Effective Leadership Skills

Effective Leadership Skills: How To Manage Emotions to Reduce Pressure & Stress in the Workplace

Chester: Welcome to the Anxiety at Work podcast. Today we’ll discuss mastering ourselves so that we can achieve all we want in this life. I’m Chester Elton and this is my co-author and dear friend Adrian Gostick.

Adrian: Well, thank you Ches. You know we hear this over and over in our work I want my leader to help me become a better or more valuable employee, but also a better person. That’s our focus today.

Chester: And our guest is our friend, Dr. Craig Dowden, who makes a return visit to the podcast. Craig is a doctor of positive psychology. A member of the Forbes Coaches Council and an executive coach and thought leader on how to make leadership excellence an everyday practice. His latest book is A Time to Lead, Mastering Yourself so You Can Master Your World. Welcome to the podcast, Craig. We are delighted to have you back.

Craig: Thanks so much, Chester and Adrian. It’s an absolute pleasure to be back again. So really looking forward to the conversation.

Adrian: Well, you write in your new book about some really interesting ideas, and you write this with our friend that we’ve had for quite a while, Alan Mullally, who’s the retired CEO of Ford Motor Company. So first off, tell us about this collaboration and the premise of the book and what you hope to accomplish here.

Craig: No, thank you. And so, the big idea behind the book, and it was really inspired, certainly in the early stages of the pandemic is where, and in the opening that you talked about is that, so how can we not only survive, thrive during this extraordinary period? And so, the primary idea was around great leadership starts with great self-leadership. And really wanted to unpack the qualities that drive our success and so that we can unlock the success and potential in others. And during that process, one of the things that I hear over and over again is a lot of times business leaders, CEOs, founders, senior executives, they will say, hey how does this apply within my organization? or I’m too big, or we are too complex a market, or all kinds of other things. So, my plan was to have masterclasses whereby I draw on my coaching experience and other experience to shine a light on how these qualities apply. Well, the universe must have heard me because Alan reached out and he started to talk about my first book and Do Good to Lead Well and we started to have a conversation around positive leadership and just really connected on so many levels and I let him know about this book that I was working on. And when I thought about it, who better could be a master teacher, if you will, than Alan Mullally, who’s led two of the most globally recognized organizations in the world in Boeing, commercial airplanes, and Ford Motor Company. And I asked him, would he be open to collaborating and talking about how these qualities were integral to his working together management system principles and practices. So, I was absolutely thrilled that he signed on and it’s been an absolutely delightful collaboration.

Chester: Yeah, there’s nobody better than Alan Mullally. As Adrian mentioned, we’ve known him for a while. We’ve been in a couple of his masterclasses and his humility, his experience, the way he shares his knowledge, he’s just so gracious. So good for you, Craig. What a delight to have a partner like that. You know, you talk about in one of the chapters in your book, one of the early chapters actually, about a CEO who approaches her work with a really large board. And there are some great lessons in terms of how we frame our situations. Can you share that with our listeners, framing big boards and that particular story?

Craig: For sure. What I love about this example is that it just has so many life and work lessons for us. So Kim Furlong, she’s the CEO of the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association. And so, when we were speaking and she was on my podcast, she was talking about how she reports to a board of 40 members, four, zero. Yeah, exactly. So, most people in CEOs are like, oh, navigating a board, maybe it’s six, maybe it’s ten, she has 40 members. And then so what I love about how she frames that, a lot of people would say, okay wow I have 40 members who are there, who are gonna critique me and who can poke holes in what I’m doing and all these kinds of things. And what I love about Kim and her perspective is she flips that and looks at the same situation as saying I have 40 extraordinarily accomplished executives and individuals on my board who are here to support me and bring out the best in me and my organization. To me, that’s such a remarkably powerful lesson in terms of this is the same situation. We can choose to look at it in terms of a massive obstacle to overcome and really enable that fear to undermine our level of engagement or look at it as, wow, look at this phenomenal community of support that I have. And then what’s fantastic is, once again, rather than a hindrance whereby Kim is looking to avoid the board or really not engage, now what she does is proactively reach out and say, hey, what’s on your mind? How can I best serve you? Really look at it as a collaborative opportunity in a supportive community. So I think all of us, when we look at our situations, we have a choice in terms of, so what’s our mindset? What’s our perspective on this? How can we look at it in a different way? And I think something like that is really instructive for each and every one of us.

Adrian: I love that. That’s great. It reminds me of the old office space. You know, I have eight bosses, Bob. Eight bosses, yeah. And I love that idea of reframing this. You know, no, I’ve got support. I’ve got people who’ve got my back, which kind of leads us into this idea that you talk about mastering our emotions. You know, a lot of people use the expression, it’s not personal, it’s business. So does that hold water? And why is mastering our emotions so critical?

Craig: Well, and thank you for picking up on that, Adrian. And I think what’s really critical is, especially as we’ve come through this pandemic and continue through the pandemic, is emotions has become front and center. I mean, your amazing book, Anxiety at Work, you’re at the forefront of that conversation. And then also your work in terms of from a culture standpoint and engagement standpoint, that’s all around emotion. And I think what’s happened is a lot of ways people have attempted to remove emotion from the work context and work conversation. And we do that to our detriment because engagement is all around feeling connected, feeling connected to each other, feeling connected to the organization, feeling connected to its purpose. And so the more that we can master our emotions, be aware of our triggers, be aware of how we engage when we’re at our best and when we’re feeling challenged. And to me what I love as well is that emotions are invaluable data points. They are letting us know when things are going well and also when things aren’t. And what I love is that the entire emotional spectrum is important to us. Sometimes we can over index on the positive emotions, right? And what’s been popularly framed toxic positivity. I feel that whole range of emotions is vital. And so we want to not limit or avoid those negative emotions. We want to learn from them because basically it’s our heart, our mind, our body’s way of letting us know things are off and it requires attention.

Chester: You know I think Alan brings such an insight into that as well, the way he reframes things, the way he embraces difficulty, the way he brings people around to solve the problem. And yeah it’s always interesting to me that Alan would never say, wow that’s really a kick in the head. You know it’s kind of like, wow look at this opportunity we’ve got here. It’s unnerving in a lot of ways, actually. I find that people can handle their emotions like that. Which brings us to resilience, which falls very close to our book on anxiety at work. Talk to us about the importance of resilience that you’ve discovered, the insights in your research and your interviews.

Craig: Well, it’s such an interconnected space, and you’re absolutely right Chester. And one of the things to me, one of the most profound insights that I’ve come across is the Center for Creative Leadership and their differentiation between pressure and stress. So, they represent pressure as the extent of the demands that our external environment places on us. And then stress is our internal manifestation of our belief in our ability to deal with those demands. And what I find is so provocative and instructive about that separation is now what it shows is that pressure is external, stress is internal. So how we look at things. And then it unlocks a pathway for a more constructive, a more positive future whereby, okay, where are the areas of my life where I’m feeling under-resourced. And now I start to ask questions around, so what steps do I need to take to address that? Is it through taking a course, reading a book, listen to amazing podcasts like yours, leaning into my community and people that I know, my friends, my family, my colleagues. So, I love that resource-based approach to resiliency because it’s something that’s going to become more not less important and it’s really around we all have different areas of life that we’re managing and so what supports do we need to be at our best.

Adrian: You know that idea of support is huge. Yeah, we’ve got to build up a support network that will actually understand and and support us you know we’ve said before that you know somebody will say well you know I talked to my mom about this, and she just doesn’t get it. And stop talking to your mom, find somebody else. Talk to your mom about something else, it’s okay. So, okay, by the way, Craig, before we get into my next question, how can people learn more about your work? Where would you point them?

Craig: I would say go to the website, craigdowden.com is a great way to do it. I also have a Do Good to Lead Well podcast available on Spotify and Amazon, so they can check it out and Chester was one of my amazing guests as well. So happy to have them find us there.

Adrian: I hope you got him out of his shell.

Craig: It was quite it was a tough go but I was able to pull it out.

Adrian: Hey, speaking of strengths, you know. So what role do strengths play in resilience and managing our anxiety at work? And, you know, how do you know when you’re going too far into your strengths versus not? So, walk us through that whole idea.

Craig: You know and thank you for asking that. And strengths, one of my favorite or my favorite definition of strength is that it’s a natural talent that we’ve invested time and energy to develop into a strength. And so these are things that come naturally to us. The Gallup organization has done a lot of work around that as well, as have you both in this idea. I think what’s critical around this is that the more we use our strengths every day, the more engaged we are, the more resilient we are, the more collaborative we are, which makes sense. If I’m tapping into my core talents and the things that drive me and bring the energy, well that would make sense that I’d be buffered against the pressure that I’m feeling my external environment. And I think one of the really interesting lessons for each of us as well, both as individuals as well as and in particular for leaders, is that in some cases what I found especially during times of crisis, and I imagine you both see this as well, is where, okay, all hands on deck, and then we start to randomly assign people to, well, you got to go over here. You got to go over and help this division, this department, this project. And the missing ingredient in that is talking to Craig and saying, hey, Craig, like, how do you feel you can best support our team right now during this challenging period? What strengths do you see that you possess that you can bring to the table that can really bolster us. And what’s fantastic about that conversation is now not only are we getting much needed support, we’re also really engaging the full potential of the individual because during times of stress and challenge, the thing we most want is a more feeling of control and influence. So, by actually taking someone and putting them somewhere else where they’re not tapping into their strengths can really undermine their resiliency and elevate their anxiety at work.

Chester: So that’s an interesting conversation, right? You’re talking to people about their strengths, how can they help? Talk to us about those difficult conversations that you have to have, right? And that are particularly tough for people that suffer from anxiety, let alone the rest of us. What insights can you share around having those tough conversations?

Craig: Well, and it’s such an important point, and I would say certainly as we’ve navigated this extraordinary period, it’s opened the door for more and more of these conversations. And especially where, as you rightly point out, that anxiety is higher. So what are some of the really critical success strategies we can use? And I would say one of the most powerful and straightforward is prepare, prepare, prepare. What’s really interesting is, and I’ve looked at a lot of work in this space, is for many of us we can not prepare for these conversations. We have that feeling, we have that emotion, and then we show up and wing it, for lack of a better term. And so really being clear around asking some anchoring questions around what do I really want out of this conversation? What do I really want for the other person out of this conversation? How would I behave if I wanted, if I truly wanted those outcomes? And this is very powerful in terms of providing us with a script, if you will, centering us to ensure we have the appropriate mindset, the appropriate emotion around it. And the other thing that I would say, and I love the setup Chester that you provided, is around how important it is to intervene early. A lot of times it’s that classic idea of see something, say something. So as soon as something comes up, it’s vital for us to step in when it’s smaller, because it’s just like the medical intervention right? In the medical research and medical sciences, if there’s a symptom there, address it early before it becomes complicated, almost too big to manage. And so the longer we leave it unaddressed, well now guess what’s gonna happen? Our anxiety is gonna get bigger and bigger and bigger, and then we’re gonna be less and less and less likely to engage in that conversation, which is critical. So let’s talk about it early, let’s prepare, and start that conversation.

Adrian: I like that you’re calling it a conversation versus I’m telling you something, a dialogue. A lot of managers do that, right? Let me tell you something, Craig. When you are working with customers, you need to do this, right? What happens in a conversation, there’s some actual back and forth, isn’t there?

Craig: Yes, absolutely. Well, and and it is to your point about it’s more or we need to talk or look. Those kinds of things which really shut things down and I love that you’re pointing this out Adrian in terms of it’s a two-way dialogue. It’s a two-way conversation. Let’s both exhibit some curiosity here. We each have invaluable insights to share on this situation. This opportunity. This challenge. And so, the less we engage fully with the other person and truly make it a conversation and dialogue, well now it’s just going to be one way and how are we really going to unlock what any challenges are, once again. And it can create a situation where there’s more anxiety attached to it rather than less because the person, and you’re pointing out a perfect example Adrian, where it’s they’re coming in with all their assumptions and value judgments about the other person, which can really once again disengage them quickly and make them feel really anxious about the whole situation.

Adrian: Yeah, it’s amazing how much listening can do in our organizations, whether for our anxiety or for just overall engagement. So, Craig, as you got a new book launching, you got a lot of stress in your life, you talk about those pressures, but it’s also equating probably to some stress. So walk us through your daily practices to keep your mental fitness.

Craig: Yeah, I guess one of the fun things is, is that I have to be careful. One of my favorite expressions is, take my advice, because I won’t use it anyways. So I’m glad that Adrian, that you called me out. And I think it’s an important piece every single day. So prioritizing time for family and friends absolutely critical and having those conversations because that’s something that’s energizing to me. I have two awesome English Bulldogs that have tons of personality and so get out to walk and play. Play with them and so that’s an opportunity to disconnect. Also, I had the fortune and took the motivators assessment. That’s something that both of you are intimately familiar with. All seriousness, it’s around what motivates me, what drives me. My top motivator is developing others, learning, impact, and creativity. One of the things that I find is that I want and I need to make time for that. So I listen to a podcast, I read a book, I engage in a learning conversation. These are all things that are tremendously resilience building for me. And when I lose sight on it, because we all do, and I do, and if I have a couple of days where I’m off, what have I learned? I’m not learning, I’m not developing, engaged in those development conversations, I’m not thinking creatively, and then it’s a great sign for me to get back to the core, to get back to what matters.

Chester: Yeah, isn’t it interesting, more and more as we’re talking to people, those family connections. I’m listening to a great audio book about happiness and they give you a checklist and it’s really interesting. One of the questions they ask you is, do you own a dog? Apparently owning a dog is like, and you’ve got two, so you’ve doubled down on the…

Adrian: He’s twice as happy, yeah.

Chester: The dog happiness factor. Hey, really fun to talk with you again, Craig. Love having you in our lives and the book that you’re writing and the connections you’ve got. If there were two things you wanted people to take away from the conversation today, what would those two things be?

Craig:  Well and thank you. This has been an absolute blast. I always enjoy our conversations. I learn a lot through the process and having the opportunity to connect with you both. And I would say, and I’m going to build on what Adrian shared earlier, and I will use it to have the two things. It’s listening. I think listening to others and listening to self. That is a vital skill, and especially in a world where it can be very easy to talk, talk, talk, and just have a unidirectional form of communication. And so what we want to be able to do is pick up on those signals, pick up on what’s out there and truly listen, put away our distractions, put away our assumptions, operate with an aura of curiosity so that we can better understand the people around us. And it doesn’t mean we have to agree with their perspective. It’s essential that we understand, though, in order for us to move forward and for us to be working together most effectively. And the same goes for ourselves. Listen to ourselves. Listen to our triggers. Listen to when we’re in a great space. What are we doing? Who are we with? How do we replicate that? And same thing, well, if things aren’t going as well today, just the example I provided, what’s up? What am I not doing? What am I doing? And how can I course correct? So that ability to listen in a world filled with talking, I think is absolutely vital and it goes both ways.

Chester: Great advice, great advice. Well, listen, thanks so much for taking the time for us. We really appreciate you sharing your wisdom with our followers and our listeners. Hope you have a healthy and happy dog-filled day for the rest of your day there, Craig.

Craig:  Thank you so much. This has been fantastic. Really appreciate it.

Author recap:

Chester: Adrian, you know, always kinda fun to have friends come back, you know, and have Craig come back and this wonderful book he’s working on with our other good friend, Alan Mullally. So tell me, what were some of the key takeaways? What resonated with you in the conversation?

Adrian: It was actually quite a bit, you know, starting with, you know, I got 40 bosses versus, no, I got this community of support, reframing how we’re thinking, which also leads to one of the things that Craig’s saying is like, you can’t remove emotion from work. We tend to do that, right? Leave your personal life at the door. We can’t do that anymore. People want to bring, especially our younger employees, want to bring their whole selves. So how do we do that? How do we allow them to process what they’re feeling emotionally?

Chester: That really struck me as well, is how you reframe things. And when he brought Alan into the conversation, you and I have seen Alan do this. And the word that really popped out to me there was, around emotions, is curiosity. Be curious about what’s going on, and that takes a little bit of the stress and anxiety away and brings more of that learning part of your brain into that conversation. Yeah, I don’t know if I could ever have 40 people on my board. I have a tough time remembering the names of my four kids, let alone 40 board members. And yet again, look at the advantage. I’m surrounded by 40 amazing people that are here to support me, right?

Adrian: And that word of support. Yeah, which I think is key right? Yeah, and you know and by the way if you don’t know Alan, Alan saved the Ford Motor Company. In 2006, they’re about just about to go bankrupt and Alan, you know, literally saved one of American icons from going bankrupt. Turned them around. Retired nine years later the company just had this you know it’s all on the road to Damascus kind of transformation, right? So let’s get into a little bit a couple more things that Craig talked about was this idea of strengths if you can use your strengths aren’t you going to be more engaged well of course and what a great question to ask you know what strengths can you bring to help the team and he mentioned our motivators assessment which we worked on for many years, built with a team of psychologists, will also ask people what they like to do as well, right?

Chester: Yeah, how can you help? When he said, we bring everybody together and we make these random assignments, we’ve all been in those meetings. And then afterwards, hey, can I trade with you? I hate doing this. That open conversation and one-on-one where he says, where do you think you can add the most value? The other thing that jumped out at me was pressure vs stress, pressure being external, stress being internal, and how do you manage that internal stress and how do you tie it to resilience? It was really a simple formula that really resonated with me. How about you?

Adrian: Absolutely, I like that a lot. And how much pressure do we add as managers when, for example, we always have to have difficult conversations. And what he was saying was, look, prepare for it. Don’t just wing it, because we tend to do that. And ask some anchoring questions. You know, what do I want to get out of this conversation? But also, how can I make it a conversation? How can I listen? How can I see with curiosity what’s going on? Because maybe what I’m seeing is not complete reality.

Chester: Well, and the reason I think we wing it is because they’re conversations that we put off and put off and put off because we don’t want to have them, right? So we’re like, okay, I finally got to have it. Just come on in and let’s do this. We do very little preparation, which ties into what else he says, have the conversation early. You know, we postpone it, we procrastinate, we don’t want to do it, and then the problem is what? It just gets worse and worse and worse. So that discipline around, let me take a minute, what do I want to get out of this conversation? How am I going to approach it? Let me prepare for it and let me do it right away. It’s kind of like, you know, rip the band-aid off. Don’t do it bit by bit by bit.

Adrian: Well, lastly, I think the one last point is this idea of listening, right? But I think it’s really important. As I like what he said, we’re in a world full of talking and everybody thinks they’re right, whether politically or on many other spectrums that could even more charge than politically, we all think we’re right. And are we just going to listen a little bit? My old dad used to tell a story about when he was at Rolls Royce, he says one of his first jobs when he was a young engineer was to walk around with one of these really important guys from Rolls-Royce and there was a guy on the shop floor, and they called him Sweeps. And he pushed the broom, you know, and Sweeps saw this really important man being taken on the tour. So, he ran over there, and he wanted to tell him something and he tells this long story My dad was getting more and more embarrassed. He’s in his early 20s and he’s you know, he says Sweeps, Sweeps, we don’t have time for this and that important man from Rolls-Royce said Gordon, he says, you always listen because there’s wisdom in everything that you hear. And he said he stood there for 15 minutes and listened to this guy. And as he walked away, he says, you know what I picked up? This, this and this. And so that’s the point is we always listen. No matter whether we agree or not, there’s always something to learn.

Chester: And the back half of that is listen to yourself as well. And I thought that was very insightful. Listen to your body. Do you need a little more sleep? Do you need a little more time? Do you need to maybe reframe this situation a little differently? Listen to yourself as well. I think so often we think, Oh, I’m a giver. I’m a giver. I’m a giver. We don’t take the time to step back and say, hey, maybe it would be good for me to eat every now and again.

Adrian: Or sleep.

Chester: Or sleep or go for a walk. Well, Craig Dowden, he’s got a wonderful book coming out this “A Time to Lead: Mastering Yourself so you Can Master your World” I’m sure it’s available on Amazon and fine bookstores everywhere. Treat yourself to a copy as you should treat yourself to a copy of our wonderful book Anxiety at Work and this is the part Adrian where you so brilliantly thank everybody that supports us.

Adrian: Well, we have a lot of thanking to do. We want to thank Brent Klein, who’s our producer, Christy Lawrence, who books amazing guests, and all of you who listen in. If you like the podcast, please download it, share it. And we’d also love you to join our online community at thecultureworks.com, where we’re creating a safe place to talk about anxiety and mental health at work.

Chester: Yeah, and if you are looking for some great speakers, I know two. One would be Adrian, and the other would be me. Whether it’s in person or virtual. We love to talk on topics like wellness, resiliency, anxiety, culture, and of course, one of our favorite subjects, how gratitude plays a big role in all of those. So give us a call. We’d love to talk to you about your next event. And having said that, Adrian, the big finish, as you always say, is…

Adrian: Well, we want to thank you for joining us again. And until next time, we wish you the best of mental health.

and co-author, Adrian Gostick.

Welcome everyone. We hope the time you’re going to spend with us will help remove the stigma of anxiety and mental health in the workplace and in your personal life. We invite experts from the world of work and life to give us ideas and, most importantly, tools to deal with anxiety in our world.

Our guest today is Whitney Johnson, CEO of Disruption Advisors and one of the 50 leading business thinkers as named by Thinkers50. Whitney, author of the new book “Smart Growth” and bestsellers “Build an A Team” and “Disrupt Yourself,” started her career as a Wall Street stock analyst. As a member of Marshall Goldsmith’s hundred coaches, she now assists individuals and companies globally with her disruptive innovation theories. She also hosts the podcast “Disrupt Yourself.” Welcome to the show, Whitney.

We’re fans of Whitney’s work and excited to discuss her new book, which presents a smarter approach to growth. Everyone seeks growth in their lives and careers but often gets overwhelmed when things move too slowly or too quickly. So, how can we view our personal growth in a healthier way?

We’ve developed a concept called the S-curve of learning, which is based on Everett Rogers’ diffusion curve from the ’60s. This curve was used to understand the pace of innovation adoption and group changes over time. While working with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School, we applied this S-curve to study the adoption of innovations. This led me to an insight that we could use this curve to understand individual change as well. The S-curve of learning is a simple visual model tracing your growth and the emotional experience accompanying it. It consists of three main phases: the launch point, the sweet spot, and mastery. Each time you embark on something new, you’re at the start of a new S-curve.

At the launch point, you might feel overwhelmed and discouraged, which is completely normal. Your brain is running a predictive model, and many of these predictions are inaccurate, causing a drop in dopamine. Although growth is occurring, it feels slow. But knowing this can help you acknowledge your feelings of discouragement as a normal part of the process and curb any impatience. It also cautions you against moving too quickly, as hasty decisions may not be in your best interest. Once you’re ready to move into the sweet spot, your brain’s predictions become increasingly accurate. You’ll start to feel exhilarated, and growth not only speeds up but also feels faster. Then comes the mastery phase. Here, you’ve figured everything out, but growth slows down. You’re no longer receiving dopamine hits, which means you’re not growing as you were.

So, when thinking about your personal or organizational growth, this model of slow-fast-slow becomes your roadmap. Understanding it can help increase your capacity for growth. Simply put, “slow, fast, slow is how you grow.” It’s an easy mantra to remember, right?

I appreciate your reference to Clayton Christensen, a major mentor of yours and truly a delightful person. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times, and I must say, his height always surprised me – he stood around six feet eight inches tall! Reflecting on your early career on Wall Street and in investing, I’m curious to hear more about your personal growth. You’ve faced situations where you had to “disrupt yourself,” in your own words. That’s no easy task. This seems like the perfect moment to mention your podcast, “Disrupt Yourself,” which Adrian and I both enjoy. But let’s return to your journey. You were learning so much alongside Clayton Christensen, and surely, it wasn’t always a smooth ride. Could you share more about that?

Whitney: Thank you for mentioning my podcast – I could learn from you how effortlessly you talk about other people’s work. As for my journey, I was an equity analyst on Wall Street, consistently ranked by Institutional Investor for eight straight years. However, as per the S-curve, I reached a point where, despite being proficient at my job, I felt restless due to the lack of dopamine hits. After doing the same thing for eight years, I yearned for something more. When I approached my boss about wanting to try something new, I was told, “We like you right where you are. You can do this in your sleep.” That’s when I started thinking about how disruption isn’t just about products and services but also about people. This led me to leave Wall Street and become an entrepreneur. It wasn’t until about two years later, when I started working with Clayton Christensen. That interim period was messy as I navigated the launch point of the curve as an entrepreneur. Looking back, I wish I knew then that feeling overwhelmed and lost was a normal part of the process. Those initial couple of years were very messy.

I love that you talk about the messy beginnings. It raises an important point I’d like to discuss. We all want to learn and start new things, but it often proves difficult to stay the course. It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed or discouraged at the start. So, why is it that we struggle to stick with new things? More importantly, how can we overcome this tendency?

That’s a great point. We don’t stick to new things because, as we get older, we create an environment where we don’t have to face novelty or uncertainty. As a result, our ‘new things’ muscles can become underused and weak. So, we need to practice trying new things more often.

When you’re at the launch point of a curve, there are three key strategies to build momentum: First, recognize that it’s going to feel awkward. Acknowledge that this awkwardness is normal and necessary, and don’t let it affect your self-perception. Just as when you were learning to walk as a toddler, it’s natural to feel clumsy when starting something new.

Second, since progressing along an S-curve is essentially a dopamine management exercise – dropping at the launch point, spiking in the sweet spot, and flatlining at the high end – you can trick your brain into releasing dopamine by setting small, achievable goals. Let’s say you want to start exercising. Instead of promising to run for 30 minutes a day, just commit to putting on your tennis shoes every day for a week. This simple act can begin to establish the neural pathways associated with the habit of exercising. Plus, you might even exceed your own expectations, such as by walking for 30 seconds after putting on your shoes. Your brain rewards these small victories with dopamine, which feels good and helps build momentum as you move toward the sweet spot. Lastly, make use of accountability partners. State your goal and your timeline to someone – “I’m going to put on my tennis shoes every day for a week, Chester and Adrian, and I’ll report back to you.” By combining these three strategies, you’ll be better equipped to persevere through the challenges and messiness of the launch point.

You know, building momentum is just so important, isn’t it? Celebrating those little wins along the way, those little check-ins, like you say, just starting with putting on your tennis shoes. And boy, that really is a very ridiculously small goal! But you know, the thing is, once we start to do something new, we get all excited, we start to make progress, and then… It’s not unusual that we kind of get tired of it all of a sudden. It’s like the whole world has ADD. So, how do we not abandon stuff that we’re making progress towards, that we’re having some fun with, and not lose that intensity? Is it about those little, small goals along the way? What else can we do to keep the flame alive?

That’s a great question. At the launch point, you’re building momentum and moving into the sweet spot. In the sweet spot of your curve, the key is to stay focused. Imagine you’re a car racing around a track at high speed. It’s important to stay focused and not take on too many S curves at once. Perhaps three or four at a time can allow you to continue your journey into mastery. Mastery, while rewarding can lead to boredom if you’re not getting enough dopamine. Your brain acknowledges your proficiency but also craves novelty. If you’re in mastery and there’s something you’re really good at but want to keep doing – for instance, if you’re a CEO running a business you care about – the challenge is to make it a summit, but not the summit. You need to find ways to push yourself back into the sweet spot. For a business owner who’s been in charge for 20 years, this might mean starting a podcast, mentoring others, or focusing on developing people. These are S curve loops that bring other people along, challenge you, and push you into the sweet spot. Take my portfolio of S curves as an example. As a podcaster and speaker, I’m in the sweet spot, moving towards mastery. However, I continually strive to improve, which keeps me in the sweet spot. As an author, I’m probably in the sweet spot, but as a business owner trying to scale a business and build a technology tool, I’m definitely at the launch point. This balance allows me to stay in the sweet spot overall. If you view your life as a portfolio of S curves, the aim is to have some at the launch points, some in mastery, and the majority in the sweet spot.

I’m intrigued by the concept of a portfolio of S-curves. It’s a fresh idea to me, suggesting that in our lives, we navigate various S-curves. And when you reach the mastery phase, maintaining your interest and stimulating that dopamine becomes vital. As an author, how significant is it to continually feed your brain? What do you do to sustain that dopamine rush to ensure you’re still growing and learning? Is it through reading or perhaps audiobooks? What’s your method?

For me, it’s a mix of several things. While I sometimes listen to audiobooks, my current lack of a long commute due to working from home makes that a bit challenging. So, it would need to be incredibly short books that can be consumed during brief activities, like tying my tennis shoes. I also run a podcast and a LinkedIn Live, which necessitate continuous reading to prepare for each episode. This keeps me sharp and always learning. Beyond that, my constant conversations with people serve as a significant learning avenue. As a coach, I strive to help others improve, but I also learn a lot in the process. So, my learning comes from my interactions with others, in addition to the reading I do for interviewing people.

We’ve been in conversation with Whitney Johnson, and it’s been a truly insightful discussion. If you haven’t acquired her new book, ‘Smart Growth,’ I highly recommend you do so. She’s undoubtedly one of the finest business writers we have today. Now, Whitney, turning back to our central theme, the podcast is named ‘Anxiety at Work.’ You’ve penned articles on anxiety for the Harvard Business Review and your own website. Could you share some techniques that you recommend for individuals grappling with mental health issues, enabling them to grow and thrive?

First off, it’s crucial to remember that you’re not alone. I myself grapple with anxiety, and I believe being open about your own struggles and discussing them with others can greatly aid in healing. Psychologists suggest that sharing your experiences allows others to bear witness to your trials, contributing to recovery. Secondly, imposing structure is beneficial. We discussed the concept of small, achievable goals. When feeling anxious, I recommend breaking down your tasks into much smaller increments. Instead of focusing on what needs to be done for the day or even the afternoon, concentrate on what you can accomplish in the next five minutes. This practice brings you back to the present moment. Thirdly, practice gratitude. Sometimes, I simply ask myself, “What am I grateful for right now?” Listing three things I appreciate in that moment, like having a microphone for this podcast or speaking with people who make me laugh, brings me back to the present and signals to my brain and body that I’m safe. Additionally, therapy can be a powerful tool, acting as a bonus prefrontal cortex, guiding you through anxiety. Lastly, remember to take breaks and pace yourself. I find my anxiety tends to increase throughout the day if I don’t pause and refresh, so even a short walk or stepping out for fresh air can be a great help in managing anxiety.

That’s excellent advice, Whitney. It’s funny how we keep coming back to tennis shoes. I mean, if a bear is chasing you, you want to make sure you’ve got your tennis shoes on, right? That is another good reason to tie those shoes up every day, exactly. Now, you’ve mentioned a couple of personal practices along the way. I know that you’re a person of faith. When you say, it’s really important for people to know that they’re not alone in your personal practices and whatnot, does your faith play a role in managing your mental health?

Absolutely, my faith plays a significant role in managing my mental health; I’d say a thousand percent. Every morning, I begin my day by reading or listening to a sacred text, followed by prayer. This could equate to meditation for some. The primary aim is to invite God into my daily life, allowing me to feel grounded and centered. This belief that a divine, providential force is with me helps me feel less alone and reassures me that I’ll be okay. Following that I identify my top three to four priorities for the day and start working. I incorporate physical activities like yoga and sometimes running – here’s where the tennis shoes come into play. I also make sure to take lots of breaks and sometimes even indulge in an afternoon nap, which I find very restorative. As the day winds down, I alternate between reflecting on what I’m grateful for and what I loved doing that day – this is inspired by the work of Marcus Buckingham. I bookend my day with these spiritual, reflective practices. They help me navigate through my day and manage the lurking anxiety, enabling me to continue moving forward.

That’s truly beautiful, Whitney. Thank you so much for sharing. Your practices are truly inspiring, and our discussion today has been enlightening. If you had to distill one or two key takeaways for our listeners, aiming to foster more ‘Smart Growth’ in their lives, what would you highlight for us?

I’d keep it really simple. Start by drawing the S-curve on a piece of paper or tracing it with your finger. Identify the Launch Point, the Sweet Spot, and Mastery. Then ask yourself, where am I in my current role? Where am I in my life? What S-curves am I traversing right now? Gaining this understanding helps you orient yourself. It allows you to show compassion and grace for yourself, understanding why you might be struggling if you’re at the launch point doing something new, why things are really fun if you’re in the sweet spot, or why you feel the need to start something new if you’re at the point of mastery and feeling bored. I believe growth is our default setting. Having this map allows you to understand where you are and what’s next, providing you a clear path for your growth journey.

We’ve admired your work for a long time, Whitney, so it’s a real delight to have you on the podcast. Thank you for your vulnerability and for sharing about your S-curve portfolio. I guess there’s just one final question we need to ask, Adrian. That is, how many pairs of tennis shoes do you think Whitney owns?

Whitney, thank you so much for joining us today. We genuinely admire your work and hope that everyone listening rushes out to get your new book. Once again, thank you for being with us.

Author recap:

Chester: Well, Adrian, what a privilege it was to have Whitney Johnson on our show. Truly one of the thought leaders in American business right now. Her ideas on the S curve of learning resonate deeply as we all go through this process when we’re deciding on a new career, a move, or any major change in life. We often feel overwhelmed at the launch and want to rush through it as quickly as we can. Her advice to slow down, to accept that “slow is how you grow,” was very poignant.

Adrian: Absolutely, Chester. Whitney is indeed a legend, and we’ve admired her work for a long time. The concept of “slow, fast, slow is how you grow” struck me as a great mantra. It’s about accepting the messiness and the chaos that comes with growth and using it to our advantage. Her advice to stay focused is also very relevant, especially in a world full of distractions. The discipline of saying no is equally as important as the discipline of saying yes, and that’s a big takeaway for me.

Chester: Absolutely, the discipline of saying no can be liberating. Her point on the muscle of doing new things getting atrophied was a wake-up call for me. While we love what we do, it’s important to push ourselves to try something new. I appreciated her advice on setting ridiculously small goals, as they can help us get into motion, which is key. Having an accountability partner, someone you can trust and count on is also crucial.

Adrian: Yes, trying new things and understanding that they may not always work out as expected is important for growth. We’ve experimented with different platforms and found what works for us. Whitney’s advice on not taking on too many S curves at once makes perfect sense. Managing your portfolio of S curves, both in your personal and professional life, is indeed brilliant.

Chester: Yes, we’ve been disrupted, but in a good way. Whitney has a knack for shaking up our thinking, and we’re grateful for that. We’d like to thank Whitney Johnson for being our guest today. A big thank you also to our producer Brent Klein, Christy Lawrence, who helps us find amazing guests like Whitney, and of course, all of you who tuned in today.

Adrian: We encourage you to download the podcast, share it with friends and family, and give us a five-star rating if you can. We also have a community at thecultureworks.com, creating a safe place where people can talk about anxiety in the workplace. We love presenting and speaking to audiences, be it virtual or in person. If you’ve got an event coming up and you want to talk about anxiety, culture, or gratitude, we’d be delighted to be there with you. Until next time, we wish you the best of mental health. Take care and be well.