whether that be starting a business or the industry you’re in, and they can advise on that. You might want people on there who are great at listening. So, they don’t necessarily offer advice but they listen to what you’re saying and they make you feel heard and validated. You might have people on there who are really good fun and they’re the people you go to when you kind of what to forget the challenge a little bit sometimes, and just go and concentrate on something else. And you’ve got people on there that care about you, that will offer some kind of support, and it’s very different for all of us.

But ultimately, when it comes to building our resilience, and getting us in a position where we feel like we could deal with challenges that come our way, to give yourself a better chance of being able to do that, having this group of people, whether it’s explicit and they know who they are, when you have that special, or whether it’s not, and you just know who they are…

Pete Mockaitis
You get to have quarterly meetings.

Gemma Roberts
Yeah, you could have quarterly meetings if you want to. I’m sure if you offered up a nice…some beverages and snacks, I’m sure people will come along, but it’s kind of just knowing as well yourself that you’ve got that support, and also identify in us. Because how often do we sit down and think, “I’m so grateful for that person, the advice they give or the support they give”? And on the flipside, think about who you are a support for as well because that also helps to build resilience when we are supporting someone else through their challenges.

Pete Mockaitis
And it gets me thinking about, you know, dig the well before you’re thirsty, like the basis sort of networking relationship principles. Like, you would be more capable of tackling big things if your board of supporters, if those relationships were in a good spot, as opposed to, “Oh, the last time I talked with this guy was three years ago when I was struggling with another business issue, and I’ve been doing a lot of taking and not a lot of giving.”

And so, that’s just sort of what’s leaping to my mind here, is to just go ahead and proactively, just as we would do some sleep…ideally, sleeping well, eating well, exercising well to build up a physical wealth to be ready to handle stuff, so, too, we would like to build up a relational wealth to be able to deal with stuff so that you do feel fully comfortable reaching out, as opposed to, “Oh, maybe I should…maybe that’s not appropriate, maybe I’ve been all take, take, take with this person over the last couple of years, and I don’t feel as good about reaching out now.”

Plus, I think there’s some research about loneliness stuff. It’s like when you most need to reach out to somebody, often it’s when you least feel like it, so you got those things to contend with. So, anyway, it’s what’s leaping to mind for me here, Gemma.

Gemma Roberts
And I think it’s quite like maybe we do need an audit. Maybe sometimes we do need to sit down and think, “Actually, have I checked in with that person lately, sent a message, or had a quick chat?” I think we’re all guilty of that sometimes, of some those things slip a little bit, or it’s very difficult to keep on to of it, but it is important. It’s important to check in and to make sure that we’re keeping that board of supporters there that’s going to help us, those are genuinely, because, again, I talk about this in the book as well, because connection is really important for us.

It’s really, really important that when we hit a challenge or when we go through a period of adversity in our life that we are connected to someone or people or a community that we feel like they’re going to help us. It’s very important for us to be connected to help other people as well because, again, there’s research that shows that if we’re supporting others, we generally feel better about it in our lives and we often feel better about the challenges that we’re facing as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, when it comes to gratitude, there is a number of different approaches to a gratitude practice, and I’m thinking of Shawn Achor and Dr. Andrew Huberman here in terms of different flavors and approaches. Could you maybe list a few of them or identify your favorite in terms of, “Ooh, this has a great research base or a tremendous ROI in terms of a resilience per minute required of us”?

Gemma Roberts
The truth of it is we don’t entirely know exactly like the best full map for gratitude. So, Andrew Huberman, for example, in his podcast, has talked about gratitude from a neuroscience perspective, the most effective way to practice gratitude is actually not to think about the things you’re grateful for but think about stories where someone has thanked you for something, or think about stories where they thanked someone else. From a neuroscience perspective, that has shown the most promising results.

From a psychology perspective, there is research that shows that, actually, just everyday gratitude, so you actually being thankful to other people, can also provide great results for you as well. So, my advice for this is find what works for you and do it in a way that works for you. What we know across various studies, whether that be the new science world or in the psychology world, is that consistency is key. Like, that’s quite important, the consistency part. So, it could be that you do this every day or every evening at dinner, or every night before bed, or every morning, for a period of time.

I’m not saying you have to do this the rest of your life necessarily, although it’s quite a nice habit to get into, but it’s doing it for a good chunk of time. So, give yourself a month, for example, to do this. What’s really important is that you are very focused on the process of practicing gratitude when you’re doing it. So, you’re not thinking about something else at the same time and it has to be genuine as well.

Like, our brains know if we’re not being genuine. We can’t trick ourselves. You can’t just think, “Oh, I’m going to make a note of it. I’m just going to have a nice cup of coffee today, I’m not going to be bothered but, yeah, I’ll just jot that down.” It’s not going to work. You’ve got to be in the process and you’ve got to be really thinking about that interaction with someone or the thing that was really important to you.

So, the way that I tend to do it is I’ll pick a time of day, so whether it’s first thing in the morning, kind of set myself up for the day, or just before I go to bed, I’ll think about it. I’m actually starting to try and do this a bit with my children as well even though they’re quite small but they don’t really know what gratitude is yet, so they’re two and four. So, we’re just focusing on one fun thing that happened today, or one thing that was good today, that you mean somebody, ours is a very random, especially from the two-year-old.

But the point is we’re starting to focus on…because they do a lot of talking about some of the things that haven’t gone so well, like scrapes and cups and bangs and sisters fighting, and who did what. Actually, I’m trying to shift that focus a little bit to focus on, “Okay, yes, we have to…” And the other thing with gratitude is it’s not saying the challenges aren’t happening and it’s not ignoring them or not acknowledging them. It’s saying, “Yes, those things are happening but this stuff is also happening as well.” So, it’s kind of providing a bit more of a balanced view, even just for a moment. That’s often all it takes.

So, the truth is there is no one way of doing this. My advice is, and my advice, actually, most of the coaching strategies that I talk about in the book, is that test it, see what works for you, see how it works for you. Does it work jotting this down? Does it work doing this on a Friday as you’re wrapping up for the week? Does it work doing it on a Monday morning? Does it work doing every morning for you? Does it work at certain points in time? So, when you might start to feel that stress in your chest or you know sometimes that anxious feeling that you might get. Is that the time where it works for you?

It’s testing this stuff and, again, reflecting on “Has that been helpful? Has it changed my thinking process? Has it changed how I interact with the world or others in a more positive way?” and tweaking it where you need to, and kind of keep reflecting on that, making that reflection part of your kind of at least weekly life, I’d say.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. And I guess, as I’ve been doing so, that reflection, one little nuance I’ve discovered is that when I re-read the list of gratitude bits, it’s a lot more powerful on the reflection if those pieces are somewhat unique. Like, in the same day, for example, I might feel gratitude that my wife made a sandwich, like, “Oh, good. I was hungry and here’s a sandwich. That’s great. Thank you.” So, I do have gratitude there.

But if I write that down, and then later I read it, I don’t as much feel a resurrection of the gratitude vibes, like, “Oh, yes,” because it’s not that novel. It’s like, “Yes, I was hungry and then I ate. It happened. It’s happened thousands of times over my lifetime,” versus, on the same day, maybe I did a puzzle with my kids. They’re three and four, so also young. And then Mary immediately says, “Dance party.” She just wants to celebrate having finished the last piece of the puzzle, and just immediately says, “Dance party,” and start doing her thing.

So, I’m very grateful that that occurred, that I had that moment and that memory. And I guess that’s sort of my distinction, I guess, in terms of I’m grateful for this thing and it’s like it “qualifies” as a memory. And in subsequent reflection, I go, “Oh, yeah, that thing was really lovely. And, oh, yeah, that thing was really lovely.” And it gives me more of a jolt than if it’s just a very ordinary, like, “Had a great coffee. Had another great coffee.” So, that’s my experience. I don’t know if there’s research on it or maybe that’s your whole point, reflect on what works for you.

Gemma Roberts
Hundred percent, that’s the point, I reflect. And the novelty part, so I talk a little bit in the book about novelty as well. That’s how our brains remember things, and, also, we really seek novelty. That’s interesting for us, that keeps life ingesting. It keeps us learning. We learn these things through novelty. So, we’re kind of hardwired for curiosity and novelty, so we want to embrace that as much as possible. So, I think most people will find that if there’s something to be grateful for that is kind of out of the ordinary, that’s the stuff we’re going to remember, that’s the stuff that’s going to make a big impact.

However, we’re not going to have that every day potentially. And it’s also really important sometimes, again, talking about mindset perspective, because perspective is a huge part of resilience, sometimes we kind of need to remind ourselves about those little things as well. And even though making a sandwich, for example, or my husband making me a nice cup…he’s like the chief coffee-maker in our house. And sometimes I have to really think, because sometimes I’m like, “Oh, thanks. That’s really lovely.” And I do appreciate it. Sometimes I have to really sit down and think, “Actually, that’s really kind that he does that all the time, like way more than I do. And, actually, maybe I should be a bit kinder in one way or another.”

But sometimes we can miss those kind of everyday normal things to be thankful for. So, I definitely think there’s a place or room in our lives to reflect on some of those things as well. But I know that’s hard because it feels so normal, it feels so every day, that sometimes we don’t appreciate some of those things until they’re not there anymore.

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly. And that’s where I was going to go, is when you reflect upon the absence, or, “Hey, there was a time in my life when this did not exist. Remember that? See how this is so much better? Huh? Yeah, that is cool having a chief coffee-maker right there.” Well, your book is called Mindset Matters: Developing Mental Agility and Resilience to Thrive in Uncertainty. We talked about resilience. What’s mental agility and how do we get more of it?

Gemma Roberts
So, mental agility has a lot do with kind of being flexible in how we look at the world and how we process information. And, I guess at the heart of it, it’s not being wedded to one way of doing things or one way of thinking. So, there’s a lot in there about, I talk a little bit about curiosity. So, being curious, nurturing curiosity, remaining curious even when things are really challenging, and there are some things you can do around that. Like, pretty simple things.

For example, let’s say that you commute every day and you get to board a train into the city and you walk the same way every day to work, pick up your coffee from the nice coffee shop you always go to, or pick up breakfast from the place that you love. That’s amazing but sometimes you can force yourself to go a different route and stumble across a completely different street or another little coffee shop that you haven’t seen before. Especially, I used to do a lot of work in London, for example, less so kind of commuting since the pandemic. But, especially in the city, there are little tiny windy streets, you could get to the same place in a completely different way at different times.

Or, it could be things like going to an art gallery. Like, I’m not really into art galleries, if I’m honest. I’m not really into museums, particularly, unless it’s about a topic that I love. But sometimes it’s about kind of forcing ourselves to go and experience these things just because you might learn something, you might pick up something over here, an idea that later on down the line connects to something completely different to what you’re doing. So, that’s part of mental agility, this idea of being curious, but also being able to challenge your perspective and also broaden your perspective.

So, I guess, when I first started out as a psychologist, when I was doing my undergraduate degree, I thought I was going to university to learn how people think and be able to help people think in the best way for them. And I thought I was going to go and do my undergraduate degree and find out the best way to think about challenges, or the best way to think to create success, and I had a complete shock when I found out that doesn’t exist.

And, actually, I remember the feeling. I remember coming away from a lecture one day, and thinking, “I feel like my world is like crashing down here,” because everything I thought, there was a right way. I thought there was a right way of thinking, I thought there was a right way of doing things, and I’ve just been told that, actually, there are a whole bunch of completely opposing theories, ideas, ways of doing things that can all work for certain people at certain points in time, potentially, and there’s no answer.

And I remember my perspective of the world being a little bit shattered. It sounds very dramatic but it did take me a while to kind of get my head around what being a psychologist was going to mean. But that’s the key point, is that I come to a situation with a perspective, I’ve got one perspective; there are hundreds of other ways to see that situation. So, mental agility, part of that, is training ourselves, firstly, to acknowledge that you got one perspective and there are loads of other perspectives out there. And, secondly, to seek out those other perspectives. Like, you, ideally, want to.

And it’s not that diagnosing other people, or how they look at the world, or being able to put them in a box and you’re in a different box. It’s not that. But it’s about thinking how else could you look at this situation, how else could you look at this problem or this challenge, how do other people look. Ask them. Find out those questions. It’s things like consuming your news from different sources, not just one source. Or, if you’re a fiction reader, generally, read a nonfiction book, or vice versa.

And also, particularly in those heated situations with someone where you’re coming in strong with a perspective. Where you can is taking that time to take a step back and remember that you’re not necessarily right. You might be. Or there could be lots of rights. There could be ten different right ways to look at this. So, that’s part of mental agility is, first, being able to kind of move between ideas quickly, so you’re broadening that perspective, so you’re keeping that curious mindset, but also being able to see other perspectives as well, and training yourself to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, that sounds handy, both in terms of problem-solving in the context of, “Hey, here’s a big tricky thing. Oh, because I have multiple perspectives, I have a greater chance of being able to crack it,” as well as, I’m imagining just like emotionally realizing that when you’re in a moment of, “This sucks. I hate this. I’m suffering. I want to stop immediately,” if you’ve got some great mental agility, you can say, “Well, actually, this might sort of be helpful in some ways, like, A, B, C. I’d still rather not deal with it but it’s not totally worthless.”

Gemma Roberts
Yup, hundred percent. It changes the way you look at challenges and the situations. And, honestly, let’s be honest, some of the big challenges we have to deal with in life, we would never want to face those, we would never wish them upon people, and we’ve got to be a little bit careful in the resilience world in that, I don’t want to be like, “Oh, it’s amazing. The more challenges, the better for all of us,” because obviously, challenges can bring pain, and they can bring discomfort, and they can bring upset, and you can feel unsettled or overwhelmed or anxious.

And that exists. We can’t deny that. But we can’t change that, so the only thing that we can do is find ways to look after ourselves and to deal with those situations in the best way that we can. And, by the way, it is completely acceptable to fall apart when things are not going well. It is completely acceptable to feel overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, depressed, all the things. That is okay. It’s not necessarily about denying that or changing that straight away. It’s about moving things in the direction that works for you over time. You don’t have to do that straight away.

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

Gemma Roberts
I understand the concept of resilience is complicated. I do understand. Like, there’s a reason I’m doing doctoral research in the area because there’s still a lot of stuff that we’re still learning as well as psychologists. But my biggest hit, if you’re thinking about yourself and how you cope with challenges and uncertainty is, firstly, get to know yourself, get to know what’s happening to you, reflect on that, build your self-awareness.

Again, it’s never done. I still have to do that always. I still sometimes have to sit back and think, “Why did I react like that? That was completely like not appropriate response considering the challenge.” Like, in my head, it does not really matter but that’s how I feel about it. So, get to know yourself. And, also, just keep testing. Just keep testing what works for you. All we can do is try. And my intention is always to get better at this stuff, to grow, to develop, to learn. And I think that’s all we can have in these situations.

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

Gemma Roberts
So, one of my favorite quotes is “You can’t stop the waves from crashing but you can learn to surf.” And lots of people have used this, and so it can’t be attributed to one person but, basically, that’s what resilience is. We can’t stop the waves. We don’t know how big they’re going to be, but we can learn to use it in one way or another. You may not want to be surfing. You might rather be out in the water. I don’t really want to be surfing. I’m not a natural but, equally, I know that I can learn to do that if I need to.

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

Gemma Roberts
Well, this might be a bit of a strange answer, I guess, but probably my research. Essentially, my piece of research is looking at the factors that impact resilience for leaders. So, how much of it is down to the individual? How much of it is down to the environment? How much of it is down to the teams they work with?

it’s been a real kind of privilege to delve deep into that, to understand a bit more about how resilience changes for each of us at each moment in time, and why, and what we can do about that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Gemma Roberts
A favorite book, well, my most gifted book, it must be one of my favorites is The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters. So, the whole point of the book is that it focuses on how our minds work, how we talk to ourselves in our minds. And it uses kind of quite a comical tone in some places. It talks about some complex psychology. So, it’s easy-ish, I’d say it’s quite easy to understand. It’s quite accessible but also quite amusing as well.

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

Gemma Roberts
I’m not sure I am awesome at my job. Certainly not every day, that’s for sure. My favorite tool is probably getting help where I need it, and that’s taken quite a long time to get in place. So, I have various people that support different parts of my business and different parts of my work because I’m not an expert in everything.

And I think, over time, I’ve got to know the bits that I’m good at – so explaining complicated things, turning into tools that are very accessible, like research, making it practical. But I’m not so great at marketing, or, I don’t know, I’m trying to think of something else I’m not great at, managing my diary, it’s like that, so I’ve got people around me. Over time, I’ve built that out. I guess it’s a little bit like my board of supporters but it’s in a work context, but it’s getting the support where I need it.

And, also, sometimes I find that quite overwhelming because I think to myself, “I’ve got to do this new thing,” or, “I need to outsource something,” and I just don’t know where to start. And I’ve slowly started to get into the process of thinking actually, I always find that support when the time is right and when it’s the right person. Sometimes you’ve just got to wait for the right person to kind of show up to help with that. So, that’s got a little bit easy. I also find it very hard to let go of some of this stuff as well.

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?

Gemma Roberts
the point that resilience changes over time and it’s different on different days, that’s the stuff that I hear time and time again, whether working with individuals or when working with groups of people. I think it’s quite comforting that there is no…the end goal is not to be resilient. I think that’s probably one of the key things that I talk about. It is giving yourself the tools to be able to deal with challenges that can help you to be resilient but it doesn’t make you resilient.

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

Gemma Roberts
Probably my website, so GemmaLeighRoberts.com because everything I kind of do is on this. Like, courses and books and all of that jazz is on the website.

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

Gemma Roberts
Yes, I do. So, challenge yourself, at least this week, and try and build this into every week if you can. Take 20 minutes at the end of each week to just do a little bit of reflection. I know I keep talking about it, but this honestly helps you to get better and better. So, think about that continuous improvement over time. If you can get 1%, even half a percent better at what you do each week over time, you’re going to see big results.

So, there’s three things that I would focus on. First of all, you review how that week has gone for you. So, you literally, “What’s gone well? What hasn’t gone well?” That’s it. And then you think about refine, “Okay, so how can I refine some of that stuff that didn’t go so well? What could I do a little tiny bit better, just a tiny bit better?” And the third step is repeat. You just keep doing this over time. It comes back to that reflection so you’re very conscious of what’s going on, you’re very aware. Tiny, tiny, tiny tweaks to make things slightly better, and just keep repeating. That’s the consistency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gemma, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and mental agility and resilience.

Gemma Roberts
Thanks very much.

REBROADCAST: 399: Maximizing Your Mental Energy with Isaiah Hankel

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Isaiah Hankel highlights the importance of your mental energy, the best time to use it, and how to protect it from the people and things that drain it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The little ways we waste our limited mental energy
  2. How to tactfully deal with people who drain your mental energy
  3. How to gain more energy by closing mental loops

About Isaiah

Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology and is an expert on mental focus, behavioral psychology, and career development. His work has been featured in The Guardian, Fast Company,and Entrepreneur Magazine. Isaiah’s previous book, Black Hole Focus, was published by Wiley & Sons and was selected as Business Book of the Month in the UK and became a business bestseller internationally. Isaiah has delivered corporate presentations to over 20,000 people, including over 300 workshops and keynotes worldwide in the past 5 years.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Isaiah Hankel Interview Transcript

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

Isaiah Hankel
Great to be here, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the goods, but first can you tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up on a sheep farm?

Isaiah Hankel
It was rewarding. Some days it didn’t seem like it, but the one day that always stands out in my memory when I’m asked that question is a day that came every year as a sheep farmer, which is when you would shear the sheep.

Pete Mockaitis
I thought you were going to say that. What made that day special?

Isaiah Hankel
It was just a good insight into sheep behavior and as I learned later, human behavior, because sheep were very responsive to two things, carrots and sticks. It’s one of the many places where we get that phrase, having people respond to carrots and sticks, because humans respond to those two things too.

Pete Mockaitis
You mean literally feeding them a carrot and using a stick?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, yeah, it’s literally with the sheep and usually not literally with the humans.

But with the sheep to shear them, it’s a painless process, but you have to get a large herd of sheep, in this case it was usually 80 to 100 head of sheep, into a funnel essentially with a very narrow opening where only one sheep could fit at a time.

You would think this would be very hard to do, but sheep operated through a herd mentality. What that means is that you could walk behind them with a couple of sticks, bang those sticks together, they’re also scared of everything, and they would go running in the opposite direction. If you just bang the sticks behind them and if ahead of them was the funnel with the large gate that they would be funneled into, they would run right into it for you.

Then just to get them to go that last few yards, to get them to go one-by-one through that gate, you would just tease them with carrots held out in front of them, they’d walk right into the sheep shearers arms. You’d have to wrestle some of the larger ones sometimes, but in most cases carrots and sheep, carrots and sticks would do the trick.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, generally speaking, when sheep are sheared or shorn—

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, shorn.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it enjoyable, like, “Oh man, that was really a weight off,” versus like, “No, this is my precious fur?”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, in the reverse order though. They’re at first scared of the buzzing sound and they’re scared of everything, but then it doesn’t hurt, they’re relieved, it happens in the middle of the summer. They’re very happy afterwards.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I imagine that right after the shearing, the times are good on the sheep farm. You’ve got a bundle of cash coming in.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, times were good. As a farmhand you don’t get paid too much, but you did get paid quite a bit more on that particular day. It was always a sense of reward after working hard with your hands. Looking back, it’s some of the most enjoyable work that I’ve done, somewhat ironically.

Pete Mockaitis
We’re not going hold that against you to any of your colleagues or collaborators, like, “I’d rather be with sheep than you guys.”

Isaiah Hankel
It just made you very present. I think in today’s world behind screens, it’s hard to get present like that in the same way. I think you have to do it much more deliberately now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, you talk a little bit about some of this in your book called The Science of Intelligent Achievement. What’s sort of the main thesis behind this one?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, this book is about how to protect your mental energy and then what to do with your energy after you have protected it, after you stop doing the things that are depleting you on a daily basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, that sounds important. Can you sort of lay out that importance, like why do we need to protect our mental energy? Isn’t it going to be fine? Or what’s the attacker that we are defending against?

Isaiah Hankel
It’s usually people, but it’s a lot of things. I think the best way to frame it, and it’s kind of how the book starts out, is mental energy is your most valuable asset.

We usually hear that time or money is your most valuable asset, but we can quickly disregard these as being your most valuable asset because most people, just as an example, certainly in the US, have both a phone and a watch or a Fitbit. These things can do the same thing in terms of telling time, but we buy extra things for little features that we don’t really need. If you’re not buying that argument, go see how many pairs of shoes you have.

When it comes to time, how much time have you spent watching or re-watching your favorite movie or your favorite TV show or watching a YouTube clip? It’s not so much time that’s valuable. Maybe you were exhausted at the end of the day. You just wanted a feeling of comfort. You watched your favorite movie over again. Again, these can be disregarded pretty quickly, especially when you start comparing them to mental energy.

The last one that’s very popular today because we hear quotes like, “Your network is your net worth,” and all these feel-good relationship quotes about your relationships. We think, “Okay, well, it’s just about how many people you know? How many people will give you value for the value that you give?”

What we do there is we eliminate yourself from the equation. We forget that “Oh, I have to have enough energy to stand on my own two feet and enough energy to produce and provide value or enough energy to be present and be the kind of person other people want to connect to.”

We’ve all bought things we didn’t need. We’ve all spent our time on things that were a waste of time. We’ve all wanted to add more to relationships, wanted to give more, but were spread too thin. The limiting factor is actually your mental energy. How much mental energy do you have? You can think about it a different way. How many attention units do you have?

I think a lot of people try to reduce it to something that’s physiological, “Did I get enough sleep? Did I eat?” That’s really what controls my attention. There’s a little bit more to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well so now I’d imagine that that might be sort of the starting point of the funnel, if you will, in terms of just how much mental energy you have to work with. But then it gets frittered away and unprotected. Could you lay out what are some of the biggest drains on our mental energy and how do we prevent those from being drains?

Isaiah Hankel
Great question. Let me tell you how much or how little you actually have to start every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh do, thank you.

Isaiah Hankel
If you get five or six rounds of rapid eye movement sleep, REM sleep, then your willpower levels, your attention units, whatever you want to call it, your mental energy is going to be restored if – of course a lot of people don’t sleep as much as they should today. But if you get that amount of REM sleep, you start out each day with about 90 to 120 minutes of peak mental energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh boy.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, that’s it. That’s according to several studies. It’s been printed in the Harvard Business Review and of course a lot of primary peer-review publications. 90 to 120 minutes, so two hours tops and that usually strikes within an hour or three of waking up for most people, so right in the morning.

Then if you think of that as like your ten out of ten mental energy time. Then you have about an eight out of ten mental energy for maybe three to five hours during the day. Everything else is much lower. If you start thinking-

Pete Mockaitis
Like four?

Isaiah Hankel
Like four, exactly. Four or five.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

Isaiah Hankel
If not lower. If you start thinking what you can actually get done in a month, gets reduced pretty quickly to okay, let’s say you’re just doing what you do during those two peak hours and you have okay, during a work week about ten hours. Think about it, most people that go to an office, what’s the first thing that you do during that time?

Pete Mockaitis
They’re going to get the coffee, check the email.

Isaiah Hankel
Exactly. Scan some email. Then you look at the news. Then by the time you’re done with the news and email and chatting with your colleagues, you are out of your peak mental energy state. It’s very easy when you’re feeling good, your mental energy is peaking, you have your first cup of coffee, you get kind of chatty, to just diffuse and spend all that mental energy.

Here’s the key. I didn’t even mention this yet, during that 90 to 120 minutes, you are four to five times as productive as you are out of that peak time.

Pete Mockaitis
Four to five times even as compared to the level eight energy time?

Isaiah Hankel
Four to five times overall compared to the rest of the time during that day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, wow.

Isaiah Hankel
So time is relative. You can produce four to five times as much work during those peak mental energy, but again, most people don’t protect it—or we didn’t mention meetings. You’re in some nonsensical meeting, listening, some meeting that can probably be done in seven minutes and you’re spending an hour there.

These are just some of the ways that people are diffusing their peak mental energy during the day and why it’s important to start scheduling your day around these peak hours.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m wondering, you mentioned it hits during the morning, is that pretty universal regardless if you are a night owl or an early bird?

Isaiah Hankel
Good question. The night owl is a bit of a myth. I think it’s around one or two percent of the population actually is biochemically a night owl, where this peak mental energy is at night. A lot of people just like to think they’re a night owl because it lets them procrastinate during the day. But there are outliers of course in all sets of data.

One very easy way, and this would kind of be considered a meta-analysis, not really a peer-reviewed study, but it’s of yourself and you’re an n of one or a sample size of one, is to just take your phone and jot down every hour of the day from the time you wake up to when you’re asleep, so six AM, seven AM, eight AM, and just type down on top of every hour, and you can set an alarm on your phone or your Fitbit or whatever, how you are feeling in terms of your mental energy on a scale of one to ten.

What you’ll find over the course of even four to five days is you’ll start to see a trend. You’ll start to see – you’ll probably start maybe at a six, maybe a person starts at a four. Then pretty quickly you’re going to climb up to a ten. Then your tens are going to be in a row. You’ll have one or two in a row. Then it will go to about an eight.

Then you’ll have lunch. Then there will be the afternoon dip, which is a real thing. You’ll kind of drop to maybe a five or a four. This is what I’ve seen very, very commonly. Then maybe you’ll peak for one or two hours at six or seven after that. Then you’re right down to a four for the rest of the day. Something like that. That’s a typical curve. A lot of it has to do with your cortisol cycle in your body too.

Once you do this for a few days though, you can see, “Oh wow, these are the two hours of the day where I am peaking. What am I doing during those hours?” You start to rearrange your day in pretty simple ways, so you’re using those hours for the things that are most important to you, your career, your personal goals strategically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that sounds wise. I am all about that. Then I’m curious, when it comes to those, if it’s two hours, do you recommend doing two hours straight through or like having sort of a power brief rejuvenation in the midst of it?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, exactly. One thing you can do is go for a walk. You can go to the gym in the middle of the day if you can get out, just some people walk around the office. But if you do get the blood flowing during that dip, then you can get your mental energies to start to climb again. That’s really the key here is you have control over this.

That question is exactly what you need to be asking yourself. Okay, I usually dip here. Maybe instead of going to the gym in the morning, I can try to go to the gym or get some activity or go for a short run or whatever might be possible in my work life to bypass that dip and at least maintain maybe a six or seven during that time.

The key is just kind of restructuring your day for your peak mental energy or to keep your mental energies peaking rather than just letting them fall wherever your activities in the day fall.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us some examples for you or those you work with in terms of what are some great things that you might really try to slide into the peak mental energy times?

Isaiah Hankel
It comes down to every person’s individual goals. One thing that I started doing once I realized that this – when I started seeing this data and I wanted to publish my first book, is that I started taking my lunch break very early.

I started peaking around ten AM. This was when I would get up around six or seven. I’d peak at ten AM. I would be on from about ten AM to about twelve noon. During that time I could write at least five times as much as I could during any other time of the day. What I did was I started taking my lunch from ten till eleven AM, some cases eleven to twelve, and I would go somewhere and I would write.

I got my second book done very, very quickly because of this. If I had not done that, it would have taken me at least four to five times longer. That’s one example.

A lot of people have a goal to start their own business, but they struggle to get a business proposal on paper. They struggle to take that first step. They struggle to do all kinds of strategic things for their life that if they were just using their peak mental energy like 15 minutes a day, they can make real progress on.

It doesn’t have to be right in your peak time. If that’s just an impossibility for you, can you get up 15 minutes before your kids get up? Can you get up an extra 15 minutes early even if that’s like your 7 time, when you’re at a 7 out of 10 and use that time to do something strategic for your life, where you’re really moving the needle on your long-term goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that idea in terms of those things that are important, but you’ve been having some trouble getting movement on. That seems like a perfect combo for, “Ah, a peak mental energy time is what needs to be allocated here.”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, ideally I’m thinking of the four quadrants of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, not urgent but important. That would be the idea stuff that you’re using your peak mental energy time for. Every once in a while it might be important and urgent, but at least you’re always doing something that’s important during that time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. It’s key to do the scheduling and to be strategic about how we are deploying it. Then beyond that, what are some ways that our mental energy gets zapped over the course of the day?

Isaiah Hankel
Once you have your map there and you know when your mental energy is peaking, now start asking yourself what gets in the way of your mental energy or start tracking during the day. Maybe take a couple of notes underneath that list that you’re creating for four or five days and make a list of when you’re feeling the most drain. Who did you just interact with? What did you just do?

Everybody is different. One draining activity or one draining person for me might be different for you. What you’re going to find is that there are certain people that really drain your energy, certain interactions, certain types of interactions

Maybe sometimes with your boss it’s okay, but other times it’s not. If they had a conversation with you during this time right before lunch when they’re hungry, it’s not good, so you can start avoiding that.

Maybe every time you have a conversation with this person, they’re really dramatic and they suck you into their drama and you’re like, “Oh wow, this is usually happening during my peak mental energy, like I’m responding to some text. I’m going down this rabbit hole. If I just stop responding to this person, it goes away.”

Maybe it’s an activity that just completely drains you, you really dislike doing, not something that’s important, that’s hard to get started that you need to do, but something that’s lifeless and just pure busy work that’s not really moving you forward, something you can outsource to somebody else or delegate at work.

Start asking yourself, “What are the activities I can get rid of, the things that are really draining me?” What you’re going to find more often than not is it’s people and that you’ve done a really poor job of being selective and deliberate with the people that you’ve allowed in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, intriguing. So being mindful and aware of the different people and how that’s impacting us with the energy certainly. Then any pro tips for dealing with that, like, “Oh, it looks like these people are sucking the energy and I’d like to minimize my exposure?” How do you do that with tact or grace?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I call it going on a relationship fast. An important caveat here, just like with food fasting, we used to think, oh, if you fast for two weeks, this is somehow good for you. It can be very bad for your body. You don’t drink anything, don’t eat anything for weeks, very hard on your organs.

But we do know that certain types of fasting can be very, very good for your body, intermittent fasting, fasting certain types of food like not eating grains for a period of time or not eating dairy for a certain period of time or limiting foods one by one to see what you might have a food allergy for. All kinds of fasting that once you get more strategic with it, can lead to big insights and big benefits.

Same thing is true for relationship fasting. The problem is that we’re all so connected to our networks and we all have been bombarded with especially in today’s over connected world, that connections are important. You need to have as many Facebook friends as you can. Not just Facebook though, you also have all your other social media connections.

Not just online, because those aren’t your real relationships, you have to go to a bunch of conferences and you have to listen to every single podcast out there and you have to read everything possible. This stuff is good, but are you being deliberate? Are you choosing to read and to consume and to connect with people that are making you better or do you really have no filter? How deliberate are you being?

One good way to answer that question is to step away temporarily, not forever, but for a few days. Step away from your relationships. Of course you have your kids, your wife, etcetera. It’s going to be individualized for everybody.

But there’s probably a group of friends or at least one friend that’s coming to your mind right now as you listen to this that you’re asking yourself, “Does this person really make me a better person or a worse person? How do I usually feel when I interact with them? Is it just competitive? Are they a friend who’s really kind of an enemy?” There’s only one way to find out. You have to gain distance. Emotional distance will provide clarity.

By going on a temporary fast and doing it in a tactful way, you don’t just say, “Ah, I’m not talking to you anymore,” or “I’m in a relationship fast. Can’t talk.” You instead say, “I’m going to be taking some time to work on an important project. If you don’t hear from me for the next couple of days, I’ll get back to you on this date.”

You step away. You implement some of the things we’ve been talking about here, spend some more time on your personal goals, what you’re doing and all of that will become more and more clear as you kind of de-clog your life here with this temporary fast. You’ll gain some real insights by doing this.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. I also want to get into your take on being busy is a bad thing. What’s that about?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, busyness, and we hear this a lot. It’s almost overused. It’s a badge of honor and people think, “Oh I don’t want to be busy for busyness sake, but I still want to be busy. There’s so much to do today and things are so competitive in my career,” or if I’m an entrepreneur I’m trying to get ahead in whatever way. We can just start filling our calendars and what we’re doing with a lot of stuff without evaluating whether or not it’s impactful.

It’s actually very simple to figure out if something’s impactful, you just need to find a metric, some unit of measure where you can determine whether or not you’re moving closer to the overall goal, the reason that you’re doing that activity or further away.

Most people never do this because they never carve out time during their peak mental energy to have the mental energy to draw those conclusions. They’re so busy that they just keep going onto the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, hoping subconsciously that one of these things is somehow going to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

Some day one of these things is going to fall into place. They’re going to arrive. Somebody is going to discover them. The boss is going to say, “I see all the work that you’ve done. This is the one thing I’ve been waiting for you to do. Now I’m going to make you a millionaire.” They all have this kind of like hazy, fuzzy, “this is why I’m working so hard” lie going through our head at all times.

If you get honest with yourself, you’ll realize like I stay so busy because a) I don’t want to confront whether or not what I’m doing actually matters because maybe it doesn’t matter and maybe that means that I don’t matter right now, which is not true. It just means what you’re doing doesn’t matter. And b) because I think if I let go of something, if I stop doing it, what if that’s the key to my success? What if that’s the one thing or the one connection that’s going to make me successful?

That’s just never true. There’s always other opportunities, but if you’re not measuring what you’re doing, you have no idea if you’re getting closer or further away or if it’s impactful. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how intelligent you are, you can’t hit a target you don’t set.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. All right. You set the target and you are I guess mindful of the metrics and how different activities are moving that. Could you recommend what are some key metrics that folks have found open up a world of clarity about whether things are really worth doing?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, sometimes it’s easier than others. If you’re starting to write your own book or start a business, whatever, you can literally just count the words that you’ve made progress on in your book or count the chapters or in the business proposal, count the section.

If it’s at work, there’s likely some KPIs that are being measured for you by your manager. Maybe ask. Maybe evaluate and make a list of all the activities you’re doing at work and look at them to see what you are doing them for, like, “Why am I doing this? What does my manager want to see from this? Is this activity helping me gain any revenue for the company? Is this activity visible?” Optics matter. “Is it visible for my manager? Are they actually even seeing the result of this? Is it producing anything?”

Use that data too to go to your manager or your boss and say, “Hey, I’m doing this, but we’re not measuring anything. There’s no KPI. There’s no metric. Can we either set up a metric or can we cut this because it doesn’t seem like it’s impactful?” Just asking yourself why am I doing this, what is the result that it’s bringing? Once you get to the result, and you have it backed up with a why, you can determine the metric.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. You’ve got so much good stuff. I’m a little bit jumpy.

Isaiah Hankel
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
But I can’t resist. I want to know it all. You’ve mentioned that other people’s opinions, you liken them to an infection. What’s the story here and how do we I guess inoculate ourselves?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I always think of the movie Inception, where once something is suggested to you, it’s very easy for it to get implanted in your mind and then to grow and then eventually you think it’s your own idea and you execute on it. Now you’re chasing a goal that was suggested to you by somebody else without even knowing it. In the book it’s called the power of suggestion. It’s a real psychological phenomenon.

For example, you come into work and somebody says to you, “Hey, how are you feeling? Are you okay?” Then a little bit later a second person comes to you, maybe it’s just you didn’t comb your hair that day or whatever it is, and they say, “Are you feeling all right? You look a little disheveled.” Now by noon you’re going to go home sick because you think you’re sick and you’re not even sick. Just a very simple example.

We’ve all had something like that happen to us where somebody says something and then now it’s in our mind usually in the form of a question. Maybe they didn’t realize to do it, but that’s how powerful the power of suggestion is.

There’s a lot of studies that have shown that opinions travel through social networks just like the flu virus. The same kind of epidemiological studies that are done for the flu virus, they’ve done for opinions and for moods, emotions and they travel through these networks so that one negative person can have a drastic effect on hundreds if not thousands of people. One person’s opinion can do the same thing through the power of suggestion, through a variety of other means.

You really have to be careful. Anytime somebody gives you an opinion, especially an unsolicited opinion, you have to save yourself. What I do is I say, “I reject that.” Even if you’re just saying it under your breath or in your mind, you reject it. That’s not true because of X, Y, Z. Otherwise you’ll notice that these opinions will start setting up a camp in your brain. They’ll start forming limiting beliefs, limiting stories because our brains are wired to do that.

We have a negativity bias. We hear an opinion, we look for the negative information in that opinion, we set up limitations, and we set up negative stories in our brain to protect us from negativity.

There’s a part of your brain called the amygdala where information flows through it at a rate 12 to 1 compared to positive information. It flows through it right to your long-term memory banks so that negative information is stored 12 times faster and more securely than positive information.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s striking. That’s quite a multiplier. When you say, “I reject that,” can you give me some examples of maybe things recently that you heard then you’ve decided to proactively state out loud or internally, “I reject that.”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, it sounds a little bit silly, but it was as simple as the example that I gave you. Sometimes somebody said, “Do you feel okay?” or “You look a little tired,” “I reject that. I look wide awake.” Right? I will literally say that because otherwise it can start to stack on you. Or somebody says, “You don’t really seem like you’re making progress in this area.” “I reject that. I’m making progress here, here and here. Then here’s also where I’m going to work to make even more progress.”

It’s not about putting blinders on. It’s about framing things differently. I heard it said recently that no frame, no gain. You have to choose how you frame things in your own mind.

There’s something called defensive pessimism, which is really important. I’m not about, again, putting on rose-colored glasses, being overly optimistic. You have to look at the data and look at what’s going on. That’s what defensive pessimism is. You say, “What could go wrong here?” You figure it out and it actually makes you more successful. It’s not about that, but it’s about you choosing how to frame things that are best for you, not letting other people frame things for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Talking about I guess disproportionate mental weightings, how’s that for a segue?

Isaiah Hankel
….

Pete Mockaitis
You mention the Zeigarnik Effect. I may be butchering that pronunciation. But it’s pretty intriguing. Can you unpack that for us?

Isaiah Hankel
The Zeigarnik Effect is – now you have me saying it too. It’s an effect that-

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

Isaiah Hankel
Zeigarnik. I think I’ve had to look up pronunciation of that about 15 times. This is an effect that makes an open loop in your brain very hard to let go of. It’s why open loops, things that are kept in our working memory can have a drastic impact over our performance. The psychologist who came up with it was obviously called Zeigarnik. Now I can’t say it ….

Pete Mockaitis
Zeigarnik.

Isaiah Hankel
Zeigarnik. Bluma, yeah. He was a psychologist who noticed that a waiter had better recollections of unpaid orders. I’ve been a waiter and I know this. When you have an open table, it’s very similar to having an open thought or an open loop or a cast that’s not done in your mind. That’s how this effect was discovered.

Imagine you’re a waiter or maybe you’ve been a waiter or a waitress before. I used to waiter at a restaurant called Dockside in …. Great job. We had about five to six tables in a section. If there was a certain number of tables full, let’s say all six tables are full. They’re all eating. All six tables are on my mind all the time. I want to keep them as happy as possible because I want a tip.

If I’m asked at that time anything about the people at those tables, I have an amazing memory of those people, what they ordered, what’s going on. However, as soon as a table gets their check, they pay, and they leave, as soon as that happens and I clear out the table on the computer, if I’m asked the same set of questions about that table, I can’t remember anything. Because now the table is closed, the loop is closed, the task is closed and my brain dumps it from my working memory.

That’s the effect. Most of us walk around with hundreds of open tables in our mind at all times. We wonder why our mental energy is so dissipated. One of the most important things you can do and this is from a book, a famous productivity book called Getting Things Done.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, David Allen episode 15. Woot, woot.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, there you go. Just make a list of all the open loops in your mind. Spend an entire day or spend – what I did is I spent three or four days during my peak mental energy times making a list of every open loop, everything from ‘I want to paint the garage one day’ to ‘I want to pay off my house’ to ‘I have this entire list that I need to get through that’s on my desk.’

We talked about collecting every inbox, which can be virtual and physical now into one place, putting it in a giant to-do list and getting all of those loops down on paper. That’s the first step to getting them out of your working memory.

Once you get them down, you’re going to have at least 100 if you do it correctly. I would say if you’re over the age of 25, you’re going to have at least 100.  Once you get them down, you’re going to be like, “I can’t believe I was holding on to all of this in my working memory this entire time.” You’re going to feel this huge sense of relief.

Then when you go through the list, if you can start crossing stuff off, if you can do it in two minutes – this is going back to the getting things done rule – just do it. Or there might be a lot of things where you’re like, “This is not happening. This is off the list completely.” Then you can file other ones into like a someday maybe file on your computer.

Then the rest of the things that you actually need to get done, you can probably get it down to in my experience a list of 100 to maybe 30 items. That’s it. Again, all of that’s relieved from your working memory. All those loops get closed. Your energy will go through the roof after this process. But again, most people never do it. Why? Because they’re too busy doing stuff that’s not important.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, another fascinating implication of the Zeigarnik Effect in terms of our memory for these open loops is I think showing up in terms of storytelling. This is reminding me of another great author, Robert Cialdini.

In his later book Pre-suasion he figured out how he can really engage in his classroom if he posed a bit of a question or a mystery like, “How is it that this tiny organization was able to grow and overtake this huge organization in marketing or sales or whatever over four months. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t that.” Then they’re like, “Well, what was it?”

I think the same thing happens in a TV series or some of these true crime podcasts, where we’re doing an investigation over time. It’s like the brain wants that closure and you’re so intrigued and it’s so top of mind that sometimes you’re not even really enjoying watching the TV series or listening to the podcast, but you’ve just got to know what happens to these people.

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, you want to close that loop. Yeah, you’re right. Everything from marketers to entertainers have known this for a long time. I know one particular marketer that sends an email every day and at the end of it, it’s like, “And tomorrow I’m going to tell you about X, Y, Z.” Curiosity is a very powerful way to create an open loop and keep yourself or what you’re doing, or what you want to be on somebody’s minds on their mind.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, talking a little bit about these different factors in terms of protecting your energy and prioritizing and not being too busy and focusing on the right stuff and closing loops and getting it all out of there. I’d like to get your take on non-negotiables and how this can be a productive means of achieving some of these ends.

Isaiah Hankel
One of the best ways to not allow a loop – one of the best ways to close a loop is to not allow a loop to be opened in your brain. One of the best ways to do that is through non-negotiables.

People have a hard time saying no today. I struggle with this. I think a lot of us do, especially people who are – people that like to seize opportunities. You want to get stuff done. You’re a doer. You think the more yes’s I commit to, the more likely I’m going to be successful, the faster I’m going to be successful. But really it’s the opposite.

I read it in a book, I think it was by Tim Ferris that said you have to move from throwing spears to holding up a shield. This transition point comes at a various stages in your growth of your career, your personal growth, whatever it is.

But you have to be very cognizant that “Should I stop throwing spears at this time? Is it time to stop trying to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks? Has enough stuck that now I need to start holding up the shield and I’ve got to start saying no? I’ve got to say, ‘I just don’t do that.’ I’m not taking on any more projects until this date. I’m not staying online past eight PM anymore, non-negotiable. This is my morning routine that I’m going to execute every single day, non-negotiable.”

There’s real power in that. The power is that you don’t allow extra loops to get open. You don’t allow extra stuff to start stealing your attention and draining your mental energy. You’ve taken a stand to protect your mental energy in a formidable way.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. I’d love to hear what are some non-negotiables that have been really powerful for you and those you’ve chatted with about the concept?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, so a couple I just said have been really powerful. Bookending my day is really important. I have a non-negotiable that at this time I’m offline and I’m home with my family and I’m present with my kids. The end. No matter what I can get done at that time, that’s just the way that it is. It actually makes me work a lot faster and really makes me prioritize a lot more carefully.

Same thing in the morning. This is the morning routine that I’m doing every single day. I have one that’s like a ten-minute routine that can be done anywhere, if I’m traveling – no matter where I’m travelling, etcetera. That is what I do. Then I have certain key days too, like on this day, this is the day that I do calls on, client calls. Only on this day, non-negotiable, no other days. It’s got to be fitting on this day.

If you can set up a few of those – I call it bookending for a reason. But if you can add bookends and a couple of bookmarks to your days and weeks, it gives you a structure and it acts almost like a tripwire to make sure that you’re saving a certain amount of mental energy, otherwise things will just continue to swell and go towards disorder. It’s entropy. It’s just going to happen. This is again kind of a tripwire to prevent the entropy from getting out of control.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess, I’ll ask it later, but instead I’ll ask it now. These ten minutes, what are you doing with your ten minutes there?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, good question. What I try to do and what I’ve noticed is if I can do something physical, if I can take in some information, then if I can put out some information, I feel really good. What I do kind of changes, but one thing I’ve been doing recently, I’d say for the past six months, is I would get up and I’ll do a little bit of core work, stretching, core, just get a little bit of I guess mobility work in, very little. I can do that in a couple of minutes.

I’ll meditate, again, for a few minutes. I will pray for a few minutes. I will read a couple of books that are usually set up into either like a devotional or a book that has really short chapters. Then I’ll do an entry in a gratitude journal. I’ll write a little bit.

This is all really kind of in ten minutes. It’s about a minute or two a piece. It’ll swell if I have more time. It can swell up to like 30 minutes, but at least I’m getting each of those in in a minute. Then finally I’ll do something, I usually will row or could be something with like a kettle bell, just to get the heart rate up a little bit before having lemon water with Himalayan pink salt.

Pete Mockaitis
Himalayan pink salt. I’ve heard of this. Tell me. It’s supposed to be special somehow.

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I got hooked on it. I did a podcast with Onnit and I started watching a lot of their content before to prepare just like I do with your stuff. Yeah, it came up. It’s supposed to be really good for cleaning out your adrenals among other things.

Pete Mockaitis
More than any other salt?

Isaiah Hankel
Not just the salt, but the lemon water with the salt. Maybe put a little bit of apple cider vinegar in it. The Himalayan pink salt has a lot of – not chemicals, but like phosphorus, sulfurous, really good – I’m forgetting the name right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Minerals?

Isaiah Hankel
Minerals. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Feels like a word that might apply to salt. I’m just guessing.

Isaiah Hankel
That you can’t get from your normal table salt.

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

Isaiah Hankel
I would say really take seriously figuring out when you are peaking and be greedy for that time. That is your time. That is your essence. What you do during that time is who you are and who you’re going to become.

I think happiness, if that’s your pursuit that we’re all going towards, you have to realize that happiness is doing. Happiness is not just who you are. We all have a being and that’s important, but it’s also doing. We live today doing so much that we don’t think enough about what we’re doing, those activities. If you can own one or two hours during your peak time, you’re going to own yourself.

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

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, this is one I have on my desk. I think for me it’s always been kind of a good mantra that’s kept me focused. It says, “I do not fear failure. I only fear the slowing up of the engine inside of me that’s pounding saying, ‘keep going.’ Someone must be on top. Why not you?”

It might sound too intense for some people. That’s a quote from Patton, but basically it means fear is not the problem here. Failure is not the problem. Apathy is the problem, not caring, not trying to be the best that you can be. That’s what you should be afraid of.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite study?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite study. Man, I had like three or four and I didn’t decide on one. One that I really like going back to what we talked about today is the study showing people’s performance during those peak mental hours. If you think about it, it’s really showing that time is relative.

How can a being or person during these set times get so much more done than outside of those times. It’s like you’re a different person and your brain is a different brain during those times. It’s something that I don’t think enough people have thought about it. We’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible when we start tapping into human performance through the protection of mental energy.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite book. Fiction or non-fiction?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll take them both.

Isaiah Hankel
Fiction, I really enjoyed Fountainhead. I read it when I was young. It’s one of the things that inspired me to start my own business to even write a book instead of just going and doing what I was told in academia.

Non-fiction, so many things. The one that I read recently that I think really spoke to me and I read like three times is Relentless by Tim Grover. What I like about it is there’s people who start their own businesses. They’re very driven. People always talk about the dark side of being driven and how it’s bad.

He kind of flipped it and said, “No, this is very good and some of the best things that have ever been created and the people’s top performance and just a variety of things are because of this.” I really enjoyed it.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Isaiah Hankel
Something that helps me be awesome, I really can’t get enough of these new Apple pods because I do so many calls and I dictate so much that it allows me – one of the things that I do when I have a little bit more time in the morning is I like to wear a 40 pound weight vest and just go for a walk and listen at like two times speed a podcast like yours or a book. Then I have a dictator that I’ll dictate into. The pods makes all that possible.

Pete Mockaitis
So it’s a separate device that you’re using for the dictation?

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, exactly. Because that way I don’t have to stop listening to the book and I can just rant into this. A lot of is just pure nonsense. I’m like, “Oh that’s not really a good idea,” but sometimes there’s these gems that comes out of it. Once I started using two devices for that it was a lot different because otherwise I’d have to stop my phone, what I was listening to and dictate on my phone, etcetera.

Pete Mockaitis
What is the dictation device of choice that you’re using?

Isaiah Hankel
I can look it up real quick here. It is Sony ICD-PX370 mono-digital voice dictator.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the ICD-PX gem.

Isaiah Hankel
I was going to say, you might know that.

Pete Mockaitis
I actually don’t. Do you just keep it via audio or does some transcribing get into the picture?

Isaiah Hankel
No, I would love to know if there’s a better transcription device out there. Well, I use Rev.com. I’m guessing you know what that is. But no. The transcription devices that I’ve seen are highly complex, where you’ve got to have CDs and you have to – no, I wish it transcribed. I don’t think it does.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, how about a favorite habit?

Isaiah Hankel
Favorite habit, getting up at five AM more than anything else. This is something that like a lot of habits, you have to gently move towards. I for the longest time, for years, I wanted to joining this quote/unquote five AM club back when I was waking up at like eight AM. I’d set my alarm for 5 AM. I’d do it for like a day, maybe two and then crash and burn and give it up for a week and then two weeks later try it again.

What I finally did was I just started like 10 – 15 minutes at a time over the course of a week. Every week I’d get up, I’m serious, like 15 minutes earlier and slowly over the course of that 18 months, I’ve been able to start getting up at 5 AM. It’s just a beautiful time because you can shift when your peak hours happen.

I get up now and then very early when nobody else is up and there’s no calls or meetings or anything, I have my strategic time where my mental energies are peaking. It’s empowering to feel like you’re ahead of other people, even though there’s all kinds of time zones and I’m on Pacific Time, so I’m actually behind. Yeah, that’s by far my favorite habit.

Pete Mockaitis
But you’re also into sleeping a lot it sounds like.

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So when do you go to bed?

Isaiah Hankel
I track that and I go to bed at eight PM. I have to because I track it on a Fitbit, which I know is not the most accurate, but I do know – as long as you’re using the same scale, it’s apples to apples. I know what I trend at and how much sleep I need a week. I stick to that.

On a Fitbit, I have to get – I’m actually a pretty light sleeper, so I’ll be awake about an hour every night, at least according to my Fitbit. I know I need about 7 hours and 45 minutes almost on the nose in terms of averages for the week. I make sure that I get that. One of the ways that I have to do it is by going to bed at eight, so I get it.

Pete Mockaitis
So that’s 7 hours 45 minutes of actual sleep time, so the 9 hours of in the bedtime.

Isaiah Hankel
Exactly, so 7-45 plus the one hour, yeah, so it’s right around 8 to 5 yeah. ….

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I hear you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks?

Isaiah Hankel
A particular nugget?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just an articulation of your wisdom that folks say, “Yes Isaiah, that was so moving and brilliant when I heard that from you.”

Isaiah Hankel
Yeah, I think it comes down to the relationship fast. Most people don’t give themselves permission to do this because they think they’re being a bad person or they’re going against – we hear words like anti-social. I know it’s probably easier for me because I’m an introvert, a non-shy introvert if you’ve ever read Susan Cain’s Quiet.

But you have to be okay with being alone. If you’re not, you’re never going to really know who you are and you’re never really going to know the power that you have in your own mind and what you can do with that power of being your mental energy and what you can produce with it that will make the world a better place. If you really care about other people, you’ll figure out who you are and you’ll spend some time on your own in a relationship fast, a temporary one doing that.

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

Isaiah Hankel
Go to IsaiahHankel.com. That’s probably the easiest. Or actually the easiest is probably HankelLeadership.com. They can read some extra articles there and get a couple free chapters of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or called to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Isaiah Hankel
Yes, make your list of every hour that you’re awake for three days at least. Just record, scale it one to ten, what’s your mental energy. There’s going to be some great insights there. Then try to find one hour, one peak hour to protect. Do whatever it takes to protect that hour. It will change your life.

Pete Mockaitis
If I could just get a quick follow up there, when you say one to ten, could you orient us a little bit? How does a ten and a nine feel and how does a five feel and how does a one feel?

Isaiah Hankel
Great question. It’s going to be, of course, subjective, but the great news is it’s just you. You are the only subject, so it’s okay to be subjective in the sense – and you’re looking at a trend. If you do this in three days and your tens are all over the place, that’s a concern. You’re going to need to do it for a little bit longer.

But if you go for three – four days, like when I did it the first time in about, yeah, three – four days, I saw a very clear trend that a ten was at about the same time every day, right around that ten AM.

For you, you can always go back and say, “Oh, now that I’ve done this for a few days, this wasn’t really an eight. This was my ten.” You’ll gain clarity as you move forward. The key is just knowing, if you want to know in practice, what are those times when you seem really, really sharp, like people are asking you a question, you’re not really delaying in your responses, you’re flying through emails very, very fast. You feel like you’re in a flow state. If you haven’t read the book, it’s by Mihaly Csik-

Pete Mockaitis
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Isaiah Hankel
There you go. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I practiced that one.

Isaiah Hankel
A lot of word challenges today. Called Flow. Read that book. Anything that makes you present and sharp, that’s the feeling that you’re going for. When does that happen?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Isaiah, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for taking the time and good luck with all you’re up to.

Isaiah Hankel
Thank you Pete. Great to meet you and great to be here.

767: How to Build Tremendous Mental Strength with Amy Morin

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Amy Morin delineates the bad mental habits that are holding us back from achieving our full potential.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three elements of mental strength
  2. The 13 things mentally strong people don’t do
  3. How to more effectively tolerate discomfort and distress in our day-to-day 

About Amy

Amy Morin is editor-in-chief at Verywell Mind, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and psychology lecturer at Northeastern University. She’s also an international bestselling author. Her books, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, and 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do have been translated into 40 languages.

The Guardian dubbed her “the self-help guru of the moment” and Forbes calls her a “thought leadership star.”

Her TEDx talk, The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong, is one of the most popular talks of all time with more than 15 million views. She’s a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider, and Psychology Today where her articles on mental strength reach more than 2 million readers each month.

Resources Mentioned

Amy Morin Interview Transcript

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

Amy Morin
Hey, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom. And I think the first thing that we need to hear about, though, is, is it true you’ve been living on a sailboat for the last six years? And what is the story?

Amy Morin
It is true. So, I guess six years ago, we decided, “Hey, why live in Maine if you don’t have to? It’s kind of cold and dark.” So, we went on this adventure that was supposed to be six months on a sailboat, but six years later, here I am. And it was my husband’s dream. When he was four years old, his bedroom was decorated in a sailboat theme, so he said, “Someday, I’m going to live on a sailboat,” but we realized someday isn’t always promised, so just one random day, we said, “Why not do it?” So, we packed up a Fiat with a dog, a cat, a laptop, and off we went, and here we are still in the Florida Keys on a sailboat.

Pete Mockaitis
So, as we speak, you’re on a sailboat?

Amy Morin
I am, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t see anything rocking.

Amy Morin
Yeah. So, a lot of the time, because I need superfast internet, we’re tied to a dock, so I’m not just bobbing around in the ocean or anything.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, has that been working out well for you, you’re pleased with the decision? And what are some of the pros living on a sailboat maybe others should consider?

Amy Morin
Yeah. So, there are some pros and cons. The pros would be it’s kind of a simple life. Again, I have some clothes and a laptop and not much else, and you really don’t need much. And, like, manatees and dolphins come swimming by, and there’s lots of cool stuff. And, of course, during quarantine, it was easy to be on a sailboat because when everybody had to be inside their house, well, my house moves so I could go places and still go out and do things. I can snorkel, I can swim, I can do lots of fun stuff.

But there are some cons as well. So, this is my podcast studio, so we’re recording a podcast from a boat. It’s loud sometimes. There are certain things you have to think of with a sailboat, like, there’s not a ton of room, so we kind of jockey for position on who gets the cool space on the couch during the day. And there was an octopus incident that involved an octopus coming through our air-conditioning vent. That was not the best day ever.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s wild. Well, cool, you’re making it work. That’s exciting.

Amy Morin
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m also excited to hear all about mental strength. You’ve got a series of excellent books, including 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, and I loved your TEDx Talk, we will put a link to that in the show notes, for sure. So, tell me, when it comes to us humans and mental strength, is there a particular surprising discovery you’ve made about us in the course of your practice and research?

Amy Morin
Well, I guess the first thing was that mental strength really depended on what not to do. We talk so much about all the healthy habits and all the things you should do.

Pete Mockaitis
Exercise.

Amy Morin
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Breathe.

Amy Morin
And as a therapist, I was taught, “When people come into your therapy office and they tell you what’s going on in their life, figure out what they’re already doing well and build on that,” and that makes sense on the surface, like, “Yeah, I’m going to point out your strengths and we’re going to keep doing that.” But, at some point, I thought, “Well, if I want to go see a physical trainer and they told me to run on the treadmill, yeah, I’m going to run on the treadmill.” But if they didn’t mention, “Hey, by the way, that junk food you’re eating kind of negates all that work you’re doing on the treadmill,” I’d be kind of mad.

So, I thought, “Let’s take a look at this. What are the common unhealthy habits that we all do but, yet, those little things keep us stuck?” And so, for example, you can practice gratitude quite often but if you still feel sorry for yourself sometimes, kind of negates the gratitude. So, most of us have moments where we feel thankful, but we also have moments where we feel sorry for ourselves. So, let’s focus on getting rid of that in our lives, and then the good habits you have already become much more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, beautiful. So, then when it comes to talking about being mentally strong, how do you define that? Is being mentally strong distinct from mentally healthy or are they kind of synonymous or interchangeable?

Amy Morin
I’m glad you asked that because they’re different. People will say that sometimes, like, “Ah, I wish I could be mentally strong but I’m depressed,” or, “I wish I could be mentally strong but I have anxiety.” Not the same thing at all. It makes more sense to our brains when we think about it in terms of, like, physical strength and physical health. You go to the gym, you can build physical strength, yeah, that improves your physical health, too. But even a weight trainer can still develop, like, high cholesterol or some sort of physical health problem down the road, you might injure your knee, mental strength is the same.

It’s all about the exercises we do every day, the strategies we employ in life, but knowing that despite how much mental strength you have, it doesn’t guarantee you won’t ever develop a mental health problem. So, even when you’re mentally strong, you might still develop something like depression, anxiety, OCD. Those things happen to anybody, but mental strength can prevent some problems, it can make you feel your best no matter what kind of mental health problems you might be struggling with.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we’ve got a distinction. And then, so what’s the definition then of a mentally strong person is blank, or mental strength equals this?

Amy Morin
Well, I’d have to say, the easiest way to define it is that there’s three parts to it – the way you think, the way you feel, and the way you behave. So, when it comes to thoughts, it’s not about like super positive thinking all the time. It’s about knowing that your thoughts can be realistic so that, all right, when things are bad, you might just accept, “Yeah, they’re bad,” but, on the other hand, you don’t want to spend all your mental real-estate worrying about things that will never happen or ruminating on things that already did. It’s about just taking some control over your mind and your thoughts.

And then when it comes to our emotions, sometimes people will be like, “Oh, be mentally strong. Don’t cry.” That’s not the case either. Sometimes it takes a lot of mental strength to just acknowledge how you feel, to express those feelings, and to know that you can be comfortable even with some uncomfortable emotions. But, on the other side of that, there are times when maybe you’re so angry you can’t think straight, so you need the power to reduce your anger. So, a simple way would be to be in control of your emotions so that they don’t control you.

And then the last part is about our behavior, the action you take. You can be an optimistic, happy person, but unless you take action, those things don’t really matter. So, it’s about knowing, “Okay, even on the day I’m tired, I’m still going to go to the gym,” or, “Even though I don’t feel like doing this thing, it’s the right thing to do so I’m going to do it anyway.” And knowing when to push yourself but, of course, also knowing that it’s different to, say, run on a sore leg versus a broken ankle. There are days where you need to say, “Okay, being mentally strong sometimes means taking a break, taking a step back, or even quitting or giving up.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s nice and clear. All right. So, we got a picture of those three things. And tell us, Amy, to what extent are they learnable? And can you maybe share an inspiring story or research that says, “Hey, people have made transformations here all the time”?

Amy Morin
Yeah. So, it’s definitely all learnable and it’s things that we can learn and practice and put into our daily lives, these small things, just like all of us could choose to build physical strength by working out, doing some things differently. We can all choose to do things differently when it comes to building mental muscle and there’s lots of stories of Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs and people who go out there and do really cool things with their lives.

But I can share my own story and life, and tell you that I don’t come by this naturally but I’ve learned a lot over the years. As a kid, I was the kind of kid that never raised their hand in class. I actually hated school to the point that I vomited before school every day until about the fourth grade. In high school, I never spoke in class either. I was the shy kid in the back of the room. I became somebody that was able to give a TED Talk that’s now been viewed by 20 million people, and I can do lots of things I never ever thought I could do before but it was about practicing and putting those things into place.

And as a therapist, I knew some of this stuff but it wasn’t really the books, the textbooks that taught me anything differently. It was mostly my life experiences. When I was 23, I lost my mom. When I was 23, my husband passed away. A few years after that, my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. It was like my 20s were awful. I went through all of this hard stuff but I learned from it, and what I learned was like, “Okay, don’t sweat the small stuff. There really is a lot to be said for that.”

There are things I never thought I could do that I can. And even as a therapist, I’d be teaching other people about their self-limiting beliefs but, at the same time, I think I really believed that I had a lot of limitations that I didn’t. I can get out there and do so many things now that I never thought I could do by putting these things into practice, by giving up unhealthy habits that were holding me back, and by truly just saying, “Okay, let’s get out there and try these things.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s hear the things. So, there’s 13 things mentally strong people don’t do. Can you give us that rundown?

Amy Morin
Sure. You want all 13?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please.

Amy Morin 
I’m going to cheat by looking at the back of my book because now that I’ve written five books, I get a little out of order after a while. So, the first one is that mentally strong people don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves. They don’t give away their power. They don’t shy away from change. They don’t focus on things they can’t control. They don’t worry about pleasing everyone. They don’t fear taking calculated risks. They don’t dwell in the past. They don’t make the same mistakes over and over. They don’t resent other people’s success. They don’t give up after their first failure. They don’t fear alone time. They don’t feel like the world owes them anything. And they don’t expect immediate results.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. That’s it, that’s 13. Okay.

Amy Morin
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, then as I hear them, that seems to make sense, like, “Yeah, it’d be better to not waste time feeling sorry for yourself. It’d be better to not give away our power. It’d be better to not shy away from change. Yup, yup, yup, that seems good.” I’m curious, though, if we are doing some of this stuff, how do we begin to make that change?

Amy Morin
Yeah, so it’s easy to say, “I don’t do those things,” or, “I don’t do them very often,” or, “It’s not a problem.” But the truth is we all do those things sometimes, and we all expect immediate results, for example, and that’s part of the world we live in. We now have Google and Amazon where you can get an answer, or on a click of a button, you can get something delivered to your door almost immediately. So, then when it comes to changing our lives, we think this will happen this week.

And you can even look at it with like New Year’s resolutions. Most of them go out the window within two weeks. I think January 18 is the day that most people have already given up on their New Year’s resolution because we expect things to happen fast, “I’m going to lose 100 pounds this year,” “I’m going to change my life,” and it doesn’t happen according to our schedule. But whenever we find ourselves doing these things, the first thing is just become more aware of it.

And even though I’ve written books on this and I talk about it all the time, I still find myself doing certain things. I give away my power, for example. I blame somebody else for putting me in a bad mood, or ruining my day, or making me do something. No, those are all my choices. And just recognizing it, that was the first step, and then being able to say, “Okay, what am I going to do about it? How do I get rid of this habit? What am I going to do instead?”

And, luckily, there’s an antidote for all of this stuff. If you want to stop feeling sorry for yourself, just take a moment and say, “Well, what do I have to be thankful for? What can I be grateful for in the moment?” You find yourself expecting immediate results? Find a way to say, “Okay, now I’m going to figure out how do I track my progress?” Whether you say, “I’m going to make a certain amount of money,” “Pay down a certain amount of debt this year,” or, “I want to have this fitness goal,” well, what can I do to track my progress? It might just be as simple as putting an X on the calendar every day so that you don’t expect this to happen overnight.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, actually, I really like these antidotes. Can I hear 11 more?

Amy Morin
Sure. And there’s a lot of about all of them. There’s science behind it. It’s not just things that I made up. But if we were to talk about not fearing calculated risks, for example, we tend to think that our level of fear is equal to the level of risks, so, “Applying for that promotion feels scary so I shouldn’t do it because it must be risky.” The truth is that our emotions have nothing to do with the actual level of risk that we face.

And so, the antidote to this one is just taking a look from a rational perspective, which, in some cases, might be taking a step back, and saying, “What would I say to my friend who had this problem?” because it takes a lot of the emotion out of it. So, if you said, “Gee, I had this opportunity to apply for a promotion but it feels scary, so I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

Well, if your friend came to you and said that, you’d be like, “Hey, go for it,” or, “I think you’ll do a good job.” You’d probably have some kind words unless you really thought that they shouldn’t apply then you might be willing to be honest, and say, “Actually, maybe not yet.” Well, give yourself those same words, and it takes a lot of the string out of it, the emotion out of it, and you can make a better decision.

Or, if we were to say, let’s talk about not giving away your power, if we went back to that one. The antidote to that one is changing your language. How often do we say, “My boss makes me work late”? Nope, your boss doesn’t make you work late. It’s a choice. Maybe there’s a consequence. Maybe your job would be at risk. But just recognizing, “All right, the expectation is I’ll get this report done by tomorrow. I’m going to have to work late to do it, but that’s my choice.” There’s something super empowering about just flipping your language around so you could say, “It’s up to me to decide how I’m going to do this.”

Another one is about not resenting other people’s success. Well, how often do we, say, flip through social media, and you look at other people, and you’re like, “Ugh, they’re happier than I am. They’re healthier, they’re wealthier, they’re more attractive, they have a better life than I do.” It’s those comparisons that keep us stuck. And studies will show that if you look at somebody as an opinion-holder rather than your competitor, then you’ll learn from them.

So, if you just look at somebody that, say, drives a really nice car, you might be able to say, “Well, what can I learn from that person? Maybe they have a really cool job, or maybe they know how to negotiate a good deal on a car, or maybe they gave up something in their life so they could afford this car.” But just saying, “What can I learn from that person?” rather than, “That person is better than I am,” it keeps you from feeling bad about it.

Amy Morin
when it comes to failure, we have this idea that, “Failing feels bad and I don’t want to feel bad so, therefore, I shouldn’t put myself out there.” Well, one of the insane things we do is we talk about success stories. So, they looked at high school science teachers, and all the science teachers were telling kids about, say, Edison, Einstein, all these famous scientists who were really successful.

And the more that they talked about how successful these people were, the kids’ grades started to decline. So, then they had them talk about how all these famous people failed. Edison had a bazillion experiments that didn’t go well, Einstein had some theories that probably were a little off base. And when they started talking about these people’s failures, the students’ grades started going up because then they knew, “Well, gee, failure is actually part of the process, so the way to succeed, you have to take a risk, put yourself out there, you have to guess sometimes, you have to do things that are going to be really hard.”
And once the students started doing that, they took more risks, they raised their hand, they guessed on an answer if they didn’t know, but they were willing to do harder things, and their grades went up. And I think that’s a great lesson for all of us. When we look around these dotcom businesses or successful business leaders who now have programs out there and they’re trying to get us to buy them, we hear about how successful they were but we don’t always know what it took for them to get there. Just by studying famous failures, it will give you courage to try so that then you’ll know, “Okay, well, if I failed, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just part of the process.”

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. And how about not shying away from change?

Amy Morin
Yeah, so that one, a lot of people come into my therapy office, and they’ll say, “I’m ready to change my life,” but then when we talk about making change, they’re kind of like, “Eh, I’m not so sure about that. Change is uncomfortable.” And we like it when things are predictable. Even though they’re bad, if it’s familiar, somehow we think, “Well, that’s not too bad.”

So, with this one, there’s a few different things that you can do but sometimes just putting a name to your emotions goes a long way. So, if you just label how you’re feeling, “Okay, I’m anxious,” “I’m sad,” it takes a lot of the sting out of it. And there’s science behind this one, too, that our brains and our bodies need a little help making sense of things. So, when you have all these stress hormones going on, just take a moment and be like, “Okay, I’m feeling anxious right now,” you automatically feel a little bit less anxious.

And then the next thing you can do is, once you identify how you’re feeling, is to be able to say, “Well, is this a friend or an enemy right now?” because so often we talk about feelings like they’re either positive or negative. People will say, “Well, excitement is a positive emotion and anger is a negative emotion.” But when you think about it, any feeling has the power to be positive or negative. Yeah, anger is helpful if you stand up for your friend, maybe, or it gives you courage to stand up for yourself. It’s not helpful if it causes you to call people names or to say things that you wouldn’t normally do or say.

But excitement, on the other hand, we love it. When you’re looking forward to a vacation and you’re excited, that feels good. But what if somebody comes to you with this, like, a get-rich-quick scheme and they guarantee you that there’s no way you’re going to fail?

Pete Mockaitis
“Ooh, no way I can fail, Amy? Sign me up now.”

Amy Morin
Right. That’s why we see really smart people fall prey to, like, really stupid get-rich-quick schemes because they’re so excited about the payoff that they overlook the risks. So, sometimes it’s just helpful to say, “How am I feeling right now?” Put a name to that, and then say, “Is that helpful or harmful?” And if it’s helpful, embrace it. If it’s harmful, then you say, “Okay, what do I do about this?” and make a different choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Amy, I love this so much. “Positive emotions” and “negative emotions” I guess we might re-label that as pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions. Like, it’s pleasant to feel excited about the get-rich-quick scheme but that’s not going to serve you well. It’s going to be harmful to you. So, you could say that’s…in a way, I don’t even like the words positive and negative in relation to emotions because they get things a little bit fuzzy versus friend versus enemy, I love it.

And I want to dig a little deeper here on the emotional management stuff because, all right, so you’ve probably heard this poem, and it’s very short so I’ll read it in its entirety, from Rumi, “The Guest House,” and it has a perspective on emotions. A couple guests have brought it up, it says,

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

​Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

​The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

So, that’s a poem. I think there’s some profundity. I chew on that, and I think, “Wow, that sounds like a cool, free, liberating way to live,” but I don’t know if it’s optimal, and it may be harmful. And what’s your hot take, Amy, when it comes to emotional management, calling things friends or enemies, versus they’re all just guests, they come and they go and they serve us?

Amy Morin
I think there’s a lot of power in just sometimes allowing emotions to come in. I think a lot of our suffering in life comes from our attempts to fight feelings. So, something anxiety-provoking, we don’t want to feel that way, so then we try to get rid of the anxiety rather than solve the problem. I think life gets a lot better when we get better at answering the question, “Should I solve the problem or solve how I feel about the problem?”

Sometimes we have a problem that’s huge but it’s so anxiety-provoking and I feel anxious about it so I just want to solve my anxiety rather than tackle the problem. This is why people develop, say, substance abuse issues or compulsive behaviors, “It feels better to do this right now than it is to tackle that problem, so I’m going to do what’s in front of me, whether that’s grab a drink or eat too much. Something to take care of my feelings rather than take care of the problem.”

And I can’t tell you, I mean, I’ve noticed this in my own life but it’s something I constantly work with people in my therapy office about is just honoring our emotions sometimes and knowing that the more we run from them, the more they just keep following us, and they show up wherever we are, and they show up in different areas of our lives.

So, if you’re sad, sometimes it helps you honor something you lost, you have to go through those sad feelings. But, instead of going through them, we do a lot of effort to try to go around, do everything we can to go under, over, skip it, we distract ourselves constantly because emotions, certain ones, are uncomfortable, we don’t want to be bored, we don’t want to be lonely, “Who wants to be sad or anxious?”

And in today’s world, it’s so easy to distract ourselves with our phones, with constant noise in our ears, all the things that we can do so that we don’t have to tolerate a moment of discomfort, but if we spend our whole lives trying to avoid just being uncomfortable or making it so we don’t experience emotions that are unpleasant, life gets even worse in its suspicious cycle.

But I also don’t think we have to tolerate it. So, again, when your emotions are saying enemy, when they’re not helpful, then you don’t have to sit and suffer with them. Sometimes we need to say, “Hmm, maybe I should do something else.” If you allow sadness to stick around too long, you might find yourself in bed, and then it lies to you. People become depressed, their depression tells them, “Don’t go to work today. You just stay in bed and you’ll feel better.” Well, nobody’s ever felt better by staying in bed all day but our emotions can lie to us. It can make us irrational.

If we took the example of sadness again, never negotiate when you’re sad. You’ll take a horrible deal when you’re sad because you’ll think, “I don’t want to counter offer because I just don’t know that my ego can handle one more blow, so I’ll accept whatever deal you offer me.” Or, when we’re anxious about something, our anxiety from our personal life spills over into work.

So, let’s say you just had a health test, you’re waiting on the results, you go to work, your boss offers you a new opportunity, you’re going to be like, “No, thank you. I don’t think I can handle that,” because your anxiety spills over and you’re not even going to recognize it. So, as much as we talk about emotional intelligence, I don’t think we’re there. I think we need to just go back to the basics sometimes and figure out, “How am I feeling? Is that feeling helpful or harmful? If it’s harmful, how do I change my emotional state?”

Pete Mockaitis
And let’s say, how does one change their emotional state? We say, you figured out, “Okay, hey, I’m sad but I’ve got a negotiation coming up in half an hour. I recognize that me being sad is not great for this upcoming challenge but, nonetheless, I feel sad. What do I do about it?”

Amy Morin
Yeah. So, let’s say you lost your pet last week and you’re sad about it, obviously being sad helps you honor that lost. It’s okay to be sad for a while, that’s sort of a thing. But in that moment where you’re, like, “I’m about to walk into this meeting and I need to negotiate an amazing deal,” then you can do two things. Number one is change how you think and change your behavior. So, we tend to do something that keeps us in whatever state we’re in. When you’re anxious, maybe you pace. When you’re sad, you just sit and stare at the wall.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, look down.

Amy Morin
Right. And those kinds of things reinforce how we feel. So, sometimes you need to act the opposite, so get up and go for a jog, or you look at a funny cat video online, or you call somebody and talk about a completely different subject just to shift it. And you could also change what you’re thinking about. When you’re anxious, maybe you’re replaying something over and over again, or dwelling on the worst-case scenario.

Or, when you’re sad, you’re just thinking about more sad things. Take a moment and purposefully think about something that’s happier just to give yourself that little mood boost when you need it in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Okay. Well, let’s see, there’s a few more things that mentally strong people don’t do. Maybe you want to hear some antidote if you find yourself doing it. How about when we’re focused on things that we can’t control? What’s the antidote?

Amy Morin
That one is about sometimes just pausing and saying, “Okay, what is within my control?” It might only be your effort, your attitude, your behavior, but it’s tough to do. We want to control the outcome. Or, we find ourselves doing these things, too. Like, let’s say you have a pain in your knee, and suddenly you start Googling. And within two minutes, you find out either it’s nothing or you’re about to die, depending on which website you look at.

And so, to control your anxiety, maybe you just keep researching, researching, researching, and it’s not helpful. Well, what can you control? Well, you can control when you call the doctor, if you make an appointment, or what you do about it. So, sometimes it’s just about taking a step back, and saying, “What’s within my control right now?” and then taking some kind of action, but making sure that that action is about moving forward. Ending up in an endless loop of research, you could research forever, and what’s that going to do?

Or, if you have something coming up this weekend and you want to make sure it’s a sunny day because you have outdoor plans, checking the weather compulsively every two minutes isn’t going to change the outcome. So, maybe you just ask yourself, “Well, okay, what’s the worst-case scenario?” and then kind of play that through of, “All right. Well, if it rains this weekend, what’s going to happen? My plans get ruined. Well, if my plans get ruined, what will I do instead?” And just playing that tape through sometimes reminds us that, “All right, even if the worst-case scenario did happen, it’s not the end of the world.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if we’re worried about pleasing everyone, what do we do?

Amy Morin
Again, that one is a difficult one for chronic people-pleasers. When you tend to always say yes to everything, sometimes it’s just a matter of stepping back and having a new default answer, because if somebody calls, and says, “Hey, can you do me this favor?” and you always say yes, take a moment and say, “Ah, I’m going to check my schedule and get back to you.”

And just having a new script, and maybe you already know the answer is going to be yes, or maybe you already know, “It’s something I really don’t want to do,” but in that moment, it’s hard to say that. So, just having a pre-planned script, like, “Let me check my schedule and get back to you,” or, “I’ll have to see if that works for me but I’ll let you know.” Just having that little pause sometimes can then give you enough time to think, “Okay, is this something I really want to do or not?” then you can get back to the person with a better answer. But I find a lot of times, people-pleasers, just their default is to always say yes to everything, so they need a little bit of time to decide, “Do I really want to do this or not?”

Pete Mockaitis
And what if we’re people-pleasing not just in the saying yes or no, but in the broader sense of what we choose to ask for, like, “Ooh, I don’t want to ask for that. That might be too much. I don’t want to inconvenience them,” in that sort of a way?

Amy Morin
Anytime we’re afraid of something, the best way to overcome that fear of saying, “Okay, I’m afraid to ask for something. I’m afraid to take care of myself,” it’s just about doing it in small steps. So, maybe you ask for a little less than you actually want just to see what happens as an experiment. I’m a huge fan of saying, “Let’s try behavioral experiments,” and test the waters. Sometimes people will be like, “Oh, I can’t ask for that because my boss might be mad,” or, “I can’t ask my coworker for that favor,” or, “I can’t speak up and say, actually, that’s an unreasonable deadline.” Well, try it and see what happens.

And to know that you don’t have to feel brave to act brave. Just put yourself out there and do it anyway, as an experiment. If something terrible happens, you can learn from it, but I think nine times out of ten, you might discover that the worst isn’t going to happen, people aren’t going to be mad, they’re not going to freak out, they’re not going to look down on you if you asked for what you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I like that notion of the little steps. So, that might even just be like, “Try writing the email,” or, “Try writing out the script,” “Try asking for…” instead of saying, “There’s no way that’s going to happen, boss. Forget about it.” It’s like, “No, actually, that’s going to be very challenging based upon these other things, and it may require that I’m up until midnight if we don’t re-prioritize some things. So, how do you think about the priorities?” Like, “You got to stay up till midnight, aargh.” Versus, “Oh, I had no idea. I’m so sorry. Let’s see what we can do here.”

Cool. And if you’re dwelling on the past, how do we un-dwell?

Amy Morin
So, yeah, sometime we dwell on like something bad that happened six weeks ago, sometimes it’s like the conversation that happened at lunch, maybe you got home from work after a bad day and you just keep replaying over and over again, and thinking of all the things you wish you would’ve said, all the things you wished the other person hadn’t said. It’s like this tape that gets stuck in our head and we rehash it over and over and over again.

So, one of my favorite exercises for this one is to distract yourself. We call it changing the channel in your brain, and we’re pretty bad at it at first. So, maybe you had a bad day, you get home from work, and you’re still thinking about that bad thing that happened, and you say, “Well, don’t think about that.” Well, we actually are going to think about it more.

So, I’ll do this exercise with people often. We can do it right now if you like, where I say, “Spend about 20 seconds thinking about white bears. White bears, white bears, white bears. Polar bears, stuffed white bears, how many white bears as it gets.”

Pete Mockaitis
Like a Coca-Cola advertisement?

Amy Morin
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
They’re so adorable unless they’re mauling something, I guess. White bears, white bears, white bears.

Amy Morin
So, then spend the next 20 seconds thinking about absolutely anything you want but, whatever you do, do not think about a white bear.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, it’s challenging. I’m like battery recharging. Recharging batteries. Battery rechargeables, like it’s hard. I’m drifting.

Amy Morin
Okay. And then one more quick thing then. For the next 20 seconds, see how far you can get from the alphabet from Z to A, see if you can get all the way through the alphabet backwards. Ready, set, go.

Pete Mockaitis
Out loud?

Amy Morin
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T, S, R, Q, P, O, N, M, L, K, J, I, H, G, F, E, D, C, B, A.

Amy Morin
Oh, that’s impressive that you just did that. Good work.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Amy Morin
So, when I said think about white bears, did a white bear pop up in your head at least one?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Amy Morin
And then when I said don’t think about white bears, think about anything you want, did you find, did a little white bear pop up maybe at least once?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Amy Morin
And then how about when you just went through the alphabet backwards, did you think about any white bears then?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, I was trying really hard to impress you and the listeners by nailing it, so I was putting all my mental energy there.

Amy Morin
Well, let me tell you, I was impressed. That was really, really fast.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. That’s what it’s all about, baby.

Amy Morin
And that is an example of how to change the channel in your brain. If you tell yourself, “Don’t think about white bears,” or, “Don’t think about that awful conversation,” it’s going to pop up in your head. But if you give yourself a little task to do at home, you’re probably not going to be like, “Okay, I’m going to go through the alphabet backwards,” but you might give yourself something to do. Like, “Okay, instead of sitting on the couch and rehashing this awful thing that happened earlier today over and over again and staying stuck in a bad mood, what can I do?”

And it might be about calling a friend to talk about a completely different subject, maybe you go outside and do something, maybe say, “I’m going to organize my closet for 10 minutes,” but give yourself something to do, sometimes getting up, moving around. The point is when you’re dwelling on something that already happened, you can’t change it. You can learn from it but when you just rehash it and ruminate on it over and over again, you stay stuck in a bad mood. And then telling yourself, “Don’t think about it,” actually makes it worse.

But if you get up and do something, give yourself an activity, it can boost your mood just a little bit. And even though you’re probably going to eventually go back to thinking about it again, when you feel a little bit better, you might be able to see it from a different angle, and say, “Okay, maybe it wasn’t so bad, or maybe the next time this comes up, I’ll have a different strategy.” But the point is, you just don’t want to sit and dwell on something that makes you feel bad and keep dwelling and then you feel worse.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, I dig it. I dig it. And I’m thinking, in particular, that the alphabet backwards is the example of it has a little bit of a challenge or a game-like quality to it. And I’m thinking about if there’s a quick game, like, I don’t know, Wordle from The New York Times has been a lot of fun, or Tetris, or, I don’t know, online math problems or something. It seems like, maybe it’s just me, but, like, something that it makes a bit of a demand upon you, like, “I’m going to have to try to apply my attention here in order to prevail, and I like prevailing so I’m going to choose to spend all my attention on the thing.”

Amy Morin
Right, because that requires your mental energy. It just gives your brain a bit of a break, and sometimes we need that because sometimes bad things do happen. So, we’re talking about something traumatic because sometimes when people have PTSD, they need to get professional help because it does stay stuck in their brains. But when other bad things happen, and we just keep thinking about it over and over again, and maybe you try to put a positive spin on it or something, but you just can’t get unstuck, sometimes you just need to find something to give your brain a break so you can feel a little bit better before you go back and think about it again.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, if we are making the same mistakes repeatedly, what’s our antidote there?

Amy Morin
So, of course, we just want to learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them. And quite often, we shame ourselves for making a mistake, like, “Ugh, I’m such an idiot,” or, “I’m a bad person.” Well, guess what? When you think you’re a bad person, you’re going to think, “Oh, I’m doomed to repeat that mistake.”

We see this with teenagers sometimes. Like, if a kid messes up a lot and his parents shame him, and says, “Oh, you’re an idiot,” or, “You’re a bad kid,” well, guess what? When he’s 15 and somebody says, “Hey, you want to try drugs?” who’s going to try the drugs, the kid that thinks, “I’m a bad person,” or the kid who, when he messed up, was just taught, “No, I mess up sometimes but I’m a good kid”? Well, we know the kid who thinks, “I’m a bad person” is like, “I’m going to make a bad choice because that’s who I am.”

Well, we do that to ourselves as adults, like, oh, when we mess up, we say, “Well, I’m not smart enough. I’m stupid. I can’t ever do anything right.” When you think that way, you’re going to then think, “Well, I’m incapable of doing better next time.” So, just catching how harsh we are on ourselves sometimes, and saying, “Well, how do I talk to myself the same way I’d talk to a friend again?” you do self-compassion. If you end up shaming yourself, remind yourself, “No, I just messed up and that’s okay. I’m capable of doing better next time.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if we’re uncomfortable being alone and with silence, what do you recommend?

Amy Morin
So, this one takes some practice. So, sometimes people will say, “Oh, I love alone time,” and then I’ll say, “Well, what do you do when you’re alone?” and they’ll say, “Well, I text my friends or I’m scrolling through social media,” but they’re not really alone with their thoughts. They’re sort of consuming stuff, they’re listening to podcast episodes, they’re doing something. But this one is really about sitting alone with your thoughts, which can be uncomfortable. Most of us want to be productive. We want to be doing something. And the thought of being alone with our brains is scary.

So, one of the strategies for this one is to just schedule a date with yourself. It might be that you go to dinner, maybe you go watch a movie, maybe you go for a walk on the beach. Go do something all by yourself. And you don’t have the pressure to perform to make somebody else happy. You don’t have to make pleasant conversation. Just go do what you want to do, and make it more pleasant to spend time with yourself, and then that becomes less scary over time.

And people will say, “Well, gosh, this is hard,” or, “It’s embarrassing to do these things alone,” or, “I’m not comfortable,” but start small. Maybe it’s just taking a quick walk. Maybe it’s going somewhere to eat where you at least know somebody, the waitress or somebody there, but just go do these little small things. And as you become more comfortable with yourself, you get to be more comfortable with the things going on in your own brain.
Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And, finally, if we do feel the world owes us something, well, one, how do I identify that, because I imagine many people will deny that, “Oh, no, I don’t do that, Amy”? And, two, if we catch ourselves, in your description, what do we do about it?

Amy Morin
Yeah, I hear older people say, “Ah, the younger generation feels entitled.”

Pete Mockaitis
“They’re so entitled.”

Amy Morin
Right. But the truth is we’re all entitled sometimes, we think, “Well, geez, I deserve better than this,” and, of course, sometimes we do deserve better. You don’t deserve to be treated poorly by somebody, or you don’t deserve to be abused. But, on the other hand, yes, sometimes you have to wait in line a little while longer than you wanted, or sometimes life isn’t fair.

But when you catch yourself just leaving a little bit of a sense of entitlement, take a step back and just remind yourself, like why you’re keeping score because so many people will say, “Well, I’m a good person. I deserve better,” or, “I’m going to put all this good stuff out in the universe,” but then they’re really only doing it because they expect it to come back to them, like, “Oh, if I earn enough karma points, then good things will happen.”

So, just remember that whatever it is you have to offer the world isn’t a loan; it’s a gift. You have plenty of things to give the world, but if you always expect to get the exact amounts of things back that you’re putting out into the world, you’re not going to be happy. So, just knowing, it’s wonderful that you have gifts and talents and skills and things that you can give to the world but you’re not guaranteed that, just because you’re a nice person, good things are going to come your way.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. And I want to ask you, we had another podcast guest, Robert Glazer, do you know him?

Amy Morin
I know of him, yup.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, he quoted you in his email, so you got that going for you. And I really liked this a lot, you say, “The more you practice tolerating discomfort, the more confidence you’ll gain in your ability to accept new challenges.” Now, that sounds true. Do you have some awesome studies or data or research backing that up as well?

Amy Morin
Yeah. So, I guess when it comes to discomfort, we do in therapy something we teach people is distress tolerance skills. And so often, again, our default is to run from distress, but I see it all the time in my therapy office, when people learn to tolerate distress, the things that they thought were really scary, really aren’t that scary anymore.

So, distress tolerance skills can be anything from developing a mantra in your brain that you repeat over and over, so that when you start thinking, “Ah, I can’t handle this,” or sometimes it’s just about tolerating something a little longer than you think that you can. So often we’ll think, “Oh, I can’t stand this.” Well, you can, and you’ll train your brain to see things a little bit differently if you tolerate it a little bit longer than you think you can.

So, I love to run. One of my challenges is I try to run a six-minute mile every day. I can’t quite do it yet but I do it. I attempt to do it anyway. And it never fails, about the three-quarter mile mark, my brain tells me, “You can’t do this.” But I know my brain is lying, like I can keep running at that pace, and despite the fact, though, that my brain will keep telling me, “You’re too tired. Your lungs can’t hack it. Your legs are going to give out,” whatever it is, we go through this lengthy list of reasons why my brain wants me to quit because it’s uncomfortable to try to run.

But I know, I can trick my brain or I can prove to my brain that it’s wrong. And, slowly, over time, my brain now is like, “Okay, I know that you’re going to keep running, anyway but we’re going to keep trying these things on you,” and our brain will try to trick us and tell us that we can’t stand it, but we can. And the best strategy I know to do is to just prove your brain wrong. Know that your brain will underestimate you, it will tell you that you’re not capable, you’re not competent, but when it tells you that, just say, “Okay, challenge accepted,” and push yourself a little harder and see what happens.

And over time, you can train your brain to see you as a little more competent, a little more capable, and that will give you the confidence to know, “Okay, I can handle being uncomfortable.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that could happen either through doing the thing that is unpleasant, either through physical exercise, running as you mentioned. I’ve actually been…I got on a Wim Hof kick, if you know this guy. I’ve been dunking my hands and face into ice water and, well, actually, it’s rather refreshing in and of itself but it also hurts and is unpleasant.

And so, that’s kind of the challenge, it’s like, “Oh, I really want to take my hand out of this ice water now.” It’s like, “Well, I will do that in 10 seconds.” And in so doing, I don’t have the data here, but I think that this is doing something good for me and the ability to tolerate discomfort and have confidence in my abilities. And so, I guess, Amy, I’m not crazy. Shoving my face and hands in ice water can be helpful in this way?

Amy Morin
Yeah. And that is right along the exact same theory, and that’s one thing that I have refused to do. I grew up in rural Maine where a lot of people don’t have running water. To be honest, there are still a lot of poverty there. My parents both grew up in extreme poverty and worked really hard to make sure that I had hot water. Like, I cannot do that to my parents, to then say, “Hey, guess what? I’m taking a cold shower for fun.” So, I don’t do that but it’s absolutely along the same lines, to say, “Okay, how do I put myself in an uncomfortable situation?” And then prove to myself that, “Yeah, this is uncomfortable but I can stand it.”

And then when you teach yourself, “I’m going to do this a little longer than I would like to,” it just teaches it, “Yeah, I can go out there and do hard things. And although it’s uncomfortable, it’s not the end of the world.”

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

Amy Morin
Gosh, no, I think you’ve covered so much about mental strength. I appreciate that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. All right. Well, then can you start with a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Amy Morin
So, something my mother always used to tell me was, “Never let your morals get in the way of doing what’s right.” She didn’t make that quote up but I’m not sure who said it, but it’s something I remind myself quite often. There’s plenty of things out there, sometimes it may not be what I think is the moral decision but then when you really stop and think about it, you think, “No, but this is the right thing to do.”

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

Amy Morin
I think one of my favorite studies is the one where they took a look at older men who were like in their 80s, and they decided to rewind the clock. Most of these men had some physical health issues, maybe some cognitive decline, but what you’d expect from elderly men. And they decided to put them in a situation where they pretended like it was back in like 1950, back when they’d still have been vibrant men in their 40s and physically capable, and they made their surroundings looked like it was 1950.

And they found that, by doing that, some of these men started to stand up straighter, their health got better, their mental health improved, their cognitive abilities improved, simply because they thought this is how they were supposed to be. And I guess what I take away from that study is sometimes we think, okay, whether it’s about aging, or it’s about a person with a certain illness or ailment, or whatever it is, we have this notion of, “This is how I should be when I’m 40. This is how I should be if I have high cholesterol or some physical health issue,” but it’s really our minds that make all of those things happen.

And so, if we can just remind ourselves, “Well, if I want to behave like the person I want to become, I want to be a vibrant healthy younger person,” or, “I want to be somebody who’s happy and full of life. I want to be a confident person,” act like that person now and you could become it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Amy Morin
My favorite recent book is The Gift written by Edith Eger, she’s a Holocaust survivor.

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

Amy Morin
One of the things I do that still probably helps me the most is I keep a paper calendar so I can have it in front of me, and so I can look at dates and things going on, and still writing down lists and having that with me at all times instead of just relying on technology. It helps me feel better.

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

Amy Morin
I would say running every day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that people quote back to you often, they re-tweet, they Kindle book highlight, it’s the Amy original they can’t resist?

Amy Morin
Yeah, I think I said something to the effect of whomever said time heals everything lied to us. It’s what you do with your time that matters.

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

Amy Morin
My website AmyMorinLCSW.com.

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

Amy Morin
I would say set a goal this week and challenge yourself to do it, and then check in and see what happened, and what can you learn from it, and ask yourself, “What did I do to become mentally stronger this week?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amy, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success and mental strength.

Amy Morin
Thank you. I appreciate it.