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794: How to Get Comfortable with Discomfort with Sterling Hawkins

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Sterling Hawkins shows you how to turn discomfort into fuel for transformative change.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we need to hunt discomfort   
  2. Why you need your own “street gang”
  3. What to do when you feel like quitting

About Sterling

Sterling Hawkins is an internationally recognized entrepreneur, motivational leader, and public speaker. His 2019 TED Talk, “Discomfort is Necessary for Innovation,” has been viewed more than 100,000 times. 

Sterling serves as CEO and founder of the Sterling Hawkins Group, a research, training and development company focused on human and organizational growth. He has been seen in publications like Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, The New York Times and Forbes. Based in Colorado, Sterling is a proud uncle of three and a passionate adventurer that can often be found skydiving, climbing mountains, shark diving or even trekking the Sahara. 

Resources Mentioned

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Sterling Hawkins Interview Transcript

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

Sterling Hawkins
Thanks for having me on, Pete. Good to see you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you, too. Well, I’m fired up to talk about your book Hunting Discomfort: How to Get Breakthrough Results in Life and Business No Matter What.  But it looks like you’ve been doing some discomfort hunting yourself with skydiving, shark diving, mountain climbing. Can you open us up with a thrilling tale? I’m wondering how close you come to dying, basically.

Sterling Hawkins
Probably too close. I think one of my favorite stories is, a couple of years ago, my sister wanted to go skydiving for her birthday. And, of course, everybody guilt-trips me, and they’re like, “Sterling, you’re the No Matter What guy, you have to do it,” which I’ve got a lot to say about. It’s a separate subject. But, anyways, we go skydiving. And have you ever been skydiving before, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
I have. I loved it.

Sterling Hawkins
It was terrifying. Not so much the skydiving part but like the 15 things you have to sign, saying if you hit the ground wrong, it’s not their fault. Did you do this?

Pete Mockaitis
I signed some sort of release. I don’t remember the details.

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah, there were so many of them, like it just got me more and more hyped up, and we’re getting on a plane, and it’s a rickety old plane that I’m sure is not really built for much flying, at least not these days. And we get up there and once we jumped out of the plane, it was just bliss, one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The discomfort leading up to it, though, was a challenge. It was a hard part. And some research I’ve found, after the fact, I realized I was in more danger driving there, a bee sting, a lightning strike, than actually jumping out of a plane. And I realized in that jump that we’re not always properly oriented to discomfort. And when we can line ourselves up in a way to use it, great results come, incredible skydiving jumps and also in our life and business.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s talk about hunting discomfort. And, first things first, the goal of hunting discomfort is not so much to kill it but rather to seek it out. Is that fair to say?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, it’s funny, the thing that I get from most people is, “Sterling, you got to look at my bank account, my business, my relationships, like all these things. I don’t need to hunt discomfort. I’m surrounded by it.” And my answer, Pete, is always the same, it’s, “Oh, you mean you’re living with discomfort. You’re not hunting it.” Because when we hunt it, we maybe aren’t killing it, per se, but we’re free from it forever.

Not circumstantially free, not based on the amount of money in your bank account, or a special job, or certain relationships, but based only within yourself. And it’s the only kind of true freedom there is. We just have to hunt the discomfort that’s in the way of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Intriguing. Well, so, tell us, in the course of putting together these thoughts, any particularly shocking discoveries you’ve made along the way?

Sterling Hawkins
Yes. So, I’ve been doing this in some shape or form for about a decade, and I came across this research just a couple of years ago, in writing my book actually. I was looking at all kinds of research, and I found something out of the University of Michigan that blew me away. Now, they were studying discomfort of varying sorts: physical discomfort, like somebody broke a limb; emotional discomfort, somebody lost a job, or perhaps broke up with a loved one; mental discomfort. Like, they were looking at all these kinds of discomfort as they were analyzing somebody’s brain and body.

And what they found is that it didn’t matter what kind of discomfort somebody was going through. Our brain and body process them almost identically, so much so you can take acetaminophen for emotional pain, believe it or not. Crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
And it helps?

Sterling Hawkins
Supposedly. Now, that’s not like a bio-hack from Sterling, by the way. I’m not a doctor. Like, all the disclaimers, I’m not suggesting you do that. But the powerful piece is if you take the next step, you say, “You know what, if how we meet discomfort is the same anywhere, how we can deal with it, we can grow our capacity to deal with it everywhere.” It turns out it’s a muscle we can build. You go to the gym to build your biceps, and you want to grow your resiliency, your ability to create breakout growth, well, you hunt discomfort. There’s just no other way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I think about the gym metaphor, you have some sort of a program. You have a stress, and then you have rest, and then you have adaptation. Tell us, how do we think about programmatizing our discomfort hunt versus the folks who say, “Hey, I’ve got all kinds of discomfort foisted upon me. Like, here’s your barbell. Ahh”?

Sterling Hawkins
Right. Yeah. Well, mostly what people are doing with discomfort is they’re avoiding it or they’re surviving it. They’re not using it as a feedback mechanism to change, to adjust, and to grow. And I think that’s one of the major missteps that many of us make, is when we externalize the problem, and say, “Well, we didn’t achieve our goal. We didn’t achieve X because we didn’t have enough money, we didn’t have enough time,” “I’m not old enough,” “I’m too old,” “I don’t have the right partner,” “I don’t have the right leadership.”

We rob ourselves of the ability to take that discomfort, that feedback, even that potentially failure, and use it to change and grow ourselves. And so, exactly as you pointed out, when you look at discomfort through the lens of, “Hey, this is here to help me. This is a feedback mechanism. I can use this to not just change how I act but change who I am and adjust who I am based on the results that I want to achieve.” Then it becomes hugely powerful.

Now, there is such a thing as too much discomfort, and there’s a framework that is best to work through because, I don’t know, one of the things that used to scare me most is public speaking. And if you were to throw me onto a stage back in the day without any framework or structure or support system, I’d probably would’ve collapsed.

But when you want to have a commitment of, “I want to achieve this. I want to be successful in my public speaking,” for example, and you’ve got people around you that are going to support you on that journey, and especially pick you up when you fall down, then it becomes much more feasible to move through and improve. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, sure. Okay. Could you bring it to light with a few examples in terms of instead of avoiding or just enduring hunting and how that’s been helpful for real-life folks who went out and made that mindset shift and saw cool results?

Sterling Hawkins
Absolutely. One of my favorite stories is from our No Matter What community. The No Matter What community is a group of people that we put together that have joined us on declaring big goals, big visions for themselves, for their communities, their family, their business, and they’re willing to move through the discomfort to achieve it.

And this one gentleman joined us a couple of years ago upon losing his really nice somewhat cushy corporate job during the beginning of the pandemic. It was a tough time for many, myself included, and especially him. He’s got his family to support. Now, what he could’ve done is just applied for another job and try to make ends meet but he didn’t just do that.

He was walking through some side neighborhood in the suburbs of New York, and he stumbled into a tattoo parlor. And one of the important things in the No Matter What system, the framework that we teach people to grow through is get a tattoo, commit so deeply, there’s no going back. Now, I don’t mean that literally, but Emmanuel took it as such, walked into a tattoo parlor, got the name of the business he wanted to start tattooed on his left bicep.

I don’t know how he explained that to his wife when he got home, but it left him working towards building his own business in a way that he probably, otherwise, would’ve shied away from. Been worried about, waiting for the right time to make sure his bank account was properly padded before he started it.

And today, he just texted me a couple of weeks ago, and he says, “Sterling, I can’t thank you enough. I’m a testimonial for life, but, really, what I have here is an eight-figure business in a matter of 18 months.” So, when you go into that discomfort and you commit to things on the other side, it produces remarkable results, things that we can’t even see from where we sit today.

Pete Mockaitis
Impressive. All right. So, then what are the steps here in terms of making that happen?

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. So, the first, I think, is one of the more challenging, which is you’ve got to be willing to see reality clearly. Not the reality that we necessarily see with our two eyes, although that’s important, but we’ve got to be willing to question our values, ethics, beliefs, ways of thinking, being, and acting that might not be perfectly correlated with reality. It’s just like my experience with skydiving.

The chances of me dying were very, very slim but my experience of fear and failure were massive. And as we can come to terms or reconcile what’s actually dangerous from what is merely discomfort, we can change one of three things: either ourselves, how we see others, and how we see the world. And when we change that view, the perspective, those beliefs, it will naturally change our actions and then give rise to new results. So, that’s the first step.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share an example of that in practice in terms of someone who made the shift and it was cool?

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. Well, I think a personal story might fit in well here because it’s been dramatic for me, Emmanuel and for many, but I was serious. Like, one of the things that scared me most was speaking in public. And it wasn’t just speaking in public, it was a lot of self-doubt and fear of exposure, two of the major discomforts that stop many of us as humans, me especially.

And I had this discomfort, in a large part, to do with the fact that I’ve been hugely successful early in my career. My father and I started this company, sold it to a group in Silicon Valley where we raised over $550 million in part of this collective in what was kind of the Apple Pay, before Apple Pay, multibillion-dollar valuation, like, “I think I’ve got it made.” It wasn’t discomfort at all. There’s all comfort in certainty.

And I really thought I had it all figured out until the housing market collapsed and the investment dried up. And it was like playing out a sad country song of a story where, no longer do I have a job. Eventually, I ran out of cash. I go from this big, beautiful penthouse in downtown San Francisco to my parents’ house. And it even got so bad, my girlfriend broke up with me. It was like one thing after another. And I was suffering from a lot of self-doubt, a lot of fear of exposure, people seeing me for what I really was, which I thought was not nearly enough, especially having all that success early on.

And what I did is applied to speak at this conference in Singapore because I remembered this thing my mom said to me when I was a kid, she said, “The way out is through.” And I thought, “Okay. Well, if I want to change the situation, I want to transform my business and my life, I need to go through the things that scare me most.”

So, I applied to speak at this conference in Singapore, and practiced incessantly. My poor sister, I dragged her into it and practiced in front of her probably hundreds if not thousands of times, and as part of that process, had to give up some of the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs I had about myself and what I was capable of.

And, eventually, I did go on to the stage, I gave the speech. Good thing I practiced because I think I blacked out, and I get off the stage, and the conference director. I think I bombed, Pete, so I’m, like, covering my eyes, tried to just sneak out of the room, and he catches up with me, and he goes, “Sterling, that’s the best talk I’ve seen in my 17 years of doing this.”

To this day, I don’t think he was in the same talk I was in. I think it was just like a nice thing he wanted to say to me. And he did go on to put me in touch with all of his conference director friends, and I was like, “Ah, my mom was right. The way out is through,” and the way through is giving up some of the things that you hold true about yourself. Whether they’re true or not, if you can let go of them, there’s new things that can arise on the other side.

Pete Mockaitis
And how do you articulate, when you talk about engaging what’s true and real, how would you articulate your belief prior versus post in that moment?

Sterling Hawkins
So, prior, it was, “I am incapable of speaking in public.” And I had that all too common feeling that anybody that’s afraid of speaking in public probably knows, where you get really hot, the world starts to spin, and I thought that’s just the way that it was. I thought I was that way and there was no other option for me. I was just one of the many that would rather be giving the eulogy than in the coffin. Thank you, Seinfeld, for that reference.

And in going through that thing, and standing on the stage, like, yes, I experienced some of the feelings of self-doubt and worry and fear and all the things that I was expecting. But I proved to myself, importantly proved to myself that they didn’t have to stop me from giving a successful speech. So, afterwards, sure, I might continue to be scared.

In fact, I continued to be scared for some time afterwards, but I started to let go of that belief that I was a certain way, I was afraid to speak in public, and started to embrace the idea that I can, not only can I speak in public, but I do and I do it successfully.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Thank you. Okay, that’s our first step.

Sterling Hawkins
Of course. That’s the first step.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s our second step?

Sterling Hawkins
The second, we pointed to a little bit with that story of Emmanuel but self-doubt does get in the way of many of us. And when we commit with that second step of getting a tattoo, commit so deeply there’s on going back, it calls us forward through any discomfort, through any fear that might be in the way. Now, I’m not suggesting you have to get a real tattoo, like Emmanuel, although that’s an option. A surprising number of people from the No Matter What community have done that. But you do need something that’s going to call you forward when everything inside you is telling you to stop.

And you can do that in a couple of different ways. Like, sure, you could get a physical tattoo, but you might just tell a friend or a significant other. You might commit to them, and say, “Hey, I’m going to do X by certain amount of time that goes by,” and then have them call you on it. You could sign a legal agreement, you could put an amount of money on the line that’s meaningful to you, that’s going to bring you forward. You’re looking for ways to put yourself on the line that are going to, again, kind of call you into action when it doesn’t feel so good, where the commitment is stronger than the feelings.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me more about signing a legal agreement. When it comes to the money game, I’ve heard of what’s like Stake8.com that facilitates that. And so, with a legal agreement, I guess in the course of doing business, like, sure, I’ve actually committed to a client or a partner, or to whomever, a particular result by a particular time. So, there’s that. I guess I’m wondering if it’s a goal that doesn’t so much…when I signed a legal agreement to complete a marathon, for example. Have you seen that go down and how did it work?

Sterling Hawkins
It wouldn’t necessarily be a legal agreement, but you could formalize a commitment to somebody that was important to you. And you could take it up a notch by, I don’t know, posting it on Facebook and sharing with everybody you know on social media that, “Hey, I’m committed to running this marathon.” And then those mornings when you just don’t feel like getting up and training, that idea that everybody is expecting you to run this race is going to be a tattoo of sorts that’s going to help you move forward. It’s not going to feel good but it is going to help support you into moving into action.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful.

Sterling Hawkins
So, legal agreements are great for business purposes but I think it’s really the commitment that we make inside of ourselves that’s more important, and it’s the action of sharing it with others where it becomes much more powerful, whether it’s on a legal document or written down somewhere. I do suggest that, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. I’m thinking about the research on commitment devices and the legendary Ulysses or Odysseus, like, “I want to hear the siren song but I hear that’s dangerous, so strap me up so there’s no way out.”

Sterling Hawkins
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, “Burn the boat, like we can’t retreat. There’s nothing else.” Any other creative ways to lock that commitment in hard?

Sterling Hawkins
You can do it with consequence. If you do do something, you get a certain reward, or if you don’t do something, you lose something. One of my friends, he had some trouble making it to the gym every morning, so he committed with consequence, and said, “Every morning, of the five days a week that I’m committed to going to the gym, if I don’t, I’m going to donate $100 to my favorite charity.”

Now, sure, a couple mornings he didn’t make it, but that $100 going out of his bank account starts to weigh on you the more often you miss on that commitment, and it did really work. He lost something like 25 pounds from that alone.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny. And I am such a master of rationalizing, I’m like, “You know what, maybe I did need to do some more support of that charity,” like after the fact.

Sterling Hawkins
Well, I had another friend, a mentor of mine actually, his name is Kirkland Tibbels, phenomenal guy, runs a group called Influential U. But he, when looking at commitments, suffered from some of the same things, so he said, “I’m going to donate to the political party that I hate every time I don’t fulfill on my commitments,” so you can work it that way too.

Pete Mockaitis
I was also thinking about just straight up torching the money, although I guess that’s technically illegal in the United States. Fun fact, that’s against the law. But I think it may be effective.

Sterling Hawkins
It could be. You could give it to a friend or you could give it to somebody that you don’t really want to give it to, but you are looking for ways that are going to call you into action, to your point. Like, you don’t want it to be something that you really want to give money to all the time, at least in the amounts that you’re going to be giving it. You want it to weigh heavily enough on you that you’re going to do the action. The point is not to make the payoff.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. I’m also thinking about how we had Maneesh Sethi on the show, and he created a device called the Pavlok. Have you heard of this?

Sterling Hawkins
I have. It shocks you when you don’t do whatever the thing is, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Of course, you still have to push the button to do the shock. So, I guess you give permission to a friend or a family member to engage.

Sterling Hawkins
That reminds of the original Ghostbusters, the very beginning, where he’s shocking the woman when they’re reading cards. Do you remember that?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’m afraid I don’t. Refresh all of our memories, Sterling.

Sterling Hawkins
Old Ghostbusters reference, yeah. Well, in the beginning of Ghostbusters, they’re, I think, working on mindreading or something crazy like that. And he’s showing the backside of a card and asking this woman to guess what it is. And every time she gets it wrong, he shocks her. Supposedly, that’s supposed to be some negative reinforcement to make her better at mindreading but it doesn’t work that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, duly noted for the aspiring mind-readers.

Sterling Hawkins
Right. Right. Exactly. It is tough to make a commitment like that. And I think that self-accountability is fantastic to maintain the status quo. If you’re reliable to write one blog a week, or to make five cold calls, or to run two miles every single day, you probably don’t need to commit to somebody or something that you’re going to continue to do that.

But if you’re looking to grow in any kind of meaningful way, you need outside accountability, you need an outside commitment to call you forward because everything inside of you is going to tell you, “Stop. This doesn’t make sense,” you’re going to rationalize your way out of it. You really need people on your side to help. And that’s the third step of the No Matter What system, which is I call it build a street gang, not because I look anything like somebody that belongs in a gang, by the way. I think the best I did was Boy Scouts when I was 15.

But I call it building street gang for a reason. I’m not talking about a personal board of directors, I’m not talking about friends or spouse, although your street gang can be comprised of those people. But you’re looking for people that can go toe-to-toe with you and are really going to hold you accountable for what you said you were going to do.

Now, that’s the most important function of your street gang, being that accountability partner. Research shows that when you’re personally accountable to somebody on a specific day and time for a specific thing, you’re not 70%, 80%, 90% more likely to achieve your goal. You’re 95% more likely to achieve it. It’s almost like if we actually want to achieve anything, we better be personally accountable because it’s going to help us there.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to building the street gang, how do you recommend doing the recruiting?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, you’re looking for people that have four main functions. One is the accountability. You need somebody that’s going to be strong enough, again, to go toe-to-toe with you, especially when it doesn’t feel good. You want this person to be more committed to your growth and your success and your vision than they are to your feelings.

That’s not to say that you’re going to achieve everything every time but they are going to take a really hard look with you as to why you didn’t achieve what it was that you said. Was it an action? Did you take no actions? Was there a mistake? Did you account for something wrong? Did you maybe see reality incorrectly? And they’re going to work with you to figure out how to achieve that thing at a very, very heavy accountability level. So, that’s one.

The second piece is you need some kind of inspiration, somebody or something that’s going to light the fire in you about why you’re here, what your purpose is. To quote Simon Sinek, like, “What is your why? And how are they going to bring you through that or light that fire in you?” You then need some level of mentorship, somebody that’s got some expertise in the area that you’re looking to grow in, and they can teach you the specifics or specialized knowledge of how to achieve whatever that might be. They might also put you in touch with people. Like, there’s somebody that’s in the role, going the direction of what you want to be yourself.

And the fourth, which I find highly underrated in a lot of business cultures, but I do see it in the most high-performing, is love, not in a romantic sense. Like, I’m not talking about find yourself a romantic partner, especially if you have one, fantastic. But at a human level, somebody that’s really going to love and support you through any downfalls that you might have.

Now, many people have those four roles kind of revolving in and around their life but it’s a matter of sitting down with them, maybe having coffee, a Zoom meeting, whatever it is, and formalizing that role, and asking them, “Hey, here’s what you meant to me, here’s the role in my street gang that I’d like you to play, and here’s what that might look like over time.” And when you sit down and formalize it like that, people can kind of rise to the occasion of the role that they’re supporting you in.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you share with someone their role as your lover, what are some of the sort of actions? Like, what is that person doing in terms of like regular conversations and as the process unfolds?

Sterling Hawkins
So, it could be as simple and straightforward as some encouragement to point out the successes that you’ve had even if you haven’t arrived where you want to arrive yet. They could be looking at what you’ve already achieved in your life, what you’ve already achieved on this particular trajectory. They’re going to remind you of all the great things about you that you have, that they accept, including the failures, and help you kind of come to terms with, “Oh, yeah, this failure, this misstep, or maybe just not having achieved the level of growth that I want to, it is okay.”

Now, that could be over coffee, it could be a lunch, or it could just be kind of sitting down with a friend on the couch. It’s more like the feeling of acceptance that you’re looking to throw out in the situation. And that could look a little bit differently depending on the people having those conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. So, after we’ve got the street gang, what’s next?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, of course, we all run into problems, obstacles, limits, challenges, like they are real. Sometimes there’s just not enough money or there’s not enough time. We do have to deal with the hard limits of the situations and circumstances that we’re in, and we need that four step, which I call flip it. and it’s looking for, “How can we use those obstacles, those roadblocks, those barriers? How can we use those things as the pathway to even greater results?”

It’s a very stock philosophy, the obstacle is the way. And as we can think differently about some of the things that maybe we’re sweeping under the rug, we’re embarrassed about, we try to get rid of those proverbial warts, the more we can embrace them and look to them as the source of our strength, it actually becomes the reason for your success, not the reason inhibiting you from achieving it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s go to some examples, like, “Hey, I don’t have enough time but, actually, that’s an enabler of success. So, I don’t have enough money but, actually, that’s handy. My boss is a jerk but, actually, that’s useful.” Can you give us some examples of how this plays out in practice?

Sterling Hawkins
Yes. So, I was lucky enough to give a TEDx Talk a couple of years ago with a gentleman whose name was William Hung from American Idol fame, if you remember him at all.

Pete Mockaitis
Was he also in “Arrested Development: Hung Jury”?

Sterling Hawkins
He’s not. No, this is the guy that sang Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” so badly that he became world famous.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, yes. Uh-huh.

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. So, with the rest of the world, I had seen him on TV, in the news networks, and everybody making fun of him as like not a great singer, which I guess, subjectively, he’s not. But in getting to know him a little bit, I started to see the human side of it and how challenging and hard that must’ve been when he had what felt like the entire world kind of breathing down on him, of, “You’re not a good singer. You messed up. You’re embarrassed. Like, what are you going to do with your life?”

And for a while, he said it was debilitating. He wasn’t sure where to go or what to do because he felt that he was really expressing his heart and what mattered to him. And maybe he wasn’t the greatest singer in the world but singing was important to him. And what he did is he embraced that “failure” that he had, and he said, “Okay. Well, this is how I sing. This is how I sing. Everybody in the world knows me. Why don’t I make the most of this?”

And so, he started singing and capitalizing on the fact that nobody thought he was a good singer. And not only did he create his own record deal, but he ended up on a stage in Vegas singing Ricky Martin. He has made countless dollars from all the records that he’s sold and all the places around the world that he’s traveled to and singing from the very thing that everybody told him he would fail at. So, I always find that a great example of the obstacle being the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And I couldn’t resist Googling while we’re talking about this. He was, indeed, in “Arrested Development” as a leader of the band.

Sterling Hawkins
Was he, really?

Pete Mockaitis
Hung Jury, which appears in mock trial.

Sterling Hawkins
I did not know. See, he’s ridden this thing in all the different ways he possibly could. I didn’t even know that, but that’s just another example of using this thing in all these different places.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I dig that. And, certainly, I guess, what is that they say, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”? He managed to take that, “Okay, I’ve got some notoriety.” Well, that is, in some ways, can be transformed into a positive asset. Any other examples that maybe the everyday professional can get behind?

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. So, I’ll give you a business example, and this is going to be like a big case study, but I think everybody will be able to personalize it for themselves. And it’s from the famous Richard Branson, Virgin fame. And in the ‘90s, he was CEO of Virgin Atlantic, the transatlantic airliner. And one of the things he was committed to doing in the early ‘90s was retrofitting all of his jets with the latest and greatest entertainment system. It was something like a £10-million proposition.

And anybody that recalls the early ‘90s, it was a tough economic time. And so, Richard, he wasn’t quite as famous as he is now, but a lot of people knew him for the showmanship, the success he’d had, everything else, and he was calling banks, he was calling lenders, he was even calling in favors, and he just couldn’t find the £10 million that were required to retrofit his planes, so he’s got a hard problem. Like, something that he literally cannot solve, at least in its current form.

But what he did is one of my favorite ways to flip it, which is he created himself a bigger problem. You’re thinking like, “I thought you’re crazy, Sterling. Now, I’m sure of it.” But hear me out. He said, “If I can’t find £10 million to retrofit my planes, what if I buy all new planes, a £4-billion proposition?”

So, he called Airbus up, and he said, “Listen, if I buy an entirely new fleet of planes from you, will you throw in the entertainment system and give me the financing necessary to buy them?” They said yes. Airbus, same thing. Virgin ended up with an entirely new fleet of planes, the cheapest planes that they’ve ever bought in the history of the company with the latest and greatest entertainment systems on board.

It was only because he couldn’t achieve his goal in the original way that he thought, that he started creating a bigger problem, and that solved not only getting all the latest and greatest entertainment, but gave him the newest jets they’ve ever bought at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. All right.

Sterling Hawkins
It blows me away, I’m like, “That is so smart.” Most of us aren’t buying new fleets of planes, but we’re confronted with budget issues all the time. I know I am, personally and professionally. And it helps sometimes to say, “Okay, if this were an order of magnitude bigger, how would I solve it then?” It opens up some new ways to achieve that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then what’s the next step?

Sterling Hawkins
So, the next and final step is to deal with the fact that no matter how much we plan, prepare, or predict, tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us at any level. And I think we lose sight of that with all the stock predictions, and weather predictions, and road conditions, and news, and everything else telling us what tomorrow is going to bring. Tomorrow is not promised, and we have to deal with that uncertainty in a very specific way.

The fifth step I call it surrender, not in terms of giving up. I’m not saying sit on the couch and watch Netflix and order a pizza, though there might be a time and place for that. I’m talking about actively and intentionally accepting what is exactly how it is. Carl Jung, arguably, like the father of modern psychology, he had this great quote that really stuck with me, he said, “We cannot change anything until we accept it.”

Condemnation about not having enough time, or enough money, or enough resources, condemnation about any of those things doesn’t liberate. It oppresses. And when we can surrender our view, the things that we’re upset about, resentful of, holding against other people, when we surrender those things, it frees us to achieve something brand new. And if we don’t surrender, it works the other way. It becomes an anchor holding us back.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, I’m curious, in the middle of all this, when the rubber meets the road and we just sure feel like quitting, how do you power through?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, so you’ve got a couple of components. You’ve got your commitments that are calling you forward when you want to give up. You’ve got your street gang that’s building your courage, your confidence, and your accountability. You’ve got some of these different ways to flip it and think about it. But that acceptance piece, for me, is the most challenging.

And I find one of the greatest ways to accept is what’s called the sacred pause, by really slowing down, by maybe turning off your phone or your computer for a couple of minutes, even better for a couple of hours, by not bringing that phone in bed with you, by really slowing down and intentionally start to accept what is.

And it’s not necessarily a fast process, but when you have some kind of practice where you’re intentionally doing that over time, it’s going to allow you to let go of that discomfort, the things that maybe you’ve been holding onto, or better said, holding you back, and let you rise in a new way.

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

Sterling Hawkins
I think that’s it. This system is designed to move you through growth. I’ve always been inspired by movies like Star Wars and so on, where you’ve got these heroes moving through these incredible journeys. And I think this is almost a system to move ourselves through that journey. It helps us step into the unknown, unknown of ourselves, unknown of our world, and realize something new for ourselves, realize something new about ourselves or about others or about the world that we can bring back. And that’s a true gift to the world, and that’s what I think real growth is.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Well, now can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Sterling Hawkins
It’s that quote I heard from my mom. It’s actually Robert Frost, “The way out is through.” The way out is through, to me, means you go through the things that you’re fearful of, scared of, and what you’re looking for is on the other side.

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

Sterling Hawkins
I found a study from Yale University, and it turns out, when you’re uncomfortable, you’re four times better at learning. You learn four times faster. It’s like a bio-hack to being better.

Pete Mockaitis
That is intriguing. So, when you say uncomfortable, there’s a variety of ways. So, if I’m just like cold, if I’m wearing a hair shirt, is there a precise form of discomfort we’re talking about?

Sterling Hawkins
No, we’re talking about what that University of Michigan study, like discomfort is discomfort – physical, mental, emotional, arguably, spiritual. So, as long as you’re in some level of discomfort that’s not debilitating, but has you kind of sit up and take notice, it could be a cold room, it could be sitting on a bed of nails, if you’re into that kind of thing, any kind of discomfort will trigger that kind of superpower of being four times better, faster, and smarter.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. All right. And how about a favorite book?

Sterling Hawkins
I have many of them. But as I was thinking about this, I think it’s got to be The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger.

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

Sterling Hawkins
This is probably an overused answer but I’m in love with Keynote, not only for giving presentations but I use it to map out some of my ideas, and kind of draw different maps of how some of these things are working inside of myself and inside of companies. And I find it something that I’m on, like, half my day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Sterling Hawkins
So, one of my, like, only habits is that every day I get up and I commit to doing at least one thing no matter what. My days look very different. I’m on the road a lot, giving keynotes, workshops, different places around the world, and every day I get up and it could be something different, it could be I’m going to call my mom today no matter what, or I’m going to meditate today no matter what.

It doesn’t really matter what it is but I find that when I’ve got one thing that I’ll do every day, regardless of the circumstances, it builds my capacity to get things done even when the world is thrown into chaos; COVID, you know. So, it’s something I use and I recommend it to a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect, resonate, gets highlighted a lot?

Sterling Hawkins
I think it’s that research from Carl Jung, “We cannot change anything until we accept it.” And like I said in the beginning, discomfort is not the point. I’m not suggesting everybody live a super uncomfortable life. But when you move into that discomfort, and as Carl Jung suggests, you accept it exactly how it is, that’s where growth comes from, and you grow your ability to deal with different kinds of discomforts, it’s not set, and it grows over time along with you.

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

Sterling Hawkins
Best thing to learn everything about me, the No Matter What community, my book, all that stuff at SterlingHawkins.com. All my social media is there. And one of the really cool things we started doing is sharing commitments of folks from the community up online, so you can check out what everybody else is up to, get inspired, and maybe even submit something yourself.

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

Sterling Hawkins
Final challenge, is find something that you’re uncomfortable with every single day and at least take a micro dose of it. Every time you do, it’s going to make you a little bit stronger and it’s going to grow that discomfort muscle for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sterling, thanks. It’s been a treat. I wish you much fun on the hunt.

Sterling Hawkins
Thank you, Pete. it’s been a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.

793: The Six Mind Shifts for Thriving at Work with Aliza Knox

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Aliza Knox breaks down the six critical shifts that help turn around an unpleasant work situation.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to stay enthusiastic in the face of work hardships 
  2. What to do when you feel stagnant
  3. How to engineer serendipity for your career 

About Aliza

Aliza built and led APAC businesses for Google, Twitter and Cloudflare. She is a BCG advisor, Forbes columnist, and board director. Called a “Kick Ass Woman Slaying the World of Tech”, Aliza wrote Don’t Quit Your Day Job, outlining 6 mindshifts you need to rise & thrive at work as part of  her commitment to empowering the next generation of leaders. She’s in the Top 100 Women in Tech, Singapore and was named IT Woman of the Year Asia, 2020. 

Resources Mentioned

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Aliza Knox Interview Transcript

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

Aliza Knox
Pete, thanks for having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate you’re waking up extra early for us in Singapore, and I understand that you celebrated becoming an Australian citizen in an interesting way. What’s the story here?

Aliza Knox
So, I moved to Australia in the late 1980s, loved it, and decided I wanted to become a citizen, I was eligible after a few years, and wanted to celebrate in a big way. As you probably know, converts are always more zealous than people born into things. And so, I went out with three friends to an indigenous Australian restaurant and did what I have called eating the coat of arms.

So, if you don’t know, the coat of arms in Australia has a kangaroo and an emu, so I thought that if I ingested them, I would become even more Australian. So, I started with a salad that had smoked emu on it and followed with a kangaroo steak.

Pete Mockaitis
And are these tasty items?

Aliza Knox
Not bad. Not bad. Not something I eat frequently but kangaroo steaks are generally marinated for a while because it could be a bit tough, but not anything vile to eat.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I’m intrigued. I liked just about every meat I’ve ever had, and I’ve never had those, so I’m intrigued.

Aliza Knox
Well, next time you come down under, you can probably get them.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, I’m excited to chat about some wisdom in your book Don’t Quit Your Day Job: The Six Mind Shifts You Need to Rise and Thrive at Work. Tell me, as you did your research, did you discover anything particularly surprising, counterintuitive, fascinating about people and quitting and their thought processes?

Aliza Knox
The book is written from the viewpoint of somebody who’s worked in corporate for over 40 years and does huge amounts of mentoring, counselling, talking to people who want help, so it’s really anecdotal.

So, there aren’t a lot of statistics but the one thing that I did find in doing a lot of reading is that even during the pandemic and all of this talk of The Great Reset, The Great Resignation, much of the reason for quitting is the same. So, certainly, there have been resignations now because of burnout, or because people have not been allowed to work from home, or it’s become more of a norm, or because, as inflation has come in, people are looking for higher salaries.

But, still, among the top two or three reasons for people leaving their jobs are “My manager isn’t invested in me,” or, “My company doesn’t value me.” And so, those have remained steadfast based on all the research I’d read from a variety of firms, including McKinsey and BCG.

Pete Mockaitis
And your own experience.

Aliza Knox
And my own experience, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds right to me. And so, I’m curious then, if one finds themselves in such a position where one or both of those are true, you’ve got some mind shifts you recommend. How do they go?

Aliza Knox
Okay, let me just back up and tell you the mind shifts are about having a long, healthy, thriving career and not necessarily, despite the title, never quitting a job. It’s some shifts on how to think about your career. I definitely think      that there are times you will want to leave. The title is a bit provocative in a time of   The Great Resignation but, to be clear, it doesn’t mean you should never quit, and I’m sure there are instances when you should.

But what I do think is that sometimes there is a lens through which people can see their career, which they don’t use, and those make up the mind shifts, or that lens is the combination of these mind shifts, and that’s why this book is for everybody, whether they’re in a job now or thinking about getting a job. And Kim Scott, who wrote Radical Candor, actually said on the back of the book, that it proves that mindset, not just passion, drives career success. And so, that’s why I think these mindsets are really important.

So, if you will, what I can do is go through each mindset briefly and give you an example. Will that be helpful?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, please.

Aliza Knox
Okay. It’ll take a little while but we can talk in between. So, the first mind shift is, “Go for both. Your work and your life are on the same team.” And what this means is move past the kind of traditional thinking of, “Oh, it’s my work or my life. I have to make a decision, and if one goes up, the other goes down.” That’s why, in particular, I really hate the term work-life balance because it sounds like a see-saw, like if one’s up, the other has got to be down. And I don’t think that’s the case at all.

I wrote an article in Forbes a couple months ago about a young journalist who graduated from Columbia, in one of the preeminent journalism schools in the US, and did what many people do, went to a small town where she could really cover meaty issues. She went to the South and she was covering things like chemicals in the water, very big deal issues, the kinds of things that get you promoted to larger and larger newspapers, maybe get you a Pulitzer, but that approach takes years of working your way up through smaller-town newspapers.

And she had grown up in New York, was raised by grandparents, and really felt the pull to be back near them, and couldn’t see how that was going to fit with this issue of needing to be in smaller areas and her long-term dream of working for The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or WaPo. And so, she eventually said, “I can’t make this decision, my career or my life, because my life needs to be in New York.

So, she did what she thought she had to do, gave up on the career part, and said, “Okay, I’m going for my life. I’m moving to New York.” And guess what, after not that long, even though she had taken a job that she thought was really fluffy, writing about the real estate industry, not serious journalism, not award-winning, she actually was able to work her way into a position where she’s now an editor at The Wall Street Journal.

She didn’t have to trade off my life or my work. She actually got both. And by focusing on what was really important to her, she was able to have both things, if you will. So, I think this “Your life and your work are on the same team,” you can do it, you can have it both is really an important lesson.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious, in that example, did the being in New York…? I mean, that was good for her life and it ended up being good for her work. I’m curious, is there a connection there in terms of, because of feeling connected and energized or inspired or rejuvenated with her family, that was a career-enabler or did she just kind of get lucky?

Aliza Knox
I don’t think it was either. I think she was observant. We could talk about serendipity later but I think she kept her eyes open for opportunities to move around. I’m sure it helped. I’m sure it helped energize her, that she was with her family, that she was doing something that was very important to her.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, what’s the next mind shift?

Aliza Knox
So, just before we move on, I do think it’s important to say in each mind shift in the book, I got four, five power perspectives and then action steps to take from each one. And in this particular one, there is another interesting point, which is that often people obsess about these choices. They ruminate and ruminate and kind of can’t move on, paralysis by analysis, “Which one should I do? How do I do it? What happens if I do each one?”

And I found that, generally, if you take a plunge and move on, that’s helpful, and you are usually not derailed by a single career choice. Whatever she would’ve done, she probably could’ve made it into a good long-term plan. And I have another story about a young woman named Emily Rubin, who, after college, took a job in San Francisco that she wasn’t sure about but it was kind of her only option.

She liked it in the beginning, then was really miserable. I thought she should probably stay a year just because that’s kind of the minimum time to really get to know a company and be able to tell people, “Hey, I did something.” But she was too unhappy, so here’s one where she quit her job. But, in doing so, she found a job she really likes at a mid-size consulting company called Huron, and she would not have been able to get that job without, even though it was limited, the prior experience at the startup.

So, it’s important, she made a decision, she just got on with it. And, while that decision didn’t seem wise in retrospect because you could look at it, and say, “Well, she made a mistake. She didn’t like that job.” But she did need a job, and that job propelled her to Huron. So, I think an action step for this section in this mind shift is if you’re thinking about a choice like this now, think about it as best you can, get some advice – we can talk about personal boards of directors later – get some perspective, and then take a plunge.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Aliza Knox
All right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, tell us about the next mind shift, “Stamina is a muscle. Build yours.”

Aliza Knox
Right. Well, I’m thinking about muscles, in particular. I went away for a few weeks, and, over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to go to a personal trainer in hopes of developing some muscles. And I’m telling you, I’m feeling my muscles right now. So, I think my other muscles, many of them are weaker than my stamina one.

But one of my favorite formulas that I came up with for the book, because I really believe it, is that stamina equals perseverance plus enthusiasm. I think it’s not just gritting it out, it’s not just grinding it out, and it is a superpower because, no matter how much you love your job, how much you love your career, how upbeat you are, how well you perform, I think you’re going to have bad days, tough times, obstacles, and stamina is what gets you through them.

So, an example that I go through, this one, not her real name, is a woman named Barbara who was at a startup, and I met her and she was really disconsolate, she said, “I’ve been head of sales here, and I’m being layered over. They’re bringing somebody in over me, and I’m in my mid-to-late 20s, I’ve done this, I’m going to move on. I have to leave because this is just too demeaning and too demoralizing.”

And I had met her partly because I know the person who was going to be brought in over her. And so, I said to her, “You know, I wonder if you should hang in there. This person who’s coming in is actually a really good guy. He’s well-known for leadership, he’s well-known for investing in people, you might want to give it a shot before you leave because, even though you’ll have a slightly lower title, and you feel like it’s a step down, I think he might actually really help you grow your career faster than you will if you keep jumping to places where you don’t have someone above you to guide you.”

And so, I’m sure not completely due to me, but she must’ve talked to a few people, and she decided to stick it out, she decided to exercise some stamina, hang in there. And, indeed, she was promoted two times working for this gentleman. The second time while on maternity leave, which shouldn’t be something I have to call out but I still think it’s important in this day and age because it doesn’t happen that often.

And, eventually, she left that company and she’s gone on after two jumps to be the CRO at another quite well-known startup, so she’s done really well. And I think by exerting that stamina and getting herself to think about staying, she really had a better outcome than she would’ve if she had quit her job at that time. So, I think this is a great example about using stamina, using patience, and using optimism to hang in there and test out things that you think might have made you want to quit.

Pete Mockaitis
And if we find that our perseverance and enthusiasm muscles are weak, how do we get them stronger?

Aliza Knox
Well, I think one very common step that is talked about a lot, especially if you ever read anything by Arianna Huffington, is to make some time for yourself that includes sleep. Sleep is really important to keeping up your energy and enthusiasm. And, indeed, for those of us who are aging, I keep reading that lack of sleep is one cause, long-term lack of sleep seems to be one cause of dementia. So, I’m sure most of the people listening to your podcast are not worrying about that yet, but it’s starting to be on my list of things to be concerned about. So, I definitely say sleep.

And, for me, personally, I go to the gym or exercise every day. And if you’re a high-energy person but you also need to vege, or remove some of the excess energy, or build up some if you’re a low-energy person, I really do find having one hour for myself every day to workout is important. And I think for people who get energy in other ways, by actually, if you’re more of an introvert, having time for yourself, having an hour every day that you protect and that is something you want to do is really critical to that. And that’s a better tradeoff than doing another hour of work, even in a really driven high-performance culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about the third mind shift, “Connection trumps tech savvy even in tech”?

Aliza Knox
Yes, this is really important because I think, again, during the pandemic and working for Silicon Valley firms, we tend to think that tech can solve everything, and I think it solves a lot. I think we have a lot of collaboration tools, we have a lot of devices, things that really help us. I listened to one of your podcasts where there was discussion about equipment to help you even meditate better. And I think there is a lot of technology out there that’s fantastic.

But human relationships are still really critical. And we see this over and over again back to, “How does my manager invest in me thinking about how I relate to people at work?” So, one anecdote about why they’re still important, I tell a story about Suzy Nicoletti, a real person who worked for me at Google and then Twitter, and is now the head of Asia for a startup called Yotpo.

She didn’t get promoted at Google at one stage when she really expected to. She was performing well, she was selling well, her clients liked her, and she sought some advice from a gentleman who she knew from the outside who’s quite a bit more senior, and she said, “I don’t understand this. Here’s all these things about what I’ve been doing. Why would I not get promoted?”

And he said, “Well, you know, I listened to you talk about your job a lot, and I can tell that you’re great about it, and that you really like it, and that your clients like you and you’re enthusiastic but one of the things is you talk about yourself and your clients. You don’t talk about the team. You don’t talk about the support you’re getting.”

“If I were your boss, I might worry even though I know you personally and you’re not like this. I might worry that you’re not really a team player. I might worry about putting you in charge of a bunch of people because you’re not narcissistic but you’re coming across almost as if that might be the case. Why don’t you think a little bit more about in your discussions and in your actions working with a team, like, I know that you’re doing it, but I think that you could emphasize it some more.”

And she went ahead and did that, and she got promoted the next time. And I, actually, since had a chance to talk to her boss at the time, and that was precisely the issue. And so, Suzy was able to get some outside perspective on what was going on. And I think that it’s really important – and we can talk about it later if you like – that you create a personal board of directors, that you have some outside perspective on your career so people can maybe give you insights that you might not be getting directly at work on what’s going on and what you might need to do.

And in that case, what was really important to her, in terms of human relationships, is having a sounding board, an effective sounding board, with people who know you outside of your job.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And what’s powerful about that story is that that person actually provided some useful actionable wisdom as opposed to, “Oh, that’s bull. I can’t believe they did that to you. You’re so amazing.” That was really cool of him.

Aliza Knox
That’s why, like I think friends are great sounding boards and probably part of your moral support group. And sometimes if your friends are people with lots more experience or really different experience and have great perspective, then they might be on your board of directors. But, you’re absolutely right, I think that, “Yeah, that’s bull,” and “You’re fantastic,” we all need that for moral support, and especially if we’re beginning to get things like impostor syndrome, but they’re not necessarily all that effective in the “Don’t quit your day job,” really understanding how to build your career aspect of life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And can we hear about the next mind shifts?

Aliza Knox
Sure, “You’re in a relationship with your career. Nurture it.” So, what’s interesting to me, most of us probably have been in a relationship with somebody, or want to be in a relationship with somebody, or are thinking about being in a relationship with somebody, and all the reading I’ve ever done about that, I’m certainly no expert, and, again, not a psychologist, but it says, “Don’t put all your expectations on your partner. Don’t expect your spouse, husband, wife, partner, companion, to fulfill all your needs. You’ve got to have outside stuff.”

And I, personally, have been married for almost 30 years, and I have a great husband, but I don’t do everything with him, and I have lots of outside sources of things that keep me interested, and the same for him. But somehow, at least in the time I’ve been working, we’ve come to this point where there’s a lot of expectations that our career will fulfill all our passions. It kind of started out with, “Hey, I’ve got to work to pay the mortgage, or pay the rent, and feed my kids, get some clothes.” Then, careers were supposed to become rewarding and fulfilling, and I think that’s entirely possible.

But then we got to a stage where it’s like career should fulfill all your passions, and I think that’s a really high bar and maybe not possible for everybody. I went out to lunch recently with a professor who’s an avid equestrian, and I guess it’s possible to have a career in horseback riding. I don’t really know. I’ve never investigated it. I think you can be a jockey. I know that there’s a lot of great nonprofits on like riding with the disabled, so maybe there’s a career there, but maybe there aren’t a lot.

And so, what this guy does, he also really likes teaching. He’s got a great career as a professor, he’s picked a career where he has summers off and long winter breaks, and he manages his finances so that he can have a couple horses, and during these long breaks, be places where he’s in a rural area and ride all the time. And then he’s also living somewhere where, early in the morning or late at night, because he’s not required to teach at those hours, he can ride, and he doesn’t have a commute.

So, he’s managed to say, “Okay, there are things I care about,” and, again, back to what you said earlier, Pete, “that give me energy, that also help in the other part of my life,” and so he’s managed his career to do both.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And it is a nice paradigm shift to go away from, “My career needs to be my passion and fill, and tick every one of those boxes to my choice of career can support my passions.” And I think that that’s an important consideration as you’re looking at opportunities, in terms of, “I don’t care to be in the midst of hustle-bustle urgency, and I really don’t think I would flourish in, like, deal environments, either like real estate deals or Wall Street IPO deals.”

Because it seems like whenever you’re connected there, whether you’re doing strategy consulting for the private equity firm who’s doing the deal, or you’re a lawyer who’s supporting it, or you’re the banker who’s got some funds, it’s like nutty. It just seems like there’s no way around it. It’s nutty, late nights, and, “Answer your phone and…” my phone defaults to do not disturb, like always. So, I know I would not flourish in such an environment and so I’ve chosen kind of the opposite of that with regard to we’ve got a media schedule that goes sometime in the distance.

And then the horseback riding is a nice specific example of that, in terms of, “What’s important to you?” “Horseback riding.” “What’s necessary for that?” “We got some money, some time off, some home in a rural area.” And so, I like how that’s nice and concrete. And though if we think about our own emotional, relational needs with friends, hobbies, family, then that can also spark a nice little list of extra considerations that might’ve been totally outside your awareness before having considered this.

Aliza Knox
I think that’s right. There’s another story in the book about a professor named Marla Stone, who didn’t get a job she really wanted. So, she wasn’t doing things around her job, like the equestrian. She had a professorship in Rome, there was a more senior role in that same foundation and she applied for it, didn’t get it, came back to Los Angeles, and thought, “Well, I want to throw myself into something that I care about. I didn’t get that and I’m back to my old job.”

And she started working with the ACLU on the side, and went on their board, eventually became chairman of the Southern California Board of ACLU. The job in Rome came up again, she thought, “Oh, listen, it’s kind of my dream job. I’m going to apply one more time. I really want to do it.” And it turned out that by being on the board of the ACLU, she had more of the skills that they wanted. Originally, she was just a great academic, but they also wanted somebody who understood some aspects of running a business. And because she’d been a Chair, even though it was a nonprofit, she picked up some of the skills along the way.

She didn’t go to the ACLU in order to get this job in Rome. It had nothing to do with it. She did it to just say, “Hey, I want some other stuff out of my career. I didn’t get this one thing I wanted so I’m going to shift gears a little bit and make sure I have something else that’s really interesting to me that fulfills a passion.” And guess what, it came back and actually boosted her into a dream job.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Aliza Knox
Very cool.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Let’s hear about the fifth mind shift.

Aliza Knox
So, back to a word you’ve been using a lot, and one that I like. This one is “Get a move on. Use movement to stay energized and thrive.” And this is about movement keeping you energized, maximizing your value. Movement can be a promotion. It can be moving geographically. It can be moving laterally, which means moving from one role in a company to another to learn something else, like from sales to marketing, or from engineering to sales. It could be job crafting.

And it could, ultimately, be leaving your job, quitting and going to another job. So, I don’t think I’ve used any examples of men so far, so I’ll talk a little bit about a guy who I call Tim Liu in the book. It’s not his real name, but he was working for a company here in Singapore. He really liked the company and he liked his job, and he was doing well at it, but he felt stuck. There were no promotions available. There were no other jobs available. He didn’t want to move, he really wants to be in Singapore, and he really felt stagnated. He felt like he wasn’t learning.

So, he went and talked to other companies, I would call it job dating. He was just trying to see what else is out there, “Is there something else that really gets me going, that I’ll be excited about at another company?” and he didn’t find it. So, he went to his manager, and said, “Listen, I really like my job, I really like the company, but I’m stagnating here. I need to learn more. I need something.”

And, of course, that’s pretty good for a manager to hear, which is, “I can’t find something I prefer. I really want to stay here, but can you help me?” That is a lot better for a manager than to hear a good employee saying, “I feel stuck and I’m going to go,” and trying to save them. So, the manager said, “Yeah, what is it? What do you want to learn?” and they worked together. Tim really wanted to know more about, in his case, government relations and business development.

So, the manager helped him craft, add on some extra tasks, mixed with some different kinds of people in the firm to learn, and it re-energized Tim to hang out for longer. Eventually, there was room for him to get a promotion at that firm, and so he stayed. So, in this case, because he couldn’t get the movement that he wanted, he was able to ask for it, create it himself with the help of his team, and he’s saved, which was great for the firm.

There are lots of other ways to do it. I’ve got a good friend, who also felt like she was stagnating, and she’s moved from one country to another. Another young woman, Ling-Ling, who was in sales but loves social media, and so, even though she was in sales and mostly needed to be on the phone with clients, she spent a lot of time on LinkedIn building her profile, putting up lots of really insightful pithy comments, stories, small videos about what her firm was doing, and, eventually, she was so good at it that she was able to switch into a marketing job at her firm.

So, all those things were creating movement, and all these people are energized and thriving in their new roles. So, some have left, some have not, but, really, interesting ways as they sort of left their roles but none of those have left their firms.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s handy. And the sixth mind shift?

Aliza Knox
Okay, the sixth one, “Distant is the new diverse. Include the international working from home team.” So, this is one of my favorites because when the pandemic started, I bristled a little at the idea that, “Gosh, no one’s ever done this. Nobody’s ever worked from home. Nobody has ever run teams that are dispersed all over the world.” That’s kind of not true.

If you look at people who’ve been building Asia, or Latin America, or Europe, or the US for a headquarters in Korea, France, Brazil, they’ve often been in the situation where they’re trying to deal with a lot of people whom they never get to see in person, except for maybe a couple times a year. So, I call this removing the R from remote to try and make it emote.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Aliza Knox
And one of my favorite statistics from Gallup is that companies with engaged employees are 20% more profitable. If you keep employees close, if you keep them feeling good about the firm and feeling engaged, and it does also go back to having a manager who cares about you but not only, you really have a firm that does better, not just employees who are happy.

So, one of the things I’ve seen over time is that many companies, tech companies, I think, do this a lot, other companies, banks, pharmaceuticals, try to engage their employees by having global townhalls, or monthly or weekly video meetings where everybody can get on, and maybe leadership will talk about examples of great client wins in the firm, or do shoutouts to employees who’ve done great things or gone the extra mile.

And you’ll notice that companies tend to focus on things that happen in headquarters because that’s what the leaders hear first. But if you make the extra effort, as a leader, or even as somebody on the team to make sure this doesn’t happen, if it’s an American company, they might talk about GAP or MasterCard.

But what about if they think about Uniqlo in Japan, or China UnionPay in China where employees are doing something? Or, what about if they don’t just call out that Joe is doing a good job but remember to shout out that Mariabrisa, at Latin America, is doing a great job. So, that really helps bringing in the international or the work-from-home team.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And then, as we think about navigating our own jobs, how do you consider the working remotely versus in the headquarters or at the office in terms of career impact?

Aliza Knox
Yeah, I think that’s really good question. I think there’s a lot of literature that, “Hey, we’ve been really more efficient and effective during the pandemic, and it’s because we don’t have commutes, and we can just keep up all the personal relationships.” So, I’m a little bit skeptical on that. I think we have been efficient, and there probably are better work models. I’m not sure it means we should never meet in person.

I think what happened is that everybody sort of drew down on their social capital during the pandemic, and that the lack of face-to-face time hindered new relationships and, in some cases, weakened existing ones. We’re using these relationships we’ve already built but building new ones remotely is harder. So, I think a really good thing to do now is to focus on building back that social capital, and that could mean a couple things.

It could mean making some effort even if your company is working from home or working remotely to get out there in person if you’re in the same city, or if you travel a little bit, to meet some of the people you work with in person. I think another case, if it’s all remote, I have a good friend, who is in comms at Google, who says, “I don’t take a meeting. I make a friend.” So, just like what you and I did right before the beginning of this podcast, just chat a little bit about things to get to know you. You could do that. One of the things about Zoom, “We all get on it at 6:30, let’s start, let’s not waste any time, business, business, business. It’s 7:00, let’s get off.” Maybe.

But in a real meeting, people come in and not everybody enters at exactly 6:00, and somebody comes in with Doritos and shares them. There’s always that few minutes of kind of idle chitchat or maybe commiserating about the weather that are silly but that kind of start to build relationships. So, maybe you build that into Zoom.

And one strategy for individuals is to maybe build a personal visibility plan that takes into account the challenges of remote or hybrid work, and includes ways to remain visible and connected, like, you might decide to try to do a little more than was asked, or you could plan for some get-togethers with colleagues out of work, even virtual cocktails to help build back up social capital that’s been depleted.

Or, I think something good managers do and can do for their teams is to make sure that they’re talking to other people in the firm about you, and you can repay that favor so that you’ve visible. People know about you even if you’re not seeing them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Okay. Well, so some nice mind shifts that can change the way we think about career decisions and perhaps illuminate optimal paths that were previously just not even in our conscious awareness, so really valuable stuff. Let’s talk about serendipity because these mind shifts feel a bit – what’s the word – not quite the word programmatic. They’re principles to be considered versus serendipity, just kind of seems to happen. So, how do we think about finding and seizing serendipity?

Aliza Knox
So, serendipity, I’ve always thought of it as something originally thought of something that just happens, right? There’s that famous story about Kate Moss, who was an amazing model, being seen in an airport in Florida, someone coming up to her and saying, “Do you want to model? You’re gorgeous,” and then going on to being rich and famous. And I’m still waiting for that, frankly. I’m traveling next week, so if anybody wants to come to Cheney Airport and give me the same opportunity, I’m happy for that.

But I think of serendipity more as opportunity plus action. So, a small personal story, I think I might’ve mentioned to you, Pete, but I am now and what I would consider phase 3.0 of my career. So, if you think of life as software releases or your career, 1.0 for me was consulting and financial services, 2.0 was tech, 3.0 now I sit on boards, I’m writing, speaking, etc. But how did I get from 1.0 to 2.0?

Well, I was working at Visa and I, at that point, was living in the Bay Area and we were working on a deal with Google, which was in some really fairly stages in the early 2000s, and I happened to meet Vint Cerf, who was one of the real founders of the internet. And in this meeting, we discussed a possible joint venture, and I was responsible for what was going on, so I wrote a thank you note and the follow-up steps, and I thought about this, and I thought about it for a couple of weeks.

And I thought, “Wow, I just met this amazing person who knows all about the internet. I’m an internet newbie.” I’m using it for email, but other than that, I don’t know much. I’ve been in financial services for a long time, certainly haven’t mastered it. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully mastered anything, and I like it. But, gosh, there’s a lot going on. We’d already had the first dotcom boom and bust. There’s a lot going on in the world of the internet, and I know nothing about it. And I am curious and I would love to learn. So, would it be appropriate for me to write to this guy I’ve only met once and I met through my job? Is it too audacious?

So, I thought about it for a couple of weeks, and I thought, “Oh, come on, be bold. Take the step.” So, for my personal email, I went back to his work email, which I had, and said, “Hey, Vint, I would love to learn more about what’s going on in the world of the internet. And I know I’m a bit older than the people you’re hiring right now, and I don’t have any particularly relevant experience. Would Google or someone else talk to me?”

And I guess the worst thing that could’ve happened is he could’ve said, “Huh, I’m going to tell Visa that you’re coming after me and it’s so inappropriate,” but I figured he wouldn’t do that. And the second worst that could’ve happened, which would’ve been very disappointing but not life-shattering, would’ve been that he just didn’t write back at all. But you know what, he wrote back, and he said, “Okay, send me your resume. Let’s talk. This might be interesting.”

And that led to my talking to a number of people at Google and eventually going to work there. And it was so serendipitous, and, in fact…so, I wrote him a thank you note at the time, and then, 10 years later when I started at Cloudflare, which is an internet security and performance company and now a number of other things, I was watching some videos to get up to speed on how Cloudflare works, and because it’s built on a back of the structure of the internet, the infrastructure, there were videos with Vint Cerf in them.

And so, I saw him and I wrote him again, and I’m like, “Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, but here I am, 10 years later, still in tech, thanks to you,” and I got another email back. So, I would consider serendipity opportunity plus action. So, how do you seize that? And I’m sure there’s plenty of times, by the way, that I’ve missed it, but there’s been serendipity right in front of me and I haven’t gotten it, but that’s one where I did.

So, I thought, here’s the thing, you’ve got to be open. There is potential around us, make a habit for looking at unexpected opportunities. Listen to the people you meet and the conversations. What do they know that might be of interest to you? Do they know someone where you’ve been thinking about that career? Or, did you just hear that their firm is hiring? And even if it’s audacious, might you ask? Follow up.

If you hear a great talk, or you hear about a career path that you don’t know anything about, be audacious. Like, most of the time it’s not going to hurt you. Usually, the absolute worst thing that’s going to happen is you’re going not get a reply. Most people just aren’t going to go to the effort to write to your boss or tell somebody else…

Pete Mockaitis
“How dare you?”

Aliza Knox
Yeah, you know, “This person had the guts to talk to me.” Make the ask and make it specific. So, it’s not like, “Hey, Vint, do you think I could ever do something in the internet?” I just said, “Do you think I could talk to somebody at Google?” that was brazen but it was something he could do, like he works there, he knows someone there, and it wasn’t a very big deal to him when I think about it. I thought it was a big deal, like, he was working there, he can say to somebody else, “Hey, will you look at this resume and see?”

And then, I think the other really important thing to do is to pay it forward, and I tell people this over and over again. People are going to ask you for the same thing, and they’re going to ask you for inspiration and for advice, and make sure to pay it forward because you can help other people and I think it’s both fulfilling and who knows, I think there is karma in the world and it might come back to help you at some point.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, now let’s hear a bit about your favorite things. Could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Aliza Knox
So, my favorite quote is from Maya Angelou, which is, “My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”

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

Aliza Knox
Yes. So, I talked a little bit about job crafting, and there’s a really cool study by these guys Laker and Patel about how job crafting can make work more satisfying, that they wrote with MIT Sloan. I think they’re professors in England. And then there’s another one that Catalyst did, which is an organization that really promotes women in the workforce, and super relevant to the times we’re in now, and it’s called “The Power of Empathy in Times of Crisis and Beyond.” And, in fact, it was part of what I used when I wrote an article called “Is CEO now Chief Empathy Officer or should it be?”

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite book?

Aliza Knox
So, I know you’re a business podcast but I read fiction all the time, so my favorite book is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, who’s a physician, who’s also an author on the side. I don’t know how you can be that talented. And it’s a book that follows twin brothers born in Addis Ababa, and it’s about the coming of age of one of them and also the coming of age of Ethiopia out of colonialism, and I highly recommend it.

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

Aliza Knox
Yeah, there’s a tool that’s just out in beta that I’d gotten access to called OnLoop, and it’s a mobile-first feedback tool. I’d say it is to team development what Apple Watch is to fitness, so it’s feedback minus the recency bias. It captures in-moment reflections on yourself or feedback for colleagues, and it tags it, and it actually helps you. It compounds over time to reveal people’s superpowers and blind spots. It really helps with writing evaluations, which is something most people hate in performance evaluations, going back, trying to remember what they thought about colleagues or coworkers.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite habit?

Aliza Knox
Going to the gym or playing badminton.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite resonant nugget, something you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Aliza Knox
Yeah, I keep getting quoted back from, “I read your book. I especially love stamina equals perseverance plus enthusiasm.”

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

Aliza Knox
AlizaKnox.com, @AlizaKnox on Twitter, and Aliza Knox on LinkedIn. Fortunately, I have a pretty unusual name, A-L-I-Z-A K-N-O-X.

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

Aliza Knox
Yeah, if you don’t have one, go set up a personal board of directors. There’s a step-by-step on how to do it in my book, and I really think I regret not thinking about it and doing it earlier in my career. It would’ve helped a lot, and I see it helping people whom I mentor.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Aliza, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in this version of things.

Aliza Knox
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been fantastic to be on your show. I’ve not listened to all 700 plus podcasts, but I’m getting through them, and they’re great. I’m honored to be included.

789: How to Beat Stress, Stagnation, and Burnout with Alan Stein Jr.

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Alan Stein Jr. lays out the fundamental shifts that help sustain your game and build resilience in the face of stress, stagnation, and burnout

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to stop stress from overwhelming and controlling you 
  2. How to stay calm and in control in the face of stress
  3. How to identify and remedy stagnation 

About Alan

Alan Stein, Jr. is an experienced keynote speaker and author. At his core, he’s a performance coach with a passion for helping others change behaviors. He spent 15+ years working with the highest performing basketball players on the planet (including NBA superstars Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Kobe Bryant). Through his customized programs, he transfers his unique expertise to maximize both individual and organizational performance. 

Alan is a dynamic storyteller who delivers practical, actionable lessons that can be implemented immediately. He teaches proven principles on how to utilize the same approaches in business that elite athletes use to perform at a world-class level. 

His previous clients include American Express, Pepsi, Sabra, Starbucks, Charles Schwab, and Penn State Football, and many more. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

Alan Stein Jr. Interview Transcript

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
Oh, it’s so great to be with you again. I’ve been looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, I’m curious to hear, any particularly interesting new discoveries or lessons learned within the last couple of years or so since we spoke last?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Yeah, I would say a pretty long list of them, to be honest. And most of which, I think, were things that were heightened exponentially over the pandemic. I know, for me, personally, from a book-writing standpoint, I’m always trying to write the book that mirrors what I’m going through in my own life, and I’m always trying to write the book that I need to be reading myself. I find it part liberating and part therapeutic to kind of research and write about the things that I’m struggling with.

So, my most recent book is about stress, stagnation, and burnout because those are three areas that I’ve struggled with for most of my life and career, and I know that a lot of people found those things heightened during the pandemic.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about the book Sustain Your Game. What’s the big idea here?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, the big idea, I think the cornerstone of it is that stress, stagnation, and burnout are things that we have massive control and influence over, fighting against, that they’re not things that happen to us. They are things that we can actually help navigate away from if we handle them correctly. And those were some of the kinds of pivotal moments that I’ve had over the last couple of years because I think I’ve gone through most of my life feeling like stress is something that happens to me and is imposed on me. And I now have a much different perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, what’s the fresh perspective?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, so I’m a big fan of Eckhart Tolle, who’s, I guess for lack of a better term, a modern-day philosopher. And his definition of stress is the one that most resonated with me and kind of shifted my whole perspective. And Eckhart’s definition of stress is the desire for things to be different than they are in the present moment. And there was something about that I found very liberating and empowering because, ultimately, what I took away from that was stress is not caused by outside forces, stress is not caused by events, or circumstances, or what people say, or what people do.

Our stress is caused by our resistance to those things, or our perspective of those things, or how we internalize them. So, once that kind of clicked, and his definition, it’s not what’s going on. It’s my desire for what’s going on to be different is what’s actually stressing me out. And once that clicked with me, literally, I just saw the whole world differently now.

And, by all means, I’m not coming from a place of mastery, and I’m not sitting here pretending like I never feel stressed. But, now, when I do, I have the awareness to recognize that on some level, that’s a choice. And that if I would just stop resisting what is, that most of that stress would dissipate.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that is thought-provoking and eye-opening. So, nonetheless, some things we don’t want to be the way they are.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Oh, yeah, I’m glad that you highlighted that because, certainly, I don’t want you or your listeners to think I live in la-la land. And the way that I view it now, I still have my preferences, I still have opinions and ways that I’d like to see the world unfold. I just no longer expect that it’s the world’s job to conspire to make me happy, and it’s not the world or the universe’s job to make sure Alan Stein, Jr. gets all of his preferences.

So, now, when something occurs that’s not to my liking, or is not my preference, I just understand that’s part of the human condition. That’s kind of what we all signed up for to be here and I deal with it appropriately. And what I try to do is be more thoughtful in my response to what’s going on than to the event itself.

And, certainly, over the last couple of years, whether we’re talking about the pandemic or the political divide, there had been some incredibly emotionally charged things that have occurred over the last couple years in particular. And I still have my opinions and my preferences of those things but I no longer allow those things to dictate my perspective, and my mindset, and my attitude, and how I show up. And that, to me, is the big difference.

Before, when something happened that I didn’t like, I always felt like it was happening to me, and I was, in essence, an unconscious victim to the world around me. I now no longer allow myself to be the victim. I’ve taken those proverbial handcuffs off and just said, “Yeah, what just happened is not my preference, it’s not to my liking, but I’m going to be very thoughtful in choosing a response to this situation that actually moves me forward and helps me.” So, it shifted me from being a victim to feeling much more empowered.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really intriguing. And I’m thinking right now about airports when it comes to stress because, you mentioned you’re flying to Nashville shortly, and I’m thinking that you can have stressors big or small in terms of small, like, “Oh, my flight is delayed. That’s inconvenient. I guess I might have to cancel a lunch or dinner. I was planning on meeting someone on the other side, which is a bummer.”

And then I’m thinking of a buddy of mine recently told me a tale about how he was straight-up arrested for mistakenly taking a MacBook Air that looked just like his, and it’s like, “Oh, sorry. Oops,” “No, you’re coming with us,” and he spent a night in jail. So, wild story, and in that instance, he preferred that would be different alright on a whole nother level.

I guess that kind of gets my blood boiling in terms of, like in that instance, like he actually is a victim of an injustice before him. And so, I want your hot take here in terms of if the size of the stress is small versus medium versus big, does that change how you play the game in your mind?

Alan Stein, Jr.
I believe that it does, and one of the interesting parts of that, and just to go on record, it would be my preference that I’m not arrested at the airport, and it’d be my preference that my flights aren’t delayed either. Yeah, so I have nothing but empathy and compassion for him to go through such an ordeal. But the mindset portion of it, what you still need to say is, “Okay, this is…” and that’s an extreme case, “This is less than ideal that I’m being charged with this and I’m going to spend the night in jail.”

Pete Mockaitis
Less than ideal, that’s right.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Yeah, less than ideal. And let me certainly go on record saying there’s nothing easy about any of this. I don’t want to pretend for one second that if either of those scenarios happened to me, that I would just automatically be chipper and smile and act like everything is great. There is a distinction to make and there’s two ways to answer your question.

One is, so once this has already transpired, as awful as that scenario is, once he realizes, “All right, I’m already being charged and I’m going to spend the night in jail,” that now has become reality. That has now become fact. And no matter how angry he gets, ornery he gets, pissed off he gets, it’s not going to change the fact. So, the more upset he gets, all that’s doing is punishing himself. It’s not like, “Hey, if I throw a massive fit, they’re going to let me go home tonight.” It doesn’t change your situation.

So, what you need to try to do is say, “Okay, as awful as this is, what’s a response that can at least make this somewhat palatable or at least make this a little bit better?” Again, spending the night in jail in some random city for an honest mistake is pretty tragic, but you’re only punishing yourself if you choose to let it bend you all out of whack. And that’s just something you keep in the back of your mind.

The other part that I certainly want to make a distinction is I believe in feeling all emotions. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a good or a bad emotion. I think they’re all part of the human experience. Now, there’s emotions that we would probably prefer to have. I’m sure you and I would prefer to be joyous and elated instead of frustrated or disappointed, but they’re part of our emotional palate for a reason. So there’s nothing wrong with feeling emotions.

And, in fact, if I was arrested and had to spend the night in jail for mistakenly taking someone’s iPad, I would feel a wide range of emotions, from anger to frustration, to disappointment, to… I mean, you fill in the blank. But what we have to learn to do is not let how we feel dictate how we behave. I had a really good friend of mine that’s the mental performance coach for the San Francisco Giants in major league baseball, and he said something that affected me just as profoundly as Eckhart Tolle’s quote, and he said, “Our emotions are designed to inform us. They’re not designed to direct us.”

So, our emotions are kind of a litmus test to how we’re perceiving the world and how we’re feeling, but we have to be very careful in not letting them dictate our behavior or our decisions. So, back to this crazy scenario that your friend experienced, there’s nothing wrong with me being upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed that I’ve been arrested but I don’t want that to be how I behave. I certainly don’t want to be belligerent to the police officer. That could get me in even more trouble, spend multiple nights in jail.

And it’s one of those things that I’ve always believed that if you can kind of control your emotions to the point it doesn’t dictate your behavior and the way you show up, that’s one definition of mental toughness. You’re completely resilient when you say that, “No matter what goes on in the outer world, I’m not going to let it rattle me and dictate my inner world.” And that is not an easy place to get to, and I won’t pretend for one second that if I get arrested on my flight to Nashville tomorrow that I’ll handle it with the stoicism that I’m sharing with you right now, but that would be the goal.

And that’s where I’m trying to work to the point where I would be able to handle just about anything thrown at me with that type of stoic approach. Because, again, acting on your emotions and being belligerent and being upset is only going to make the situation worse. You think temporarily it’s going to make you feel better, but, ultimately, it’s only going to make it worse.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right in terms of if you say, “You know what, I gave that cop a piece of my mind. That felt so good.” Probably not. Regardless of the response, the doing it is not going to produce a catharsis. Well, just not to leave people hanging, there was a, I don’t know if you’d call a happy ending, but he did follow some of these principles in terms of he’s like, “Okay. Well, you know what, what do I have control over? In my mugshot, I’m going to look as friendly and kind and not guilty as possible. That’s what I’m going to do.”

And if they didn’t like that, they’re like, “No, you can’t smile. You can’t smile in your mugshot. Do it again. Do it again.” It’s like, “Okay, when I have an opportunity to make a call, I want to be really friendly and polite and professional,” and he managed to make like seven calls, like multiple lawyers and his wife and such.

And that was helpful because they gave him some good tips, and he said, “You know, I am in a jail cell with these people. But you know what? They have some knowledge, like, hey, so there’s a big bunch of bail companies I could call. Like, who’s best?” Like, “Oh, you should call these guys. They’re way faster than the other ones.”

And so, it still sucked a lot and it was costly with lawyers and all of that, but it didn’t wreck his life. It’s just a few thousand bucks and some crazy inconvenience, and he’s back on his feet.

Alan Stein, Jr.
And, at the very least, he’s got an incredible story to tell now.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And if you did let the emotions not just inform but direct and sort of rage and you’re not thinking clearly in terms of, “Oh, what wisdom might my fellow jail mates might have for me right now?” You’re just like, “This is such bull crap. I can’t believe…” if your brain is there, it’s not doing that helpful thinking for you.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Absolutely. And one other thing I’ve noticed, and I’m glad that it was somewhat of a happy story or happy ending, rather. Let’s use the less severe example that you gave, that your flight is delayed or your flight is canceled. Because of how much travel I do, I get to see this happen pretty regularly, and usually what happens, somebody feels so massively inconvenienced as if the entire airline was conspiring to ruin this one person’s day and, “We decided to delay this flight just because we wanted to make you angry.”

What they end up doing, they let their emotions get the best of them, and then they unload those emotions on someone that has nothing to do with it. Usually, the person that you’re unloading your disapproval on has nothing to do with what it is that you’re angry about. The person that’s working kind of behind the desk, they’re not responsible for your delayed flight. They have nothing to do with that.

So, now you’re unloading on somebody else that can’t…I mean, they’re not responsible for it. And then, if you think of just general human nature, how likely is this person going to be to bend over backwards to try to help you find a resolution when you’ve just unloaded all of your anger and frustration and disappointment on them?

I’ve had plenty of delayed and canceled flights, and I have always found that as disappointing and frustrating as that may be internally, whoever I speak with at the airline, I try and kill them with kindness. And the very first thing I say is, “I know you’re going to have a rough couple of hours dealing with all of these headaches. Just know how much empathy and compassion I have for you.”

“I know this isn’t ideal for any of us and I just really appreciate anything you can do to still get me home or to get me to wherever I’m trying to go,” and offer a genuine and authentic and warm smile, and a little compassion, and usually people will go out of their way to try and find a way to help me out, versus the person that’s just going to be belligerent and screaming curse words and act like the whole world is conspiring against them.

So, it goes back to, “Yeah, I’m frustrated that my flight is delayed, but what’s the thoughtful response that I can make in real time that will increase the chance that I’ll get on the next flight, or that they can book me somewhere else, or maybe they’ll offer me a free hotel room, or whatever?” So, yeah, the ultimate part of this is we only punish ourselves when we allow our emotions to overtake our behavior and the way we treat others. It’s not punishing anybody else. You’re just making your own life more miserable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, there’s a huge master key right there is just your mindset, your perspective, your philosophy there. Anything else we can do to build up the mental toughness and resilience in advance, if it’s like exercise, or hydration, or nutrition, or supplements, or meditation? Like, what are some things that could be helpful for building up a capacity to respond in an enlightened fashion to stress beyond just having the ideal mindset?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, two things come to mind. One, and this is kind of an offshoot of mindset, and that is learning how to be in the present moment. A lot of our frustrations and disappointments and anger stems from an attachment to something that happened in the past, and we simply make the assumption that, whatever happened in the past that did not turn out in our favor, is going to happen again right now. So, we just make that assumption, which is usually not very helpful or useful.

And then the other thing we do is we have a preconceived notion or a prediction of the future, which, of course, is always hypothetical, and that’s what increases anxiety. So, we can get kind of depressed and upset about something that happened previously, and then we can start being worrying and anxious about something that may happen in the future. And both of those things are just taking us away from being in the present moment.

Again, using the scenarios that you posed, because they’re pretty real-life scenarios, if you just take a deep breath, and go, “Okay, in this moment, my flight has been delayed two hours. I’m probably going to miss the connection and I’m going to miss my dinner with Pete tonight. That’s not ideal. That’s not my preference. It’s a little bit frustrating but it’s the reality, and I accept it.”

“I’m not going to resist it. I’m not going to draw on something from the past where I had this awful experience. And I’m not going to get anxious about the future and worry, ‘Well, maybe Pete and I won’t be friends ever again. He’s going to be so upset that…’” And I start just kind of creating this false narrative.

When if you just take a deep breath and you stay in the present moment, and you say, “You know what, it’s not that bad. Yes, I would’ve preferred to have caught my flight and had not been delayed, but this is what happened. I’ll make the best of it.” So, being in the present moment is certainly an offshoot of that and a way to help remedy it.

And then kind of more on a tactical and esoteric level, in addition to what you mentioned, making sure you’re feeding your body and moving your body, and getting good quality sleep, because I do believe mind and body are connected, but it’s also paying very close attention to the inputs of our life. We all want to have great outputs. We want to be efficient. We want to be effective. We want to produce. We want to earn. And that stuff is directly related to the inputs in our life.

What you read, watch, and listen to, who you insulate yourself with, and who you invest your time with, what you choose to consume on social media is just as important as what you choose to consume nutritionally. These things have a massive impact on the way we see the world. So, anyone looking to level up their output, they need to directly look on the other side of the curtain at their inputs, and say, “Okay, if I want a more quality output, I need to read, watch, and listen to a higher level of content.” And same thing on social, same thing with the people that you insulate yourself with. So, just have high discernment with where you choose to place your attention.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Okay, so that’s the stress side of things. How about we touch upon the stagnating and the burnout?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Sure. Well, the stagnation part, that’s really where I was kind of leaning towards with this changing of the inputs, because usually the stagnation, which I kind of look at, is just kind of being on that hedonic treadmill. You’re just kind of treading water. You’re expending energy but you’re not really going anywhere in life.

And it’s often just kind of this numb feeling where you’re just towing the line of mediocrity and you’re noticing that your outputs are starting to stagnate. And the best way to jumpstart that and break through that stagnation is changing your inputs. Reaching out to some people that maybe are more accomplished than you are, or have walked the path that you haven’t walked just yet so you can learn from them. And maybe be a mentee to a mentor that’s doing something that you’d like to emulate.

If you find yourself just watching the same old stuff on Netflix and just listening to the same old radio stations or talk radio, see if you can infuse some other things in there, some podcasts or documentaries or books, or just something to kind of jumpstart on the input side, and that’ll help you break through that stagnation.

One of the hardest parts of stagnation is just acknowledging that you’re stagnating. Awareness is always the first step to improvement because you’ll never fix something you’re unaware of, and you’ll never improve something you’re oblivious to. And the reason stagnation can be so tricky is it’s kind of undercover. It’s not proverbial rock bottom. When we hit rock bottom, we usually feel inspired to act and make a change, and that’s the part that’s so slippery and dangerous about stagnation is you’re just kind of towing that line.

So, stress, we really feel in the moment; burnout, we really feel in the long term; stagnation is that tricky mid-term where you can easily fall numb to it and spend months or years in a stagnant place, and not even know it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, just checking in, it’s like, “Hey, am I stagnant? What’s going on?” adjusting the inputs. Any other recommendations there?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, I think it’s important to make sure that you get feedback from the people that know you best, your inner circle, if you will, because often, they’ll be able to spot your stagnation before you spot it. Whether this is like an intimate partner or a spouse, or if you have adult children, or close friends, or colleagues, but, hopefully, you’ve created the type of relationship with them, that you let them know, “Look, I’m always open to your feedback and I always welcome you helping me see my own blind spots.”

I think one of the most important perspectives we can have as human beings is to acknowledge that all of us have blind spots. Now, we can’t see them, hence the reason they’re blind spots, but having the humility to acknowledge, “I know there are things that I don’t know. And when someone cares enough to bring some of those blind spots into a level of awareness and shine a light on them for me, that’s one of the best gifts they can give me.”

So, hopefully, you’ve created the type of relationships, both personally and professionally, where people can say that, “Hey, I just feel like you’ve just been kind of treading water.” And many times, this usually comes from a spouse or somebody that you’re intimate with because they see you, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and see you a lot more than everyone else, but hopefully you’ve got the type of relationship where they can say, “Hey, I just feel like you’re stagnant.” And I try to insulate myself with people in my life that will tell me, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about when it comes to burnout?

Alan Stein, Jr.
So, burnout is an interesting one because I look at stress as a too much issue, stagnation as a too little issue, and those things kind of combine are usually what set you on the path to burnout. While researching the book, I found that burnout is a very specific condition. When the hours that you’re working and the sacrifices that you’re making are no longer in alignment with where you find meaning or purpose or what you find fascinating, or the work you’re putting in is no longer in alignment with your core values or the person that you’re trying to become.

So, it’s that splintering effect of misalignment that causes the issue. It’s not just from working long hours. That can potentially be a problem over time but we probably all know someone that maybe it’s an entrepreneur with a new startup, and they’re working 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks but they find so much meaning in their work, and they love it so much. They’re most likely not at risk for burnout. So, it’s when you don’t find meaning in your work, or you’re not fascinated by it, or it’s not in alignment.

Another big one, especially for folks at work in organizations, folks get burnout when they don’t feel like their contribution is making a difference. They don’t feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. They just kind of feel like, “I’m just a number showing up to work. I don’t know that I really matter.” So, when we don’t feel like we matter, or we don’t feel like there’s meaning in our work, that’s when we’re at risk of burnout.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if there we are in the midst of it, what do we do?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Yeah. Well, again, be thankful if you have the awareness to recognize that, and there’s a few things you can do. One, you have to clarify your north star and get crystal clear. Assuming that you found meaning in that work or in that job at some point, and usually that’s the case, is to kind of reverse-engineer and track backwards and deconstruct, and say, “Okay, I’ve been in this job for 10 years. For the first eight years, I really enjoyed working here. I loved my role. I loved the people I was working with but I don’t feel that anymore.” And try to be reflective and introspective to figure out why.

Maybe you’ve been given some different assignments and your role has changed. Maybe a few colleagues have left and you’re now working with new people that you don’t feel as connected with but try to pinpoint what caused the change. And pinpointing at change, again, bringing it to a level of awareness, can allow you to explore some minor pivots, say, within the organization.

Maybe you ask to take on a new role, or report to someone differently, or work in a different department, or maybe you just come to the end of the road with that organization, and you want to look elsewhere. But then you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to do the same type of work for another company? Or, do I want to change industries completely?”

I’m an example of that. I spent 15 years as a basketball performance coach, and I really loved the time that I did that. But, as I was kind of nearing that 15-year mark, I started to feel burnout. I wasn’t enjoying the work I was doing near as much as I had in years prior, so I decided to make the leap completely out of that industry, and jumped into corporate keynote speaking and writing.

So, for me, I made a fairly drastic change but it was absolutely the right choice because it re-lit my fire and got me excited again. So, I think folks just need to be able to look at, “Is this something that requires a couple of minor tweaks that might get me back on course? Or, do I need to try something more drastic?” But at least pulling open the hood and taking a look at everything underneath to figure that out is, I think, a great step.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, you said the word pivot, which got me thinking. You have three steps you lay out in your book – perform, pivot, prevail. How do these work in sequence?

Alan Stein, Jr.
The way that I kind of looked at it was we’re trying to perform in the moment, and the biggest thing that can undermine that is stress, and that’s something that we feel kind of on the daily. In that mid-term, where we feel like we’re stagnating and things are just kind of towing that line, we need to figure out a way to pivot, to try something different, to shake things up.

And then if we are slowly approaching burnout, where there is this misalignment, then the ultimate goal is to prevail, is to be able to overcome that burnout either within your current job and vocation and company that you’re working with, or you might have to prevail by going somewhere else and doing something completely different.

And they’re not 100% sequential. We can toggle in and out of those at different times, into different amounts, but the way I look at it is more from a timeframe standpoint. You have stress kind of in the short term, you have stagnation more in that mid-term, and then burnout is an accumulation of the previous two, and that’s what happens in the long term.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And when professionals are trying to put your wisdom into action, into practice, are there some hiccups, road bumps, mistakes that come up again and again? And how should we navigate that?

Alan Stein, Jr.
I’m trying to think of some of the most common. I mean, the answer to the question is yes. Actually, that would be my answer to just about anything as far as no matter what it is we’re trying to do when we’re trying to implement and initiate change, there are always going to be roadblocks and hiccups and lessons to learn. But I think the key to that is embracing that and acknowledging everything that I’ve shared with you in this lovely conversation, and everything I’ve put in my books, and everything that I say on stage, all of these things are very basic principles, but none of this stuff is easy. None of it is.

And that’s why, with all of this stuff, I’m not speaking from a place of mastery. This is all stuff that I’m continuing to work on and to refine as I’m trying to evolve. And, to me, the goal has never been perfection. The goal has always been progress, consistent incremental progress. And with any of these things that we’ve talked about, can I be a little bit better today than I was yesterday? Can I be a little bit better in 2022 than I was in 2021, whether it’s my ability to manage stress, or avoid stagnation, or beat burnout, or be in the present moment, or have more thoughtful responses when the world doesn’t align to my preferences?

And I’m very proud of the fact that I can say, yes, I do all of those things consistently better today than I have in the past. If you and I reconnect again on your show in a couple more years, I’m hoping I can say with a huge smile that I’m doing an even better job then than I’m doing right now in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Alan, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear some more of your favorite things?

Alan Stein, Jr.
No, this has been great. I always love your line of questions and the direction in which you navigate things. This has been fun. This is great.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
So, one of my favorite quotes is about as basic and as simple as it gets, and that is, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” And the reason I love that is there’s two types of change that we all experience. There’s the imposed change. A perfect example of that is a two-year global pandemic or potentially an economic recession. Like, there’s things that can happen in the outer world that are imposed on us, and we have to respond to them. And those are obviously uncontrollable.

But the change I’m always referring to is initiated change. It’s the changes that we choose to make. So, it’s being able to have the awareness to say, “I’m not as physically fit as I’d like to be, so I need to make some changes to the way I eat, to my sleep, to my working out, and so forth because I have to acknowledge that, if I don’t change those things, then nothing on my body is going to change.”

And it could be the same thing for mental or emotional fitness, “I need to change the way that I perceive stress when the outside world imposes itself on me, and be much more thoughtful in my response.” So, I‘m a huge fan of leaning into and initiating change to take us closer to becoming the person that we strive to become.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
What I found really interesting, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to botch the numbers on this, but you’ll get the general sentiment. And this speaks directly to what I believe is one of the most dangerous games that any of us can play, and that is the comparison game. I do think, and I’m a huge advocate of social media.

I believe social media can be a great connection tool. It can be a great source of information and learning. It’s a great way to share if you have something of value. But social media, I think, is built to encourage us to play the comparison game, and to see how your life stacks up, usually materialistically, to someone else’s life.

And the problem with playing the comparison game is it usually makes us feel less than. You go on Instagram and you see that somebody has got a nicer house, or a nicer car, or a shinier watch, or a prettier girlfriend, or they go on better vacations, and it starts to make you feel less than. And that’s a dangerous, dangerous slope to tackle.

And there was some research that asked people, and again, this is where I don’t think my numbers are going to be completely exact, but you’ll get the point.
Would I rather make $70,000 a year and everybody else around me makes 50? So, I’m making a little bit more than them, and that makes me feel good but I’m making $70,000 a year. Or, would I rather make $100,000 a year but everyone around me makes $120,000 a year? So, net, I’m making $30,000 more dollars a year in the second scenario but it’s less than what everybody around me makes. And most people always want to feel that they’re winning the comparison game. They would actually rather make less money but make more money than the people in their direct area than the exact opposite of that.

And I just found that study fascinating. That’s kind of a peek behind the curtain into the human condition and the way people view things. And it’s very understandable, and I don’t say that with an ounce of judgment. I just found that study really interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Alan Stein, Jr.
One of my all-time favorites, and I’m sure most of your listeners have already read it because I think he sold over five million copies, is Atomic Habits by my good friend James Clear. Most of what I share when it comes to building habits, I’ve learned from James and his blog and his book and a lot of his work. That’s definitely a go-to.

A secondary one is another book by my friend Phil Jones, who wrote a very short book called Exactly What to Say. It’s more of a guide than a book, and it’s a great reference on kind of how magic words can be, and we have to be very thoughtful and intentional about the words we choose because they change the world around us. And if you’re looking to be more influential and impactful, that you have to be very careful about the words you choose. And I found that book really, really insightful and very, very helpful.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
I’m a big fan of the Headspace app for a guided meditation. I know a lot of what we’ve talked about is about being present and being grounded and being mindful. And because I come from a sports background, I’m a huge believer in practice, that you’ve got to practice, especially during the unseen hours.

So, that’s an app and a tool that I use very regularly. It’s a very calm and almost a serene feel of 10-minute guided meditation. And I try and do that at least once a day but I’ll throw that in anytime that I’m feeling a little bit stressed. So, you best believe if my flight to Nashville tomorrow gets delayed, I’ll pop in my earbuds and do a 10-minute meditation to, hopefully, bring me back down.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
I’m very fortunate that I have a quote that’s painted in a big 12-foot mural in the Penn State Football Training Center, and it says, “Are the habits you have today on par with the dreams you have for tomorrow?” And that’s a mantra I try and live by. I’m a big believer in habits and the things that we do consistently. And I always want to make sure that the things that I’m doing on a daily basis are in alignment and are in harmony with the person that I’m trying to become.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
They can go to AlanSteinJr.com. I also have a supplemental site StrongerTeam.com, and I’m very easily found on social media @AlanSteinJr. I love interacting with folks, so if you’re on Instagram or LinkedIn or Twitter or Facebook, just shoot me a DM. And if you have a question or want to discuss anything that Pete and I talked about, I’m always open for that. And, certainly, if anyone is interested in either book Raise Your Game or Sustain Your Game, they’re easily found on Amazon, Audible, or wherever you like to get your books.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
I do. I think at the ground level, the foundation, is showing up at your job emotionally charged and as the best version of yourself. And in order to do that, you have to take a look at your morning and your evening routines, how you’re spending the bookends of your day. So, one of the exercises I always encourage folks to do is a very basic self-audit. You take a piece of paper. You draw a vertical line down the middle.

On the left side, come up with an exhaustive list of all of the things that light you up, that give you energy, that make you smile, that make you feel alive, that add to your confidence. This could be taking a Peloton class or pulling out your yoga mat to do some stretches. It could be a quiet morning reading the paper and drinking some coffee. It could be watching a riveting documentary or taking your dog for a walk. But any of the activities that give you energy and fill you up, then come up with a list of those.

And then on the other side of the paper, on the other side of that right line, write down how you’ve been spending the bookends of your day, your morning and your evening routine. Then you’re going to compare the two sides of the paper. You’re going to compare the two sets of notes. And you’re going to ask yourself one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself, and that is, “Am I doing the things that I know I need to do to be my best self and to show up as my best self, ready to make a maximum contribution to my job?”

And if you do that with some honesty and some vulnerability, you’ll most likely start to uncover what’s called a performance gap, and that is the gap between what we know we should do to be our best self, and what we actually do on a daily basis. And one of the key tenets of my work is helping folks close that gap and start doing the things they know they need to do.

If you can make the time to heighten your self-care and to sprinkle some of the things from the left side of the paper onto the right side, and even if it’s just 10 to 15 minutes in the morning and evening, doing the things that light you up and fill your bucket, it’ll have a massive impact on how you show up, your energy level, how you feel about yourself, and, absolutely, your ability to make a contribution to your work, to your job, to your organization.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Alan, thank you. It’s been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and sustaining of your game.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Likewise, my friend. This was great. Thank you so much.

787: How to Consistently Perform at Your Peak with Dr. Haley Perlus

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Dr. Haley Perlus shares everyday tactics to help you achieve consistent peak performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How just three words can transform your day
  2. How to increase your attention span
  3. The simple secret to feeling more energized

About Haley

Dr. Haley Perlus knows what it takes to overcome barriers and achieve peak performance. As an elite alpine ski racer, she competed and trained with the best in the world, pushing herself to the limits time and time again. Now, with a PhD in sport psychology, Haley continues to push boundaries and drive peak performance, helping athletes and Fortune 100 executives reach their goals.

Dr. Perlus is a highly sought-after keynote speaker, professor, author and consultant to Division I athletes. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado lecturing on applied sport and exercise psychology at the graduate level. She has authored several books including The Ultimate Achievement Journal and The Inside Drive and her articles have been featured in publications such as Thrive Magazine, Fitness Magazine, IDEA Fitness Journal, EpicTimes, Telluride Inside, MyVega and BeachBody®.

Resources Mentioned

Dr. Haley Perlus Interview Transcript

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

Haley Perlus
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom. And I’m intrigued, you’ve got a number of impressive credentials: Ph.D. in Sports Psychology, Elite Alpine Ski racer, and also licensed bartender. What is the story? Do these all three fit together some way? Or, where does the bartending fit in?

Haley Perlus
Well, if the first two don’t succeed, then certainly it’s a shot, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Good mental health advice right off the bat.

Haley Perlus
If we’re doomed, there’s always tequila then we’ll get back at it tomorrow. I’m just joking. I’m just joking. But people find that interesting because it’s one thing that people don’t know about me. However, my mother, my proud mother, has my bartending certificate framed above the bar in her house. It’s an interesting conversation piece.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is sweet. Well, I’m curious, do you have any quick mixological tips for non-licensed bartenders? If we would just like our cocktails to be a little bit more impressive, what should we do?

Haley Perlus
The funny thing is I don’t even really drink, so I let everybody else go ahead and loosen up and I just observe. Clean. Everything can be clean. Remove all the sugar and just go for the good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. We’ve got it. All right. Well, now let’s talk about peak performance stuff. Maybe, to kick it off, you could orient us. How do you think about peak performance, particularly in a professional context? Like, what does this phrase mean to you? Or, do you have like have a framework that you use to understand this stuff?

Haley Perlus
I do. And peak performance, sometimes, I think, actually veers us off track because when we’re looking for peak performance or peak experiences, we want to do it often. We don’t want to just peak and then come go back down. So, I really think about it as consistent, “How can I get the most consistent high performance?” which then is a peak performer. Often, we’re searching for that peak, our best performance but I want us to have our best performance as often as we possibly can, not just one time, consistent. Consistently being our best.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear because peak sort of implies it goes up and then it goes down, and then I have a little point at the top. It’s the peak. And so, consistent, I guess this chart might look like we have ever-rising peaks, if you will, and we’re getting better and better.

Haley Perlus
I love that. Let’s go with that, yes. We can’t always be perfect.  There will be ups and downs but we’re searching for more consistency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so tell us, you’ve been studying this stuff for a long time, any particularly surprising or fascinating insights that you’ve discovered along the way?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that’s interesting, Pete, when you did talk about to my bartending, when you asked me for one recipe, and I just said keep it clean, eliminate the sugar and just go for the good stuff. That’s really what I try to do in my practice. Remove all the fluff, all the extra thinking. We want to think less but more strategically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I like that.

Haley Perlus
We want to really go for the meat. When we have direction, when we have focus, we are more inclined to take action and follow through.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And so then, let’s talk about getting that focus, that clarity, that strategy going. Do you have any key questions or prompts you use to really zero in on that good stuff?

Haley Perlus
I do. And just this morning, I was training about five people, all managers and leaders in their various professions, and we started with narrowing it down to three words that would best describe them as their best self, so when they’re the most energized, most focused, feeling all the good things, they know who and what matters most to them. What three words would they use to best describe them because that then becomes their daily purpose, or at least a daily representation of their purpose, but three gives them direction, gives them focus, and then they’re more inclined to take action.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, it’s three and not thirty, that’s certainly focusing. Well, can you give us some examples of three words, best self.

Haley Perlus
So, for me, I’ll tell you and then I can share with you why it’s the number three, and it’s not mine. It’s actually in The Psychology of Persuasion, where I learned it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Cialdini?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, absolutely. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had him as a guest. He’s awesome. He’s awesome.

Haley Perlus
And I love how he shares the number three. More is confusing, except with the tasting of gelato because then you want to have more experiences, the more flavors the better, and the color of our tennis shoes. But then he says everything else, we really want to narrow it down to three so that we can focus and have direction. Anything else, we get overwhelmed and confused.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got it.

Haley Perlus
But my three, for myself, I use the word bright, like I have this big sunshine of my mind, body, and spirit. What the sun gives the earth is what my brightness gives me. I’m curious as opposed to judgmental. So, I’m curious, I want to learn, I want to understand, I ask questions even though I may not like the answers, and I actively listen to you and to also what my body and my mind are telling me.

And so, each and every day that is my purpose, that’s my goal, that’s my intention. I also want to be kind. I also want to be generous. I also want to be empathetic. But if I try to be everything, I’ll be nothing. So, if I focus on those three, that will allow me to take action and I also will be so much more than just those three, but those three gives me purpose, gives me focus.

Pete Mockaitis
And is the idea that these three are pretty persistent as opposed to a shifting daily intention, like, “This is the best self and it’s what I’m going for day after day”?

Haley Perlus
I believe so. I’ve been playing around with it for myself for years, and it is rather consistent for me. For people who are just starting to figure out their best three words, sometimes you can play around, trial and error, you let it marinate for a little bit before you find it. But I do believe that when we do enough trial and error and self-awareness, we do land on three.

And then there’s a cool factor in this. It’s not just having your direction every day you wake up and you want to be these three things so that you can be your best self, it’s also catching yourself when you start to lose one of those words. So, when I’m not energized, when I’m not resilient to the first stressor of my day, for example, I immediately lose my curiosity. Hands down, it is the first word that goes.

So, as soon as I can catch myself no longer being curious, which usually means I’m judging someone or something, I can stop and reset instead of letting my entire best self get lost or sinking further and further into what I call my own quicksand of misery. I can stop and do something.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a turn of a phrase. Quicksand of misery. Yeah, I hear what you’re saying in terms of like that spiral or that inertia. I guess folks might say, colloquially, “Whoa, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” or, “I just noticed something that maybe I’m being judgmental. I see something that’s not right as it should be,” and then my brain starts thinking, “What’s wrong with people? Why are we doing it this way? Like, this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It’s so inconsiderate.”

And so then, it’s like I’m primed to notice other stuff that’s jacked up and messed up, and rail about that inside my head, so that’s no fun. So, when you do catch yourself, you notice, “Oh, I’m doing that thing,” but then what? What do you do about it?

Haley Perlus
There’s a couple of things but this is where we’re really talking now about a lot of recovery pauses. So, in life right now, and I say we, as in people in my field, we’re really trying to enforce the story of life is a sprint, no longer a marathon. What does that mean? Instead of just going, going, going, and if you start to not feel great, or start to be judgmental, “I don’t have time to reset. I just got to keep going.” No, it’s now a sprint. You stress and then you recover.

So, when I find myself losing my best self, I stop and I take a recovery pause. That might be one minute, it might be five minutes, ten minutes. And what do I do there? I reset, usually, my emotions because we are creatures of emotion. We’re emotional creatures. So, what does that mean? Maybe I listen to music, maybe I stick my head outside and get some fresh air, maybe I do some quick deep breathing, maybe I move my body, connect with a loved one, do gratitude. Anything that allows me just to reset my emotions, which then allows to come more into more of a neutral mindset, and then I can refocus and get back my curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that lineup there. And so, we’ve got a variety of options on the menu to choose from, and they’re on the quick side – one, five, ten minutes. It’s funny, I’ve been finding cold water effective for resetting emotions because it’s hard to think about much else when your head is in a bucket of ice water or a cold shower.

Haley Perlus
I was just about to say, “What does that mean?” Are you literally pouring a bucket of cold water over your head?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I literally have a lovely piece of, I guess it’s Tupperware that I have in my office refrigerator that I will pull out and put my head into at times. So, that’s weird but I find it effective because it’s like, “Ooh.” If you’re in a funky mood, it’s hard to fixate on that, and it really does feel like a reset, it’s like, “Okay. Well, now we’re back to a neutral, chilly, energized place. Let’s reset.” I guess I got on a Wim Hof kick, which is how this all started.

Haley Perlus
Oh, there you go. Yeah, so you can do Wim Hof breathing if you don’t want to pour cold water over your head, you can follow it. But, funny enough, that’s actually…I was a ski racer and a ski coach, and even obviously sports psychologist for winter sport athletes, just one of the many sports. But we put ice cubes down our backs, our necks, and, again, just a wakeup call, just to get refreshed and renew some energy which it will allow us to then stop for a moment, rethink, reset to be our best self.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. And I want to go into some depth on some of these options. So, gratitude has come up a few times on the show. There’s a variety of ways to do it. How do you find is an effective means of gratitude that provides a reset?

Haley Perlus
Well, in moments where we need reset, in moments where we’ve lost our best self, usually we’re overwhelmed or frustrated, we’re feeling anxiety, and we don’t think we’re doing a good-enough job, or at least somebody else isn’t but we can only control ourselves. So, I like these two questions, “What have I already achieved today?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like it.

Haley Perlus
And, “What do I get to do next?” So, for example, “What have I already achieved today?” is very different than what I haven’t yet achieved, which is where I think most of us go, “I still have to do this. I haven’t done this. I wasn’t good enough at this. I didn’t have enough time for this.” But when you think about what you have achieved, it automatically puts you more in a pleasant emotional space, and patting yourself on your back increases some concentration, some focus and motivation.

“What do I get to do next?” is very different than the normal “What do I have to do next?” We’re always thinking about, “What email I have to respond to” “What call I have to get on” “What do I have to do?” “Who do I have to answer to?” That creates maybe some negativity, “Who do I get to support? How do I get to be challenged? What do I get to learn? What email do I get to be included on even though there’s 500 today?” Just the word “get,” a simple word choice changes our emotional experience, allows us to be a little bit more engaged in that next activity.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that so much and I’m reminded of I was listening to Bryan Cranston’s autobiography, and he said something really stuck with him. He’s on a set of a TV show and people are kind of grumbling about the early days, early mornings, late hours. And this guy on the set, who was like a much bigger star than him at the time, said simply, “Well, beats digging ditches,” in terms of like, “Yeah, this is a job and it’s hard sometimes but, relative to the alternatives, that’s something we get to do, which is pretty cool.”

Haley Perlus
Always could be worse. I guess you could go there, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a really great question that focuses your brain into a positive direction. And I’m thinking something I’ve been wrestling with here with regard to, “Oh, emotions provide information and they’re useful, and we should, ideally,” so I’m told and I think I’ve reaped some value here, “be curious and explore them and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’” And, yet, at the same time, I find that when I do that, like if I’m in a funk, like, “Oh, what’s going on?” it’s like I’m very adept at coming up with a long list of things that are busted and I could be cranky about, and then I kind of feel worse.

And then one approach I’ve tried with some good results is I say, I ask myself, “Why might I feel amazing in five minutes?” because it’s not like I’m lying to myself, it’s like, “Why am I going to feel amazing in five minutes? You’re not. You’re still going to be tired and grumpy.” But it’s like, “Why might I?” Like, “Well, it’s quite possible that I could achieve this little thing and feel great that that’s no longer hanging over my head. It’s quite possible that, boy, I just needed a glass of water. It’s been a few hours. And that would hit the spot.”

So, I find that handy. Do you have any pro tips on engaging our emotions and/or positive refocusing questions that are super handy?

Haley Perlus
I do. I do agree that all emotions are okay. They all serve us. Being angry could drive us initially. Being angry or frustrated or fearful or worried or anxious or sad or depressed, all those unpleasant emotions, they do provide some self-awareness, they do provide polarity. I’m not a big believer in staying with them too long. I do like the non judgment. I do like the, “Hmm, okay, I’m angry.” But then I do need to get myself over to the pleasant side in order for me to do anything effectively with that anger.

If I need to communicate something to someone because that person created anger, I’m not going to be able to do that successfully staying angry, so I need to bring myself back over to one of more challenged, or something more positive, which will then allow me to be right, curious and listen. And then I can more effectively communicate why I was angry or the lesson learned. I feel like the lesson learned comes from the pleasant side.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that distinction in terms of the unpleasant emotion can highlight something that needs attention, and yet the attending to that something is often done more effectively in a more pleasant state of mind. That’s cool.

Haley Perlus
I agree. Yeah, that’s what I think. Now, when I think about, “Is okay that I bring back some sports?” I think people get really motivated by that anxiety. Sometimes, one popular athlete, that I’m sure we’ve all heard of, that used anger in the sense of rivalry even if there wasn’t a rival, he created one, was Michael Jordan.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Haley Perlus
However, when he stepped onto that court, it was strategy, it was tactics, it was the challenge of it. The anger definitely motivated him and got those chemicals and neurotransmitters and hormones running, and his enthusiasm. I don’t know personally but I’ve done enough research and I would like to say, and I hope he would agree with me, that when he got on the court, that anger turned much more into a challenge. And that is a pleasant emotion that allows us to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, any other favorite refocusing questions that you pose to yourself?

Haley Perlus
Like, I said, I do like to think less but more strategically. But I actually find myself, when I’m trying to reset my emotions, is not necessarily always use my mind but to use tactics that immediately change my emotion, like music.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Haley Perlus
I have a theme song. It’s a cheesy one. I don’t care, I use it. But, for example, my favorite movie of all time as a kid and as an adult is Flashdance,” and there is a song in Flashdance called “What A Feeling.” I’m sure many of your listeners have heard of it or know it and they’re smiling right now or making fun, but that’s okay. But I will tell you that if I’m finding myself anxious or overwhelmed or exhausted or sad, if I turn “What A Feeling” on, if I need a little bit of an emotional reset to peace, I just remind myself of dancing around my parents’ house as innocent and free as I possibly can.

If I’m about to go climb a mountain, metaphorically, but I also do climb mountains, but whatever that mountain might be, the lyrics are, “Take your passion, make it happen, dance through life,” so my resetting is not necessarily asking myself a question. It’s directing myself to the words of another song, of a song, that allows me to direct my mind elsewhere.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And so, you’ve got your theme song. Do you have sort of a playlist or a lineup of different songs for different purposes or is it always this go-to?

Haley Perlus
This is usually my go-to, the theme song, but I do have a playlist, a Perlus playlist, and it’s quite long because in that moment, sometimes I want the genre, sometimes I want the harmony, sometimes I want the lyrics, the tempo, so it’s rather long but, yes, I do have a Perlus playlist that in that playlist, there’s always going to be some song that I can press play to navigate me to an emotion that I want to experience. It is my reset.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, this is bringing me back to a teenage Pete Mockaitis enchanted by Tony Robbins, sharing how to shift your emotional state immediately, talking about shifting physiology and imagery, what’s you’re imagining, and dialogue, what you’re saying to yourself. And then I guess the imagery or the music would fall into that. Do you dig that framework or do you have another way you think about it in terms of levers to pull for an emotional reset?

Haley Perlus
Do you mean the imagery piece? I love the imagery piece.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Or like holding your body in a certain way, or breathing, or your power moves or whatever.

Haley Perlus
Oh, absolutely. It’s so funny, I started teaching this and my brothers, I have two brothers and they make fun of me all the time because I always tell people to take their shoulders up, back and down, and smile. So, if you take your shoulders up, back and down, you’re opening up your chest, you’re letting room for air to come through, not just stop at your chest but go through your diaphragm, smiling even through all that anger and disappointment, releases certain chemicals, gets your body language set up.

In person, when I get people to stand up and take their shoulders up, back, down and smile, then they give me a standing ovation, so it’s always nice to set the room up. So, I do believe in definitely body to mind techniques, and that would be an example of one. Setting up your body to create a mental space, to create mental fitness, to create positive or pleasant emotions.

Movement, forget about standing still, moving your body is scientifically the best way to change your emotional state from an unpleasant to a pleasant, whether it’s small movements, like rolling your shoulders; whether it’s stretching, opening your front body after we’re all typing and hunched over at our computers all day; going for a walk, large movements, getting fresh air if you can, even adding to it. Blood circulates through your body, blood carries oxygen, glucose, energy. It energizes us and it makes us go from an unpleasant to pleasant.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. I dig it. And I’m also thinking about Dr. Andrew Huberman of the Huberman Lab’s podcast, which is fantastic, mentioned…and this is crazy. There’s good science to suggest, simply looking up can rally attention in terms of like what our eyeballs are doing and the signals that’s sending inside our brains. It is fascinating what is going on with the human body.

Haley Perlus
Straight up or to the right or to the left? Because I know we can read people depending on where they’re looking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, as my understanding, and I might be mistaken, is you’re even tilting upward your chin and head, so it’s up. Like, you’re looking at a tall tree or a bird in the sky, and that can spark some attentiveness. And I think it’s true in my own experience. He’s got the scientific studies and papers and such underlying it. But I’ve even elevated my desk a bit more so that I’m not hunched over downward looking all day but rather there’s a little bit of a tilt up, and I think it’s made a difference, so at the very least, it’s given me a placebo benefit, which I appreciate.

Haley Perlus
Which we’ll take, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ll take that.

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that hunched over, orthopedic surgeons are now talking about the pandemic posture.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. Yeah.

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that hunched over. So, yes, so stand up tall, get your chest lifted, smile, raise that emotional space. But you just reminded me of one more tip, if I can share, about resetting.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

Haley Perlus
Getting outside, especially now as we’re recording this, it’s summer. Getting outside and earthing. What does that mean? It means barefoot in the grass, hug a tree, lie down. And also, if you don’t want to hug a tree, although I do, while you’re just outside, just focus for a minute only on what you see. Then focus for a minute, or maybe 30 seconds, only on what you hear, then only on what you can smell, then only on what you feel underneath you.

And if you do feel something else in your hands or in your ears, the wind passing by, just focus on one sense at a time. And that allows you to also tune out your own stressors and tune in to the energy of the world. Nature.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, so nice rundown there in terms of breaks. I wanted to also get your take on our attention spans, how do we improve them and beat distraction? I guess one thing is just, hey, make sure you’re taking good breaks, and so we’ve checked that box. What else do you recommend here?

Haley Perlus
Well, I know that it’s a hard one but I am with everyone else who believes that multitasking is one of the biggest energy drainers. So, though I live in this world too, so it’s not about I believe eliminating multitasking completely, but I do think that we can probably reduce multitasking in our lives to further increase our engagement and our attention span.

So, we need to ask ourselves and really be truthful, where can we reduce multitasking to increase our ability to focus on one thing at a time. And often, people will say, “Well, wait a second. I’ve got to do this email and that message and this call.” Well, then I propose us working on being a better juggler as opposed to a multitasker.

So, what does that mean? I don’t juggle balls physically but professional jugglers, no matter how many balls they have that they’re juggling with, there’s only one ball in their hand at one time. As soon as they have more than two balls, they make mistakes and they drop all of them. So, we need to just go back and forth, from one to the next, one to the next, one to the next. That allows us to maintain sharp attention span.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that’s just sort of a mindset shift there in terms of, ideally, maybe we just to do one thing for a while, and then do the next thing for a while, but if not, juggling works but with the goal of, “I’m focused on you and I’m now focused on this thing. And now, I’m focused on you,” as opposed to, “I’m focused on you and this thing at the same time.”

Haley Perlus
Yeah. And one of those things, I know we brought it up before, but just to enforce it. One of those things is recovery, “I’m focused for these five minutes on recovery, and then I come back to this email, or this phone call, or this task.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then any tips when it comes to exercising our brains so that we are effectively able to engage and recover, and to engage and recover, and to keep on getting better and better?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, use it but be deliberate. So, right now, crossword puzzles or Wordle or Sudoku, those games, even video games, with my athletes, my sport athletes in my consulting practice, we actually train our brains using video games and games on the computer. In fact, some of us are so good that we tune out the rest of the world and we can go for hours. We don’t necessarily want that though. We need to have discipline and we don’t want to have the addiction but we need to use our brain and deliberately focus in, in order to increase our attention span.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then an exercise might mean like, “This is what I’m focused on for the next hour. Period.” Like, that kind of a thing, like, “This is what we’re doing here.”

Haley Perlus
Yeah, there’s something that you can just search it on the internet but I do it in my presentations. It’s called the concentration grid. And all it is, is 99 numbers scrambled up in a grid, it starts 00 and they’re all scrambled up to 99. And then you time yourself, not even an hour, I do a minute. And in a minute, you see, you start at 00, then 01, then 02, and you have to go and find these numbers in order as fast as you can and see how high you can get.

So, I’ll do this with the people that I’m consulting with, and then I will try to distract them. So, I will go and distract them with noise and with words, I tell them 30 seconds left, I tell them, and they have to literally focus on tuning me out. It’s the only time they can deem me irrelevant but if they hear me, I’m supposed to come into their presence and then leave, and they have to stay focused on their number.

So, that’s just an example of an exercise in concentration grit. You purposely engage in, again, Sudoku or Wordle or a crossword puzzle, or even a video game, or an app game, momentarily you tune in with the intention of deeming everything else irrelevant, and that’s going to increase your attention span. We just don’t want to become addicted because then we lose focus on everything else.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when one is doing these exercises, you want to have some sort of distractor in the mix to practice the ignoring?

Haley Perlus
You can play around with it but I think that’s real life. Even though I’m trying to focus on this, on speaking with you, I have intentionally turned off everything so I will not get pinged, I will not get dinged. But in the real world, if we’re sending an email, we might get a text, we might get a message, someone might come into the room, so we have to practice real life. It’s simulation for real life, being able to focus in on this one exercise, knowing that you’re going to be distracted, but letting those distractions come and let them go. They’re irrelevant. What’s relevant is the exercise you’re focusing on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And you’ve got some perspective on the connection between hydration and performance. Let’s hear it.

Haley Perlus
I sure do. Well, we are two-thirds…our brains are two-thirds water, so we need water to, yeah, there you go, have a sip, and I have my water here too. But water is so many things. But when I think about attention span and our brain, I look at water as a cleansing tool. It flushes out all the toxins, flushes out all the negative stuff, flushes out all the things that we no longer need. It’s a cleansing tool. It also is an energizing tool. It lubricates, it hydrates, it gives us energy.

So, as we’re consistently drinking water throughout the day, we’re actually giving our brains energy as well as cleansing. Plus, when we’re dehydrated, that in and of itself is a distraction. Our bodies react to that. Our brains react to that. We become exhausted. So, that’s an unnecessary distraction. We can fix that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I guess how much is enough? I mean, I think some people will say, “You know, I drink water when I’m thirsty, and that’s fine, right?” What do you think?

Haley Perlus
Well, often the nutritionists and the experts will say if you’re thirsty, you’ve waited too long. And then, yes, the question is, “How much?” So, we’ve all heard eight glasses a day, or half your body weight in ounces. Just drink more. I don’t often come across anyone who is overhydrated. Most of us are dehydrated, so just drink more.

And here’s a thing. Get into the ritual of drinking first thing in the morning. There’s something that I used to do for myself before I became a regular water drinker. Every night before I go to bed, I pour myself a glass of water and lemon. To me, it was easier to drink water with lemon. And lemon is also very alkalizing so it does to provide energy. But I pour myself a glass of water and lemon, and I put it on my night table before I go to bed.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do before anything, especially before I brush my teeth, is drink that water and lemon. And it started off as just two ounces, then four ounces. And now I drink 32 ounces of water in the morning. Sometimes I have coffee, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I have green juice, like celery juice, but I’m always getting my water, and it’s now a habit because I’ve gotten used to that morning ritual.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious about bathroom trips. Sometimes I find myself reluctant to drink more water just because I don’t want to be hassled with more trips to the bathroom. How do you think about this?

Haley Perlus
Well, remember, I said pour the water and lemon the night before but don’t drink it.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the night before but the morning of.

Haley Perlus
Yeah, you drink it the morning of.

Pete Mockaitis
I mean, daytime trips to the bathroom.

Haley Perlus
Yeah. Well, I would rather have that problem than the problems that will come if I’m dehydrated.

Pete Mockaitis
So, are we talking like ten plus visits a day then?

Haley Perlus
Yeah, that’d be a lot. I’m not going to lie. I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s the quote of the show. We’ll put that on the graphic. That’s good. Thank you.

Haley Perlus
You’re welcome. I feel like you needed to get that out of me.

Pete Mockaitis
But it’s true, like there’s a genuine tradeoff. And it’s so funny, I think the same lazy brain, for me at least, that’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to get up and pour a glass of water,” is the same lazy brain who can rationalize or justify, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve already been to the bathroom like five times. I don’t want to go again.” And so, you’re going on record as saying that, yes, there is more time spent visiting the bathroom but you’re more than making up for that time with the improved benefits of hydration. Is that fair to say?

Haley Perlus
I believe that I am more efficient, I believe that I’m more focused, I believe that I’m a peak performer because I’m a peak peer. And I will tell you though, it also forces you to get up and move. It forces you to get out of your seat so there’s other benefits that come with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Haley, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about your favorite things?

Haley Perlus
I think with this life, this Groundhog Day, the wash, rinse, repeat, the wash, rinse, repeat, it’s not necessarily that we need to increase our attention span. Many of us actually have good focusing skills, but because we’re stagnant all day and we’re inactive all day and we’re just doing the same thing over and over again, the boredom kicks in, the complacency kicks in. So, I think it’s important that we look for variety wherever we can. If you’ve been staring at this wall for half a day, maybe turn around and stare at a different wall. Add variety to your life wherever you can because that variety will also create energy which will allow us to focus and be able to be more engaged.

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

Haley Perlus
I don’t know that it’s a favorite quote but I will tell you what I use for myself when I get distracted or overwhelmed, and it’s more of a mantra, “Right, left, right, left, right left,” and also something that my significant other is now forcing upon me because I’m learning something new, and I get a little bit fearful, “Get your eyes wide open.”

When we are consumed with all of our fears, when we’re consumed with all of our anxieties, or our shyness, or our overwhelm, or our confusion, or anything that’s creating that negative energy, open your eyes, look around you, take something in. So, I really like to put myself…make myself small, if I will, and really look at the bigger picture, eyes wide open.

And then the “Right, left, right left,” is something that I do for myself as well, because when it looks impossible, when a mountain looks impossible to climb, whatever that mountain is for you, I know that I can get my right foot forward, and then I know that I can get my left foot, so really break it down. So, I don’t know if it’s a quote but it certainly words that I live by to allow me to refocus or stay focused and just plan and determined and have my most consistent performances.

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

Haley Perlus
Well, interestingly enough, I was just sharing this with my 13-year-old nephew a couple week ago who had to do a simulated TED Talk for his school, and he wanted to do it on sports psychology. And so, I shared with him the first study, the first documented study, for sure, in sports psychology which was by Norman Triplett. And he researched cyclists and he wanted to compare cyclists’ performance alone compared to where cyclists are in the presence of other athletes.

And when you’re in the presence of other people, at least in this study, you perform better. And it’s an interesting topic of discussion right now because of the hybrid environments and working from home versus in an office environment and the social facilitation. And so, this is a study that I’m really highlighting back and bringing back to my world and others because I do believe that we perform better when we are amongst others, not necessarily competition. I do believe that competition allows for that, too, but I do believe in being connected and being in the presence of others to help us perform better and be happier.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And a favorite book?

Haley Perlus
Well, yes, Robert Cialdini, that’s actually, to this day, my favorite book. I think it’s great The Psychology of Persuasion, but specifically, yes, and really looking to see how we can persuade ourselves to take action, what messages we need to tell ourselves to take action. So, it’s an oldie but, still, it’s one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And a favorite habit?

Haley Perlus
I’ll be honest, I’m really proud of myself for sticking with this water thing. It was not easy for me because I didn’t like the taste of water, and I just wasn’t a good water drinker, and, really, every morning I wake up, I drink water and lemon. I often now drink some green juice, and that starts my day. In addition, I make my bed every single morning, and I believe that that is super important to start my day off organized and structured, even though I’m pretty flexible and I wouldn’t consider myself a structured human being. But making my bed in the morning allows me to feel fresh and clean when I do start the day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really connects and resonates with audiences; they quote it back to you often?

Haley Perlus
People say it’s hard, people say change is hard. When we talk about changing these, replacing negative habits with good ritual, people say it’s hard. And I say, “I know. So what?” And I think that just kind of puts…and I do to it myself as well. I think that kind stops us in our tracks, and we’re like, “Okay. So what? That’s going to be hard.” And I say it with all the love in my heart, “So what?”

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

Haley Perlus
My website is the best place to find me. You can opt in for communications. You can actually connect with me directly through there. So, it’s DrHaleyPerlus.com.

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

Haley Perlus
Well, I don’t know what time everyone is listening to this, so depending on the time, the very next morning you have, what do you get to do? You get to drink water first thing in the morning and hydrate your brain, focus in.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Haley, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and peak performance.

Haley Perlus
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me.



783: How to Restore Energy and Clarity by Tuning in to Silence with Leigh Marz and Justin Zorn

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Leigh Marz and Justin Zorn share compelling research on the surprising benefits of silence—and how to find it amidst the noise and busyness of today’s world.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The small but powerful ways we can get more rest every day 
  2. How taking a hike can shorten your to-do list 
  3. How to resist the pull of your smartphone

About Leigh & Justin

Justin Talbot Zorn is an author and policymaker, who has served as both a strategist and a meditation teacher in the US Congress. A Harvard-and-Oxford-trained specialist in the economics and psychology of human thriving, Justin’s writing on mindfulness and politics has been published in 12 languages and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Policy, and other publications.  

Leigh Marz is a leadership coach and collaboration consultant specializing in work with scientists, engineers, and creatives. She spent years working with the climate team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and over a decade facilitating and advising a cross-sector team of chemists, advocates, government regulators, manufacturers, and retailers aiming to reduce toxic chemicals in our homes and environment. 

Resources Mentioned

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Leigh Marz & Justin Zorn Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Leigh and Justin, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Leigh Marz
Hey, thanks, Pete.

Justin Zorn
Thanks for having us, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in. And, first, I’d love to hear, as you were putting together Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, were there any particularly surprising and fascinating discoveries that grabbed you?

Leigh Marz
Well, I guess what we found is that when we started unpacking silence, that there was really a lot to it, much further than auditory decibel-level silence, that when we’re looking at silence today, we’re looking at freedom from distraction from our screens, or on the mass proliferation of information available, and also, we’re looking at silence internally in our minds. Just what does it mean to be quiet inside? So, for us, the exploration of silence became much bigger than just that auditory starting point. And that’s where things got rich.

Justin Zorn
We really did start thinking about the importance of auditory silence in the literal sense. We wrote this article for Harvard Business Review on this topic, and it resonated with people. So, we went out and started just following the cookie crumbs and interviewing people, neuroscientists, poets, activists, politicians, businesspeople, we ran the gamut.

And as we asked people this question, “What’s the deepest silence you’ve ever known?” as a starting point, they gave us answers that often weren’t auditorily quiet. So, we started exploring this silence in the informational sense and even in the internal sense, like Leigh mentioned.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so funny because the first thing I thought of is, “Oh, I stepped inside of an anechoic chamber,” which they say can drive you insane, which I find intriguing. I plan to visit one in the future. But that’s intriguing, people’s most silent moment didn’t have much to do with the decibel levels, eh, at times?

Leigh Marz
That was the big surprise. Yeah, that was the big surprise.

Justin Zorn
And the funny thing is, even an anechoic chamber isn’t really totally silent. We write in the book about a 20th century famous modernist composer named John Cage, who had a real love affair with silence. He wrote a piece of music that was famously just four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

And John Cage, actually, went into an anechoic chamber on the Harvard campus through World War II, and when he got there, he noticed there were two sounds, and he told the engineer running the anechoic chamber, this supposedly soundless booth, “Hey, this thing isn’t silent as it’s advertised.” He said, “I hear two sounds. One high pitch, and one low pitch.” And the engineer said, “Oh, no, it’s working.” He said, “The high-pitch sound is your nervous system in operation, and the low-pitch sound is your blood in circulation.”

So, for us, we’re actually through this, like, “Hey, maybe there isn’t such a thing as total perfect silence in the universe.” But then, as we explore the meaning of silence with all these diverse kinds of people, outstanding professionals in various fields, as well as the scientists, we find that silence does exist. It’s just that it’s a subjective experience in human consciousness. It’s what we think of as the space where no one is making claims on your attention. It’s pristine attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just as you describe that, it feels so refreshing.

Leigh Marz
Oh, good.

Pete Mockaitis
Wouldn’t that be nice?

Leigh Marz
Wouldn’t it though?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s very interesting in terms of, “Hmm,” as an exploration of a concept and how it affects humans. Can you speak to the benefits of silence, like some of the science behind it and, particularly, as applicable to folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Leigh Marz
Well, first, we need to maybe take you to a tour through the damage of noise a little bit, maybe some definitions because that toll of noise is real and true, so first, it’s about, of course, mitigating noise. So, we looked at the auditory effects on our bodies, on our ears, of course there’s hearing loss, but there’s far more than that. Hearing loss being a serious issue, leading to some isolation and all kinds of problems, doing all kinds of jobs, of course.

But, also, we looked at the impact, the toll on our ability to focus, how it impacts our nervous system, even how it’s connected to all kinds of diseases, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, how it impacts our lack sleep, our ability to sleep. And that lack of sleep, as you know, has a lot of downstream consequences to it.

So, there are vast physical psychological mood and impacts to all this noise. And then we turned to silence and we looked at, actually, this fascinating study out of Duke University that puts little mice in that anechoic chamber that we were just talking about, and pipes in pop sounds of little mice, Mozart Sonata in D, I believe it is, ambient noises and silence.

And what they found was that silence had an incredibly beneficial impact on the mice. It led to growth in their neurons in their brain that were sustained growth, they didn’t die off. Those neurons didn’t die off right away. So, the hypothesis was that this was a positive type of stress called eustress that the mice were under, something unusual that led them to grow into the direction of that silence, to listen into the silence and actually build some capacity in their brain that they didn’t have before.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

Leigh Marz
Yeah, yeah. Those areas of the brain are also associated with…in the hippocampus are also associated with memory and things like that. So, we became very interested in those effects.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, if we don’t have access to an anechoic chamber handy, how do you recommend we go about pursuing and acquiring some of the silence?

Justin Zorn
You know, for us, we didn’t want to write about the kind of silence that’s all about running away to an anechoic chamber or a sensory deprivation chamber or a monastery, for that matter. We’re interested in the kinds of silence, Pete, that we could find in this noisy, buzzing, singing, dancing world, and we think it’s a good thing to be immersed in the noise of the modern world.

And so, we explore in this book how silence is always available. It’s in the breath, it’s in the moments in between words and conversations with friends, and it’s in that three minutes of stepping outside of the cubicle and feeling the rays of the sun.

And we can even tune into silence just internally even when the noise of our lives seems out of control. So, this is a book abut how we tune into silence in our own ways. Some really simple ways to do that are, for example, to just step outside and just listen to nothing in particular. Leigh mentioned this Duke University Medical School study about how the act of trying to hear in silence is actually physically edifying to the brain. It grows new neurons.

So, if we could take a moment, even in a busy day, you don’t need to have a meditation practice or some kind of fancy knowledge of some kind of contemplative work, to just step outside and just listen to the breeze, just listen to the branches, listen to the rain, even just listening to the birds. It doesn’t need to be necessarily literal audio, auditory silence. This act of simply tuning into our hearing is healing and it’s edifying and it’s clarifying.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say listen to the silence, now I guess I’m thinking about the noise. I do hear some birds. I’m hearing some air-conditioning and that’s not nature. Is that still beneficial?

Justin Zorn
The way we think of it is as long as it’s not making claims on your attention. We’re living in a world where we’re constantly needing to have these mental reflexes go when we’re protecting our reputation or promoting a point of view. And in this book, we talk about taking a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities, which is having to think of what to say.

So, these kinds of listening, it’s better, of course, to listen to nature, we found through the science research, and we can get into that more. But this act of listening in a way that isn’t thinking of what to say, isn’t thinking about, “How do I compute this information?” giving your mind a break to simply rest in the silence.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when it comes to these breaks, is there a dosage that is optimal? Is it more is better? Or, is there like, “Ooh, three minutes every 60 minutes,” that you can prescribe to be excellent?

Leigh Marz
Yeah, that’s a great question and you did ask, “Is it beneficial?” So, I think what we’re doing is really pointing the reader back towards their experience because silence and noise, both are subjective actually. Those are subjective experiences. It was within the interview, an interview with biobehavioral professor, biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State, Joshua Smyth. And were haranguing him for a good definition for internal silence. When, in absolute exasperation, he said to us, “Quiet is what people think quiet is.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Leigh Marz
Yeah, and we would add quiet is what people feel and experience quiet to be. It could be quite surprising. So, listening into the air-conditioning, like you were saying, or listening to sounds of nature, simply turning away from your screen for a little bit, or stepping outside in the rays of the sun, the trick here is, as each of us, to tune in to what is actually bringing us a sense of quiet, a sense of clarity, a sense of relaxation perhaps in the nervous system.

Whatever those signals are that we are relaxing, as well as really learning about the signals that we are agitated, we have had too much noise, we are saturated, we’re unable to focus, to get clear on what those signals are in each of us. So, there is no great perfect prescription for all people. There’s no one size fits all here, which is one of the reasons why we think of this as a non-meditator’s guide to getting beyond the noise because meditation often is proposed to something that will work for all.

But as many of your listeners have probably experienced, even if we’ve had a short stint of being great with meditation, and Justin and I have had some good stints with meditation, even teaching it in the US Congress, in Justin’s case, but that’s not always the best way to quiet. So, the real key here is what is your way to quiet? And what is the type of noise that’s polluting your soundscape? What is the quiet that gets you out of that, and really getting tuned into that?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, in the book, you outlined 33 different ways to find silence. You shared a few. Can you share a couple more that really seem to be powerful for folks?

Justin Zorn
Sure. And one way we describe the beginning of these 33 ways to silence, which span individual practices as well as families, workplaces, communities, and broader society, one way we start to frame them, which will be, I think, particularly relevant to listeners thinking about how to be awesome at your job, is as the healthy successor to the smoke break. Leigh makes a confession that she used to smoke in the book.

And the confession isn’t so much that she used to smoke, it’s that she loved it. She loved the experience of having nothing to do for this period of time in a day. she would step outside of the office, particularly when she was doing really difficult work, crisis work around domestic violence and other difficult issues. She would step outside and have this time of total respite when she didn’t have to think of anything, didn’t have to do anything.

And, of course, it’s a wonderful thing that she quit and wasn’t going to have it any other way. It’s a wonderful thing that anyone quits smoking tobacco. But the question is, “What’s going to replace those little pockets of silence in our days?” So, we examined that question because there’s some researchers in Scotland found that often workers, particularly in high-stress industries, often have to at least pretend they smoke because that’s the only way they could get a break.

So, how can we shift our cultural norms in workplaces so that it’s possible to take these breaks in silence that we’re describing? So, some of the ways we describe this is, as I mentioned, this practice of simply stopping and listening, which is an ancient practice from India called nada yoga, the yoga of sound. And as we mentioned, there’s this research that indicates it’s edifying for the brain.

But one way to do this is to simply listen to the ringing in your own ears. We’ve interviewed folks in the book who talk about the science of how this works. Simply tuning in and listening can actually diminish that ringing in your ears, if you’re actually paying attention to it.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever…

Pete Mockaitis
It’s quite rare that I’ve ever noticed the ringing in my own ears. I don’t know what that says about me.

Leigh Marz
Maybe you don’t have any.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess there’s a follow up. It’s like do we all have that and how much?

Leigh Marz
Yeah, it’s pretty common, especially in that total silence or that near total silence. As we said, there may not be such a thing as total silence, which is why some people don’t find auditory quiet that relaxing if they’re not able to…or if that’s too aggravating. So, again, we’re finding what brings us quiet. For example, finding quiet might be I’ve been strapped to my desk for several hours on Zoom meetings and whatever.

I’m going to put on a song and I’m going to dance like a mad woman for three minutes, which is not quiet but will empty my brain of all those unhelpful thoughts, all the chatter, all the worry, just the lack of focus that I’m about to get into, if I haven’t already gotten into that, because we know about attention. We don’t have unlimited attention, rather. We can’t go on and drive and work and work without some cost to the quality of our attention.

Justin Zorn
So, one big idea is really how we find beyond just these little successors, healthy successors to the smoke breaks, which we’ll get into some more of those, but one big idea is how we come into moments of truly pristine attention, what we call these moments of rapturous silence, where the kind of silence that can actually change the way we perceive the world.

So, we looked for an example in the book and a practice called take your to-do list for a hike, which was inspired by a legendary acoustic ecologist named Gordon Hempton, who, every once in a while, will take a look at his to-do list and, say, when it gets too long, he’ll drive out somewhere remote off into the rainforest, the whole rainforest in Olympic National Park near Seattle, and he’ll hike for a day once he gets there.

And once he finds that he’s really tuned into the silence of nature, he’s gotten beyond all that noise and distraction that’s present for him at his desk, he takes his to-do list, which he’s printed out, out of his pocket, and he crosses out everything that’s not really necessary. And once he gets to that vantage point, that’s a day’s travel away from the hustle and bustle, he notices how the things that he thought were important, weren’t really so important. And he says the answers are in the silence.

Leigh Marz
He adds that when he does do something like that, take a day or half a day off of work to take his to-do list for a hike, that he often comes back to his office again with about five months less work on his plate because there’s a whole lot that feels important when he’s sitting there strapped to the desk. But out in nature with more expansive views and more expansive mind, he has a different perspective on that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I’m thinking about the healthy successor to the smoke break and how many of us, when we have such an opportunity in which there’s nothing external claiming our attention, we just short-circuit it in terms of like the phone can be the ubiquitous device. I’ve heard it called a digital pacifier in terms of, “I’m a little bit bored or uncomfortable,” and it’s almost like reflex or so habituated. It’s just out it goes and there I am on social media or news or whatever.

And it could even feel, for some, uncomfortable that it’s like, “Aargh, I need to do something, and here it is, and this will be entertaining or, in some way, pacifying.” So, how do we deal with our own selves in the midst of this?

Leigh Marz
Yeah. We spend a lot of time looking at what is within our sphere of control, and that’s one that we argue is within our sphere of control. We can certainly get into feedback loops where it feels like maybe we’re hustling and bustling, we’re mistaking busyness for productivity, we’re mistaking stress for aliveness. We can kind of get into these feedback loops of activity. But if we can actually take those moments as little gifts of silence.

So, let’s just say you’re stuck in traffic or you’re stuck in a long line, and rather than grab for your phone immediately to feel any of those things, a podcast, or checking the news, checking on your email, etc., that you actually take that, even if it was unplanned, or especially if it was unplanned, as a moment to tune in to silence.

Justin Zorn
We talked with a neuroscientist named Judson Brewer, who’s been a pioneer in the use of fMRI studies of meditators and studying the brains of meditators. And he looks at how people’s experience of noise in the consciousness often corresponds to a feeling of contractedness: contractedness in the body, contractedness in the mind. It’s a subjective state. It’s a feeling. But it often corresponds to a kind of feeling of being hunched over your phone, reading the news, feeling the stress of that.

And Dr. Brewer tells us that there’s an experience in the consciousness people described that corresponds to what he calls silence in the mind, this internal experience of silence in his studies with fMRIs and other imaging machinery. And he tells us that that experience of silence corresponds to the state that he calls expansion. That’s the kind of common denominator to what people are feeling.

And this is often also the kind of common denominator to where good creative ideas emerge. When we’re out of that state of contractedness, that hunched over the phone, doom-scrolling, or whatever you might be doing, versus being outside, being receptive, kind of like how many of the good ideas we often have happen in the shower, again when there’s nothing making claims on our consciousness, nothing making claims on our attention.

So, Leigh mentioned this challenge that in our society these days, we often mistake stress for aliveness. In our workplaces, we often mistake this feeling of constant doing, constant exertion for the feeling of being productive and effective, but it’s often not in those spaces of contraction but in these spaces of expansion where the best ideas, the profoundly generative ideas emerge.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool and that totally resonates. And that I hear that Aaron Sorkin put a shower in his office in order to take more showers and have more good ideas, which is funny. And I guess that’s one approach in terms of forcing it, like, “Oh, can’t do much else. You’re naked with water on you.”

Leigh Marz
Yup, that’s a healthy successor to a smoke break if there ever was one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Certainly. So, let’s just zoom right in. Okay, I like what you’re saying, Leigh and Justin. That’s really cool. And so, I go ahead and I retreat, whatever that means, you take a step outside or whatever, and then I feel the urge, the tug to pull out the phone. What is the optimal, if we’re seeking silence, response to ourselves? Because I imagine you could give in, you could harshly say, “No!” How do you think about those moments and sort of re-asserting what you’re going for?

Because in some ways, expansiveness, like as I think about that sensation, that vibe, is kind of like the opposite of constricted-ness. And in some ways, it feels constricting to engage in self-denial, like, “I want to do this.” “No!” And then, in so doing, there’s a bit of a constricting feeling. So, I’m all tied up in knots here. What do we do?

Justin Zorn
That’s a really good question. We have a chapter in the book called “Why Silence is Scary,” and at one level, we’re looking in the big picture what it’s like for people to go on extremely long silent retreats or someone to go on just away from the civilization for a while. And what that brings up in the consciousness, because that’s extremely scary, it’s almost like taking it to its…the farthest extent of that persistent nag of picking up the phone that you’re talking about, so we explore that dynamic.

But we found a study from the University of Virginia from 2014, where a social psychologist left mostly undergraduate students in a sparse room with no cellphones or no entertainment for 15 minutes, and Wilson is this professor, gave the participants a choice. They could either sit in silence without their phones alone or they could push a button that would administer a painful electric shock. And, initially, the participants had all said that they would pay money to avoid this painful electric shock. But in the end, 67% of the men and 25% of the women actually chose to shock themselves rather than sit alone without their phones in silence. And that was 15 minutes.

So, to answer your question about what do we actually do when confronting this, one big theme we explore in the book is the perennial wisdom of know thyself. Understand that we, in this day and age, are hardwired to seek stimulation, to seek sound and stimulus, and it is a skill to cultivate to get comfortable with silence.

Leigh Marz
We also talk about a convenience addiction that we have. And Cal Newport brings this to our attention in some of his work Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, where we tend to think about the gains of whatever it is, let’s say, a group email where infinite numbers of people are listed and included but we don’t think of the cost, so we’re consistently minimizing the cost of this constant grabbing for more input, more attention, more outreach, constant connectivity without looking at those costs there to our work, to the quality of our work, to the quality of our consciousness.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then one is there’s a little bit of just sort of patience and gentleness with yourself, like, “Yup, this is normal. You’re not messed up. This is a natural response to those who are not yet practiced and skilled with doing this.” And so, if the thought emerges, “I want to see what’s on Instagram right now,” how do you recommend responding to that thought?

Leigh Marz
Even just to pause a beat before jumping right in and to do a little bit of a cost-benefit analysis. in that moment, a little bit of an assessment in terms of where that’s coming from. If it’s coming from that grabby, needy, constricted place, or if it’s because you really want to check in with your network, there can be…we allot ourselves that time all the time to really figure out, “Where is it coming from? Where is that urge coming from?”

And then we can do that as teams as partners, as work partners, like Justin and I do all the time as well, too, to really just look at, “What’s our default here?” to examine the default that’s happening on our teams and in our organizations. Should we always be meeting? Should we meet back-to-back all the time? Should we assume constant connectivity? Those kinds of things. Like, what are the costs of that? And how can we support each other to create a culture that honors silence?

Justin Zorn
One thing that comes up for me with that question, too, Pete, and what Leigh is saying about questioning our defaults and building these cultures, this is where appreciation, through the stories in this book, we explore why silence is something worth valuing in a world of constant sound and stimulation and entertainment.

And if we can appreciate this basis of silence in our lives, we start to not just question our defaults, and say, “Well, I need to put my phone away more and I need to just deal with that kind of impulse.” It’s something more than that. It’s flipping the script so we’re able to see opportunities for rest and healing and renewal within the silence, which is what the science shows and what we also explore in the book through stories.

One big theme in the book that we explore is a traditional Japanese aesthetic concept, an idea called Ma. And the idea of Ma, this word Ma means the space in between. Some people call it the open space, the negative space but we think of Ma as pure potentiality. So, Ma is the space in between the words we’re saying to each other right now. It’s the space between notes in music. It’s the space, the empty space in artwork or, in Japanese traditional, ikebana, flower arranging. This word Ma actually means sunlight pouring forth through the gate of a temple.

So, it’s this pure potentiality that exist in the in-between spaces, in what’s not spoken. So, we look in the book, “What would it mean to appreciate Ma in our lives?” We have a section of one chapter called “Ma On the Job,” which is we explore how we could bring more silence, for example, into organizational brainstorming, or how we can bring more Ma into our workday, for example, in between meetings, or in between any kind of task or activity. Stopping and taking some breaths. Stopping to savor a glass of water. Or, within a group, having some moment of quiet time to integrate what it is that you’ve been talking about.

At the end of the book, we even explore Ma goes to Washington, what it would look like to bring all these reverence for the open space, to society as a whole, but the basic idea is something that we can bring into our work lives to find more rest and renewal and more inspiration in the moment-to-moment conduct.

Pete Mockaitis
You know what’s fascinating, Justin, is just as you’re speaking, you’re talking about Ma and I was pointing my attention toward the gaps or pauses between your words and sentences, and just in doing so, my brain felt less fatigued, and yet, I still heard and understood and internalized what you said. What’s that about?

Leigh Marz
That’s a great question. I think when we’re not sitting with…it’s about better listening. For starters, I think it’s just a better quality of listening instead of being poised perhaps with the internal on-the-ready of how we’re going to respond, and then, therefore, not really listening. So, I feel like the quality you’re talking about in part, the quality of listening as well as just your attention relaxing. I think that’s about just finding that silence and what it does to your consciousness. In that case, it’s a thing that supported you and relaxing, which is what it’s all about.

It’s about experimenting. This whole book is about experimenting and finding our way to quiet. So, I don’t know the exact answer why you, Pete, doing that practice, what was happening in your brain. We could put you up to all kinds of circuitry, but what matters is that it did, and what matters is that you might be onto a new way to listening that brings you some quiet. And that’s what this book is all about.

Justin Zorn
Florence Nightingale, about 150 years ago, intuited that noise in the consciousness, too much sound and stimulus, just at the auditory level drives the fight-or-flight response. It is a driver of stress. And this is why she said that unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that could be inflicted on a person sick or well.

And a lot of the recent research in neuroscience and various different disciplines of physical sciences of physiology are discovering that Florence Nightingale was right about this that she perceived 150 years ago or so. So, even if the auditory decibels are the same level, there’s something to be said of where we put our attention. If we can put our attention on the empty spaces, as you’re talking about, Pete, and we’re tuning into the silence, then there’s this opportunity we find, through our interviews with people in this book, to help reset the nervous system, to get beyond that fight or flight.

And one thing we explore in the book is it’s not just about the auditory decibels or it’s not even just about the amount of information and sound and stimulus you have in your life. It’s about how deeply you can go into the silence, when it appears, even if it’s just for two seconds, even if it’s for less than a second, like those moments of silence between words. How deeply can you go into the silence in this noisy world?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Well, Leigh, you mentioned hooking me up to circuitry, which I’m game for if anyone happens to have the equipment.

Leigh Marz
That’s fascinating, yeah, to do that. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking over at my Muse brain-sensing headband in the corner there, and I’m curious, are there any particular tools or things that can be handy here? We’ve talked about it’s not just about the decibel levels, so earplugs and noise-canceling headphones have something to offer but it’s certainly not the whole story that we’re unpacking here. Anything else that is useful for folks to pick up as we’re pursuing this journey?

Leigh Marz
Well, actually, I’ll say this, there’s actually another aspect of surprise, perhaps, is we expected to reach out to neuroscientists and for them to have all sorts of concrete, like, “Here’s what’s happening in the brain. And we know this, and we’ll see this.” But, actually, neuroscientists, like Adam Gazzaley at the University of San Francisco, where, really, every neuroscientist we spoke with were very humble about what they were able to claim, that they were actually…they said, “We use all this equipment, fMRIs, just an example of one, but there are times when someone’s sitting there and they’ll say, ‘Well, what just happened? Did something major register on the machinery?’”

And they’ll say, “Well, nothing. Nothing happened at all.” Or, the participant will have some great brilliant insight and it won’t register on the machinery. So, there’s still a lot we don’t know but there’s a lot we’re learning about some commonalities between mental states. And we haven’t mentioned things like states of flow, which can, of course, happen when we’re really getting involved and enjoying work states, maybe we’re really getting into a project.

So, really observing your own way with what is bringing you into that place of focus, where you’re challenged at an appropriate point but not so much that it’s stressful, and it’s also challenging enough that you’re not bored, so that sweet spot where you lose a sense of reflective self-consciousness, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it. So, there’s something in there about really getting attuned to when are you losing that sense of self, of not so helpful part, a sense of self, where you’re talking to yourself about yourself, whether you’re feeling distracted or there’s a lot of unhelpful chatter, notice you had anything crossed on before.

He has a great work, great research on those unhelpful and truths of thought and ruminating. So, part of what we’re looking at is really it’s kind of back to us. We wanted to avoid pointing towards gadgetry and pointing towards apps and things, but those can be helpful. Again, it’s up to us to really find out what is really working, what’s helping us find our flow, keep our focus, or clear the slate, or invite in novel thinking and creative thinking, versus what is just cluttering our brains.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Justin Zorn
You mentioned gadgetry, like noise-canceling headphones, Pete, and we have explored that a little bit. But one thing that’s come up for us in this book is that we’ve avoided wanting to add more technology, more complicated kinds of solutions, especially expensive kinds of solutions. We want to make this as accessible as possible, as simple as possible.

So, we look at the simplicity of these practices that we’ve talked about, that healthy successor to the smoke break, accepting these little gifts of silence when they arise in our lives. Maybe, if it’s possible, taking a little bit of time not talking. Gandhi, every week, spent his Monday not speaking. He would sometimes attend meetings, he would sometimes see visitors, but he wouldn’t speak a word. And it was about resting his mental reflex of constantly needing to think of what to say, constantly needing to add to the conversation. And he found that this was an important way to discern the truth.

So, these ways to finding silence are often, even in this world of so much noise, they’re really simple. Oftentimes, we find they’re about simple conversations with other people. We wrote, recently, a new piece for Harvard Business Review on this, and we talk about how, during the drafting of the US Constitution, the delegates there in Philadelphia had a giant mound of dirt erected outside Constitution Hall, and that was because they wanted to have pristine silent attention to be able to do their work, even if they were debating and even yelling at each other sometimes. They wanted a container where there wasn’t outside noise and distraction coming in.

So, we explore how that was the result of, obviously, not a fancy technology, but just a simple conversation that could lead to a shared norm around the value of quiet attention. And this book is really about “How do we make these shifts in our own lives, like Gandhi, or as a group in a workplace, like those delegates writing the US Constitution all those years ago?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, can we hear some favorite quotes?

Leigh Marz
Well, we turn to Viktor Frankl. He has, at least, this is a quote often attributed to him, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Justin Zorn
And for us, this quote really gets to the essence of what we mean by silence, not just the auditory silence; the informational and the internal. When we find this space that Frankl is talking about, this is the deep pristine attention that we’re talking about. It’s this golden silence. And there’s choice here. It’s where we find our agency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Leigh Marz
So many but just maybe in relation to this conversation, Chatter: The Voices in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross because that really put…what happened actually, that book came out while we were working on this, and he really took the conversation of that internal soundscape to a new level into the mainstream, and we’re so appreciative of that, and that one little piece that he pulled out with the fact that we have 320-some state of union addresses going through our minds every day, that’s compressed speech, really, really helped us with understanding how this internal chatter is noise in many cases.

Justin Zorn
Relevant to this conversation, one book that was coming up for us that we didn’t mention in our book but mentioned in a recent article, is a work of Hal Gregersen, a long-time MIT scholar. His book Questions Are the Answer is really about the notion that in group decision-making, the answers come through cultivating open space, not by trying to perform or not always by even presenting the best data but by cultivating the space where we could be together in a question, contemplating inside the inquiry. And this book is very much about how we curate and cultivate these kinds of spaces.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Leigh Marz
Well, we’ll highlight the take your to-do list for a hike. I also like to take clients on the early side of brainstorming for a hike so that that’s the space that we’re thinking about this project from, not strapped to a desk.

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

Justin Zorn
I would say this that I mentioned earlier about an invitation to take a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities, which is having to think of what to say.

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

Leigh Marz
So, as you might imagine, we’re not really big on social media with a platform like silence being our thing. But you can find us at our website AstreaStrategies.com, and that’s A-S-T-E-Astrategies.com. You can contact us through the website.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Leigh, when you said that, that reminds me of my favorite tweet of all time, which is, I read it and it just tickled me so much, it said, the tweet read, “Holding my child and just so present in this moment.”

Leigh Marz
That is the best. We’ll put that as our new favorite quote.

Justin Zorn
That is a really high-level way of throwing some shade on Twitter.

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

Leigh Marz
Yeah. I would say…well, I’ll say the first half is really to notice noise. Notice the auditory informational and internal noise that is getting in the way of you being awesome at your job, to really take note of it, and notice how to mitigate those things. And the second part, I’ll let Justin take on.

Justin Zorn
The second part, the flipside of that is tuning into silence. As we mentioned, noticing even these small pockets of silence exist in our life. Maybe it’s like we talked about in between the words, maybe it’s just taking that moment to step outside of the office and connect to the silence that surround us, and to feel the abundance that’s available in the silence, to feel the abundance of calm and peace that we could tune into, even when the world seems crazy, even when our lives seem crazy. Tuning into the silence, finding more energy, clarity, and focus within it.

Leigh Marz
Especially when we go off as teams to retreat, to refuel, or to generate some ideas and strategies in the future, to just try not to stuff all that time with content or data or activities, to really build in some silence and some quiet to enjoy together, as well as some recreation and fun.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Leigh, Justin, this has been a treat. I wish you much great silence.

Leigh Marz
Thank you. You, too, Pete.

Justin Zorn
Thank you, Pete.