Welcome to the Anxiety at Work podcast. I’m Chester Elton, and this is my co-author and dear friend, Adrian Gostick.
We hope the time that you’re going to spend with us will help remove the stigma of anxiety and mental health in the workplace and your personal life. With experts in the world of work and life, we want to give you ideas and, most importantly, tools to deal with anxiety in your world.
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Well, our guest today, and we are so excited to introduce you to our dear friend, Nicole Malachowski. Nicole medically retired from the US Air Force as a colonel after 21 years of service as a career fighter pilot. She was the first woman in history to fly with the Thunderbirds, the US Air Force Demonstration Squadron, and went on to be commander of the 333rd fighter squadron. She later served in the White House, and in January 2018, she founded Nicole Malachowski and Associates, a business dedicated to professional speaking and consulting. In this role, Nicole shows audiences and clients what it takes to break barriers and overcome adversity. We brag about her all the time when we present. Nicole, welcome to our humble podcast.
It is a joy to be with you today. Thank you both for this opportunity.
Well, we’re thrilled. We really are thrilled to have you on the call because we do. We talk about your story. We can get into certain aspects of that in a minute. But I want everybody to understand where you’re at right now. Chester just mentioned that you medically retired from the Air Force. Retirement wasn’t your choice. You were at the top of your military career when you got hit by this illness. So, can you walk us through what happened and, especially since this is about anxiety at work, how you dealt with the mental health aspect of your illness?
Absolutely. I mean this was what you would definitely call the unexpected in life. I mean, sometimes the universe comes at each of us, sometimes in very unwelcome ways, and that’s what happened to me. Three and a half years ago, I was medically retired, you know, against my will. I went out kicking and screaming because I had to leave the career that I loved. A few years prior to that, I had fallen sick while I was the commander of that fighter squadron, and I went to the doctors, and I was a bit of a medical mystery for about four years. And over those four years, my symptoms were very mysterious. They would wax and wane. They were confusing to me, confusing to doctors. And four years later, in the summer of 2016, I literally woke up, and I was temporarily paralyzed. I couldn’t move or speak. And so, as you might imagine, this was a very terrifying experience because, literally overnight, I went from commander of a fighter squadron. I was physically fit, mentally fit, spiritually fit, and then I was completely broken, unable to care for myself, and completely dependent on other people for all of my activities of daily living. It was discovered that I had a brain infection, and I was suffering from what’s called neuroborreliosis, which is a fancy name for a tick bite. So, a tick gave me some pathogens that completely altered my life. I spent the next nine months bedridden, unable to walk, talk, read, and write. And I spent another year in rehab to get back to this place where I can be with all of you today. So, as you might imagine, during that time, the Air Force, of course, had to let me go, which was understandable. And I was in my darkest moments. So, when we talk about mental health, I mean, overnight, everything was taken from me. At least, that’s how I felt. And I remember literally lying in bed and on the couch feeling a lot of anxiety. What’s going to happen next? I remember being depressed and frustrated, super sad. Part of me was angry, and part of me felt very much abandoned and alone. And I remember as I lay there, the day of my medical retirement, I was laying on my sofa at my house feeling a little sorry for myself. And all of a sudden, it kind of hit me, you know, you know, Nicole, you’re a fighter pilot. This isn’t you. And these words came to my head. I remember them clear as day. Yield to overcome. Yield to overcome. And what that meant to me at that time wasn’t about surrendering, quitting, or giving up. What it meant was you didn’t ask to get sick. You didn’t ask to find yourself in this position. It isn’t about what you can’t do or don’t have anymore. Ask yourself the right questions, Nicole. What is it that you do have at your disposal? What is it that you need to move forward? And so, I dealt a lot with my mental health issues during that very dark time. By leaning into self-advocacy, I finally learned that you could lay on the couch all day long, and the cavalry is not going to come, right? The only person who can really impact your health, your wellness, is you. And by leaning into self-advocacy, to me, it meant doing research about my illness, reaching out and connecting with doctors who were leaders in the field that gave me hope, connecting with and asking for help from patient resource groups and patient advocacy groups, you know, talking to people who had been in my shoes. So, this idea of yield to overcome became my mantra. It was my way of moving forward by dealing with reality, and it reminded me to never give up until my inner voice was satisfied. And so, that’s how I found myself moving on and reinventing myself.
Wow. Wow. You know, I just love that part where you say the cavalry wasn’t coming. It was up to me. And I do love that there are those moments when you have to just reach back in and go, hey, I’m a fighter pilot. Stop, be who you are. I love that.
Indeed, I used to think that my life legacy was going to be that I was going to become a general officer. That was my dream in the Air Force, and that people would remember me as a fighter pilot, and I now realize that that was never my final destination at all. The skills that I honed, and the characteristics and traits of a fighter pilot are what allowed me to survive my illness, are what allowed me to advocate for the best healthcare. Let’s be honest; if I had gone with the original diagnosis that was given to me, I wouldn’t be here talking to all of you right now. And that’s a fact. And so, learning how to advocate for myself and ask for help and trusting that inner gut and inner instinct was vital.
You know, take us back earlier into your career. You know, we always talk about you being amongst one of the first women to fly fighter jets off an aircraft, and you broke the barriers, you know, there. And then how do you help leaders understand how they can help those who may feel like others or the only ones in their workplace environments? Because you were one of the others. There were very few female fighter pilots. It must have been a difficult situation. So how do you help other leaders deal with those same kinds of feelings?
Sure, absolutely. I mean, when you are the other or the only in a room, it is something that, whether consciously or subconsciously, impacts how you think and feel and process the environment around you. To your point, I was amongst a group of other women who were breaking barriers at the same time in their own fighter squadrons. And what’s interesting is none of us, none of us became fighter pilots. None of us put ourselves through the challenge of becoming fighter pilots just so we can say we broke a barrier. I mean, we didn’t join the Air Force and go off on this epic challenge and adventure to be a barrier breaker. But what’s fascinating, I think, in our story, when you look at this group of women who were pretty darn tough, okay? We’re pretty darn tough.
When you look at us, I think it’s proof that if you follow your own dreams, if you follow your own heart, you may very well accidentally break barriers along the way. And that right there, I think, is the lesson to leaders. And I draw on my time commanding an F-15E fighter squadron. Imagine about 100 totally elite, skillful, high-performing, type-A, macho men, and me, right? And I had to learn how to lead that awesomeness. And what I figured out is that we have to treat each person who we’re responsible to with a tailored approach. And what I mean by that is putting in the time to create a relationship that says, I want to know about you.
What makes you tick and why? How can I help you along your goal? And a lot of people, when I talk to them, they say, well, I’ve got 100 people in my organization. How in the world do I make time to get to know everyone individually? I counter if it is important to you, then indeed, you will make time. So, getting to know each person for their unique strengths and skills is absolutely vital. Asking them, where do you think you can best contribute to this mission? Because they may highlight a skill or a strength that you didn’t see on their CV or resume, or a skill or a strength that maybe is hidden by the current portion of the portfolio they’re in. I think one of the most important questions to ask people, you know, regardless of if they fit the mold or not, each person you’re responsible to is, you know, what is your definition of success for you? So often, right, organizations and companies, I know the military does it, try to define what success is. Everyone should become a general officer. Well, not everyone wants that. Everyone should become the CEO. Not everyone wants that. Take the time to ask each individual, what is your definition of success? Because in that question, you will discover their personal motivation. And when you discover someone’s personal motivation, you can tap into it in a tailored and unique way. And when you give your time and attention like that, and you nurture with time and attention a commitment over time, that’s when people feel seen. And that’s when they start to blossom. And isn’t that really the essence of leadership? Watching someone grow into something that they never imagined they could do, all because you believed in them?
I love that, Nicole. When we do our executive coaching, that’s the first question we ask as well. What’s your definition of success? I love that. And sometimes, as you know, as a leader, you have to kind of get past the BS because they may go, well, I’m all about the team. You go, okay, keep going. And you have to dig a little deeper, don’t you? Sometimes behind.
Absolutely, because every person has a unique personality; some people are more comfortable sharing those things than others. And the only way you’re going to get to it with the people who maybe have a bit of a shield or a mask up, which you might imagine occurs in an Air Force fighter squadron, right? This macho mask that I’ve got it all together. I don’t need anyone’s mentoring or help. The way that you do that is to continue over time. So many people go; I have a new person joining my organization; I’m a great leader because I sit down with them the first week they’re here to discuss these questions, and then they never talk to that person again. People will react to that lack of authenticity. So, it’s about time and the gift of your time.
And the gift of their time. Okay, that’s so awesome. Now I want to get to, now this is the analogy, Chester, and I, you know, and we do quote you. We don’t just steal. I mean, we do, but not from you. No, no.
I’m honored you would share.
So, and the analogy is to loosen your grip. And now I think, you know, this probably comes in so many times when you’re talking to an audience. I think-especially it’s important during something like COVID, where some managers want to control every little aspect of what’s going on right now.
So, walk us through the analogy and how you learned this.
Sure. I learned about this loosen-the-grip mindset when I was going through a four-month-long training program as the newest Air Force Thunderbird pilot. And it was about three months into the training program. We were out there over the desert skies in Nevada. Things were going well. And for the very first time, we hit turbulence. And the second my aircraft hit the turbulence; I instinctually gripped the stick really hard. And I started counteracting with a movement on the stick each and every bump along the way. The problem when you do that in an aircraft is you end up in what we call a PIO or a pilot-induced oscillation because each movement has to get bigger and bigger. The end result is that it makes for a really ugly air show. It’s terribly inefficient and stress-inducing. And ultimately, for what I did, it was downright dangerous.
Now, I want to kind of talk about this turbulence, right? People say, well, Nicole, you’ve been a pilot for a long time. What do you mean it was your first time in turbulence? It was my first time in turbulence at 500 feet, 400 miles an hour, upside down, three feet away from five other jets. I can assure you that’s an eye-opening experience. And as a pilot, turbulence is really fascinating to me because we know when the atmosphere is ripe for turbulence, but we can never predict exactly where turbulence will happen, how severe it’s going to be, or how long the turbulence is going to last. I mean, does that sound familiar to our lives?
Especially like, just look at the last year and a half. I mean, our personal lives and professional lives have been in a state of turbulence for the last 18 months, and we know what that feels like because turbulence comes along for people personally and professionally and isn’t our instinct when change, adversity, hardship comes along to try to resist it, to try to control it, to try to over-control it like I was doing? So, when I landed that day from flailing and trying to stay in position and flying in turbulence, the senior pilot on the team, Steve Horton, I give him full credit. He was the experienced guy. He said, Nicole, you were a mess out there. You were all over the place. I couldn’t fly underneath you.
What’s going on? I said, dude, didn’t you feel that turbulence? It was terrifying. You know, my eyes were big like a deer in headlights, and my stomach was in knots, and I was doing my best. He said, oh, Nicole, we forgot to tell you the secret. And I’m like, what? He said the secret to staying in position when our team encounters turbulence. Would you like to know the secret? I, of course, am thinking, yes, my friend, that is information I could have used yesterday. Please share this with me. And he says to me the secret is we promise each other as a team that when any one of us encounters turbulence within our own jet, we will immediately loosen our grip.
The key is to loosen your grip. Now, I thought he was crazy because that went against my instincts as a pilot, right? And doesn’t that go against our instincts as human beings? We want to try to control the uncontrollable. So, the next day I went out there, we hit the turbulence again, and I wanted to fight the stick again and fight the turbulence, but I thought, no, Steve’s like the Yoda of the team. So, I said, loosen your grip. And I did, right? I let go with three fingers on my hand, and I ended up flying the jet with just two. And the miracle is, is that I did stay in position. We all did. The team stayed in alignment, which made a beautiful formation, and we exited the turbulence intact. And the beauty of it was the audience on the ground, our client or customer, if you will, never even knew. And so, when I talk about loosening your grip, what I’m saying is, be efficient in the use of your limited time, talent, and treasure. Choose to impact things where you have actual control that you’re responsible for. Loosening your grip means setting your ego aside and letting your teammates fulfill their roles to the best of their skill, allowing them to take as much pride in their job as you do. And so, I remind myself- loosen your grip- says fall back on the basics, your foundational professional standards, whatever they may be, processes and procedures, the priorities of the team. Control was actually in your control.
That’s why we quote her so much, Adrian. Right there. Brilliant.
I love it. What a great analogy and so well told. Yeah. Great job, Nicole. Thank you.
Yeah, so listen, you had a lot of unforeseen obstacles in your career, even before Lyme disease hit you so hard. So, help our listeners understand what you’ve learned about overcoming challenges that we face in our lives. You’ve talked a lot about it already, and yet I know that when you go through stuff like this, there’s two or three things when you go; that was the moment, right?
Absolutely. Look, when we would land from these Thunderbird air shows, we would go talk to the audience. And one of the things people would say to me a lot, it’s enough that I remember it to this day, is they would make a comment like, wow, you know, you’re an elite fighter pilot in a Thunderbird, you must somehow just be gifted, your life must be anointed, it must just have been easy for you. The path in front of you must have been smooth. And I shake my head because my path to that kind of success was littered with twists and turns, mistakes, failures, challenges, and obstacles all along the way. And the lesson I learned over my career with the individual types of successes I did have is this-that the path to success for any one person or any team is always non-linear. The path to success is always going to be non-linear. And if you can get that in your mindset and have that set straight before you go after a gnarly goal or a big dream. I think it makes handling those bumps and bruises along the way just a little bit easier.
You know, early in my career, I actually failed a major check ride while I was at pilot training. So here I am–it had been my dream since I was five years old. I’m 21 years old. I finally made it to pilot training. My dream of becoming a fighter pilot is on the line. Two months into a 12-month-long program, I fall flat on my face across the starting line. I literally statistically, at that time, came about as close as you can get to removing my chance of ever having an opportunity to fly fighter aircraft. And if I were to fail another one, I wouldn’t even graduate at all. And I remember that failure that obstacle was really hard. It was hard for my ego. It hurt. There was a moment where I was like; it’s over. I’m going to quit. If I can’t be a fighter pilot, why get back in the cockpit the next day? But I had to get back in the cockpit the next day, and I learned that this obstacle, this failure, I came out of it more dedicated to the effort that I needed to put in, more motivated, and committed to getting my dream done. I had used my mulligan, but I knew the path was still there if I could keep squeaky clean the rest of the time. So, I came out more dedicated, more committed, and, importantly, I came out of that failure a lot more humble. And I think that we can agree that those are all pretty darn good characteristics.
No kidding, especially the humility part, right? Hey, let me ask you; it just reminded me when you said after our shows, we go talk to the audience, and people ask you questions and stuff. You’ve done a lot of work in empowering young women as well. As you might guess, you’ve become a bit of an icon for a lot of young women in the military and just succeeding in life. What do you tell young girls, in particular, to inspire them to follow their dreams?
Absolutely. Well, thank you for saying that. I want to kind of admit to something first. When I first became the first woman Thunderbird pilot, people would be like the headlines would read, first woman Thunderbird pilot, woman fighter pilot. And I used to bristle totally at this idea that I had to be described by that qualifier woman. I just wanted to be known as a great fighter pilot and a contributing Thunderbird. And then I went to my very first air show. I was thrilled to make it through the show with no major mistakes. I landed; I went to the autograph line. And as I’m standing on the autograph line, I look to the left to the other five amazing pilots, and these guys had 10 or 15 people in line in front of them for pictures and autographs, and questions. And then I slowly raised my head and looked in front of me, and the line was well over a hundred people, all young women between the ages of 10 and 16. And it was in that moment that this light bulb came on that I realized I can walk that fine line and be proud of being the woman Thunderbird pilot because it means something to see someone who looks like you succeeding. I learned that so that visual in that moment, my heart changed. It means something to see someone who looks like you succeeding. And what I like to remind young gals when they kind of ask for advice, and I hit on this earlier a little bit, is, Nicole, what’s your advice for me if I want to go after this big dream? I let them know only you can define success for yourself. Don’t ever let a company, organization, person define what success is. And oh, by the way, your definition of success can and should change over time, given the context of where you are in your life. And the other thing is to remember you’re going into this big goal or dream, maybe becoming a fighter pilot, because it’s your dream. You’re doing this for you. Don’t worry about what anybody else thinks. When I had the naysayers, especially in the 90s, in my first fighter squadron, I would go home sometimes, and I’ll admit it the social exclusion was hard. I would put my face in my pillow and cry. I would get it out. And then I would remind myself this has been my dream since I was five. I’m going to make this dream come true through my hard work and effort. So that’s why I like to remind young women and men.
That’s so awesome. And I remember seeing a picture, I think it was on LinkedIn, you posted the other day of a young woman that you hope that perhaps you put a little spark in her, and now she is a fighter pilot herself. That was amazing.
She is indeed. And she even flies the same jet that I flew, the F-15E Strike Eagle. And she’s crushing it. And all I can ever hope for is that the women that have come behind those of us who went first that they just go further. They’re better; they’re more talented. They accomplish things I could have never imagined. And I’m super proud of them.
That is so great. And by the way, Chester and I have had that experience about the book signing lines, except we’re usually in the short one. One of our first book signings was by David McCullough, you know, author of 1776. We had like three or four people. His line stretched around the block.
It was very humbling.
I mean, it really kept you in a good, humble place. So, tell us where people can find out more about you and your work, Nicole.
Well absolutely. Thank you for asking. I do have a website. It’s simple, NicoleMalachowski.com. I am on Instagram and Twitter. My handle is at real, R-E-A-L, Malachowski. That’s @realMalachowski. And I’d love to, you know, get in conversation with a lot of the listeners here today and answer their questions. Just slide them into my DMs.
That’s great. You know, a lot of people right now are restructuring their careers. And we’re reading a lot, and we’re writing a lot about people who may not even be going back to work as it was before. You were forced into a big change in your career. So, what advice would you have for those who are facing a career, maybe transition or upheaval after this pandemic?
I empathize deeply with the people who are being forced as well into an unexpected, you know, career or profession change because, to your point, I have been there, and I have lived it. And when I was laying on the couch that day of my military retirement, no ceremony, no thank you for your service, looking around, feeling sorry for myself, which I think is a very human emotion to have, it hit me, these were the questions I was asking. Who am I if I’m not wearing my nation’s uniform? What is my contribution to society if I’m not serving in the military? Who am I if I’m not in the cockpit of an aircraft? What is it that I do? And so, a lot of people, the first thing, have to deal with the same thing I did, which is a crisis of identity. I would tell people right now, you know, before crisis or chaos comes to you, figure out what gives your life meaning. Who are you outside of work? What is it that you value and prioritize, and why? Because if you can answer those questions before chaos and crisis and the unexpected come because they will, it’s going to make that difficult and challenging time a lot smoother and a lot more efficient. I hadn’t thought through those. I’ll be honest. I think, honestly, my ego is wrapped up in my identity as an Air Force officer and a fighter pilot, and when those things were taken from me unexpectedly overnight, I had a crisis of identity. So, to the people who are dealing with this challenge now, I would say, remember that you are so much more than your profession; you are so much more as a human being than your duty title or the current job position or wherever your office is up on the fifth floor in the C-suite.
You’re a human being behind it, and your life has purpose and meaning outside of work. Now on a very practical level, because I’m a fighter pilot, I want my checklist, right? I want my step-by-step, you know, procedures. I want to practice something. During those low times when I had to figure out how to reinvent myself, I discovered the Japanese philosophy of Ikigai. And please forgive me if I am pronouncing it wrong. It’s spelled I-K-I-G-A-I. And I’m going to give a very simplified Westernized version of it very quickly. But Ikigai is a philosophy that says that your career and profession should be a combination of four things.
What you love, what the world needs, what you’re good at, and what you can be paid for. And those things, when I created four little columns, and I listed them out, helped me discover how to reinvent myself, honestly, as a professional motivational speaker and leadership consultant. I loved people, and I loved leading airmen. That’s what I missed. The world does need folks like Adrian and Chester to nudge them along and give them advice, and I can do the same for companies. People had told me I was good at speaking and that I had fun stories to tell, and then I realized there’s an industry that pays for it. And that’s how I made the leap into speaking. So, in a very practical sense, if people are struggling, the Japanese philosophy of Ikigai and studying that actually helped me discover options. And one of the things I got stuck on was that-what are you good at? Right, we’re very like people; I’m not good at anything. If I’m not flying, I’m not good at anything. I think one of the most important things people can do is ask those around you, those on your team, your family, your friends, your loved ones, your colleagues, what am I good at? Because you know what, they’re going to point out things you never imagined. They’re going to point out things you never thought of. And so don’t ignore that resource. But bottom line is I firmly believe that we all have the power to reinvent ourselves at any given time.
You know, and isn’t it interesting that often a crisis helps you redefine who you really are and find out who you really are? Because to your point, you’ve got to get back and say, who am I? What do I love to do?
And crises can be very much a crucible experience. You remember in science class, a crucible, you go into something that’s hard and difficult and high temperature and high stress, and you get forged into something completely different. And I would say 99.9% of the time; you come out forced into something even better.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I do love that in step four, though. What can you get paid for? Often people say, oh, just do what you love. Yeah, and figure out if you can get paid for doing that, too. That’s kind of important, you know?
Yeah, you’ve got to provide for yourself and your family.
Yeah. Hey, with your military background, talk about how you kept yourself motivated. I’m sure there were times, like maybe in boot camp or putting in the extra hours or the extra time in the plane, where you didn’t really want to do it. We often talk about, is there a difference between dedication and motivation and how did that work for you?
I love this question. The difference between dedication and motivation. Okay, I will get to that but let’s talk about boot camp because you gave an awesome example, right? Boot camp is difficult. Boot camp is not fun. But you know what? It’s not supposed to be fun, and after boot camp, I spent four more years from the age of 18 to 21 every day at a military academy. There were some highlights and moments, but you know what? Not as much fun as my friends who were at a regular college. But the point of going through those tough times is to keep your eye on the prize, right? The strategic goal, the long-term goal that was out there. For me, that was a commission as an officer in the military, a chance to go to pilot training. And I was, obviously, my best hope, if you will, getting through those four years at the Air Force Academy was my best hope for fulfilling my dream of becoming a fighter pilot. And so sometimes we have to endure things that we don’t want to, honestly, as a means to an end. When I would go out and fly a combat mission, I like to explain kind of this to people when there’s hardships or difficulties on the way to a goal, we always start mission planning at the target, and we work from the target backwards. We never go; I’m going to take off and then fly here and build forward to the target. We start with the target, the goal, the dream in mind, and then we backtrack all of those interim steps. And there’s going to be many countless interim steps along the way, not just to my target but on the road to, of course, or the journey of any person’s goal or dream. So, I always believe that these long-term goals or long-term targets are always going to be more important than the temporary discomfort, if you will, of the unsung times. And those unsung times never, never last forever. Now to your original question of dedication and motivation. You’re like making me like really work and think here, right? Because sometimes, we throw words around and we think we know what they mean. So, I’ll give you my take on it.
Dedication to me is commitment over time. Dedication is all about discipline and grit. Dedication is about honestly doing the hard work that’s necessary under any circumstance. To me, that’s dedication. Now motivation to me is different. And I think sometimes we use these words interchangeably, but motivation to me is my purpose, my reason for going after a goal or a dream, the reason and the Catalyst behind an action or a choice; to me, motivation is all about my personal Why I mean ultimately flying fighter aircraft was my target, right? And I had to be very dedicated in order to make that come true. But my motivation for doing it, you know, and I don’t mean to sound trite, and I’m not pandering, was service to my country. It was about being a part of something bigger than myself and ultimately wearing my nation’s uniform to defend what I believe is the greatest nation on earth. And that was the motivation that drove my dedication towards my target.
Yeah, this has been so great, Nicole. First, thank you for all your service and for all that you did while you were. And now you’re still doing, too. We want to thank you for all your service. What takeaways, after our conversation today and our fumbling questions that you’ve answered beautifully, what takeaways would you have our listeners take, maybe, that hopefully are lessons that you’ve learned if you had a couple of things to take away today?
Well, yeah, I think if there’s just a couple things, I think it’s a reminder that, again, the path to success is always going to be nonlinear in your personal life, in your professional life for individuals or teams. So, remember to be efficient and only control the controllable things. That way, you’re going to be efficient with the use of your limited time, talent, and treasure. I believe in asking for and actively accepting help in those times that you need it. And I honestly believe that a positive outlook, and I’m not talking like Pollyanna, you know, fake positivity but a
positive outlook, a forward-looking one, is actually a choice, and I leave people with my last aviation analogy, the runway behind you is always unusable. All you ever have is the runway that’s in front of you.
I’m going to make a poster out of that. That is just gold right there. You know, Nicole, we do gush when we talk about you. We really are inspired. We’re inspired not only because of your service and your accomplishments and all those things that you did, and maybe we’re the first to do. We gush about you because you just have this genuine goodness about you. You do want to make the world a little better place. I love that you’ve inspired the next generation of fighter pilots, whether they be men or women, although especially women, let’s face it, and that you’re out there doing such good work. Your goodness just shines through. I hope those that are listening will start to follow you. Give us again-where they can follow you and learn more about your work.
I’ve got a website NicoleMalachowski.com, and my Instagram and Twitter handles are at Real Malachowski, that’s at R-E-A-L Malachowski/
Author recap: What a delight. What just positive energy and service, and I hope it came through to all of you listeners what big fanboys we are of Nicole Malachowski. Talk to me briefly about some of your key takeaways, Adrian.
Well, first off, she talked about this idea of yield to overcome. She’s lying for a year in a bed, unable to do what she’s done. She’s been the top of her game mentally, physically, spiritually, she says, and then I’m in this pit. And she says, you know, this yield to overcome is this idea, look, you need to ask for help, you need to deal with the reality, and you have to ask the right questions. What is it that I can bring to the world? What is it I have to give? And that sometimes we do have to make transitions, and life isn’t easy. It’s not going to work out the way we expect all the time.
Yeah, you know, I love too; when she was at her deepest and darkest moment, she gave herself a kick in the bum, right? Hey, Nicole, you’re a fighter pilot. You know, figure it out, and started to do the research, and started to make connections, and started to talk to different doctors. I thought it was really revealing when she said if I’d gone with the original diagnosis, I probably wouldn’t be here now.
To learn to advocate for yourself was one of my huge takeaways. And I think this idea too as if she led a squadron of 100 amazing pilots, these are all Uber, type A driven pilots, and she said, look, you got to get to know people and get to know how they can reach their goals. What can you contribute to this mission? What’s the definition of success for you? And I love that point that she made, you’ve got to get past people’s masks because they all put masks on. No, no, I’m just about service. No, you’re not. I’ve known you for a couple of months now. But she says you can’t find that out if you don’t spend time, right?
Right. And she said, you know, a lot of managers say, well, to get to know all my people and their motivations, that’s a lot of work. Well, is it important to you? Because if it’s important to you, you’ll find the time to do that. And again, that comes back to dedication and vision. I did love, too, when she said, you know, as fighter pilots, we start with the target and work backward. You know, we don’t say, hey, we’re going to fly here and then fly there and build towards the target. Say, no, you start at the target, and you move backwards. That’s how she keeps her motivation—just so many great ideas.
Oh, there’s so many. And again, I have so many notes about, you know, loosen your grip, right? Turbulence comes along, which happens to all of us. Don’t try to overcontrol. Uh, let others do their jobs.
Uh, give yourself a break, control what you can control, and let the rest of it go. Last thing for me is, you know, you asked a great question about when you hit all this turbulence and so on, you know, how do you overcome it? She said, well, you’ve got to know who you are before that happens. Who are you before that happens? Because crisis is going to come. It comes to all of us. If you really know who you are and what you’re about, and what your why is, then when turbulence comes, you’re much more equipped to overcome it.
That was my last big takeaway, and among so many, she is such an inspiration to so many young women, not only who become fighter pilots but really who do chase their own definition of success and is that the path to success is not always linear. And so many of us get hung up on that. I failed at something. That didn’t work out. Great! You learned that’s not what you want to do, or that’s not what you’re the best at. And so, I loved her point about you’re thinking about your career. You know, what do you love? What does the world need? What are you good at? What can you be paid for? You know, such great advice for all of us, especially young people figuring out where they want to go in their lives or those who are about to make a mid-career change. So many important lessons from Nicole Malachowski, former Thunderbird pilot. So, a special thanks today to our producer Brent Klein, to Christy Lawrence, who helps us find amazing guests like Nicole, and to all of you who have listened in on this podcast.
You bet. And I love that last thing about you’re finding your way and working through it. That’s your guide, right? That’s your life guide. We always want to give a shout-out at the end of our podcast to the wonderful folks at LifeGuides, this peer-to-peer community that helps you navigate through those day-to-day stressors by providing a life guide, somebody that’s walked in your shoes and gone through the same things that you’re going through now. Our offer to our listeners is just go to lifeguides.com forward slash, schedule a demo, and add the code healthy2021 into the free text box, and you’ll receive two months of free service.
Well, I’m with you, Adrian. Look, if you like the podcast, like it wherever you get your podcast. Download it, share it with your friends. Share it with family. You know, this is the number one issue in the workplace today. And this podcast is one of the top podcasts in mental health in the world right now. And that’s happening because you’re downloading it, you’re listening to it, and you’re sharing it with your friends. So, from Adrian and me, please join us in our community, thecultureworks.com. Follow us on LinkedIn, buy our books wherever good books are sold, and we hope to see you again on the podcast soon. Adrian, take us home.
Well, thanks, everybody, again for joining in. Check out our new book, Anxiety at Work, which deals with so many of these issues and does feature the amazing Nicole Malachowski. So again, we wish you this week nothing but the best of mental health, and hopefully, you’re finding this week nothing but the best of mental health and hopefully you’re finding with us a safe place to consider these ideas. Take care and be well.
ve 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.
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.
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.