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901: How to Lead with Emotional Power with Julia DiGangi

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Julia DiGangi shows you how to harness your emotional energy and turn it into your greatest strength.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What others’ skepticism is telling you
  2. How to reframe your brain’s negative patterns
  3. The root cause of procrastination–and how to deal with it

About Julia

Dr. Julia DiGangi is a neuropsychologist, who completed her residency at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. She has nearly two decades of experience studying the connection between our brains and our behavior. Dr. DiGangi has worked with leaders at The White House Press Office, global companies, international NGOs, and the US Special Forces. Her understanding of stress, trauma, and resilience is also informed by her work in international development and humanitarian aid, where she served some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The founder of NeuroHealth Partners, a neuropsychology-based consultancy, DiGangi shows people—at work and at home—how to harness the power of the brain to lead more satisfying and emotionally intelligent lives. She is the author of Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power.

Resources Mentioned

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Julia DiGangi Interview Transcript

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

Julia DiGangi
I’m so glad to be here, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into some of the wisdom you share in your book, Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power. Neuroscience just gets me all fired up. So, I think, first, I want to hear, for you personally, can you tell us from your own experiences working internationally and with vulnerable communities, is there a particularly powerful moment or story that shaped your understanding of stress, trauma, and resilience from a human experiential point of view?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. So, let me just say that I am a neuropsychologist, which means I’m a clinical psychologist with specialized expertise in the brain, and never in a million years did I think that I would become a psychologist. And the reason is my father is actually a psychologist, and I grew up, I’m very close with him. I grew up, he was always telling fascinating stories about human behavior, and I just always thought that psychology was my father’s domain and that it was not going to belong to me.

So, I was called to a lot of social justice work, so I started doing a lot of political work, and I started doing a lot of international humanitarian aid and development. And the reason I became a neuropsychologist was because I started working all around the world, so Detroit, Chicago, Latin America, Africa, and I was working in very, very traumatized communities, very high stress environments.

And the thing that really started to strike me is that, regardless of where I was, people were responding to stress in similar ways. So, I was really kind of struck by this idea that despite this wild amount of diversity, why is it that human behavior looks the same when it comes to extreme stress?

And it was really that question that got my scientific mind fired up and decided to really look at, “What can we understand about the human brain that can explain the way we run our large systems, whether it’s our family systems, whether it’s our organizational systems, whether it’s our companies, and whether it’s our political systems?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, the stressors then, I’d imagine, in those different environments are quite different, varied from each other, you know, what’s happening in Chicago versus Latin America are different, and yet the stress reactions and responses of the people were pretty similar to one another?

Julia DiGangi
Yes. So, I was working with a lot of very, very extreme trauma, so I was working with torture survivors, I was working with combat veterans, I was working with child soldiers, I was working with orphans, I was working with war survivors, so really extreme forms of trauma. But the thing that kind of struck me though is, like, “Why are such similar situations unfolding, because they’re all perpetrated by people? And then what was happening to the human body that was then creating additional trauma?”

Because when we’re traumatized, we then show up in our relationships, in our communities, in our workplaces in ways that aren’t really that functional. So, yes, I was working in a lot of different environments and seen a lot of different things, and I started to think, “If we could understand human suffering and human resilience at the most extreme ends of the spectrum, then there would have to be some pretty, pretty powerful advice about how the rest of us can grapple with the more common stress that we face in our ordinary lives.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Julia, that’s exactly where I wanted to go. You have piqued my interest to the max. So, I have a lot of notes and things I’d like to cover but let’s just go right where we are right now because that’s juicy. So, tell us, from those experiences, did you discover any master keys to resilience that we can put in place right away?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. So, I will say that I feel like I am on this planet, I feel like my core message is that our experiences of emotional pain, and by emotional pain I just mean any bad feeling you don’t want to feel – so stress, aggravation, irritation, inadequacy, fear of rejection – that these terrible feelings that we all experience in our own nervous systems in our own bodies are absolutely not here to torment us; they are here to set us free.

They are literally the line between where we currently are and the next evolution of what I call emotional power. So, if you want to show up at work more powerfully, if you want to show up online more powerfully, if you want to be more creative or more expressive, absolutely the number one thing you need to work with is your hard feelings.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is juicy, that is a thesis alright. Can you provide an example illustration so that we can get our arms around that conceptually to experientially, like, “Oh, I see. I see in that instance, that person, there was the line, and they surpassed it and then cool things unfolded”?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. Sure.

So, I would say that, without question, the hardest thing for us is our experiences of other people’s emotion. So, I think that our leadership is best understood as, “Who do I become in the energy of other people’s emotions?” In other words, “What happens to me when people don’t see me the way that I want to be seen? What happens to me when the people around me don’t agree with me? What happens to me when the people around me don’t understand me?”

If I’m not emotionally powerful enough, and I have this really great idea, okay, let’s say I have a great idea for a podcast, I have a great idea for a social media post, I have a great idea for a new product, if I feel like people don’t understand me, it’s going to provoke bad feelings, it’s going to make me feel insecure, it’s going to make me feel anxious, it’s going to make me feel stressed. If I don’t know what to do about those bad feelings, it will shut down my behavior.

So, it’s only when I’m able to say, “I know, in the energy of you not understanding me perfectly, Pete, it’s provoking the sense of anxiety or stress inside of me, and I know…”

Pete Mockaitis
Like, right now?

Julia DiGangi
Yeah, I mean, I always get nervous before these podcasts, so, yes, absolutely, but I think that’s a perfect example. It’s like, “Can I still, in my fear, in my anxiety, in my worries, like, am I going to say something stupid? Are people going to understand me? Am I still powerful enough to show up here and say the things that I want to say?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Understood. And so then, there you go in terms of, like, the line in terms of it is sort of a border or a fork in the road – I’m mixing my geographical metaphors here – in terms of you could say, “Well, just forget it. Just whatever. I guess we’re done here.” That’s one option, like we give in, in terms of the frustration, the anxiety, the fear, the overwhelm, whatever, just sort of wins out, like, “I’m out of here.” That’s one approach. And then the other way is that you sort of fold.

And for the record, Julia, I think you’re doing great.

Julia DiGangi
Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that you have whipped up a frenzy of curiosity inside me such that now I want to understand all of it and with perfect clarity. And so, yeah, we’re going to be picking up on that.

Julia DiGangi
Let me say this because I think this is really clarifying, too. Everyone has problems, we’re all, like, “All right. So, what’s the biggest obstacle in my life? This problem, this problem, this problem.” But if you really think about what a problem is, there is no problem on the planet until you have activity in your nervous system. In other words, anything that you’re calling a problem in your life necessarily means you have bad energy in your nervous system.

So, let’s say I’m fired from my job, and let’s say I’m fired from my job and people call me like a bumbling idiot in front of 50 people, and I legitimately don’t feel bad about it. I’m not intoxicated or I’m not dissociated. I just really don’t feel bad about it. Because I have no pain, I have no problem. And one of the things, this is such a big shift, it makes you so more powerful in your leadership, a lot of times we run around trying to solve our situations, “Okay, this person is going to say this and so I’m going to do this,” or, “This project might go with this, and I got to do this about this project.”

And I’m not saying your situations don’t matter, but if you really think about the most powerful place to work in your life, it’s at the beginning of your emotional energy. In other words, who would I become in this situation if I said, “It’s okay, Pete, if you don’t perfectly understand me”? actually, I’ll tell you a good story.

So, I interviewed a lot of very, very elite leaders for the book, and one of the leaders that I interviewed, and I said that I was going to anonymize everyone because some people talked about some really sort of controversial and difficult things in the book, but I’ll say it’s someone who leads tens and tens of thousands of people.

And one of the things he said to me in the book that I was totally struck by, is I said, “How do you deal with your own tough feelings? Like, how do you deal with your own feelings of doubt, or insecurity, or fear, or anxiety?” And he said, “That’s kind of a hard question for me to answer but I would imagine that if my wife was in the room, my wife would tell you, if I have to make a hard decision that is not a sleep-loss moment for me. In other words, if there is a thousand people in the room, and only 501 agree with me and 499 don’t agree with me, I’m totally okay with it.”

By the way, this guy has amazing employee engagement scores, so he’s very, very well-liked. He’s not some brute who has no emotional intelligence. So, what that moment is telling us is that this man is powerful enough to be misunderstood in the energy of other people’s skepticism and doubt and confusion. And if we’re really honest, how often does other people’s emotion shut down the big visions that we have inside of our own brains and our own spirits?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, it’s so funny. I’m reminded of, or there’s so many things that are coming to mind here. I remember a buddy of mine, we had the idea that was basically Airbnb, I think shortly before Airbnb was founded, and so we thought it’s really cool. And so, why not? We were consultants, we saw empty bedrooms, we’re like, “Well, these underutilized resources could really turn into something.”

And so, we thought, “Let’s chat with a buddy of ours who is somewhat high up in Hyatt Hotels.” And then his energy was like, “You know, I think this could be a nightmare for liability, people are going to ruin stuff and commit crimes. And, yeah, ugh, I’m really nervous about that.” And so, we’re like, “Oh, yeah, I guess he’s right.” So, we just stopped.

Now, who knows what life path that we could’ve been to people who started Airbnb, or if maybe hundreds of people were thinking the same thing around the same time in the universe. But it’s true that energy did shut it down, and it’s a common experience. Or, if someone seems to respond to our idea with a sense of, I don’t know, contempt, or disgust, or even just more subtle, like, “Oh,” like they’re not really into it but just, like, “Okay, you don’t find that interesting or compelling. Okay, duly noted.” So, yeah, that can shut it down.

So, are you telling us, Julia, that it’s quite possible to develop the emotional power, force, resilience?

Julia DiGangi
A hundred percent. First of all, your story was a phenomenal one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Julia DiGangi
And we all have versions of that, like we all have. And here’s the thing that I think is so important to really get. When we have these moments of inspiration, whether we call it inspiration or creativity, or we have these visions, the whole idea of creativity is the world has never been here before. So, of course, there’s going to be skeptics. It would make no sense if you said, “Hey, you know what we’re going to do, we’re going to start a community on Mars,” and the rest of the world was like, “Of course, that makes perfect sense.”

So, it’s almost like some of our best, most powerful, most transformative ideas, if they’re not being met by other people’s resistance, I think we need to question, “Is it really a good idea?” So, it’s almost like part of our work is to reframe the patterns we have around other people’s reactions. That’s the first thing I want to say.

There’s another second important thing that I can say that can really help our leadership, and that is this. We all know that when people are flagrantly rude to us, or egregiously cynical, that hurts. But something that we egregiously underestimate is the pain of confusion. Well, you just gave a great example where you said sometimes people will meet our ideas and, like, not just be super enthusiastic. They might just be a little bit lukewarm or they might seem a little bit confused.

One of the things we’ve very clear about in neuroscience is your brain absolutely despises confusion. So, a very practical way to think about your brain is as a pattern detector. It’s going through your life, largely unconsciously, going “Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank. Apple. Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank. Apple.” Now what this actually means is “Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank,” sometimes the answer really isn’t apple. But because your brain hates that ambiguity or that openness, it will try to close the pattern in a way that’s going to make sense to you.

When we are confused, what happens is the brain can handle kind of the open-endedness of confusion for a very short period of time, and then very quickly it will close the pattern, and it will close the pattern in a way that is suspicious, fearful, and small.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Just this morning, Julia, this was funny, I thought I was going to be making some scrambled eggs for the family. And then Katy said, “Oh, hey, can you come watch Joey, and I’ll make the scrambled eggs?” And I said, “I thought I was making the scrambled eggs?” And she just said, “Can I do it?” And so, I was like, “Well, what’s going on here? I made the scrambled eggs last time, I usually make scrambled eggs, she’s asking to do it.”

And so, it’s sort of like I can’t even stand the uncertainty, the question mark associated with why this is happening. It doesn’t even really matter in terms of I’m thinking, “Is there something wrong with the way that I make scrambled eggs, with the scrambled eggs that I made yesterday?”

Julia DiGangi
Isn’t that interesting? Because, like, your interpretation automatically goes to the brain definitely has a negativity bias, it’s a way to keep us alive. So, now you’re thinking, “Oh, she hates the way I make my scrambled eggs.” And the next thing we know, we’re fighting with our partners over something that nobody really even understands because we’ve all been confused from the beginning.

So, it’s like if we could understand the power of confusion in our lives, like have reverence for it, understand how the brain is really, because I think I always say the brain is the most powerful machine you’ll ever own. You have to operate it powerfully. A great example of that happened in my marriage a lot more at the beginning, is like me and my husband had different texting patterns. So, it’s like I would text and then he would delay for a long time, and instead of just being, like, the man is not near his cellphone, or the man is busy, or the man is distracted by something else, you start to come up with all of these ridiculous stories.

And the craziest thing of all is the stories help no one. It doesn’t help the relationship, it’s not fair to the other person, and we injure ourselves in the process. So, again, if we understand what the brain is doing, which is why I wrote Energy Rising, we become so much more empowered in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in that circumstance, I’m curious, it feels like we need a narrative or an explanation so badly we just make one up. So, Julia, is there a better alternative for us in these moments?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. So, the thing that you want to do is you’ve got to think about this idea of emotional power is, “Who do I want to be in the energy of other people’s bad emotions?” So, if I want to be the type of leader, and, by the way, our leadership totally shows up in our romantic relationships as well so it’s not just a thing at work, it’s a thing in our homes as well.

If I want to be the type of leader who’s trusting and generous, then I need to know that when I start to wobble in uncertainty because, again, the brain has an allergy to uncertainty, I need to really think, “How do I hold the frequency of trust and generosity?” And if I don’t ask myself, if I don’t have a practice of discipline of asking myself that question, the brain is automatically and reactively going to shut the pattern.

And it’s going to shut the pattern in a way that actually makes no sense to our wellbeing. This is kind of the paradox of having a human brain. It’s going to make you start thinking suspicious, annoying. And if you let it fester for too long terrible things about the people in your life who really are on your team. But can I tell you an example from our lab that I just think is so powerful to show you how much the human brain hates uncertainty?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Julia DiGangi
So, in part of our paradigms, we would, in our lab, we had a machine that would shock people. So, this is a way to administer pain to see how people respond in conditions of pain. And what people, as lots of researchers out there who study uncertainty in the brain, in fact, this is at the foundation of all anxiety disorders are. All anxiety is a disturbed relationship with certainty.

So, we would bring people into the lab, and there’s conditions that you can put people in these laboratory settings. So, you can have a machine that counts down five, four, three, two, one, and when the machine hits one, you’re absolutely going to get a shock. Then you have another condition where the machine counts down five, four, three, two, one, and maybe you’ll get a shock or maybe you won’t get a shock.

Now, the “rational person,” and I’m using air quotes here, is the person who says, “Definitely put me in condition two because there’s a good chance I will walk away pain-free.” But statistically, people choose to be in the option where they get the shock every single time. What that is telling you is that emotional pain, first of all, uncertainty is literally emotionally painful. And the pain associated with uncertainty and stress can be more painful than actual physical pain.

And so, when we think about the way that we lead, the way that we communicate with people, how confusing we are, how much clarity, how much transparency, we have really powerful neuroscientific evidence that says really, really think, especially in a world that is filled with a brim of information, think about how to communicate clearly if you want to be powerful. And by powerful, I don’t mean command and control. I mean effective, connected.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got this allergy to uncertainty, and one master approach is to rather than letting our default brains do what they do – inventing stories that cause turmoil – we could proactively say, “Who do I want to be in this moment amidst the uncertainty?” And so then, we’re making sort of a conscientious choice, “All right, this is how I’m going to be amidst this as opposed to letting autopilot take us somewhere, which is probably not going to be a great place where autopilot would go.”

Do you have any other pro tips in the midst of uncertainty how we can deal with that well?

Julia DiGangi
I do. This one is, like, I think, a fantastic one. I want to teach you guys something that I call a power pattern. So, I said before, your brain is a pattern detection machine. Now, overwhelmingly, the brain is driving you through your life in ways that are unconscious. We all have had that experience where we’re driving in our car and we’re talking on the phone, and somehow, we magically show up in our driveway and we have no idea, we actually have no conscious recollection of it. So, the brain is an incredibly powerful machine and it does a lot of the work for you unconsciously.

Okay. But let’s go back to this pattern, this idea of “Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank.” How that actually sounds emotionally in our lives, and emotion is the most powerful energy in a human being’s life. This is just a neuroscientific reality. So, we’re all running these patterns in our life, and maybe your pattern sounds like, “Things just never work out for me. Things just never work out for me. Things just never work out for me.”

Maybe you have a pattern that’s like, “People don’t understand me. People don’t understand me. People don’t understand me.” So, if you look at your life and you say, “Where are the ways in my life that I kind of keep getting into conflict, or struggle, or stress?” you’re going to see there’s a pattern that kind of connects all those things.

So, let’s imagine that mine is, “People don’t understand me.” So, I write a book, and I kind of have a sense, “Nobody is really going to get it.” Or, I show up at parties and I kind of feel weird because I really don’t feel like people understand what I’m talking about, or people don’t enjoy talking to me. Now, let’s say I’m creating a business, and the whole reason one would create a business is because, hopefully, it’s bringing something novel to the world.

So, I start this business but my underlying pattern, the underlying energy in which I’m doing it, whether I’m conscious of it or not, is, “People don’t understand me.” What do you think the likelihood of success for that business is? I can almost guarantee I am going to self-sabotage. So, what if I said to myself, “Instead of working with this pattern of ‘People don’t understand me,’ what if, if I think I’m really creative and I have these really kind of cool visions for my leadership, what if I started having the…?”

Also, let me just say, when people don’t understand us, especially if we have kind of forward-thinking ideas, that is stressful. But what if I change my pattern, and my pattern, instead of being, “People don’t understand me,” what if my pattern was, “I am ahead of my time”? Now, I kind of have the sense, when people don’t understand me, “Of course, they don’t understand me. I go first. Of course, they don’t understand me. I am a pioneer. Of course, they don’t understand me. How could they possibly understand a place that I’m trying to lead them to?”

Do you see how much more life-giving and hopeful and spacious, “I am ahead of my time” is than “People don’t understand me”?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. So, building the power pattern seems like we are reframing a thing that’s a bummer into, “Well, yeah, of course, that’s just sort of normal and to be expected.”

Julia DiGangi
A hundred percent true.

Pete Mockaitis
I think I remember doing this during my dating years because it’s a bummer when you’re digging somebody and they blow you off, it’s like, “Oh, okay.” And what’s so funny, I decided about my criteria, I had to boil it down into four.

Julia DiGangi
And will you tell? You’re going to tell me your four criteria or is that top secret?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, they’re cool, they’re cute, and one of them was that they’re crazy about Pete Mockaitis because that’s just more fun. And so, it’s so funny, even though the same thing happened, like, “Oh, I texted her and she ghosted me. Bummer,” I reframed it in terms of it isn’t like, “Oh, why? What’s wrong with me? Was I…?”

In terms of it’s like, “Well, unfortunately, this candidate has been disqualified because she doesn’t really measure up on the key criterion of being crazy about Pete Mockaitis. So, yeah, that’s disappointing that we’re going to have to conclude this candidate’s application process, but I guess we’ll have to move onto the next.”

And it was funny because in both instances, they more or less decided they didn’t dig me enough to want to continue communicating.

Julia DiGangi
Well, Pete, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t dig you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, shucks.

Julia DiGangi
But that being said, things happen that are unexplainable, but what a liberating frame. Because the only thing that would’ve happened if you would’ve been like, “Oh, this person doesn’t like me. I’m not good enough,” which we all do, is we just sink ourselves. So, the other piece here is that this is so big, it almost can sound like I’m saying nothing but it really does matter, which is there is no meaning in the world until you use your nervous system to make meaning out of it.

And the way I really learned that this was true, so, first of all, it’s kind of obvious. If it doesn’t hit your brain and your neurons, like, “Did the tree fall in the forest? Who cares? You weren’t around to hear it.” The whole idea of objectivity, it’s coming through our subjective nervous systems. The way that this really kind of became very, very clear for me is I’m fundamentally a trauma researcher. I’ve done extensive scientific research into trauma, the behavioral consequences, the neurobiological associations.

We very commonly see people undergo the same trauma, the same objective event – childhood issues, assault, accidents, combat – and have wildly different experiences. At one extreme, you have post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a form of illness after trauma, and at the other extreme, you have something that scientists are now starting to study more and more, which is called post-traumatic growth.

How in the world? So, trauma is horrific, that definition is what makes trauma, trauma. How could two people experience something that no one is debating was horrible, and have two remarkably different stories, realities, meanings emerge from that? It has everything to do with what is happening inside of their nervous system.

So, you want to say the stories we tell ourselves are the meaning we make, this has everything to do, everything to do with how powerful we are in our lives. Because I will tell you what, I work with people who had every good reason, every good reason to stay down. The amount of trauma that some people go through is mind-blowing.

If they said to you, “I am never up again,” you would say, “I completely understand.” But for some reason, they say, “I rise because I say that I rise.” And when you see people say, what they’re really saying is, “Even though this horrific thing happened in my life, I am still the most powerful person in my own life.” And when we really touch that, our energy is unstoppable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Julia, I’d love your take in terms of, I think, sometimes we can see, “Yes, this frame, this power pattern would be more useful and helpful to me than the alternative, and yet, I just don’t really believe that to be true. It’s, like, I’d like for it to be true. It sounds pretty nice. I think it can be true for some people, and yet as I try on that belief, it doesn’t fit, or feel right, or feel me.” What do we do with that?

Julia DiGangi
Totally, you got it right-size it. One of the things I love doing in the area of emotional intelligence, mental health wellbeing, is making just tons of great, great analogs to physical health. If I really had been totally out of shape, and I call you, and I’m like, “Hey, you know what, I’m going to run Ironman. I’m going to participate in Ironman athlete,” you’d be like, “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard you say, Julia, and you’ve had some pretty dumb ideas in your life, but that one takes the cake.”

So, what we have to do when we’re thinking about our own emotional expansion, our own emotional increases in our power, and our emotional strength, we have to think there’s not a more powerful journey in your life so we have to right-size things. So, a lot of times what will happen is people will reach for the emotional Ironman off the dome. And this is why I do not like affirmations, I look in the mirror and, let’s say, I feel terrible about myself, I look in the mirror, and I say, “I’m so great. I’m so great. I matter so much. I love myself so much.” Whatever.

But there’s huge parts of me that is like, “Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.” Not only is that not going to help, it’s going to make me feel worse because the dissonance between what I’m feeling and what I’m actually saying is like so far apart. What I need to do is say, “What is the edge?” And I talk about this a lot in my book, “What is the edge of my emotional power?”

So, if I go to the gym, and I can lift 20 pounds today, tomorrow I’m not going to try and lift 50. I’m trying to say, “What’s 22?”. I go to a conference and I normally sit in the back of the room. I’m too afraid to speak up. I don’t say, “I deserve to be on that stage today.” Maybe I say, “You know what’s accessible to me, I’m going to sit in the first row.” Maybe the next thing is, “I’m going to sit in the first row, and I’m going to ask a question.” You see, so it’s this idea of if you can think about evolution in other areas of your life, of course, you can think about evolution in your emotional life.

The other thing that I think is so exciting is we have totally misunderstood human development. We celebrate, like, “Oh, the little kid took a step,” “Oh, the little kid is walking,” “Oh, the little kid is eating solid food.” And then by the time you’re 21, everybody is done with you. Graduation, college, you’ve hit all your milestones, there’s nowhere but down to go. Not freaking true.

The next frontier of human intelligence is absolutely going to be emotional. And the sooner leaders understand this, the better, because the human brain is emotional. But what we need to now think is, in the middle of our lives when we’re kind of hitting our stride in our career, the most powerful question is, “How do we think about our emotional evolution?” And by emotional evolution, I mean, “How do I still speak up when other people don’t understand me?”

I think a lot of us are saying we’re exhausted, but we’re overworking. That’s a form of self-injury. A lot of us are saying we have really great ideas in our mind but we’re keeping our mouth shut. That’s not emotionally powerful. We’re saying we want to work on holding our boundaries, “I’m really going to start telling people no,” and the second somebody calls me, they’ll be like, “Hey, can you do this other project, Julia?” I’m like, “Yeah,” and then I’m so pissed off all night because – why? – I’m not really resentful of them. I’m resentful because I betrayed myself.

So, we got to get clear on, number one, where the emotional pain in our lives is coming from. And a lot of us don’t recognize this but the majority of the pain in our lives is actually coming from the ways that we abandon ourselves. And the second we start saying, “No matter what, I will not leave myself. I will pay attention to my emotional energy. I will work with my emotional energy. I start to become more and more powerful.”

The reason that this is so important for our leaders is, do you know what your followers want more than anything on the planet? They want access to their own power. And when you become the embodied standard of a human being who is in touch with your own emotional power, you become the influence, the true influence. We all throw this term around. You become the standard that everyone follows, not because they have to, not because they have FOMO, but because they truly desire to. And this is the leadership that will change the planet.

Pete Mockaitis
This is powerful stuff. I’m digging it, Julia. Let’s hit another example in terms of a power pattern and knowing that we don’t jump to the Ironman, metaphorically, but rather we sort of take one more step, like sitting in the front of the row. Let’s say there’s a pattern of energy associated with procrastination or distract-ability, like, “Ugh, I don’t feel like doing this. It’s boring and I don’t want to.” And then that shows up a lot. How do we apply some of these frameworks to that issue?

Julia DiGangi
So, you want me to tackle procrastination?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Julia DiGangi
Okay. So, first of all, you ready for this?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Julia DiGangi
We have to really get down to the guts, and Energy Rising takes you to the guts of what procrastination is actually about. First of all, let me just say neurodiversity is totally a thing, so a lot of people struggle with attentional issues. I always say attention is the mother of all of our cognitive abilities. If you think you can’t problem-solve, you can’t remember things, you can’t make decisions if you’re not paying attention in the first place.

So, there’s a lot of sorts of taxes on our attention these days, I want to acknowledge that. But if you really look at the research into procrastination, procrastination is always about a fear of not being good enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah? Okay.

Julia DiGangi
Let’s break this down, and I can actually really speak to this from my own. I just wrote this book, like it was a glorious process but I will tell you it was so hard. And the reason it was so hard, and I would have writer’s block, procrastination, distraction, it’s because you have this sense, and a lot of times it’s not even that conscious, but, like, “If I don’t make this perfect,” and a lot of us aren’t able to, we’re not in touch with ourselves enough to say this.

But the logic kind of goes like this, “If I don’t make this perfect, people aren’t going to like it. But it’s not just that they’re not going to like it, they’re going to think I’m an idiot. I’m going to humiliate myself. People aren’t going to want to be around me. I’m going to let everybody down. I’m going to be…” It just keeps cascading and cascading and cascading, and this is what catastrophic thinking is.

So, we do a lot of work around catastrophic thinking in both the coaching industry and in the mental health field, but it’s, like, the true thing about procrastination is not, “I can’t make a phone call,” or write four sentences on a page, or get on camera and say a few things. Procrastination is really this deep, deep fear that there’s something fundamentally wrong with myself.

So, first of all, the first step is to name it. And as soon as you start to say, “Hold on, Julia. So, you’re telling me if you don’t write 10 sentences that are absolutely like Pulitzer Prize-winning, you’re going to basically be a troll living in a refrigerator box?” And when you start to make that explicit, it just starts to let some of the pressure out of the pressure compartment.

And then I start to say, “I’m going to write 10 sentences with absolutely no judgment. I can literally write, “The sky is blue and the grass is…” I just need to start going because you want to start getting some momentum. And you also want to say, like, if we want to be effective leaders, the fastest way to get there is to totally release this perfectionism BS. Because it’s so interesting to me, and I will tell you, I treat a lot of anxiety. OCD is an anxiety disorder, and one of the forms, there’s many forms of OCD, but at a pathological form, perfectionism is OCD.

We think that OCD, or we think that perfectionism makes us so strong. It makes us so weak because the person that you’re doing the perfection for isn’t you. You’re performing for some fantasy that you have about what other people think. And if you’re really getting to the guts of it, what you think is that, “They’re going to think I’m a fool, they’re going to think I’m a reject, they’re going to think I’m a degenerate, unless I nail it.”

And what’s really interesting is when you get people to start verbalizing, “Tell me about the fears,” it’s almost hard for them to put it into words because the intellectual part of their brain knows that it’s absurd. The intellectual part of my brain knows that if I don’t write the best book in the history of the planet, I’m not going to be a social outcast and die alone. So, it’s more of this nebulous sense of, like, “This just doesn’t feel good.”

That sensation is generated by emotional systems in the brain. So, part of the work of getting over distract-ability, and perfectionism, and procrastination is to say, “How is my fear of failure playing out here? Let me start to literally list the reasons, and then let me start to take reasonable action.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Julia, much good stuff. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to put out there before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Julia DiGangi
I think I just want to say this because I think it’s so hopeful and so empowering and so healing, and I sort of started our interview saying this, is that the feelings, if you really think about any problem in your life, the reason you have a problem is because you have a bad feeling. You feel intimidated. You feel disappointed. You feel overwhelmed. You feel scared.

If you don’t work on the actual feelings themselves, those feelings will just keep popping up again and again and again, which means your ability to be powerful in your leadership will be constrained by that level of your emotion. Let me make this more clear. Let’s say I get really anxious talking in front of five people, and I make it through my talk, and they’re only five people there. Next time I give a talk, it’s probably only going to be to five people. If I want to talk on huge stages to 20,000 people, do you think I’m going to be able to talk on a stage of 20,000 people if I really can’t handle a stage of five?

So, it’s not really the situation I need to work with, it’s the sensation of anxiety and fear. And once I break through that at five people, then I can start to speak to 20 people. When I break through that, I can start to speak to 50 people. So, when we really start to work not just with our situations but we really start to work with the energy in our nervous system, it really transforms our leadership and our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Julia DiGangi
Yeah. Can I share two?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Julia DiGangi
I have two favorites. The first quote is from Mother Teresa, and it is, “If only we would sweep our own doorsteps, then the entire world would be clean.” I have worked with human suffering and human redemption for a long time, and we’re all out there talking about a better world. If we really want to create a better world, we have to look more closely at our own emotional pain because nearly all of the pain in the world actually comes from people’s fear. It doesn’t come because we’re cruel, vicious, psychopaths. It comes because we don’t feel like we’re good enough. And in the panic of not feeling good enough, we create messes.

The second quote is related to that, and the second quote is, “Everywhere I go, there I am.” A lot of times, we think if we could just change our situation, we could get a better job, we could make a little bit more money, we could have the breakthrough in the business that we just created, the kids could graduate, on and on and on and on. But what I have seen over and over and over again through my work, and also because I understand the brain, the brain is a pattern detector that runs on emotional energy.

So, your situations can change, you can move from Chicago to Denver, and you might feel good for six months, but pretty quick, you’re going to feel the way you’ve always felt unless you work at the level of your emotional energy.

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

Julia DiGangi
I’ll say one of my own studies that I really like and then I’ll talk about someone else’s work. The study of my own that I like the most is I looked at what’s called pre-morbid predictors of PTSD. So, this kind of goes back to this idea of we have so much power to make meaning out of our own lives.

So, basically, the idea here is that most people who experience a traumatic event will naturally recover. Just like if you fell down on the street and skinned your knee, if you give it some time, chances are good that your leg is going to recover naturally. So, scientists are asking the question, “Is trauma alone not enough to describe who gets sick and why?”

And so, this study really looked at, “What’s going on with people even before the trauma has happened that can describe who’s at risk and who’s really resilient?” Because if we understand that, there’s so much potential to heal people. So, that’s kind of my work that I think is really exciting.

And I’ve also really liked a lot of the studies around uncertainty and boredom. There’s a great study where people were put in a room, and they thought they just had to go in this waiting room for a little while, they thought they were going to be part of another study but it was actually a setup. They were put into this room, and the only thing that was in this room was an electrical shock machine.

And they were like, “We’ll be back in three minutes to come get you,” that’s what the experimenter said, but the whole experiment was just to leave people in the room. And you saw that in a relatively short period of time, people were so bored that instead of just sitting with themselves, instead of just being still, meditating, thinking, people started using this electrical shock machine to shock themselves.

And I think that’s such a powerful metaphor because we are so resistant to just sitting with ourselves. And if we really want to feel better in our lives, we don’t need to achieve more and do more, I’m not saying those things can’t be done, but they come from a much more powerful place when we really understand our own inner energy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Julia DiGangi
So, a great book, I can’t say my favorite because I have a lot, it’s like picking your favorite child, is The Body Keeps the Score. Are you familiar with this book?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Julia DiGangi
So, obviously, a great book about pain and how it shows up in the nervous system. So, if we really want to empower ourselves, it begins with our brains and our bodies.

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

Julia DiGangi
Well, this isn’t going to be this fancy but it’s going to be honest. I do a tremendous amount of work texting myself. I wrote enormous sections of the book texting myself. So, a lot of times, it kind of goes back to what we were saying about procrastination and fear of failure, when I would fire up the computer, I felt like there was all this pressure to start being, I don’t know, Ernest Hemingway or something. And a lot of times, I would get paralyzed by it.

And it was a night when I was calm and my kids were asleep that a lot of times, I would have all this inspiration – there’s that word again – all this creativity, and I would, in my Notes app and in my text message, do a lot of really beautiful work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Julia DiGangi
I would say my favorite habit is I free-write every evening. I’m very, very disciplined about this. And the reason I do this is because it’s a great way to integrate your thinking and your feelings. It’s a great way to have the most powerful brain. So, you have systems in your brain that think, and systems in your brain that feel, and they are connected but not perfectly integrated.

So, if you free-write, in other words, you’re not writing with a goal, you’re not trying to answer a very logical question, it’s a great way to link your emotions to the way that you think. And the most powerful person is a person who knows what they feel and feel what they know.

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

Julia DiGangi
Yeah. “Emotional energy is a currency, and you cannot give what you do not have.” We get this in all other domains. If I came to you and said, “Pete, I really, really need five bucks,” and if you really wanted to help me but you genuinely did not have five bucks, you would go, “Julia, I’m sorry, I don’t have five bucks,” and that would be the end of it. I would clearly understand.

In our workplaces, in our homes, we’re now talking about all these emotional currencies: transparency, empathy, inclusion, belonging, authenticity. And leaders are supposed to give these things to their teams, they’re supposed to give these things to their children, they’re supposed to give these things to their partners, the problem is I cannot give something I do not have.

How can I give attunement to my child when I’m not even attuned to myself? How can I create a culture of belonging if I’m always feeling, like, “I’m not really sure I belong in this organization. I’m kind of worried about my relevance. I don’t really feel like people like have my back”? We cannot give what we do not have.

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

Julia DiGangi
I would love to connect and talk about emotional power in leadership. I’m on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram @drjuliadigangi. Or, you could check out my website which is DrJuliaDiGangi.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?

Julia DiGangi
Yes. I would say think about, look for a pattern in the ways that you get stuck. Where are you getting constantly overwhelmed, constantly stressed, constantly feeling frustrated? And ask yourself, what can you do that would push you a little bit further out of your comfort zone to be able to feel your feelings a little bit more so that you could ultimately release those feelings that don’t feel good?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Julia, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and good energy.

Julia DiGangi
Thank you, Pete. Likewise.

893: How to Help Your Team Beat Distraction and Unleash Their Productivity with Maura Thomas

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Maura Thomas shows you how to create a distraction-free work environment to make time for the tasks that matter most.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The underlying cause of derailed productivity
  2. How multitasking hurts your productivity and attention
  3. The two questions that will help you eliminate distractions

About Maura

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. Her proprietary Empowered Productivity™ System has been embraced by the likes of NASA, Dyson, and Google. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of six bestselling books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker in Inc. Magazine. 

Maura is frequently featured in major business outlets including Business Insider, Fast Company, and Washington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to both Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

Maura Thomas Interview Transcript

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

Maura Thomas
Pete, I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get into the wisdom of your latest book, Everyone Wants to Work Here: Attract the Best Talent, Energize Your Team, and Be the Leader in Your Market.That sounds like cool stuff, we all want that. But first, I need to understand, between the last time we spoke and now, you’ve adopted a pickleball habit. Is this accurate?

Maura Thomas
It is accurate. I’m so addicted. I play every chance I get. It’s so fun and I’m getting to the point where I’m just north of horrible, so it’s a little more fun. It’s not embarrassing anymore. It’s only slightly uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. One of the very first speakers I remember was named Fran Kick. Shoutout to Fran Kick. We’ll link to him. I think he’s still kickin’. He made a lot of kick jokes, and he talked about this concept of when you get good at something, it becomes more fun, and then you want to work at it some more. And then you become better at that thing, and so it’s a nice little virtuous cycle between work, fun, good. And I was like, “Fran, this makes a whole lot of sense.” I remembered it from high school. So, a powerful message.

Maura Thomas
It is. And one of the most important things I learned, I trained in martial arts years ago, and I keep finding this theme happening in my life. My sensei told me that once you hit black belt level, that’s when your training begins. And what I’m learning about, any time I try to tackle something new, it’s like once you have…like you can’t be a good writer until you know the alphabet.

And you think that knowing the alphabet is your goal but that’s not your goal. The goal is really to write and to write well. But you can’t write well until you know the alphabet. It’s like you can’t do a thing until you are at least competent at the thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Absolutely. And that could be really a period of entry. I’ve never really gotten into golf because I had so many painful embarrassing moments when starting. Maybe in the future I’ll go to it. But pickleball, it’s trendy right now, right? Like, I remember playing pickleball in high school PE class over the summer, and I never heard of it before then, and very rarely after it. But then the last couple of years, I guess there’s pickleball courts sprouting up everywhere.

Maura Thomas
They are sprouting up everywhere. They are, because I think it’s more accessible. It’s a little less impact than tennis. It’s a little easier. Yeah, it’s very accessible. You see people, I mean, today, I was in a game with, like, a 12-year-old and a guy. It was easier, easily early ‘70s. And we all had a game and it was great. It was super fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, now let’s hear a little about some other team insights from your book Everyone Wants to Work Here. Any particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries when putting together this work here?

Maura Thomas
A lot. A lot. So, in the book, I talk a lot about unconscious calculations. And I call unconscious calculations things that we behave in a way that suggests that we believe a thing but we’ve never actually examined that thing to know if that’s really true or if we even really believe that that is true. So, one of those unconscious calculations is that, “I am not being good at my job,” or, “I’m not providing good service to my customers,” or, “I’m not being a good team player unless I’m responding to all communication immediately.”

And people behave as if that is true but I think we all kind of know that isn’t really true. You can service your clients really, really well even if you don’t respond to them every minute. And you can help your team members even if you take time for yourself. We put this weight on, “Being available to other people is part of my job, so I have to do that.”

But what we forget is that your colleagues depend on you to get all the millions of things that are on your to-do list done, and you can’t do both. You can’t be constantly responding to incoming communication and also be making progress on your to-do list at the same time. We try but that’s not super effective. So, one of many, many sort of counterintuitive things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Maura, this is, I think, we can talk for hours about this alone. Unconscious calculations. I love the way you’ve articulated that, and this reminds me of some other concepts. We’ve heard maybe Ramit Sethi talk about invisible scripts a lot or Vishen Lakhiani talks about “brules,” which stands for bull crap rules.

Maura Thomas
Ooh, I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
We keep a clean rating here. But, yes, this unconscious calculation, I like the vibe because it does connotate analytical numerical judgment evaluation side of the brain, which I think is a very real nuanced part of that. I know I’ve experienced it, and it can be sometimes damaging to mental health, like, “I’m not a good parent unless I…” A, B, C, D, E, F, G. And those things, they are unconscious, and until you bring those to the surface, which practices like self-reflection, and therapy, etc., can help do, it can really drain folks’ energy and capabilities.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, it really can. As those other people have articulated as well, we really need to look at what we believe. And a lot of times, I see my job as just shining a light on how people are operating so that they can just ask. Sometimes somebody says something to you, and you’re like, “Ahh.” They say, “Why are you doing that?” and you’re like, “You’re right. That’s totally stupid. What? What was I thinking?”

The story that comes to mind, for me, is when I redid my kitchen, and my aunt came over, and she’s in the new kitchen, she’s standing at the stove, and she opens the drawer beside the stove. And in the drawer beside the stove, there’s silverware. And she looks at me, and she said, “Where are your potholders?”

And I point across the kitchen, and I’m like, “My potholders are over there.” And she looked at me, waiting for me to catch up, like, “Potholders should be beside the stove, right?” I was like, “Oh, you’re totally right. You’re totally right. I never thought about that before.” “Move the potholders so that they are near the stove.”

But once she said that to me, I was like, “Oh, and the spices should be near the olive oil. And, oh, the spatula should be near the frying pans.” And I had a whole new outlook on everything as soon as she just sort of shone that light on, “Does this make sense the way you’re doing this?” But I never even thought of it until she said that.

And I think a lot of the things that I sort of do with my clients is really just shining a light, “Does this make sense the way you’re doing this? And wouldn’t you like to do it a little easier?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s already a fantastic tidbit. Can we maybe zoom out a little bit and hear what’s sort of the big idea or main theme of the book here?

Maura Thomas
I outline a lot of problems that are happening inside companies that are making people go home at the end of the day, and say, “Oh, my gosh, I was busy all day, and somehow I got nothing done.” Instead of going home at the end of the day, and saying, “Oh, my gosh, that was such a good day. I got so much done.”

There are many, many sorts of culture, corporate culture, and leadership behavior problems that are contributing to this, but underlying all of them is distraction. Distraction is what prevents us from going home at the end of the day, and saying, “Oh, my gosh, that was such a good day. I got so much done.” Distraction in the way that we communicate, distraction in all of those unconscious calculations.

Another unconscious calculation that people make is, “Well, people are interrupting me all day but I have to do that. I have to deal with that. That’s part of my job. So, the only way I can get stuff done is when people aren’t bothering me.” Well, the only time people aren’t bothering you is when you’re not supposed to be working – nights, weekends, early mornings.

So, we behave as if we have just accepted that we will work all day at work, and then we will go home and do our most important work, “I’ll just deal with everybody bothering me all day long, but then I’ll do the really important stuff tonight, or Saturday, or Christmas eve, or whenever people aren’t bothering me.” And that’s just, I don’t think anybody wakes up on Monday mornings, and says, “Ooh, I can’t wait to work 60 hours this week.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. And then I heard recently, it said almost universally CEOs and executives do work before they get to work just almost out of necessity, it’s like, “I’m going to do half an hour, or one hour, or two hours of super important stuff early in the morning before I am even on the premises and can be accessed.”

Maura Thomas
“Yeah, because that’s the only way that I can get it done.” And I believe that leaders and people, anybody, whether you’re a leader or an individual contributor, you need to own the fact that you need to get your important work done at work, and you do need to be available to other people but you can’t do that to the exclusion of getting the important work done. So, you have to carve out the opportunity in your work day to both be available to people but also be unavailable so that you can get important work done.

And I talk a lot about that in Attention Management, which is the book that I was on with you before about, and in Everyone Wants to Work Here, I talk about how leaders can really make it easier for the team to do that because people think that they can’t do that because their boss is going to get mad at them if they do.

And another unconscious calculation, usually, because usually it’s not true, I can’t imagine a rational boss saying to someone, “No you can’t have any time while you’re undistracted. I need you to be distracted all day.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I have led workshops where lightbulb moments go on, and this is a wildly held unconscious calculation that they need to respond right away, and it is wild. I might have a team of a dozen folks, and we discuss some norms associated with email response times, and maybe half of them are like, “Oh, wow, really? It’d be okay if I didn’t reply for 24 hours, and if you needed it faster, you’d drop by or call me or text me or something? Oh, wow.” And so, it’s just beautiful. I feel like, “Oh, my work here is done. That’s all we had to do was have this one conversation and we got a great ROI on this training here.”

Maura Thomas
Well, yeah, and it does start people thinking but then when I talk about, and I’m sure you do as well, you need a bat signal. Like, “I have a million things to tell you all day, and I’m going to shoot you some emails, but if I really need something,” bat signal. What’s your bat signal at your company? Because if every email might be an emergency, then you have to treat every email as if it is an emergency until you know that it isn’t. So, you can’t use the same communication device for emergencies that you use also for non-emergencies, so there needs to be a bat signal.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, I’m enjoying we’re already getting on some of the tactical goodness, which I love. But first, I want to maybe address what’s the prevalence of this distraction? Or, do you have some stats on the widespread-ness, the cost in terms of dollars or hours per week? Like, I have a sense it’s a big one, a big problem. Can you make it a little bit more precise just how big we’re talking here?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, there’s a ton of research. So, Gloria Mark at UC Irvine, I read a lot about her research. And her research, her older research said that we switch what we’re doing at work, on average, about every three minutes. And her latest research shows that that three minutes have gone down to about 47 seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
I think a lot of the people listening here are people who use a computer to do their work, primarily folks who need to solve problems, and communicate, and generate ideas, and write things. Some people call them knowledge workers. If you work primarily at computer for your job, then, really, your job is to think, and you can’t think clearly, you can’t make any good decisions, you can’t have your best ideas in 47-second increments. And yet that’s pretty much all we give ourselves throughout the day.

And so, how are we supposed to be good at our jobs? Because if you’ve ever been in a meeting, and at the end of the meeting, you’re like, “Hmm, I shouldn’t have said that,” or if you’ve ever said, “Oh, my gosh, I should’ve said that,” after you’ve had a chance to think about it, you have a much better answer than you did that you just blurted out when somebody asked you a question.

And so, we’re not our best selves in these tiny little increments. I talk about brain power momentum. We need time to really muster the full range of not only our talents, and our wisdom, and our skills, and our abilities, but also our diplomacy, and our tact, and our kindness, and our humor, and our empathy so that we can be the best version of ourselves, and we’re not the best version of ourselves in 47-second increments.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that absolutely rings true. And so, is it your sense that the majority of knowledge workers have the majority of their work day gobbled up by distractable environment time? Or, just how big are we talking here?

Maura Thomas
I do think that. There is some research, it really depends on what’s the average salary and how many people are in the organization.But for an organization that has about 50 employees, making about $50 an hour on average, the average distraction, and this is with the old research, that the distraction is costing somewhere around $1.2 million a year for that organization. So, again, the numbers depend on a whole bunch of different things, but it’s a lot. We all know it’s a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, understood. That is a meaningful fraction of everybody’s week. So, then tell us, what are the primary culprits of this distraction environment?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, so part of the problem is that we are habituated to distraction. Most people who use technology today have a habit of distraction, and that is on purpose. Our technology has created in us a habit of distraction. So, we’ve gotten to the point where, most people are at the point where doing only one thing at time is really hard and really boring.

And I even find it in myself when I’m watching a TV show or something, or when I’m cooking dinner. Watching TV, I have the itch to scroll my phone, and when I’m cooking dinner, I have an itch to listen to a podcast, or put a book on. I try, and my husband and I have come to this place where we have a commitment we fail a lot, but we have a commitment to being a single-tasking household because the more distracted you are, the more distracted you will be, the more you do multiple things at a time, the harder it will be for you to do only one thing at a time.

But the reverse is also true. So, the more you practice doing one thing at a time, the better you get at doing one thing at a time, and the less itchy you feel about, “Oh, I need to do something else.” And when we’re doing one thing at a time, that’s when we can put our best out into the world.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, this makes me think of analogs of any sorts of training. Like, you do a thing, you get better at a thing, the muscle gets stronger, the legs get faster, the heart and lungs are able to process more oxygen, and endure longer. It’s sort of like a training effect or adaptation is unfolding. So, I’m curious, do you have a suggested protocol or routine or workout that we might engage in, in order to strengthen that capability of doing one thing at a time and being less itchy?

Maura Thomas
Well, because for most of us it’s a habit, we have a habit of distraction, and so the first step in changing any habit is really the awareness. So, recognizing when you get that itch to do something else, then sort of making the conscious calculation. Probably doing both isn’t a good thing, “So, do I want to just do this thing? Or, do I want to just do that thing?”

And bringing more awareness of when we have the urge to be distracted is the first step in changing any habits. But I would say the practice is start out doing only one thing. If you’re going to watch TV, put your phone in a different room. Try to make it easy for yourself to do only one thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And then, likewise, I’m thinking I guess there’s all sorts of layers or levels or variations of this. Like, with your eating, don’t be eating and watching TV or listening to a podcast.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, there are different ways to multitask, and some are better than others. So, one physical thing and one cognitive thing is better than two cognitive things. So, scrolling your phone while watching TV is probably worse for your multitasking than heating up something in the microwave while you listen to a podcast, because one physical thing and one cognitive thing.

Now, if you are a chef, then you might not want to listen to a podcast while you are creating your meal because that is kind of an artform to you. But if you are not a chef, like me, and you’re just making something that doesn’t require a lot of thought, practicing single-tasking is good but there are also some kinds of multitasking that are worse than other kinds of multitasking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good for our download numbers. Thank you, Maura. Understood, there is a distinction there. Okay. So, that’s first, like within us, individually, that’s something we can all do, and that really does sound swell in terms of the impact that can make and the muscle you build.

One of my favorites, I actually have a sheet right here, one my favorite approaches is I make a list of what I did do and what I wanted to do during a phase of work, because I’ll have all these ideas, like, “I want to check the news. I want to check social media. I’m curious about this thing, hmm. I wonder if you can buy a thing that does that. Let’s put it on Amazon.”

And so, all these things pop up, and so I just write them down. And it feels fun because then, after the work session, I get to behold it, and say, “Ooh, look at all these victories I racked up. Each of these was a distraction I did not engage in,” and so I feel a sense of accomplishment there. And when it’s time to indulge these distractions, “Ooh, I’ve got a bunch of things I was curious about and want to play with already cued up for me to go binge and tour.”

Maura Thomas
I love that idea. I love that. I think that’s a great idea. The thing that I try to keep in mind, so there’s a quote I’m told. I went looking for it and I couldn’t find it. Somebody, one of my keynotes told me that it comes from the movie “Hitch.” But the line is “It’s not the moments in your life that matter. It’s the life in your moments that matter.”

And my belief about that is that if you are not present when you’re doing a thing, then you miss both the moments in your life and the life in your moments. And we only get a finite number of moments in our life, and I really would like to be present for every single one of them, cognitively present, not just physical present.

And so, to me, we all need to find the motivation that works because somebody tells you something is good for you, that might not be sufficient motivation, “Yeah, a lot of things are good for me that I don’t do.” But I think each individual has to find the thing that is this the sufficient motivation for them. So, you like your victories, and I like thinking about…I like yours though, I might try that too. But I like thinking about, “How many moments today was I really present for? How much of my life was I just not cognitively there for?” And when the answer is too many, it makes my heart hurt, so.

Pete Mockaitis
No, that’s powerful. And I love the way you’ve described that in terms of these are different flavors of motivation or why that resonate differently. And a heart hurting versus a victory has very different vibes to them, and there could very well be many others that are custom and unique, and for each individual that are really powerfully resonant.

Maura Thomas
And a different day could mean a different thing. On one day, looking at your list might feel amazing, and another day it might be more about the moments. It really depends on the day, too, right? So, we can employ all of them. All of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Okay. Well, so we talked about some approaches that the individual can use. Tell us, if we are in a position of management or leadership and have some influence with the team and the culture, what are some best and worst practices that we should be considering?

Maura Thomas
Yes. There’s a whole chapter in the book about how much leaders underestimate the influence they have. So, I think it’s really important if you do have people who are on your team for whom you are the leader, at least at work, or really anywhere else, if you are the leader, then you need to realize that you have a lot of influence.

I think that it’s clear that a leader has influence during the work day on somebody who works for them. But I think what they forget, for example, is that how that person feels about their work day, they’re going to carry that home with them and interact with their family in a way that reflects how they felt about their work day.

So, if they had a work day where they said, “Oh, my gosh, that was a great day. I got so much done,” they’re going to go home and be with their family, and they’re going to show up very differently than if they go home, and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, another day where I’m exhausted, I was busy all day, and still I got nothing done,” they’re going to interact with their family in a very different way.

Also, if you are, for example, sending emails to your team after hours, that’s going to impact the family because I think we’ve all been in a situation, either as the grownup in this situation, or maybe as the child in this situation, where it was like, “Yeah, we’re all going to sit down to dinner, oh, but mom just got the phone call or the email from work, and now mom says, ‘Start dinner without me. I’ll catch up as soon as I can,’” or, “Go to the park. I’ll be there later. Go ahead, do that without me,” or they show up, they’re at the park but they’re really just sitting on the bench on the phone, and not really present in the park.

So, leaders just underestimate so much how much influence they have not only on their team members but on their families. And if you influence families, then you influence communities. And if you influence communities, you influence the whole world. And so, modeling behaviors is really, really important in thinking about people as whole people who have lives outside of work. And when you send that email at night, it doesn’t matter if you say, “Oh, this isn’t important. Don’t worry about it,” your team is going to check it. They’re going to check it, and there’s all kinds of research about that, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Super. So, yeah, just wait, put in drafts, we can schedule it, software will do that for you. Certainly, you’re setting the model.

Maura Thomas
All of that, yes, but also act in a way that is good for your team. Downtime is as important for leaders as it is for everybody who works on their team. And I know a lot of leaders who think it’s such a good example by being the first one in, the last one to leave. I think that’s such a horrible example. It just makes your team want to work more and more and more and more and more.

So, take time off, don’t check in, be away, go on vacation and be on vacation. There are so many different ways that you can model healthy ways to engage at work. And when people, leaders and individual contributors, when people take better care of themselves and they disconnect from work, then they’re actually better at work the next day.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Can you share with us some other behaviors you recommend modeling and some new thinking? I really love your example there associated with, “Oh, I got to set an example by being there early and staying late.” And I guess, maybe, if your problem is you have a bunch of loafers who are slacking, that might be the example that you need to set for them.

But it seems like, often, these days, we have the opposite problem in terms of working nonstop and being distracted and not getting awesome things accomplished with the time that we do spend. So, having some more leisure does the trick, so model that instead. Any other reframes or paradigm shifts you want to put forward here?

Maura Thomas
Yes. What you just said reminded me, having a team of loafers, I’m sure that there are lazy people but I work with thousands of people in a year, not tens of thousands, not to mention everybody I know and people in my professional network at, I don’t really know a lot of slackers. So, I just want to put out there this idea that, I really want to put this idea of quiet quitting to bed. It was never a thing. It was never a thing.

Some guy on TikTok thought he would get some attention by saying, “I’m going to do the bare minimum at work and see what I can get away with,” and then that turned into this business propaganda that would have leaders, trying to scare leaders into thinking that they have a team full of lazy people, and they need to be careful about their employees are slacking off all the time, and that’s why hybrid and remote work doesn’t work because if you can’t see them, they won’t be working. It’s not a thing.

Everybody wants to show up at work and do the best job that they can. Everybody wants to feel productive and satisfied and accomplished at the end of the day. It’s not a thing. I wrote an article for Forbes called “Why you should want your employees to quiet-quit?” I covered it in the book as well. quiet quitting is just about, “There’s more to life than work.” Maybe.

And maybe I’ll have some better boundaries now than I did before. And maybe I won’t always be checking my email on the weekends. And maybe when I go away on vacation, I’ll actually be on vacation and be present with my family so that I can show up better at the end of my vacation. That’s all that is, it’s boundaries. It’s not lazy people trying to get away with stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well said.

Maura Thomas
Sorry, I feel a little passionate about that.

Pete Mockaitis
No, I think it’s good. And in my experience about the folks I know, when they engage in something that resembles quiet quitting, it’s usually because they keep asking for good meaningful work to be done, and they keep not getting it, and they’re like, “All right, fine. If I’m just going to get minimum amount of stuff that doesn’t actually matter, then I’m going to enjoy myself.” And so, it’s not a matter of, like, “I’m sticking it to you. I’m going lazy mode,” but rather it’s like, “I guess it’s sort of like a consolation price. If I can’t do meaningful work, I guess I’ll just chill a little bit.”

Maura Thomas
Yeah. Well, then address the culture. Address the culture and help people do the meaningful work so that they can enjoy those days. Here’s another sort of contrarian thing or another unconscious calculation. People talk a lot about open-door policy, “We have an open-door policy here.” Well, that word maybe doesn’t mean what you think it means. What do you mean when you say open-door policy?

What I think most people think when they hear open-door policy, they think anyone can drop in on anyone else for any reason at any time. And I don’t think that’s really what we ever intended open-door policy to mean. And some people even think it means, “We are not allowed to close doors here.” And if you’re going to use the phrase open-door policy, you really need to explicitly define it for your team. Otherwise, you’re setting up the company to have a culture of distraction where everybody does drop in on everyone at any moment at any time for any reason, and that’s not a place that is conducive to high-quality knowledge work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s well said. I always thought, because I do, I love my quiet time, and to be able to just go deep work, focus mode, and make things happen. And so, I always thought that that was an odd phrasing, “My door is always open,” and I thought, “Always? Really?” “My door is always open between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. and when you schedule an appointment,” is sort of like how I think that sentence ought to be finished because that’s sort of silly.

Maura Thomas
My metaphorical door, meaning, “I will be here to help you if you need some help,” but open-door policy is not a good way to say that. “My door is always open” is not a good way to say that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, this is fun, Maura. How about you just keep giving us hot takes? What else do you got for us?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I think, again, it comes back to distraction is the problem. And if you start looking for distraction in the way that you operate, and in the way that your company operates, all of these, it’s the shining light, and you just start to see, “Oh, my gosh, if I just…that is so distracting. And the way we do this is so distracting, and it’s taking away from our ability to really do meaningful work.”

Now, not to say that collaboration isn’t important. It absolutely is but it needs to be intentional, and it needs to have a purpose, not just, “Hey, I just thought of a random thing, so I’m going to drop this half-formed thought on your lap just because it just popped into my head.” That’s not the best way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’d love it if you could maybe wrap us up by sharing a cool story of an organization, a team, an environment, a culture, where distraction was just causing all sorts of consternation, and then a couple key things folks did, some changes made, and the nifty results that came out on the other side?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. So, what my clients tell me a lot is that they get the unconscious calculations really were interfering so much more than they thought. They really thought that their required 60 hours. And when they managed their distractions, and when they had a conversation with their boss about, “I’m going to be offline occasionally not for hours at a time, but maybe 60 minutes, 90 minutes, maybe even just 20 minutes throughout the day,” it turns out I can get a lot more done in less time, and the quality of my work is higher.

And so, I could name client names, but that’s like the common refrain that I hear. Unconscious calculation, job requires 60 hours. When you really shine a light, when you realize all of the areas of distraction, when you really look at how your work is getting done during the day, you realize you could do so much more.

And if you can get your work done in fewer hours, then how much room does that open up for you to do other things, to learn about other things, to think about other parts of your life, to take up a new hobby, to spend more time with the people that you care about? It just opens the door because people feel like they have space, and they have breathing room, and they can think about other things. And it’s game-changing.

Pete Mockaitis
That is beautiful. And so, the action step there, it sounds like the big one is simply to have that conversation. And maybe it sounds something, like, “Hey, boss,” “Hey, colleague,” “Hey, teammates, I’ve noticed that my whole day is inundated with distraction, and I think I could do much better work more effectively and efficiently if I want to give you a heads up that there’ll be zones of the day, maybe 20 minutes, maybe 90 minutes at a time, in which I am entering a tunnel of focus, deep work mode, whatever you want to call it, and you won’t be hearing from me because I’m doing important stuff, but I’ll reach back out to you soon.”

I’m trying to use my best words. Do you have any suggested verbiage?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. So, here are two specific examples that the words come out of, “In order for this to work, we need to look at two important things. One, how does work flow through our department and get done.” Most people, I find, show up at work and do whatever happens to them. There are just communication coming in, it could be from colleagues, it could be from vendors, it could be from customers, and I’m just dealing with all of that.

And so, work isn’t flowing through me, through the department, through the company, in a systematic logical way. This happens first, and then this happens, and then we do this, and then we do this. And in between that, yeah, we communicate with each other. But you focus on the way the work moves through the organization. That’s the first thing.

Shining a light on that, if you’re not a leader, then just look at the way work comes to you, and look at the things that you are truly getting evaluated on, and really what’s in your…ultimately, in your job description, the thing that you are hired for, and how much of your day do you actually get to spend doing that. So, that piece is the really important thing.

And the second thing to think about is, “How do we communicate as a team?” We have lots of ways to communicate, and, usually, as a team, we don’t create any guidelines. I have a whole chapter in the book about communication guidelines. So, we have 17 different ways to communicate but we use this one in this situation, in general. There are exceptions, right? But this one in this situation, and this one in this situation, and this one in this situation.

Because without that, it really just defaults to personal preference, “Well, you seem to like chat, and Joe seems to like email, and Lisa likes to have meetings, and Marty always likes to call me. And I don’t know, I can’t remember how you all like to do this. So, I’m just going to send everything I need to send in all the ways. I’m going to leave you a voicemail, I’m going to put it on the chat, I’m going to send you an email, and we’ll talk about it in the meeting just for good measure.”

And so, the volume of communication in organizations is way too high, and the efficiency of communication is way too low.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes, just the last thought I will leave you with is I teach people two primary things. Number one, how to manage their attention, and, number two, how to manage their work, bigger picture. Nobody can do that except you. Nobody can manage your attention except you. No one can manage how your work gets done except you. You get to decide, so it is entirely up to you.

Now, if you’re a leader, yes, you have to help. But bottom line is no one is going to do this for you. If you would like to have days that feel more accomplished, more productive, more satisfying, if you would like to feel less frazzled and flustered, if you would like to have more space in your life to do other things, that is 100% up to you. And I know that many people feel like it isn’t but I’m here to tell you, it is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful. I guess even in, like, the worst-case scenario, it’s like, ain’t nobody in your whole organization budging whatsoever when you raise these things to them. You still have the agency and the ability to make a change, like, “Hey, this is not the organization for me at this time of my life. All right.”

Maura Thomas
Either that or maybe it’s just like, “You know what, I’m going to work differently, and I’m going to see how everybody else around me reacts to that.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Maura Thomas
“But I’m going to work in the way that makes the biggest difference for me, that helps me get the most done, that I can put the best of myself out into the organization and into the world, and let’s just see what happens with that because, I bet, the results are going to be better than you think.”

Pete Mockaitis
That really does ring true. I remember I was at a wedding, and I was chatting with a friend, Kelsey, catching up, and she was working in a consulting firm, which could be notorious in terms of demanding clients, and managers and partners, and all that stuff. And I said, “Oh, man, so you just must be working really…” and she said, “Oh, it’s not too bad.”

And it blew my mind. She basically just established boundaries for herself, and I was like almost…my mouth was agape, I was like, “I don’t think I even knew you could do that in that environment.” She said, “Well, I just told them that, ‘Hey, it’s really important to me that I train for this Ironman, I’m bonding with my brother doing that thing, and so I’m probably not going to be working during these times but I’ll give you my best focus and attention during these times, and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.’”

And I said, “And they went for that?” And she’s like, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, and I got promoted.” It is what you say is true. It may feel impossible or scary, and yet if you give it a shot, it just might work out way better than you think.

Maura Thomas
Yes. Yes. And I’m a control freak so that means a lot to me.

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

Maura Thomas
Yeah, so a couple. One I already gave you, “It’s not the moments in your life that matter. It’s the life in your moments.” Another one that has always kind of resonated with me is kind of two ways to say the same thing, I guess, “Don’t wait for your ship to come in. Swim out to it.” Another way to say that, I have it hanging on my…a little quote I cut it out of a magazine. It’s hanging right on my desk, it says, “Ask for what you want 100% of the time.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Maura Thomas
It can’t hurt to ask. You might not get what you want but it can’t hurt to ask. It never hurts to ask.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes, I think that I’m really fascinated by Gloria Mark’s research, and how technology is affecting us, and how much it’s costing us not just financially but in all parts of our life because, I think, again, when we’re not present in our moments, then we rob some of the richness from our lives. And when I read Dr. Mark’s research, it just feels…I don’t know why, I should call her Dr. Mark, but I feel like I know her because I am so steeped in her work. But it just smacks me in the face, and just it’s such a good reminder for me about what it’s costing us.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Maura Thomas
I have two. One, I think, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich because that’s where I learned the idea of mastermind groups, and mastermind groups have changed my life. And then, personally, it’s by Gavin de Becker, it’s called The Gift of Fear. And it’s about listening to that. It’s about really how to keep yourself safe. But the reason that the book is so great is because it reads like a thriller, it reads like a mystery thriller, but it’s really about practical life advice. And I’ve given it as a gift to a million people.

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

Maura Thomas
I don’t know how I would get my life done without Todoist, task manager. I’m a big fan of the folks over at Todoist. We also use their other tool called Twist, which is an alternative to chat tools, it’s a different kind of chat tool, but it is based on asynchronous communication, and I’m a big fan of the folks over at Doist.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Maura Thomas
So, we talked earlier about finding that motivation, and I guess this goes along with the book idea. But I read a book that I guess has been out for a long time, but I just stumbled upon it, and it’s called Younger Next Year. And that book really gave me…everybody knows you’re supposed to exercise and how to take care of yourself, and it’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m supposed to exercise. I know.” It wasn’t enough to get me to exercise. The information in this book made me go, “Oh, oh, oh, now I get it. Now, I understand why I really…why it matters every single day,” and it really has had an impact. So, favorite habit is exercise.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes. The thing I hear that resonates most is the way that I reframe. I don’t think I said it specifically this way today but how you manage your time really doesn’t matter unless you also manage your attention. So, what matters more than time management is attention management.

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

Maura Thomas
MauraThomas.com is the best place to learn all the things.

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

Maura Thomas
Yes, try to be more present more often. Manage your attention and make the most of your moments.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Maura, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and well-managed attention.

Maura Thomas
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s been a pleasure.

885: How to Build the Mental Fitness and Resilience of a Champion with Greg Harden

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Legendary coach Greg Harden shares the secrets of his world-famous athletes for conquering fear, fatigue, anxiety, and self-doubt.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to master your response to any situation
  2. The secret to being a top performer
  3. The #1 subject for you to become an expert on

About Greg

Greg Harden is a Peak Performance Coach, motivational speaker, and executive consultant who is best known for his work with seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady. He also worked with Heisman Trophy winner and Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard, and twenty-three-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps.

He’s spent over 30 years building them at the University of Michigan, including 400 future professional athletes, 50 NFL first-round draft picks, and 120 Olympians from over 20 countries. He gained national recognition when 60 Minutes Sports profiled him as “Michigan’s Secret Weapon.”

Resources Mentioned

Greg Harden Interview Transcript

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

Greg Harden
Oh, thank you for having me, sir.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to be chatting with you even though you are Michigan’s secret weapon, as in the Fighting Illini we didn’t like losing to Michigan.

Greg Harden
Well, the Fighting Illini.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Greg Harden
The always great competitors and most exciting.

Pete Mockaitis
Very much. Well, I’m so excited to get into your wisdom. Maybe, could you kick us off with a particularly memorable story for you in your career, coaching some of the greatest athletes ever?

Greg Harden
Wow. The thing that comes to my mind instantly is, “What’s the difference between all these mega stars and people who don’t make it?” And what we come up with over and over and over is not only were they hungry, they were humble. They were coachable. That made them coachable. They came in with a mindset that made it clear that they wanted to be the absolute best but, most importantly, they came and were able to surrender the ego enough to learn from others.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Can you think of a time that, I don’t know, Tom Brady or Michael Phelps or someone you worked with did just that that stood out?

Greg Harden
Tom Brady, I mean, Tom was really clear about what he wanted. He had watched what I had done and what we had done, Desmond Howard and I, and he was curious as to whether or not it could help him. And so, he walked in and he was kind of low in the depths chart, and made it real clear that he wanted to be a starter at Michigan, and I made it clear to him that, “I can’t help you be a starter at Michigan but I can help you understand that if no one else believes in you, you believe in yourself.” And he said, “Let’s start there.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s cool. Wow. And so then, from there, how do we go from low in the depths to superstar?

Greg Harden
Well, what you do is you start by being a regular schmo who’s going to out-train and outwork everybody. We talk about his gifts, he can’t outrun you, he can’t outjump you, he can’t outlift you in the weight room but you couldn’t measure his heart, and you couldn’t measure his mind. His mental game was so strong, back in the day, you didn’t have all these fancy schmancy phones, we would have to kick him out of the training room where he was studying film all day long, like he was a coach. He had a coach’s mentality and he was a student of the game. He studied and studied and studied, and was more prepared than anyone could imagine when it was showtime.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, you’ve put together some of your learnings in your book Stay Sane in an Insane World: How to Control the Controllables and Thrive. Tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Greg Harden
Well, the big idea here is to teach people to become the world’s greatest expert on one subject – themselves. That’s the mission. The mission is to get people to be obsessed with something other than all the things they’re obsessed with. And what I’m asking them to do is focus just for a moment on becoming so critically conscious, so aware, so mindful that you’re able to look at what’s working in your life and what’s not working, to keep it that simple.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Could you give us an example?

Greg Harden
Well, if we’re talking about just trying to make your life work at your job, if your communication style is not working at your job, you need to be aware of it. If members of your team think that you’re arrogant and unapproachable, you need to be aware of it. You need to be so sophisticated that you are always examining how people are responding, you’re always examining how you come across and how others come across, and you’re studying everyone but, in order to really know Pete, I’ve got to know Greg. I’ve got to know me so well that I can read myself in different circumstances and situations and know when I need to shift, when I need to adapt, when I need to change.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Could you share with us a story of an example of someone who saw a real upgrade in that self-awareness?

Greg Harden
Desmond Howard, Heisman trophy winner, MVP of the Super Bowl. Desmond Howard was ready to leave the institution when he pulled me aside and asked if he could have a conversation. I said, “Sure, let’s talk.” He talked about how he was unhappy, how he came in as a running back, and he had been shifted to a wide receiver, and how he wasn’t getting any playing time, and he was frustrated, and he was being recruited hard by other people.

And I looked at him and I suggested that perhaps his press clippings from high school had nothing to do with what he was accomplishing here. I said, “What you need to do is understand that, right now if you leave, who cares?” I said, “If you leave now, you told me you were the guy in high school. Hell, I was the guy in high school.” Pete was the guy in high school.

Pete Mockaitis
I really was, yes.

Greg Harden
So, I said, “Son, you may have to examine what’s working and what’s not working between you and the staff. And what does the staff think about you?” I said, “If you liked, Desmond, I’ll go and chat with the people who are around you and ask them, ‘What’s working for this guy? And what does he need to improve on?'” He said, “Go ahead.”

So, I went and found out that they were totally unimpressed with his commitment to blocking. And back in the day, if you were a wide receiver, and you didn’t block, you weren’t getting on the field. They also thought that his attitude was pretty much, “I and me,” and the team was not the issue, and he believed that this was Desmond Howard University, and then they said, “No, it’s not going to work.”

So, I went back and told him, and he says, “Oh, I didn’t know I was coming across that way.” I said, “Yeah. Well, even though that’s not your intent, that’s been the results. So, let’s come up with a strategy that can change everything.” So, what I suggested to Desmond was that, “First off, you need to decide to be the best athlete on the team, not the best receiver, but the absolute best athlete on the team. You need to push yourself in areas that you hate. If you can give 100% a hundred percent of the time at stuff you don’t even like, what happens when you get to the stuff you love?”

Desmond was not someone who wanted to run. Desmond decided to run 10 to 15 miles extra per week while everyone else was doing something else. When he showed up in August for camp, he was the best-conditioned athlete. He was always in the top three of every event, every activity. He transformed himself. I suggested also that he needed to irritate or perhaps piss off the defensive coordinator. He said, “How do I do that?” I said, “At least once a week, try to knock somebody out and apologize afterwards.”

And I said, “You don’t like blocking? You better love blocking. You don’t like running? You better learn to love running. And convince yourself, con yourself, maneuver yourself into thinking differently and being passionate about everything you do, not just the things you like but the things that are required.”

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s talk about that. Con yourself into loving the things you hate. That sounds powerful, maybe dangerously powerful, but I want to know how I do it.

Greg Harden
Well, you practice, and train, and you rehearse. The keyword is practice, training, and rehearsing. When we talk about getting in shape, people understand practice, train, and rehearse. When we’re talking about mental fitness, the mental gain, you have to teach yourself that you can practice, train, and rehearse to upgrade in ways that you think, in ways that you operate, how you can generate passion.

For example, let’s talk about anxiety. Well, there’s a thin line between anxiety and excitement. Your body reacts pretty much the same. Your heart starts pounding so you’re sweating, and your breathing is impaired, “Am I anxious or am I excited?” So, what we begin to help people understand is that there’s a thin line between those emotions, and you can trigger and turn anxiety into excitement, and fear into passion.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I like that. Now, I’m curious then, when we do need the turning into, if you’re conning yourself, is it just you’re telling yourself, “I’m excited”? Or, what are the steps or the how-to, the process?

Greg Harden
Well, you begin to start training yourself to notice when fear and self-doubt, when anxiety shows up, and you begin to track it, you begin to understand it as a predictable part of life. So, what we do is, the first thing we do is convince people that fear and self-doubt, that fear and anxiety are predictable, therefore, manageable. It’s part of being human. So, that’s the first order of business is to begin to get you to understand to stop being stunned when you’re anxious, stop being overwhelmed when you’re anxious, “I’m anxious. It makes sense to be anxious.” And, as a matter of fact, fear is predictable as all get out.

Because, think about this, you hear, “Be fearless. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” That’s total nonsense. Some of the greatest moments of my life, some of the greatest moments of your life and most of the people you know, they’re about to crap their pants before it. Am I right or wrong?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s funny. I’m thinking about when I proposed marriage to my bride, I was, like, probably shaking.

Greg Harden
Right. It’s so predictable but we need to learn how to embrace fear, how to embrace anxiety and recognize it and tell it, “Come on in,” and tell it you don’t have time right now but, “Hey, I expected you, I knew you’d be here, but I’ll get back with you later because, right now, I have something to do.” So, fear becomes manageable when we begin to anticipate it as being part of life.

Let’s take it further. So, then if I’m fearless, that means I’m courageous. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is facing fear. Where encouraged it doesn’t even exist unless we’re facing fear. So, yes, be courageous, face fear, grab it by the throat, laugh at it, anticipate it, and then move on because you’ve done it before. And we love being anxious and excited. Why would you go to an amusement park? No, why would you go to a carnival on the corner that’s been setup overnight and get on any of those rides?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Greg Harden
You’re a brave and courageous person if you get on some of those carni rides, right? But think about this, you go to the big-time amusement park, you get on a ride called The Demon Drop, and you go up 10 stories, and some 19-year-old, smoking a cigarette, puts you in a coffin-like capsule, straps you in, closes the door, pulls a lever, and you plummet nine floors.

And then the hydraulic lift kicks in and it saves you, and of course, your stomach did go into your nasal passages before you got off and you screamed. Then you got off and say, “Let’s do that again.” We love fear. We have to begin to understand that fear is passion. It’s predictable as all get out, and part of life, and part of being human.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we predict it, we welcome it in, and then say, “Well, hey, I’m a little busy right now, so I’m going to have to get back with you later.” That’s all there is to it.

Greg Harden
It’s not all that is to it, but if you train yourself and you repeat it over and over, because what we’re talking about is self-talk, “How do I talk to myself?” We talk to ourselves all the time, sometimes out loud, but that’s not the issue here, right? So, we begin to train ourselves to how we process, how we think about things. We anticipate we’re going to have some anxious moments, and we talk our way through it until we get so confident, it becomes a habit of facing fear, it becomes a habit of anticipating it and dismissing it, and getting back with it and understanding it and talking about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I’d love to get your take on the opposite end of emotion. So, when we’re fearful, anxious, or really hyped up, what happens when we’re just, “Ugh, waah, tired,” unmotivated, not feeling it? How do we play that game?

Greg Harden
Well, so you’ve heard me say it already, “Train to give 100% a hundred percent of the time.” That’s total insanity. You can’t give 100% a hundred percent of the time. But if it’s my default mode, if it’s what I fall back on, if it’s something that I’m committed to trying, I get to the point where, instead of being, yeah, your worst day can be 30%. Okay, you’re a good guy. You can make it all the way to 50. You’re tired, you’re broke down, you don’t want to do something.

But if your default mode is to give 100% in everything you do, your worst day will be better than the average person’s best day. That’s where we’re going. We’re going to a spot where, “I mean, I don’t feel like doing this,” and you do realize that some of your greatest performances, you were sick as a dog, you were worn out and tired, and you came through because you were relaxed.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Greg Harden
Am I right or wrong?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m actually thinking about, I don’t know, this is just so mundane as oppose to championship athletes, but I’m thinking about some of my greatest performances in, I don’t know, chess or Tetris, which really do push my brain kind of as fast or hard as it can be pushed at times. Yeah, sometimes the tuckered-out times did end up being the best, and I guess that’s the missing element because I was relaxed.

Greg Harden
Isn’t that something? I mean, sometimes you’re so tired, you’re too tired to be anxious. Some of the greatest moments, we’ve seen our heroes and heroines who are just broke down and worn out, “And I was sick and I threw up all this morning, but I’m going to give my best,” and their best ends up being a world record.

So, again, everyone else is trying to manipulate and maneuver you into doing, into buying, into performing. You have to be able to do it yourself. And you need to be able to convince yourself that, “I’m going to just absolutely do my best. I know I’m worn out. I know I’m tired. I know jetlag has set in, but opportunity knocks.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when we’re training ourselves to give 100% one hundred percent of the time, what does that training program consist of, just doing it again and again? Or, are there some key steps or conditioning protocols?

Greg Harden
Well, it’s kind of hard to describe it any other way than practicing. Now, this is a story that I think you’ll like. I’ve worked with a lot of megastars and people who are absolutely the best in law, in engineering, in medicine, boom, boom, boom. But I had this young man from the West Coast who was not a fake gangster. He was from a family, there’s a family business, grand daddy, cousins, uncles.

And he somehow, miraculously, turned into this outstanding athlete so he got a scholarship and he came to the university. And they warned me, “You’re going to have to work with this guy.” And I said, “Well, why did you recruit this guy?” They said, “You’ve got to see him play.” “All right.” Well, he was a really good athlete. He wasn’t the greatest in the world but he could perform and he could pull his weight, and he was a problem.

In the first few weeks, he was in my office because of this, and in the next few months, he was in my office because of that. Well, for several years, we worked together, and, lo and behold, for some odd reason, we bonded. For some odd reason, he started changing, “Okay, that’s nice,” and he was not getting in trouble. But, now, he’d come by my office, “G, what you doing?” “Waiting for you. That’s all I’m doing. I’m just sitting around, waiting for you.” And he’s, “Oh, you’re so silly.” We’d get together and we talk and talk.

So, one summer, he shows up at the office, “G, what you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m bored and that’s not good for you.” I said, “Come on, sit down.” I said, “We’ve been working for several years, and you know you’ve changed and I’m so proud of you. I’m so impressed with what you’ve done and how you’ve carried yourself in the last just few months. But we need to find something else to work on.” He said, “What’s that?”

I said, “People think you’re dumb as a box of rocks.” He said, “What?” And I said, “Yeah. And you don’t care, do you?” “Nope.” I said, “But you might be.” He said, “Hey, wait,” and he used some colorful language. I said, “I’m not saying that you are. I’m saying we don’t know.” I said, “Have you ever been a student?” He said, “No.” “But you still have to go to class. This is an institution where you actually have to go to class, you actually have to pass the classes. All you’re doing is trying to be eligible, right?” He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “But what if we had nothing else to work on, and we decided to work on you being a student involved in athletics?” He said, “Meh.” I said, “Here’s the deal. I’m not trying to get you to be a better student. I’m trying to get you to be a better person.” He said, “Go on.” I said, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to use academics to make you a better athlete.” He said, “This better be good.”

I said, “I want you to practice, train, and rehearse being a better student. I want you to do your studying. I want you to do your reading. I want you to anticipate that you’re going to have the tests and not wait till the last minute to figure it out. I want you to see if you can prove something to yourself, not to anyone else. This is not about anyone else. I need you to practice, train, and rehearse the mental discipline, the self-motivation, the self-control that it would take to become a student.”

“If you can train yourself to give 100% at academics, something you’re not even invested in, what could you do if you mastered your mind, mastered your own ability to process, to be disciplined, to be focused, to shut out the noise, to stop daydreaming, and to be focused like a laser beam on the task at hand? This is not about academics, son. This is not about athletics. It’s about what kind of man can we create that can take on the world at any level?” He says, “Whoa, you’re crazy.” “Yeah, but we got nothing else to work on.”

So, we worked and worked and talked about it, and, you know, “How are you doing? Are you studying? Are you reading?” boom, boom, boom. So, several months goes by, and I’m not thinking about it that much. At the end of the year, he walks into my office, “G, what you doing?” “Waiting on you.” He said, “Man, you’re not going to believe this. I’m on the dean’s list, fool.”

Pete Mockaitis
There you go.

Greg Harden
And we giggled and laughed and rolled on the floor, and people thought we’d lost our minds. But I’ve got a gangster from the West Coast, thrilled to have mastered his own mind to the point where he became a student involved in athletics. And it’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome, yes. Whew! Now, when you say practice, train, and rehearse, which you’ve said a few times, I’m curious, are there distinctions such that practicing is a different activity than training, is different than rehearsing? And how would you distinguish them?

Greg Harden
They’re all the same. And you know how our mind works. For some person, the word practice, it’s going to trigger. For another person, the word train is going to trigger, and rehearse. You’ve got to see them as a compilation, a formula that all leads to the same destination, and that’s being someone who’s disciplined enough to train their mind to commit to improve and maintain performance over time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, you mentioned, in your book, controllables. What do you mean by those and how do we master them?

Greg Harden
There is an old serenity prayer, “God, guide me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to face the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” All this is telling us is that there are some things we can control and there are some things we can’t control, and we have to be able to discern what the differences are.

And being able to control myself is the hardest. I can barely control myself, and I’m trying to control my boss? If we’re talking about being awesome at your job, I can’t control my boss’ personality or style. I can’t control their expectations, real or imagined. I can influence all that but what I can control is how I respond, how I react, how I play my role, how I manage what I do, how I tell the boss. I have to be so sophisticated.

When I talk about controlling the controllables, they’re just giving me some more to do. I’m going to go to my boss and I’m going to make it real clear, “We need to prioritize. You just asked me to do six things. Prior to that, you’d asked me to do three. We need to review these six and determine what’s going to be A, what’s going to be B, what’s going to be B2. And I need for you to be clear, boss, what is the priority because I have my idea but I need to get input from you.”

Now, how is that controlling the controllables? That’s all I can do. I have to make sure that I’m not set up to fail. And so, setting myself up not to fail, I’m going to be assertive enough to walk in, and say, “We need to make some decisions. I need your input, boss.” I can’t control the boss but I can control what I’m sharing, what I’m asking, and how I’m going to respond. Controlling the controllables is a critical piece of the puzzle and it’s in terms of staying sane in an insane world.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, so now I’d love to get your view on we talked about humility, being coachable is huge in terms of a key mindset that unlocks all kinds of good things. Are there any other top mindset shifts you’d highlight for us?

Greg Harden
I would challenge anyone to, I mean, we know some people who are, like, the best friend you could have in life. You’ve had some friends that are some keepers, and maybe only one or two but you have some. But we sometimes notice that even those people who are really great at being a friend to everyone else are horrible at being a friend to themselves.

Your best friend in life should be you. So, introducing to people the whole idea of 4As, for example. The 4As are something that when everyone says every and all, they’re either going to say something profound or completely stupid. All people have 4As. The need for attention, the need for affection, the need for approval, and the need for acceptance. We’re always looking for attention, affection, approval, and acceptance.

I don’t know about you but I’ve made a complete fool of myself trying to get, pick one, and I’ve also risen to the top of my game seeking attention, affection, approval, and acceptance. But where we have to go when we’re training people to be the best version of themselves, at some point I’ve got to put the word self in front of those As.

And the simplest piece is to teach people self-love and self-acceptance. I’m glad that you’re able of loving and caring about everyone else but I need you to consider self-love and self-acceptance. Accepting yourself, flaws and all. Because if you’re good friends, your friends could be flawed, they can mess up, you think, “But you’re my friend. Okay, I forgive you. Let’s go.”

But we’re so hard on ourselves, sir. We are so difficult to please. And when we shift to being a peak performer or a top performer who wants to maintain it over time, I believe an X factor is self-love and self-acceptance. Imagine telling a 320-pound lineman the key assignment is self-love and self-acceptance.

So, one of the things that I would challenge anyone to do is not only give 100% a hundred percent of the time, but love yourself unconditionally, to learn how to do it. And if you can’t do it by yourself, thinking about it, and processing it, practicing, training, and rehearsing, get a consultant or a counsellor. Counsellors or consultants.

When we’re talking about business, I’m telling the CEO who wants to know, “How do you transfer all this to my industry?” I’m going to tell the CEO, “You’ve got to create formulas for people to be able to get the help that they need to transform themselves, to be able to dig deeper and get more out of themselves.”

So, I’m sorry, I get excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, I love it all. Well, now, Greg, I’d love it if we could zoom all the way inside your brain for specific self-talk approaches that might model this in practice. So, let’s go through a whole loop of, “I don’t feel like doing something. I’m bored. Now, I’m doing a thing and I’m scared, fearful, anxious. And then, oops, I just learned that I screwed it up, and now I’m beating myself up.” What would be the great self-talk arc of moving through these three phases and contrasted with the terrible self-talk arc moving through these three phases?

Greg Harden
Well, let’s think it all the way through, like, “I’m so stupid. I just always…” I have to catch myself, “Well, that was stupid perhaps but it doesn’t mean that I’m stupid.” So, what I ask people to do is to train themselves to not just stop at the first and second thought, but take it to the third, fourth, and fifth thought, “God, I’m so stupid.” “Okay, I’m not stupid. But that was stupid. Beating myself is not working. Oh, okay.”

You’ve got to have in your brain a couple of phrases, “Beating yourself up does not work. It’s ineffective.” So, you’ve heard someone say, “Beating yourself up doesn’t work.” I need you to take it to, “It’s ineffective.” Worrying does not work. It does not change the outcome. Beating myself up doesn’t work. Worrying doesn’t work. I caught myself.

So, what we teach people is to catch themselves when they’re in the middle of beating themselves up. I’ve had people have a notebook where every time they catch themselves in negative self-talk, they jot it down. They even jot down what was happening at the time, what triggered it. And they end up finding out that if they are diligent, they do a lot more often than they thought.

So, the mission is to get people to, ultimately, eliminate but that’s a stretch. We need to reduce how often and how long we beat ourselves up. We’ve got to reduce it and telescope it, and get it down. But we get it down by being critically conscious, mindful, and aware of how often I do it, and I catch myself. So, your brain gets all the way to, when I catch myself, then I beat myself up for catching myself, “Oh, God, I’m doing it again. I’m so stupid.”

And so, we catch ourselves, and then we commit, once again, to retraining the way that we think. The commitment has to be there. People always talk about what they want to do but you’ve got to not just dream big. You’ve got to believe big in order to become big.

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

Greg Harden
Become the world’s greatest expert on you. And sometimes you will have to get input from others. You’ve been to some good schools, you’ve done some really good things, and you’re an international player, right? B school, boom, boom, boom. Anyone that’s been near the B school has heard of SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to our organization.

What are the things that are working, not working? What are the opportunities we need to exploit? What are the threats to us becoming world class? I have the audacity to take SWOT analysis and give it to individuals. I’ll ask you to do a SWOT analysis on yourself. And if you don’t like the word weaknesses, let’s say challenges, SCOT analysis.

And so, I’ll have someone do a SWOT analysis on themselves, and then we’ll review it. Some people are really good at identifying strengths and horrible at identifying weaknesses. Some folks, all they can see is weaknesses and are limited at seeing strengths. I will then ask them to get two to three people who they love, who loves them, who they trust, who will not take advantage and abuse any power that you give them, and ask them to do a SWOT analysis.

Then, we’ll have a review of what you’ve written, what several other people who care about you have written, and see if there are some congruencies, if they can see things that you cannot see or have not seen, that’s reinforcing the changes that need to be made. So, critical self-assessment is an artform that people must practice, train, and rehearse, getting better at being able to not really good at criticizing themselves but really doing a self-assessment is what we’re trying to get people to.

And so, I guess I get excited just thinking about, “How do you teach somebody to become the world’s greatest expert and then daring them to pursue self-love and self-acceptance?”

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

Greg Harden
“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Eleanor Roosevelt.

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

Greg Harden
Carol Dweck’s Mindset is filled with research, and she can talk like a human being and not like just a scientist.

Pete Mockaitis
And that sounds like a favorite book. Any other favorite books?

Greg Harden
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. That was like a bible to me. When I was really young and dumb, I would have a New Testament in one pocket and Viktor Frankl in another pocket, and would walk around talking smack because I’m grounded.

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

Greg Harden
Identifying self-defeating attitudes and behaviors.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite thing you share that people quote back to you often that really resonates with them?

Greg Harden
Well, your self-worth and self-esteem must not be based on external forces. How I feel about me should not be based on performance.

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

Greg Harden
GregHarden.com.

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

Greg Harden
Commit without question or pause, to giving everything you’ve got every chance you get. Give it 100% a hundred percent of the time as your default mode. And if that’s your default mode, your worst day will be better than the average person’s best day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Greg, this has been a treat. Thank you and keep on rocking.

Greg Harden
My man, most enjoyable. Thank you so much for your time.

883: How to Thrive in Uncertainty and Chaos with Dan Thurmon

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Dan Thurmon shares powerful tools to make chaos your ally.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to reframe the stresses of uncertainty
  2. How to break the patterns of negative self-talk
  3. The tiny language shifts that make a huge difference

About Dan

Dan Thurmon is the founder and President of Motivation Works, Inc, a company that helps leaders and their organizations move confidently through change and transformation, so they become, achieve, and contribute MORE. His clients include Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Honeywell, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, Marriott, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Prudential, State Farm, and Walmart.

He’s delivered thousands of presentations across six continents for audiences including world leaders, Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurs, educators, and even troops on the front lines of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2011, he was inducted into the prestigious Speaker Hall of Fame — and is one of fewer than 200 living speakers to have received this honor.

Dan is also a writer and content producer. He’s authored three books: Success in Action, Off Balance On Purpose, and most recently, Positive Chaos.

Along with his speeches and books, Dan produces an ongoing, weekly video-coaching series and podcast in which he shares leadership principles and life-enhancement strategies in under three minutes.

Resources Mentioned

Dan Thurmon Interview Transcript

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

Dan Thurmon
I am delighted to be here. Thanks, Pete, and great to be with your awesome audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to be chatting. And I think we first need to hear about some of your amazing physical feats that you do when you’re speaking, handstands, etc. What’s the story here?

Dan Thurmon
Well, I was a hyperactive kid who was getting in trouble constantly in school and at home. And, fortunately, I found a channel for that energy that was very positive in my life. I learned to juggle. I learned acrobatics when I was 11, 12 years old. And someone I always admired told me, “Never let this out of your life. Like, I see what this means to you. And as long as you do it, you’ll always be able to do it.”

So, I’ll be 55 this year, and, yeah, I’m still tumbling across stages and doing handstand pushups on the lecterns at my speeches, but not just because I can, but really to illustrate principles about balance and taking action in big bold ways, and the fact that balance is not what you get ever, it’s what you do, and we need to become better balancers, and learn to adapt to the uncertainty and actually use it to our advantage.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you said you started early, and you said if you kept doing it, you’d never lose it. So, if I am approaching 40, and I haven’t done handstand pushups before, is it still possible for me to learn?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, I think so. It all kind of comes into that whole, “What is your level of willingness? How much does it matter to you?” And then you can map the course to the ability, which handstand pushups is really about strength, it’s about flexibility and confidence, and it’s a road to get there. But if you’ve had some kind of measure in your past of physical activity, your body knows how to respond to exercise then you can likely get there, I would say, with the right coach. But how much time do you have? And how serious are you about the goal?

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you.

Dan Thurmon
That’s kind of the deal.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was randomly on YouTube and I encountered this fellow Chris Heria who’s doing these just fantastic feats, and he did something I’ve never seen before, and it blew my mind, and I was just like, “I want to do that.” It was a, I hadn’t even heard of it, a full planche pushup.

Dan Thurmon
Nice.

Pete Mockaitis
You probably know what that is, whereas, I didn’t. And for those listening, this is a pushup but your feet are not on the ground. They are hovering in the air. You’re basically flying by using your arms. I thought it was so cool and I just wanted to do that. But it sounds like it’s going to be a long road, Dan. Is that fair to say?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, you gotta start somewhere, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. Well, we’re talking about Positive Chaos. Tell us, what is the scoop here with your latest book?

Dan Thurmon
Well, I was really excited about this book because the idea is that chaos is ever increasing, it’s all around us, it’s the word we hear coming up constantly, generally used to disrupt people, to make them dispirited or to feel like they have no control over their life, when, in fact, it’s true in some sense. There is greater uncertainty and greater opportunities.

And the divergent possibilities of how the future will unfold are exponentially increasing as a result of the openness of our systems and our technology, but you can use that to your advantage. It could be a great thing and it really is a chance, not only for you to be more awesome at your job, but also to help others because, let me tell you, we did some research about how chaos is hitting people right now, and it’s not good.

People are really struggling in many ways, and one out of four American workers think about quitting at least once a day. And that’s just their job. That doesn’t even get into anxiety and depression, and concern for loved ones, and even suicidal ideation. So, people need a tool to change their mindset and their skills around uncertainty, and that’s what this book is all about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, go ahead, paint a picture. We can hear the darkness, Dan. What is the state of play here in terms of chaos and how we are dealing?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah. So, anxiety is off the charts, depression. You could sense this all around you, and disengagement, perhaps not with this audience who understands self-improvement and motivation and determination, but in the people around you perhaps, that comes down to the economy, fear. Financial concern is the number one type of chaos people are thinking about. And concern for others, concern for the people they really care about. Six percent of working Americans think about suicide at least once every day, which is just crazy when you think for every 100 people in the workforce, six of them are having these thoughts.

And so, I think the opportunity and the obligation for all of us is to recognize we need to be better encouragers of one another and help each other through this time because you never exactly know who those people may be. And so, don’t underestimate your own influence and the impact that you can make on those around you.

Because chaos is nothing more than that determined effort where it intersects uncertainty and randomness. But if you look at the future not as uncertain, but as unfolding in just new and interesting ways, you can be really curious about that and very much in control. And so, what I do in the book is also go into what chaos really is, chaos theory.

I don’t know if you know, but in 1962, Edward Norton Lorenz was trying to predict the weather, and he realized he couldn’t because little variable that he could not measure would amplify over time in enormous ways, and that’s mathematical chaos. He called it the Butterfly Effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings could, theoretically, start a hurricane hundreds of miles away. And this became a very catchy phenomenon, this idea that little things change everything in big ways.

And so, the idea of going on offense and with positive chaos is that your inputs, your words, your actions, your intentional efforts, your interactions with others, will also amplify in enormous ways that you can’t even predict. So, we have an intention and a determination but the ripple effects of what you do and say is going to amplify probably more than it ever has before. So, owning that is a big, big part of this book, and I think of what’s really critical right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then we’ve seen the dark side of our relationship with uncertainty and the positive pictures that it’s unfolding. That’s sort of interesting and we’re curious about that, okay. Well, tell us, how can we get there?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, so when you think about chaos and the word itself, I break it into an acronym that people can kind of think about. A couple more quick statistics for you. Seventy-six percent of working Americans think chaos shortens people’s lives, 79% think it leads to mental health challenges, 81% of working Americans believe that being able to handle chaos well should be a requirement for all their leaders, and they really value that.

Even though money is such a big concern for everyone in their financial picture, especially in this economy, it’s like they would rather make less. Seventy percent of working Americans would rather make 10% less but work for someone who could handle chaos well. And so, how do you do that? In the book, I break it into three sections.

The first is to recognize things in a different way to be able to see the patterns that are at work in your life, in your business, in the world around you a little bit differently. And then you can learn to respond in a new way. And then you can realize different results over time in huge ways. But the response is critical, and it goes to that acronym for the word chaos. The negative aspect is challenging, hectic, anxious, overwhelming, stress.

Now, this is where most people are living right now, things are hard, things are moving too fast, they feel hecticness, an anxiety, which is the negative projection about the future. They’re fearful about what’s happening and they feel overwhelmed because it’s just too much, and it’s all on them, and they’re pulled apart by this stress that they live with, makes it hard to sleep, makes it hard to work, and hard to be awesome.

But when we take control over those, over our response system, and we can see things in new ways, and recognize patterns, then we could change that. And so, the acronym, or the five transformations that I suggest and teach in the center section of the book take you to a different version, which is challenging, healthy, aspiring, ongoing, synergy.

So, it is hard, it’s going to be hard, but we self-prescribe intentional challenges. We ask for a course of learning. We learn things that are more difficult, and recognize, even though we can’t understand how everything will play out, we can create more certainty by determining we’re going to get better in specific ways.

And so, that intentional challenge is the first part. The second part is we move from hectic, which is just racing against life and pace and trying to fill every second, to a more healthy way to look at things, which is to understand we, first of all, need to prioritize health – mental health, physical health, and also find the space between the throws and catches.

I’m a juggler, okay? And so, just like Michael Gelb, who’s one of your recent guests, I learned to juggle and I found a huge amazing resource in my life for channeling my energy, for starting a business, paying my way through college, getting a business degree, and, ultimately, personal improvement, self-help, and really how do you develop a skill, what is learning, what is practice, all these things.

And, for me, juggling was also a great way to understand this concept of patterns, of how everything fits together, different challenges require new patterns, and complexity when you add something new, you really create an exponential version of something more difficult. But what you learn is, like, even if there’s five or seven objects in the air at once, there’s space between the throws and catches.

And part of moving from hectic to healthy is understanding you can’t race life, you can’t ever outrun the pace of change because it will always accelerate, but what we can do is create that space between what you were doing, what you’re doing next, what you hear and how you choose to respond. And it’s in that space that you become a greater instrument for self-intended direction and responsiveness. So, that’s hectic to healthy.

Aspiring is really a positive version of the future. So, rather than anxiety and being fixated on the potential negative aspects, which may or may not play out, we look at what’s getting better, what we want to improve in our life, the things, again, not just you’re choosing to develop in terms of skills, but what you stand for and what you value.

And when you focus on that, you’ll see it all around you in new ways, and it becomes an intentional focus. And the key is both things can be true at the same time. It’s like when I teach my whole audience how to balance peacock feathers. This is an exercise I do in my keynotes. I first have them do it while trying to look at their hand, which is nearly impossible. You can try this at home right now or in your car if you’re stopped. I know you don’t have a peacock feather but any long large object will do.

If you’re looking down, you can’t have any sense of prediction or control, but if you look at the top, immediately you know what’s going on. And so, it’s that change of perspective, both things can be true, we choose to see what’s aspiring. And then overwhelming to ongoing, it’s really important, Pete, because it recognizes that life is a series of repetitive patterns.

What you’re dealing with now, even though we may think of it as an unprecedented challenge, or a new role at work, or a new job task, it’s probably just another version of something you’ve dealt with in the past in some way. Finding those commonalities and those connections will help you to leverage into a measure of competence, like before you even try it.

And, also, this has to do with negative patterns or the things that we postpone learning or addressing in our own lives, relative to behaviors, or situations, relationship conflict, etc. If you just hit the snooze button on those things, they’ll just keep coming back in bigger and bigger ways. And so, we need to change that by moving into an ongoing approach to improvement.

And then you begin to see how it all fits together, and that’s where stress becomes synergy, and you see the connectedness of how, really, kind of everything affects everything all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool in that, yes, indeed, the same uncertainty we can internalize and experience completely differently. And I’ve been doing some of my own reflection in terms of when it comes to fear and excitement, physiologically it can be quite similar in terms of how like you’re breathing, what your palms are doing, like going up for a speech. It’s like, “Ooh,” some people say, “Oh, I’m so excited.” Some people say, “I’m so scared,” even though, physiologically, what’s going on in their bodies can be pretty darn similar but they’ve interpreted it differently.

Or, some folks would say, “Oh, I’m so bored. There’s nothing to do,” versus others might say, “Oh, I’m so content and peaceful here. I don’t have to do anything. It’s awesome.” So, what fascinates me is that sometimes the same stimulus on a different day, I will experience totally differently. Like, “Oh, I’m going to be interviewing four people today. That’s so awesome. I’m going to do so much learning and discovery and adventure,” versus, like, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve got too much work. I’ve got all this stuff back-to-back, and now I’ve got four people I’m interviewing today.”

So, it’s just fascinating that we humans are such enigmatic creatures that this could be the case. What’s up with this, Dan? Solve it for us.

Dan Thurmon
Well, we can always find something to complain about, and it’s really one of the prerequisites for this positive mindset. It seems like passé these days to say, “I’m a positive person,” or, “I default toward looking on the bright side of things.” That almost seems cliché in, like, an embarrassing way because sarcasm and negativity has become such a part of acceptable culture, and it’s almost like when people get together, that’s how they relate, is we talk about what we can both agree is crappy.

And to say what’s wonderful in the world, you come off as kind of like a freak of nature sometimes. But this whole idea of being a victim is one of those aspects you need to let go. Talk about the price of positive, like if you really want to engage this mindset and change life and change others for the better, you have to let go of negative people, you have to choose not to take the bait when people try to pull you into those negative conversations.

And sometimes that means, like, relationships, you need to kind of distance yourself and be the model for a different way, and that means sometimes others will draw away from you. And then this whole notion of victimhood because, yeah, things can be horribly awful and tragic, and yet in the middle of that, you can find amazing joy and discovery and knowledge and growth. And you might not see it right away, but if you open yourself to that possibility, you’ll get through it so much more quickly. So, yeah, that is our nature, is to look down.

It’s also part of our physiology. It’s part of that protective instinct to guard against potential threats in our world, which could cause us physical harm, or take away our source of food, or our source of intimacy and relationships. So, we do have that natural tendency. That’s part of our physiology, not just our personalities.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d also love to get your take in terms of just day-to-day, what are the practices, either immediately in the heat of the moment, or just sort of ongoing each day that we can conduct so that we are more frequently engaging the chaos in a pleasant positive way as oppose to, “Ugh, I’m freaking out” kind of a way?

Dan Thurmon
Freaking out, right? Well, what you should be thinking about is complexity and stability. And so, a more stable system will be able to endure some change and some threats and some flexibility. So, wherever you get stability in your life, double down on that. So, that could be physical health, it could be a spiritual practice, great relationships with family and friends, the people you surround yourself with. Really lock down your source of, like, the go-to place to get centered and stable and connected in your life.

Then you also need to look at the complexities of life in a few different ways. Simplify where you can. Like, wherever you can remove unnecessary complexity, like that’s probably a good thing. So, if there are some commitments you can let go of, now is probably a good time and create some space in your life to say no to some things that, as a default, you typically would accept. Do it in a loving way, do it in a kind way, etc. but create some space and some simplicity, and find better ways.

Always look at your systems of how you operate or the things that we do, and say, “Is there an easier way? Is there an easier way to make this happen?” With technology, there typically is. There’s a lot of ways we can remove complexity. But then some of the complexity is necessary because our lives are complex, problems are complex, and so necessary complexity is really important because you can create more chaos by trying to oversimplify something that’s not that simple.

And so, if you’re going into a business venture, or you’re starting a new job, or you’re trying to solve a really complex problem, but your only options are this or that, and you think it’s going to be simple, yeah, you’re going to learn really quickly that that’s not the right answer. And that’s what people do with really big issues.

In the book, I have a case study, for example, about violence in schools, gun violence, school shootings, which people will typically, in conversation, just break it down to one issue or another issue, and the reality is it’s incredibly complex. And one of my clients, Navigate360, the CEO is actually really addressing this problem and making incredible strides, but it’s very complex because it involves, like, how do you approach, yes, a smart conversation around gun policy.

But also, like, early intervention and identifying the possibility of people in your school that might be at risk in de-stigmatizing mental illness and creating a sense of stability through acceptance and a sense of what’s important in kids’ lives, and really going after this in a holistic way. It’s a big deal, right? But there’s a lot of unnecessary complexity that we might choose.

So, complexity we choose are things, like, we say, “I could go this easy way through this process, but I want to make it better, or I want to make it uniquely my own, and so I’m intentionally adding some complexity, and I’m choosing that.” And we choose complexity when we have kids, and when we get married.

I dedicated the book to my wife, I said, “To Shay, my wife, my stability in chaos, and the complexity I choose,” because, hey, marriage is a very complex way to go through life. It creates stability in some sense, but other ways that things are just going to always be more interesting because you involve someone else.

And then the third piece of complexity is the malevolence that really is out there. People who are intentionally trying to disrupt you, to either compete with you in a business sense or in a job sense, but also there are malevolent forces at work who are hacking into our computer systems and destabilizing governments, and trying to steal your money. That’s all out there, too. And so, there’s just a lot to think through but it’s helpful to compartmentalize that complexity.

And then, also, look for the patterns because you might not realize you’ve been going through the same thing over and over in your life, whether it’s a relationship issue, or a job challenge, or professional challenge, or money, how you handle money. And those things will come back bigger each time if you don’t address them the right way, or if you don’t address them a new way.

And so, interrupting those patterns is really, really important. If something happens once in your life, it may be an anomaly. If it happens twice, it should get your attention. And if it happens three times, it’s definitely a pattern. And so, it’s either going to keep happening in bigger ways or you have to change it up. You’ve got to say or do something different.

But the key is really to recognize, again, you don’t have to make big, bold, enormous shifts to create a huge difference. Just like with the Butterfly Effect, little things change everything. So, the big question to ask yourself is, “What is the one thing that could possibly change everything?” Relative to your job, if there was one skill you could learn that would change everything about how you contribute, or how you respond, or how you show up, what would that one thing be?

Because we have a tendency to, like, say, “I want to take in everything, the totality of the big picture,” but when we drill it down to the one thing, then we can find something we can really start to do. And for most of us, it’s language, it’s how we use our words, how we talk in our thoughts to ourselves, how we speak to others. Begin to change those little things and you’ll see some big results.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Wow, there’s so much to follow up here. Okay. So, stability and simplification, I’m thinking one piece of resistance folks might have to some of these pursuits is just simply, “Dan, those things are boring. It doesn’t sound fun or entertaining to do that.” How do you respond?

Dan Thurmon
I think you can make it incredibly interesting. So, stability is not predictability, right? It’s not trying to keep change at bay. Again, we’re inviting the chaos, we’re creating positive chaos, but we’re finding a sense of self. And you could find stability just by knowing yourself to a greater degree. What do you love? What do you value? What are your principles, your life mission?” That’s a part of the process of the book is leading you to really get clear on your intentions because those are the things, once you know what that is, those become your inputs, and they amplify in huge ways, and you begin to get so much more opportunity in your life.

So, stability is not, again, it’s not predictability. It is a sense of grounded-ness. Like, physical health, yeah, you’re going to have a more stable life if you can show up to any situation with a bit more energy and with a bit more mental wellbeing, and you’ll also be able to be there for others. So, your stability becomes the tool you can use to help the people around you.

Pete Mockaitis
When you talk about simplifying, can you share some examples of some specific areas of life or work and/or interventions that are just fantastic for simplifying and a lot of us would get a lot of bang for our buck by just going ahead and doing that simplification process?

Dan Thurmon
Sure. So, the idea is less is more, right? And I think we were all kind of forced through a simplification process during COVID, during the pandemic, where our lives were stripped down to the basics. And a lot of what we did, just by default because we’d accumulated all of these habits and routines and extraneous activity in our life, was sort of stripped away to the basics.

And many of us were able to recognize in that moment, if you go back to it, what really worked well and what wasn’t working. And for some of us, that was really painful. It’s like relationships were broken, things were in trouble, and we couldn’t do some of the things we really loved to do. And so, if you think about that, you had a sense of clarity of what really mattered in your life.

And I think a lot of this is happening naturally, Pete, like, people have simplified their lives, and said, “I don’t need to reengage with everything I was doing before. Less is more. And maybe I’m just going to keep it a little bit more basic.” I would also say that when we think about, like, how we work and how we contribute, getting back to the theme of the podcast and how to be awesome, it’s about really showing up and doing your job.

It’s wonderful to understand the synergy and the complexity of what’s all around you, but there’s something, there’s one thing probably you’re really responsible for. And if you take care of that and just nail it, like your value to the entire organization, company, team, to the world maybe, who knows, it just escalates. So, just think about that.

Simplifying is really about prioritizing. And so, if it’s everything, “I want a little bit of everything,” you’re going to always be spread too thin. But if you had to prioritize, what would you put at the top of the list?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then when it comes to, you said many of us can get a big return on checking our language, including what we say to ourselves, can you provide some perspective there in terms of what are some problematic self-talk patterns that you’ve encountered? And what are some ways to approach them?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, it really bothers me when people say things like, “I’m so stupid,” or, “I could never handle this,” “I’m always this way. I always make this mistake.” It’s like, in a way, you’re doubling down and reinforcing that pattern as opposed to interrupting it by creating some possibility, like, “I’m still learning this,” or, “I’m working on this,” or, “I’m getting better in this regard.”

If you were to find a way to frame your process and even your struggles as a journey that’s moving forward, then you create that sense of trajectory. Improvement, goals are really important. I’m a big fan and believer in goals, but, really, it’s about momentum. We got to have a sense of forward motion, a trajectory, which is a feeling that things are getting better over time, not every day, but over time my trajectory is going upwards.

And then alignment, that I feel like I’m more and more in alignment with the set of values and principles that, if you’re serious about personal growth and lifelong learning, will continue to come into greater clarity over the course of your life. So, you’re never really done with this. We’re just working toward that goal.

So, I would just be very careful about your language. The other things, just very simply, is people say, “I have to. I have the sense of obligation. I would love to do that but I have to do this.” It seems very innocuous. But saying you have to is a sense of obligation that deprives you from the value of intentionally getting it done.

If you were to say, “I need to,” just that one change from “have to” to “need to,” “Yeah, I need to do this first.” Well, now you’ve recognized “This is important, this is really important. Yes, maybe it’s an obligation of my job but my job is important to me.” “It’s an obligation of my relationship. I have to see my parents.” But, no, “I need to see my parents because I value them and I love them.” So, you get credit for doing the right thing as opposed to an obligation, “I have to” where you’re just kind of like at the mercy of your life, and at the mercy of your calendar.

And then the next level even above that is “get to.” So, if you were to say “I get to go to work today,” even higher than “I have to…” “I need to…” Hey, a lot of people don’t have a job, a lot of people don’t have a sense of purpose, a lot of people don’t have loved ones they get to visit, or people they get to provide for, or sacrifices they get to make to demonstrate what’s important to them in their life.

And so, these are small subtle ways that you can change your language and your internal thoughts and also change your perspective of your external world which changes everything.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. And I think “need to” is a nice little bridge because sometimes “get to,” I’ve tried that and sometimes it’s like, “Pete, I’m just not buying it. I know what you’re trying to do here, brain, but I’m still not looking forward to that thing.” But “need to” is like, “Okay, yeah, we acknowledge this a value, this is important, and, thus, need to feels fair.”

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, and also it might be a commitment, “So, I need to do this because I said I would. And I’m the type of person that follows through on commitments.” And so, all of that just builds reinforcement of your values, your principles, and helps you to move through life in that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, if you do catch yourself in a thought, just like, “Oh, this is such bull crap. I can’t believe they’re doing this to me. They should appreciate my efforts, blah, blah, blah,” or, “Oh, man, I’ve screwed it up again. I’m never going to be able to…” so, whatever. You’re in the stuff, you’re thinking it. What’s the best approach? Do you want to play police officer to your brain, like, “Halt! No, no, no”? Or, how do you talk yourself through those moments?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, that would be a great example of where you recognize a pattern. So, is that something that happens frequently or is it an occasional thing? And if you see yourself going down that road, you’re probably not in a good state of mind to make a decision. So, you have to interrupt the pattern, and you could do that in a number of different ways. You can’t just disengage from the situation. Go for a walk. You can find things that will uplift you.

And the best way to know what will help you become more resourceful through those moments is to not find them when you’re frustrated or when you’re struggling, but to basically acknowledge them when you’re doing well. So, when you’re not in that state, when things are rocking, and you’re feeling strong and life seems easy to you, that’s when you go, “Okay, what am I doing here? Like, what am I thinking? Who am I around at this moment? What did I just do to prepare for this physically, mentally, whatever?”

And then those become your go-to’s when you’re back in that unresourceful state, and you’re like, “Okay, crap. This is not good. This is stinking thinking. I need to get out of this.” Or, you can indulge it because that feels good for a while, if that serves you, but just recognize, like, the longer you stay there, the longer you’re preventing yourself from getting out of it, and that you’re also reinforcing that pattern.

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

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, so in this whole world of how you can become a better influencer and the little things that really can change things in big ways, one of those I really wanted to mention is how you can activate the people around you. When you see others, again, understand a lot of people are really struggling right now, and we can help them only by naming their strengths, by basically telling them what we admire about them, or what they’ve done well.

And just think about that as almost like a superpower that you have to flip a switch inside someone that makes them want to do that more. I remember all the great mentors in my life, all the great leadership opportunities in my life, from my earliest days when I started performing to leadership positions within the National Speakers Association, or bigger opportunities with new clients, etc. Other people generally saw those things in me before I saw them in myself, and they named them. They were like, “Dan, I could see you in this role.” I was like, “Really? You think I could do that?”

And so, right now you might be thinking about people who did that for you. Understand this is a power that you have. So, just by going through your day with a little bit more awareness of the people around you, in saying, “Pete, you’re an awesome listener. You’re a great podcast host. I really have enjoyed listening to the episodes. Amazing.”

Or, Stephanie, who’s in the studio with us, “Stephanie is an incredible teammate of mine. She keeps me on schedule. Incredibly focused.” Like, those little things activate those qualities at a much higher level, and you help people kind of spiral up and get to the next level.

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

Dan Thurmon
Sure. Okay, I’m sticking with the theme here. From Mother Teresa, she said, “We cannot all do great things but we can all do small things with great love.” That’s one of my wife’s favorites. So, in her honor, I thought I’d share that one.

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

Dan Thurmon
Well, the research, if you’ll indulge me, I would mention the impact of chaos study on the American workforce, which is DanThurmon.com/research. And that is something I’m going to quote quite a bit because it’s not just about the things that are wrong, but it’s, like, 10 insights that we can use both as individuals and as leaders, and here’s how to help make that work for you. So, go to that study.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, I have so many favorite books but the one that I decided to share is Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. This is something I keep going back to and listening to. It has an audiobook in his own voice. And one of my favorite things to do is ride my mountain unicycle through the woods, listening to Eckhart Tolle.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, that’s my own weirdness but it’s one of those skills I’ve kept alive. And so, unicycling for me is like the ultimate meditation, especially when you’re in the woods.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Dan Thurmon
Right here, man, the Thera Cane. Do you know the Thera Cane?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve seen one before but I didn’t know what it’s for.

Dan Thurmon
So, if you’re listening to the podcast, it’s a big hook. It’s a cane with handles on it at the bottom and knobs on the top, and it’s for self-massage. So, as an aging acrobat and gymnast who’s always getting ready for shows, what it helps you do is to really get into those deep cracks and the tensed muscles in your neck and back and hips, and loosen them up without a lot of extra effort. I have one of these in every one of my cases, in my office, at my house, in my car. I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I feel like I can talk 20 minutes about the Thera Cane alone. Maybe I need them to send me a product, as a podcast. So, the idea is you sort of like put pressure on a stiff tight sore point on your shoulder or body, and then it makes it better?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, exactly. If you’ve ever had, like, a stiff shoulder, and you try to work it out but you’re working it out with your other hand, so you’re rubbing on it, it takes a lot of effort and energy.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s a little hard to reach.

Dan Thurmon
You’re working on the other one, this gives you leverage. So, it’s like a crowbar for your back and it flexes a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you could use it with two hands instead of one.

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, exactly. And you just kind of work it into that muscle. You could do the hips. You use these knobs on the side for the legs. Yeah, it’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I love it.

Dan Thurmon
I make no money on this, by the way, the Thera Cane.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate. Well, sometimes I ask a favorite tool, folks would be like, “Oh, my iPhone,” or, “Google Sheets.” I was like, “Okay, yeah, those are pretty good tools.” Like, Thera Cane, first time ever, Dan. I appreciate it.

Dan Thurmon
I had to be different.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Dan Thurmon
Sure. So, for me, exercise and practice is every day. I do a thousand catches with juggling every single day, which sounds like a lot but it takes like five minutes with five balls if I don’t drop. But if I do drop, I have to start over. I also do hot yoga, other things for exercise, but I would say the biggest habit for me that’s been very productive is every week I do a weekly coaching video.

They’re short, they’re like two and a half minutes, really well-written and produced from wherever I am in the world, and I just give it away for free on my blog and my LinkedIn channel and everywhere else we do social media. But it’s like this creative commitment to keep me on the hook to creating new content.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget that you share, maybe in one of these publications, that really connects and resonates with folks?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, sure. So, I try to get something of a nugget in every week that’s meaningful but the biggest ones from my keynote, I’ll give you two. One is, “If you limit yourself to what’s comfortable, you deny yourself what’s possible.” And the second one is, “If you think what you’re doing now is difficult, it’s time to try something harder.”

And that goes back to a story of learning to juggle, going to four, learning a whole new pattern with four, and then struggling with four. As I was doing that, struggling with four balls, my three-ball juggling was getting really easy, and I never got the hang of four until I tried five. So, if you think what you’re doing now is difficult, try something harder.

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

Dan Thurmon
DanThurmon.com, Thurmon with an O, so it’s T-H-U-R-M-O-N.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?

Dan Thurmon
Yeah, I think I’ll go back to kind of where we started, is don’t ever assume that someone else is okay, or that they understand their own strength or what makes them unique. Go out of your way and tell them and acknowledge that, and you’re going to change their life in a big way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Dan, this has been a treat. Thanks, and keep on rocking.

873: Dr. Steven Hayes on Building a More Resilient and Flexible Mind

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Steven Hayes discusses how our instincts mentally trap us—and shares powerful tools for liberating your mind.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The benefits of psychological flexibility—and how to develop it
  2. Why you need to put your mind on a leash
  3. The key to taking the sting out of negative words

About Steven

Steven C. Hayes is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. He’s the originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He’s authored 48 books including Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life (which reached #20 on Amazon’s best-seller list) and A Liberated Mind, which explains why psychological flexibility helps us navigate the world. Methods he has developed are distributed worldwide by the World Health Organization and other major agencies, and he is among the most cited psychologists in the world.

Resources Mentioned

Steven Hayes Interview Transcript

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

Steven Hayes
I’m so happy to be here with you.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so happy to be here with you, too. I’ve been enjoying your book and your interviews, and I think we have more that we could possibly cover in the time available, which is a great problem to have. So, I think, first of all, we got to hear about your extraordinary pushup practice. What’s the scoop here?

Steven Hayes
Well, it’s gone backwards fast, right? But I have long tried to do at least my age in pushups every day. Unfortunately, my son is getting awesome at it, said, “Dad, you’re doing cheater pushups,” so now I’m doing the perfect, absolutely to the floor, nose on the pushups, and suddenly I’m only at about 25% of what I was before, but I’m still committed I’m going to get back to my age, which will probably take me a little while but every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was listening to your book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters and I heard you say, “Yes, I do 70 pushups a day.” So, is that 70 cheaters?

Steven Hayes
Yeah, it turns out I don’t actually get all the way down to nose-kissing, so I bought the kind of things that lifts you up so that you can safely hit a pad because I don’t want to smash my face onto the carpet, then I get tired. But it’s just one of those things where an arbitrary thing, like pushups, but it’s just a symbol of, “Can you make a commitment?” just stick to it, and just create a habit that’s values-based and worthwhile, and when you fail, you keep coming back to it. And the move to the perfect part is keep upping the ante. It’s not just the numbers that counts. It’s trying to do it in a quality way.

Pete Mockaitis
And, recently, it seems like you’ve had some very rich moments in terms of you shared with me your Mother’s Day exchange as well as some exchanges leading up to your retirement from the University of Nevada, Reno. Could you tell us a bit about these?

Steven Hayes
Well, the retirement thing kind of links over. I’ve been at this for 47 years, and I got up in front of the student group and, spontaneously, said, “Give a few words.” Of course, you don’t give a microphone to a professor, you deserve what you get, so you get a 20-minute rant. But what I found myself saying to my students as my last word, my last meeting, was that love and loss is one thing, not two.

And that when you really love your job, as I have, the way to do that full out is to know that it’s finite and will pass, and to have that be part of it. That’s why we cry at weddings, why we cry at births, because we know there’s things ahead. There’s a bittersweet quality to life but if you inhale that at the beginning, then you can play all out because you know, in the end, you’re going to be waving goodbye and people eventually will forget you. But, so what?

If you moved the ball down the road, it’ll be there maybe, and in some tiny way for your children’s-children’s children, and that’s worth playing hard. So, I think we often think of winning as some sort of permanent thing, and losing as a horrible thing and such but I think it’s kind of a mixed thing, and the love and loss part is that knowing from the beginning that you’re raising your children for them to leave you. You’re loving the people around you, knowing that they’re going to die. You’re creating a business, knowing that it’ll be passed on to somebody else.

You’re not going to have it forever. So, that’s okay. That’s called life, and it’s, to me, an empowering message. It means we can play full out just like we were when we were three, and we ran to touch that tree and gave it every little ounce of effort without asking the question of, “Oh, is this really important? Will it last forever?” One question.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I love, in your reflections there, you mentioned that all these things are loving. In the universe of professor-ing and publishing, you’d said that that is also love, publishing articles. Can you expand on that?

Steven Hayes
Yeah, I remind those students that when you do a job like that and do it well, you will love your job if you do your job lovingly. That will go together. I guess unless you’re a professional hit person, all of our jobs are about somehow contributing to the wellbeing of others. And so, could you bring that into your life’s moments so that when it’s 2:00 in the morning and you’re working on this stupid reviewer who asked you to do stupid things with your article or it’s not going to be published, can you really connect with doing even that with care?

It’s like an awesome opportunity to bring the capacity to bring love in the world, into your world and to the world of others by doing a really, really good job, absolutely the best job you can do, without paralyzing in place, that it has to be perfect or you can’t do it. Now, as I say, the love and loss is one thing. It tells us that failure is part of it. Slipping and falling is part of it. When you learned to walk, how many times did you fall down in an average day? A hundred and ten times.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Steven Hayes
A hundred and ten times on your diapered butt. And unless you had some sort of nerve injury or something, you eventually learn to balance and walk. So, could you approach your work with that kind of quality of doing it in a way that’s focused on the good that you do for others but not in this perfectionistic, self-critical, heavy, “Oh, my God, what if I fail?” that paralyzes us?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that so much because it’s connected to psychology and insights that are research-based and somewhat modern, and yet also ancient in terms of wisdom traditions. And I’m thinking in my own background of Catholic Christian, thinking about Mother Teresa, do small things with great love, and that’s just a whole lot of goodness to be pursued in that way.

Steven Hayes
Yeah, I was raised in that same religious tradition, and I know all those rituals and stories, and all of our wisdom traditions and religious traditions, all of them, at their best, include this really wise advice, but the human mind needs guidance. Very, very easily, you can turn it into a slog or some sort of narcissistic grand thing, and you forget that it’s the small things that are going to matter, and being part of something bigger than yourself is part of what makes life worth living.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful. Well, so you are known for the notion of psychological flexibility and acceptance and commitment therapy. And so, it’s funny, in this context, you’ve said in the book that you’re not God’s gift to psychological flexibility, in that that’s something, it’s an ongoing journey. And yet, in a way, your contributions have, indeed, been a gift to all of us, so I want to unpack some of them for us.

First of all, what is psychological flexibility? And how can that help people in general, and, for this show, help us be more awesome at our jobs?

Steven Hayes
Well, it’s the smallest set of things that we do, processes we call them, just from the word, meaning a parade or procession, the sequence of things you do that leads to an outcome. The smallest set of things we do that do the most good things in the most areas known to behavioral science.

And it’s very, very simple. It’s a matter of being more open, aware, and actively engaged in life. If you’re going to be more open, you have to open to the world inside and out. That means your emotions, your thoughts, your memories, your sensations. What does it mean to be open? It means to be able to feel them, to go deeper into them when it’s useful, and respectfully decline the invitation to spend a lot of time on the ones that’s not useful. Being able to sort of see it as just part of the journey.

What does it mean to be aware? It means to be here, consciously present, right here, inside and out. Here’s what’s going on and I’m noticing it. I’m consciously noticing, and I’m noticing you. We’re connected and conscious, we’re working together, we’re creating a cooperative system, or a partnership, or whatever. And then actively engaged, well, actively engaged in the values-based life, creating habits that are focused on what you want your behavior to reflect to the world and to yourself. That’s it.

So, it turns out that those three things each have two things that are part of it, but they’re all really one thing, we call it psychological flexibility, or inflexibility when it goes awry. And in the area of work, for example, if you want to avoid burnout, you want to be effective, if you scale these processes socially, you want to create work teams that have those kind of qualities, creating a psychologically flexible workplace, the environment supports it, and work team so that team reflects it, of workers so the individuals have those skills and they’re actively developing them, you are going to be far more successful as a business, as a business person, as a leader, as a manager, and just as a human being.

So, one of the things that’s really cool, because this small set goes everywhere, you can care about your family, you can care about your kids, you could care about your health, you can care about the world, and you can be massively successful at work with the same processes. You don’t have to turn into somebody else and forget your wisdom training, or your religious background, or how important your family is, and how loving your kids makes a difference to you.

You don’t have to because the processes that empower human beings in one place, empower them another place, when you break out of this normative, categoric way of thinking, that one size fits all deal, or where you are at a Bell curve, and what percentile are you, and all this kind of thing of “Oh, woe is me. I’m too low,” or “Oh, I’m great and grand. I’m so high.” No. What are the things that you do that move your life up or move your life down? Watch it, learn it, observe it, use it, do it. You’re on a journey to success everywhere you look.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re going to get into a couple very specific tactics. And it’s fun, sometimes I like my advice weird, and you got a couple of them, which has a wealth of science supporting it in terms of the efficacy of these tools and approaches. But maybe before we go granular and tactical, can you give us your four-line ditty that summarizes your life’s work?

Steven Hayes
Well, I have a four-line ditty that summarizes everything that I’ve worked on in terms of the human mind and how it works, which is, “Learn it in one, derive it in two; put it in networks that change what you do.” We’re the creatures who can relay anything to anything else in any possible way. That’s what we’re doing right now with language.

We’re able to put a world together in this vast cognitive network, and it took us a long time to do that, almost for sure, it was happening even before homo sapiens.

But this is a tiger that we’re riding because, as soon as you can think about anything in almost any possible way, and create futures that had never been, you can take the same skills and say, “Yeah, I’m successful but I could’ve been so much more successful. Oh, I’m a failure because…”

You can turn good into bad, bad into good, and you can walk yourself into a mental health struggle regardless of whether you’re a billionaire or a pauper, regardless of whether or not you’re loved by many or by virtually no one. That’s a weird skill, and we better learn how to manage it. If we can’t put our mind on a leash, it’s going to put us on a leash.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And can you give us an example of something in our lives that we can learn in one, derive in two, and how that can take us two very different paths?

Steven Hayes
Well, okay, let’s say you’ve had a success experience, and you said, “I’m great.” Okay, that’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s me deriving it there, “I’m great”?

Steven Hayes
You derived it, yes, or somebody said it, “Boy, you’re so smart.” Remember the first time, and a lot of the people who were successful who are listening, they had that. They had the teacher, or somebody said, “You’re so smart.” That’s fine. But then it can turn, flip it back the other way to, “Anything I do is smart,” and I’ve never met anybody who everything they do is smart. They may be ‘smart’ in the sense they’re able to learn quickly or so forth.

But once you have kind of bought that, sort of like sawing a fishhook, and it’s hooked into you, you can be that manager who, no matter what other people say, you don’t need to consider their opinions, you’re the smart one in the room, you knew that before you walked in the room.

And you kind of internalized that’s who you are, rather than just a description of what you did, that later on could be a different description. And, yeah, we’re trying to learn how to do smart things, of course, we would. But when you buy into it, “That’s me. It’s like a skin I wear,” there’s a reason why the word personality means the mask that you put on, in Greek. It’s the face that you present.

And once you’re there and you’ve forgotten it, boy, you’re dangerous. You’re going to have a lot harder time listening to other people’s ideas, being genuinely curious about them, exploring them, having a conversation where the whole team can work together, where you can be shown to be smarter as being part of a group because other people have ideas sometimes that are better than yours. That’s just one example.

Derive it in two, “I’m smart. Okay, because I did this, I’m smart. Okay, now, because I’m smart, everything I do is like that.” No, that’s not true, and you better hold that lightly. Learn that first step of learning to be open. Just be open to thoughts that are helpful and thoughts that aren’t, ideas that work, ideas that don’t, emotions that are useful here, emotions that don’t deserve a whole lot of attention right now.

So, that flexibility of taking what’s useful and leaving the rest requires a certain kind of humility and learning by experience. You kind of metaphorically have to fall down on your cognitive diapered butt multiple times before you can get through your thick skull that some thoughts are useful and some thoughts aren’t, some of your ideas are good, some aren’t, and to learn how to really be an effective manager, be a creative leader who can bring it every day, but also empower the team to do the same.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the putting it in networks is “I’m relating this notion ‘I’m smart’ to all kinds of other things in the world.” Is that also maybe sort of a neuroscience network neuron concept as well?

Steven Hayes
It is, although we know so little about how the brain really works. It’s a huge network. So, the networks of cognition, let’s say in emotions and memories and so forth don’t go one to one. There are underlying networks that build the human brain. But we do know that the underlying neurobiology of what I’m saying is positive.

If you take something like psychological flexibility skills, when you can apply those in your world, you’re much less likely to be dumping stress-related hormones. It’s much easier to build new brain circuits. You’re not pushing the start button on these survival circuits of almost ingrained kind of automatic reactions of finding safety, or attack towards others.

So, even down to the point of being able to have slower age-related decline in your cells. You can keep your body tuned by helping your mind be attuned to creating a safe place for you to have a history that includes difficult things. We’ve all had potentially traumatizing-inducing events, if not actual trauma. Just turn on your television, look at your smartphone, and you have potentially trauma-inducing events all around you in the modern world.

How are you going to be able to sort of not go into that almost alligator brain stem freeze or flee or fight kind of system? You’re going to have to learn how to have modern minds for the modern world, the meditators, and the Christian mystics, and the Buddhist, and all of them. All the wisdom traditions all have ways of reining in this kind of alarm-based, safety-based mind.

And so, yeah, I think the networks involved, networks of habits, thoughts, emotions, etc., that all come together as one empowered person who’s able to get better and better. It doesn’t mean you’re great and grand, as you kindly mentioned. I’m no shining star of psychological flexibility. If you want proof of that, talk to my wife. But I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, and, again, we’re going to get into some of these tools. I think, maybe, the favorite thing I’ve read from you is, “You hurt where you care, and you care where you hurt.” Can you expand on this for us?

Steven Hayes
Yeah, if you want to find out, really, what motivates you, there’s four ways that I know of – sweet, sad, stories, and heroes, and one you mentioned is the sad one. If you take the things that are hard for you and you flip it over, it tells you what you care about, otherwise, why are you upset about it? So, if you’ve been betrayed, let’s say, and that stabbed you through the heart, that a person you thought was loyal and trustworthy betrayed your love, let’s say, your mind tells you to stop being vulnerable. Avoid intimate relationships. They’re not safe.

But that’s what your heart yearns for. So, we hurt where we care, exactly why it stabbed you through the heart is that you wanted something. So, instead of doing what the mind says, “Let’s all solve that problem,” just don’t want that anymore. And so, you start having superficial relationships, or de-tuning relationships that could open your heart again. You put up defenses and so forth.

Instead, could there be another way to carry that hurt, and that it actually motivates us, “Precisely because it hurt to be betrayed, I know how important it is to me to build an intimate committed relationship. Okay, can I work on how to do that, how to open my heart again”?

But the other method as well, digging into the sweetness of life, and noticing what that suggests, or looking at your heroes, and asking yourself, “Why do I look up to them?” and you’ll find values there, and you can ask the question how do you put that into your life. So, I think a guide to success is inside our deepest failures. It tells us, at least, what we care about and what we want.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. All right. Well, let’s now maybe have an overview of there are sort of six key, do we call them tools, skills, processes? Can you give us this overview?

Steven Hayes
Well, I gave you the three, and each of them have two, so that gives you six. But this experiential openness, that means accepting your emotions without clinging, open to difficult ones, don’t hang on desperately to positive ones. Allow emotions to come and go, and other experiences, too, like memories and sensations. Backing up from and noticing your mind with a little sense of distance so that you can see it as a thought without just looking at the world structured by the thought, without disappearing into the thought.

Like, if you have a thought like, “This is awful.” Have a thought this is awful. Don’t disappear into the awful world. The world is the world; you said it’s awful. That’s two different things. That’s not one. That’s two. And some of that may be just a habit that you don’t need of awfulizing about things. Coming into the present moment but consciously. In the present moment, inside now, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have thoughts about the past, or worries about the future, but it means you don’t get hooked by them and disappear from the moment almost like how you do on the freeway sometimes, and you’d become a mindless driver, and wake up you’ve gone miles down the road.

You don’t want to do that with rumination and worry because the opportunities are always in the present, that’s where we live, that you’ll miss it. But from this more conscious part of you that I think is really where we connect with others. When you were a baby and your mama looked at you, you dumped endorphins at birth, natural opiates that basically say to you, “Ahh, this is what I want.” When you saw those kind eyes, you knew you’re connected.

We yearn to be connected in consciousness with others. We’re the social primates. And so, consciousness itself comes out of that, and yet so easily we can use it for closing down or pretense persona, “Oh, I’m so awful,” or, “Oh, I’m so great,” instead of the, “Ahh,” being connected to other people. So, those are two more in the present consciously.

And the final one is “What are the qualities of being and doing that you want to put in your life that you want to be intrinsic?” I’m talking not about goals, goals are great, but values-based goals, what it’s really about. Is it really about the money? It isn’t really about the degree. It isn’t really about any concrete thing. It’s about the direction, owning that and create habits built around it, so that even when you’re not being mindful, which we’re all mindless some of the time, we can kind of trust our instincts to be doing actual things with our feet, values-based behavior that is building opportunities, extending on our lives.

So, open, aware, and actively engaged has two aspects each – acceptance and we call it defusion. So, with emotion and cognition, present-moment focused consciously and a values-based creation of habits and goals. Put all those together, boy. Now, there is one final thing you have to do, is extend it socially so that if you really want to be, for example, emotionally open, that means having compassion towards others, and being interested in what they feel.

Like, in the work setting, one of the things, when I’m called in to kind of consult with managers and things like that, I ask questions like, “Who works with you? Where do they live? Who are they married to? What are their names? And how many kids do they have and what are their names?” And you can just take things like that to the bank as to whether or not you got a manager who’s in a two-way street of communication with people who are important to the network.

You wouldn’t have friends where you didn’t know where they lived, whether or not they had kids, or what the name of their spouse was. You’ll do that to a secretary you’ve had for 10 years. Why? It’s not because you had to be their friend. It’s because you socially extend these issues of values. You want to be that kind of person who really knows others, of consciousness. You really want to be connected as a person with the people you work with.

Emotional openness. You want to know what their insights are like. So, I think those six, socially extended, and then take care of your body. That’s it. When we’ve done research, those things I just named account for about 80% to 90% of everything we know about how change happens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s dig into you mentioned putting your mind on a leash, that you have a turn of a phrase for the dictator within. What’s that about?

Steven Hayes
Well, that voice within that assumes, when we become conscious, we sort of take that perspective-taking skill of being able to go behind the eyes of others, we kind of step outside and look at ourselves, and that’s fine. We even start talking to ourselves, and it’s great. But that voice, if you just let it boss you around, will become a dictator.

It’s very much like if you just give them the rope to do it, they’ll do it. They’ll get you all entangled, “What about this? What about this? And you do this, and you do that.” And sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s not. Why? Because you have a lot of wisdom that you can only touch intuitively. Your verbal part is not everything. That thin cortical overlay is only quite recent. You didn’t have a felt sense of what works. Based on what? On your experience.

I’ll give you an example. If I asked you to put your body in the shape of you at your worst with dealing psychological issue, and just do it as like you did when you’re a kid when you’re playing statues or something. But you’re like a sculpture, and we’re going to take a picture, and then I say, “Okay, same issue. Don’t change the content at all. Now, show me with your body, you at your worst.” Because it’s not always one. Yeah, sometimes you’re at your best, sometimes you’re at your worst.

We’ve done this with hundreds of people around the world. No matter where in the world we do it, something like 95% of the people show you, without any training, without any conversation, just what I told you, a body that is more closed at your worst versus open, less aware at its worst versus aware, and less actively engaged. In other words, by experience, you know everything I’ve just said in this interview. You could show it with your body.

But here’s the problem, you’ve got between your ears, that little dictator within that’s constantly just treating your life as a problem to be solved, because that’s what that voice is about, “How do I solve problems? How do I break it down and figure out what’s a better way forward?” That’s fine but it’s not all of it. Sometimes you have an intuitive sense that this job is not for you, that working with that manager is not really what you want to do.

I don’t care what the money is, you know, you feel it, you sense it. If you closed yourself after that, good luck because you now are left with nothing more than a list of pros and cons and all the other things that could be helpful but you’ve got to be careful because that dictator within can sometimes give you pretty unwise advice.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And you share a number of very specific tools, which are fascinating. And in the world of defusion, you call it, for instance, if you just say out loud, so if I got this right, “I cannot walk around this room, I cannot walk around this room,” while you’re, in fact, walking around the room, directly contradicting the dictator within. Folks in studies were able to keep their hands in really hot water for 40% longer just because they demonstrated to themselves, “No, no, those thoughts are not reality, dictating what is possible.” And that’s all it takes, it’s like the tiniest little thing made a world of impact.

Steven Hayes
Yeah, you’re going in a business meeting where you know you’re in there with many people who are really, really famous, and you’re not. They have great power that you don’t have. And you know, just based on your experience, you’re going to have thoughts like, “Why am I even here? They don’t want to listen to me. Maybe my ideas aren’t good enough, dah, dah, dah, dah.”

And you can fight it back, “No, no, that’s not true. No, no.” Meanwhile, where is your attention? On the meeting, on what’s being said, or the argument inside your head? You don’t want to be arguing inside your head in that meeting. What if you do this? What if you could just practice things, like, have the thought, “I can’t lift the pen in front of me on the desk”? And really get it clear.

And when it’s really clear, while that’s still going on, pick up the pen. You can do that, right? This is your life. It’s not your dictator’s life. It’s not those words’ life. Those words are just in your life. They’re not your enemy, but they’re not your friend, and they’re not who you are. You’re a whole human being. So, what if we then go into that meeting, and when you notice the chatter, thank your mind very much for that, “Thanks for trying to help me with that, reminding me that I don’t belong here but I’ve got this covered”?

And go in there and allow those thoughts to come by just like the thought that you can’t pick up the pen. And then when the moment hits, you make that contribution, you make that comment, you make that statement, you present that pitch deck, or whatever it is that you have to do, and get out of your own freaking way. Your mind could be helpful in that, in that sense of worry to get you to prepare, etc. That’s great, “Oh, what if I’m not prepared? Okay, let’s go prepare.”

But when you’re in there, you may need those skills in defusion. Those are made-up words. For tools, there’s hundreds of them. You can make up your own that diminish the automatic hammer blow domination of literal thoughts in your head over what you do, what you feel, what you focus on, what you think about, so that you have greater freedom, you have a little space opened up where you could do things more in the way that you want to do them or the ways that your gut sense guides you.

This is the moment to make that comment. This is the moment to be quiet and allow yourself to go into a flow, the kind of places people go when they’re very successful. Look at athletes and others, how do they really get to be high performers? They don’t do it by constant chatter in the moment. And so, you need to put that mind of yours on a leash.

And the defusion methods, as I say, there’s hundreds of them, but that one of just the poke of eye in terms of the dictator, or the tug on the cape of Superman, of, “You think you can tell me what to do. Okay, tell me what to do, and I’m going to do the exact opposite. You stop me. Ha, ha, ha.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And you say there’s hundreds of tools, one of my favorites is word repetition. How does this work?

Steven Hayes
Take a thought that really pushes you around, distill it down to the smallest set of words you can get to. If you can get it to one, it’s the very, very best. Then say it out loud, at least once per second, or a little faster but at the point at which you start to lose the ability to say it clearly. Make sure you can say it clearly out loud, and do it for at least 30 seconds, even better would be 60. It’ll be the longest 60 seconds of your day but to say it over and over and over again.

Kind of give you an example, a little story, it’s in the book, probably right when I was Stanford. I gave a talk, and I was talking about how much money was spent on sleeping medications, how much we’ve made even normal things that every creature on the planet know how to do, into something that’s a big fight every night. And it’s up in the billions of dollars for sleeping meds, and I showed a graph but it didn’t have a clearly labeled graph, and I said, “And it’s now $3 trillion.”

Three trillion dollars is ridiculous but I somehow missed it and said it. Much sleep, our mind is listening because I print bold upright, it said, “$3 trillion. Are you out of your mind? They were recording it. I was going to talk at Stanford, oh my God. I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.” And that little that I said it twice reminded me of what to do.

So, I sat on the edge of the bed, and I said the word stupid, actually is, for 60 seconds or so, and I went back to sleep. What are you going to do when your mind is hitting you with these kinds of judgments? One of the things you can do is just to allow the word to be a word. And, “Yeah, okay, lesson learned, label your graphs next time, Steve. You’ll be less likely to make a mistake in a PowerPoint presentation.” That past moment, I’ve learned the lesson, I don’t need anymore of reminding myself how stupid some people thought, if they were quick thinkers, I was in the moment. It was stupid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, you’re saying the word again and again, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Steven Hayes
“Stupid, stupid, stupid.” A little faster. A little faster.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” And in so doing…

Steven Hayes
You know, you only did about four seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, you do it in 60 seconds.

Steven Hayes
Yeah, you got it. Do it in 60 seconds. And we actually have some bunch of research on this, it was embedded by Titchener, one of the fathers of American psychology a hundred years ago. We were the first, it’s called semantic satiation. It’s what they called it. We were, I believe, the first to ever use clinically.

And what happens is immediately the distress starts coming down. After you start doing it for 30 seconds, the meaning goes away. Did you ever had a thing where you have a word and you almost…? Ted Lasso does this all the time, and he knows this method. I wonder if he came across it because the writer for Ted Lasso, because he does this, and he actually mentioned semantic satiation on one of his shows.

But when you take words that are so dominant that push you around your whole life, and within 60 seconds you can drain out the distress, and even the point that it becomes almost meaningless as just a sound. You’re going to let your life be run by that? Really? So, you get a little, you’ll go back, you’ll know what stupid means after 60 seconds or whatever it is, but you’ll also have that memory of, “Oh, yeah, it’s a word. I’m saying a word to myself right now. Okay, like that’s something I have to not do? That’s something that has to dominate my next hours and hours, or days and days, or weeks and weeks?”

But, yeah, people will let words like that dominate months and years of their life mindlessly. “I’m a loser” can make you function as a worker who’s trying to prove they’re not a loser. In so doing, so greatly restrict your ability to be a good worker, to be part of a team, whatever, that you’re not able to show what you have. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d also like to think about that in a context of procrastination, like, if the thought is, “Ugh, I don’t want to…” or, “Oh, I’m just so tired. This is going to be boring.” So, likewise, we could just sort of pick whatever is most, I don’t know, activating or linked up to emotion, whether it’s maybe, “I don’t want to…” I don’t know, it might be too many words.

Steven Hayes
It might work. You could say it.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to.

Steven Hayes
“I don’t want to. I don’t want to.” Absolutely, it’ll work there. Put some other ones. You could take that and sing it to your favorite rap song. Have your little “I don’t want to” rap, and it will lighten the whole load here. You’ll have more openness and choice, “You can’t make me” opera or whatever the thing is. And next thing you know, you’re out there just doing it.

You could have it said to you, like, “I don’t want to.” You can say it out loud in the voice of your least favorite politician, or say it in the voice of Donald Duck, “I don’t want to.” Whatever. The point isn’t to ridicule yourself. You’re not ridiculous. You’re just human. The point is to liberate yourself. You’re not just words in your head.

Look, I can put words in your head so freaking easily. Your parents did it. Commercials do it. If words in your head are what you’re going to do, how are you going to have a life that’s directed. I can give you three numbers. If you remember them, I’ll give you a million dollars an hour from now. Here are the numbers – one, two, three. Can you repeat them back?

Pete Mockaitis
One, two, three.

Steven Hayes
Awesome. That’s great. That’s a million bucks. I’ve got a little donor who’s good with me. They knew this is such an important podcast, I had to do it. So, I’ll say, “What are the numbers?” and you’ll say…

Pete Mockaitis
One, two, three.

Steven Hayes
Awesome. I lied. There’s no million bucks. A day from now, do you think you could say it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Steven Hayes
How about a year from now?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll probably remember Donald Duck more so than one, two, three.

Steven Hayes
But it’s even possible. I already did it twice. It’s possible, isn’t it? When I come up to you, and say, “Hey, what are the numbers?” you might say, “One, two, three,” right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Steven Hayes
All right. Well, what if it was your mama saying, “You’ll never amount to anything”? Except she didn’t say it twice, she said it 20 times, or 200. We’ve got people listening to me right now who had that history. You may have had that history. But what are you going to do with that? It’s in your head. There’s no delete button in the nervous system that’s healthy, short of brain injury, or aging, or age-related cognitive decline. It’s not going away.

Once it’s deeply in, even two might be enough. I guarantee if we do it a little more, I can get one, two, three stuck in there for the rest of your life. How about this? I’ll think of something different. Okay, think of another set of numbers. What are the numbers?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m going to give you numbers?

Steven Hayes
Yeah, but they can’t be that because we’re going to do something new. We have a new grade of thought. What are the numbers?

Pete Mockaitis
Two, four, six.

Steven Hayes
Okay. Did you do what I asked? I told you to come up with something other than those horrible numbers we were talking about earlier, it turns out.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I did, and I gave you different numbers.

Steven Hayes
You gave me different numbers. How did you know you gave me different numbers?

Pete Mockaitis
Because I can recall the previous numbers and know.

Steven Hayes
Exactly. So, now you have three trials. You see the problem? You had one, two, three, one, two, three, and then was it two, four, six?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Steven Hayes
What was it?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Steven Hayes
Which is correct because it’s not…

Pete Mockaitis
One, two, three.

Steven Hayes
Yeah, there you go. Now we got four times. Do you see the problem?

Pete Mockaitis
So, in trying to do another thing, you’ve reinforced the prior thing.

Steven Hayes
Yeah, it’s not logical but it’s psychological. And if you go into the work environment, for example, and you’re trying to convince yourself that you have confidence, you end up training yourself not to have confidence because you don’t do what the words says. With faith, confides, fides in Latin means faith. You want to have faith in yourself? Okay, you got one, two, three in your head.

Mom said you’re never going to amount to anything, or that coach, or that manager. I had a department chair when I was an untenured assistant professor, who said I was a dilettante who would never amount to anything. He’s dead now. I won’t say his name. But he looked at my research career, and said, “You’re never going to be anything.” I have the evaluation sort of on my shoulder. I read it periodically.

Okay, so I can connect with that, that one, two, three, but I don’t need a two, four, six to fight it. If I, instead, would react, “Okay, I’m going to take my one, two, three and I’m writing this next paper,” or, “I’m doing this podcast.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, you’ve got so many tools and suggestions. I’d love it if you can maybe share one more that, in your experience, you found that it is super transformational for folks in terms of liberating goodness, energy, aliveness, and yet it’s pretty darn easy to do.

Steven Hayes
Well, here’s one that fits a work environment, especially if you’re in a kind of managerial or kind of context, or you’re looked to for leadership and so forth. Take just a moment before that next interaction to take the perspective of the other person, and remind yourself of the values that you want to put into your interaction.

So, let’s say you’re waiting, so 30 seconds before you know the knock on the door is coming, a person is going to come in and talk to you. Just picture them, as a way of preparing, of them walking towards that door, and go outside your body, just like you did with those movies, like Harry Potter had the little light out of his head, and go behind the eyes of that person walking towards you.

What are they feeling? What are they thinking? What do they want from this meeting? What’s hard for them? What are they afraid of? Then come back, and before that door knock comes, what are the qualities that you want to put into that interaction? What do you want to reflect in your behavior? I don’t mean just the goals you’re trying to get to. I mean the deeper purpose that you want to reflect of who and how you want to be in this interaction, and the deeper purpose of this interaction.

But knowing, just for a second, what’s going on in the other person, what they’re bringing into the room. And I do that regularly when students are coming to meet me. I’m retiring now so I’ll stop doing it but I’m going to…I do that before a podcast. I try to be in the position of the persons I’m interacting with, and it grounds the interaction to something that’s bigger than just a performance or kind of just saying stuff to get through.

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

Steven Hayes
I guess one thing I would just mention is that if you view your life as, in part, a task of learning how to be more fully you, this open, aware, and actively engaged mantra can give you a guide. And so, I would just like to leave the idea that science is doing a better job of digging down into what’s the essence of the wisdom traditions, the religious traditions, the best of our cultural traditions, the best of our leadership training, and so forth.

Focus on the really important ones and see how far it takes you. Essentially, viewing part of your job as a continuous never-ending process of learning and sort of peeling back the onion so you can gradually be more fully you, and bring it every day.

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

Steven Hayes
What I really like, actually, Margaret Mead, who’s a political consultant. I worked with her a long ago before I became a graduate student, a labor organizer, who taught me, which is something like, I’m paraphrasing it, something, like, “Don’t underestimate the power of a committed group to change the world. And, in fact, they’re the only thing that ever has.” So, I like it.

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

Steven Hayes
Oh, God, I’m going to quote one of my own because my favorite over the last three years is one where we looked at every single study ever done in the history of the world that had a randomized trial focused on the mental health outcome that properly assessed how did change happen. It’s called the mediators of change, it’s geek statistics. We don’t need to walk through that.

It took me three years to do it, 50 people working with me, my colleague Stephen Hoffman, Joe Serochi, Germany and Australia, international team. And why is it important? Because what I’ve just talked about when I said that’s 80% or 90% of everything, learning how to be more open, aware, and actively engaged, but then socially scaling it and taking care of your body. Look, that’s 80% to 90% of everything we know about how change happens.

So, that’s such a small set. I could say that in a long sentence. Time is up. Back to that last comment where your life is a learning thing. I think this is all the studies ever done, no matter what the name, no matter what the goal, let’s learn them. We’ve got a small enough set. We can all work on learning those things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Steven Hayes
A book that changed my life, actually, was Walden Two, BF Skinner’s book. And I took it not to be a utopian novel. It’s written many years ago. But I took it to be this idea that you could take principles and processes and scale it up even to how we should arrange our world. And wouldn’t that be cool? And I do think we have a chance over the next hundred, 200 years, whatever, of knowing enough about, really, what lifts us up, that we can begin to design our world on purpose and evolve on purpose.

And if you look at our challenges of climate change and immigration, political division, and all the rest, we better get busy with it because we sure got a lot of challenges but we also have awesome tools and kids who are ready to do something really new.

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

Steven Hayes
Love isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. It’s a rip-off of Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” and kind of meant to be a poke at that win-at-all costs. If I’m going to do something at all costs, I’d say love at all costs.

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

Steven Hayes
If you’re interested in my work, just go to my website, it’s just www and my name, Steven, with a V, middle initial C for Charlie, my dad’s name, H-A-Y-E-S. So, StevenCHayes.com. But if you’re really interested in psychological flexibility, or the kind of things we’ve been talking about, you can Google it and find a whole bunch of stuff for free out there. Even the World Health Organization gives it away for free. So, you don’t have to spend anything to learn more about these processes that I’ve been talking about.

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

Steven Hayes
Yeah, I think the challenge is to live your deepest values. That’s the challenge for every single one of us, I think, is how do we become the kind of person where others look to us and see in that values that they would like to have manifest in their life. How do we live our deepest values? And in the area of work, I’ll just say this, if you really want to love your work, do your work lovingly because when I dig down to your deepest values, I don’t want to put words in everybody’s mouth, but whether it’s appreciation of beauty, or contributing something to others, or alleviating suffering, or really making an awesome product that other people can use, to me, those are all phases of love.

They’re about how we support each other in this journey called life. And when you have your work, be about that. Yeah, it’s not always going to be candy land. I don’t mean love your work like smiley face, Ren & Stimpy, happy, happy, joy, joy, morning to night. No, you have challenges. It’s not always going to be smiling and candy land. But love in that sense of meaningful, important, worthy, honorable. If you want to love your work, do your work lovingly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Steve, this has been such a treat. I wish you much love and joy in retirement.

Steven Hayes
Awesome. Thank you for the opportunity.