“Never rob a man of his pain or his gold because both will serve him equally well.”
Super Bowl champion Aaron Taylor reflects on a journey to emotional freedom that continues far beyond his accomplished career in the NFL. For every feeling he'd been pushing away, Aaron came to find that “on the other side is infinite possibility.”
Join Aaron, Brett, and Joe as they talk about performance anxiety, feelings in the locker room, and how faith affects decision-making. They touch on the nature of accomplishment, how to raise children who hear their own voices of approval, and the value of having our identity shattered to pieces. Aaron shares a tearful moment with his absent father that produced an unexpected gem of gratitude. The episode closes with the story of a critical choice Aaron made at age 15 that changed his life.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what we do, it’s about who and what we become in that process.”
Links and references from the episode:
CBS Sports Analyst and College Football Hall of Fame inductee, Aaron Taylor, has a "larger than life" personality, but its roots may surprise you: the former Super Bowl Champion credits his success to the principles of Gratitude, Service, and Teamwork.
Instilled from an early age, these principles became the inspiring foundation for the creation of college football’s only non-individual award, the Joe Moore Award, annually recognizing the Most Outstanding Offensive Line Unit in College Football. Through the Joe Moore Award, Aaron set out to not only preserve the legacy of his coach but also to shift the focus from a “Hey, look at me!” mentality to a culture of teamwork, of putting the greater good above ourselves in society at large.
Aaron was a decorated offensive lineman at the University of Notre Dame from 1990-1993, earning unanimous All-American honors both his junior and senior years. In his final season in South Bend, he won the prestigious Lombardi Award, annually given to the best interior lineman in the country.
In an incredible culmination of his childhood dream, Aaron was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the first round of the 1994 NFL Draft and was a member of the Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI championship team. After a two-year stint with the San Diego Chargers, Aaron was forced to retire due to injuries after the 1999 season.
Off the field, Aaron is a moving and inspirational speaker. His candid approach and sense of humor make him an effective storyteller who is able to weave a powerful message of resilience, perseverance, and the importance of having a championship mindset.
Behind the winning smile and accolades, Aaron finds meaning and feels “most alive” when being of service or bringing value to others. Shortly after retiring from the NFL, Aaron established the Aaron Taylor Impact Fund and recently co-founded The Foundation for Teamwork, dedicated to fostering the most essential aspect of all societal endeavors: Teamwork.
Aaron currently resides in Southern California and New York with his wife and three children.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we do. It’s about who and what we become in that process.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I’m Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson.
Welcome to the show, everybody. Today I am really excited about our guest. Today’s guest is Aaron Taylor. Aaron played professional football as an offensive guard for the Green Bay Packers and the San Diego Chargers, playing in two Superbowls and one of them they won. He is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and is now a speaker on teamwork and performance, and there are a bunch of other things I saw on Wikipedia about you. There is a teamwork award you founded. I am also familiar with that you work with the Mankind Project, and you do a lot of other work in self development and personal development. Anything you would like to add?
Aaron: I won the spelling bee in 4th grade. That’s often overlooked but one of the crown jewels of my achievement catalog.
Brett: Wonderful. We’ve been talking a little bit over the past couple of years, just every now and again we have a catch up after having met. Last time we talked, about a week ago, when we were planning this podcast, you said a phrase about your journey that I really loved, which was feel your way to freedom. I couldn’t even think of a better way to describe even the work that it is that we do with this podcast and with our courses. I would love to just hear more about your story and how you learned this practice, whatever it is that you refer to when you say feel your way to freedom.
Aaron: I appreciate that, Brett. Just for the record, that is trademarked. In all seriousness, when I look back on my own life, everything that has gotten in the way that has been an inefficient way to create the outcomes I want has been my desire to not feel. Whether I use emotion, whether I use alcohol, whether I use money, power or control, all of those things were utilized by me to try to elicit something that I wanted, which often involved not feeling.
That was a phrase that came up organically with a buddy of mine who is a pretty esteemed coach in his own right and is teaching me how to ask the right questions and be a more in tuned listener. I think at the core of all of our journeys is this process of liberating ourselves from ourselves. Feeling my way to freedom to me is always the access, the portal to a brighter future if you will.
Brett: I can imagine that being very important on the field. If you are overthinking what you are doing, you are just not going to be there where the ball is going or where the players are moving. How did you learn this? Was this something you were just born with and you were like I got this, check it out people? I’m feeling my way to freedom.
Aaron: It was basically the only thing left. I tried all the other shit, and it just didn’t work. I very reluctantly started that journey, Brett. You bring up football, and that’s one of the interesting things. The locker room is a sacred place, but it’s not a safe place. Feelings weren’t welcome. You didn’t want to walk into the locker room and say hey guys, my self esteem is down today. My girlfriend broke up with me. At the core of my being, I don’t feel like I am matter or I am enough. Anybody want to talk about that? Those things didn’t tend to come up, so instead, I put on my helmet and my shoulder pads and put my mouthpiece in and tried to knock the clock off somebody. That’s the way I got to release a lot of my emotion.
I think for me and a lot of us, you work, and you play hard. Alcohol was my -ism of choice, and I took heart in those libations liberally. As it turns out, I was allergic. Every time I drank, I broke out in rashes of very bad judgment. I had to hang those cleats up about 20 years ago.
Again, this whole notion of doing this thing that I felt like I was born to do but feeling like a fraud the entire time. Somebody recently asked me when I felt most self-confident, and I am in the College Football Hall of Fame, I’ve won a Superbowl, I won the Lombardi in college as the most outstanding offensive lineman, but football, I never felt confident, ever. In my marriage, no, not really. How about as a father? No. Employee at CBS? Ah. You know what? I feel confident in circle. I feel confident in circle, meaning when I am in spaces where I feel permission to be my authentic self.
One of the things I’ve learned about me is for me to feel safe, there has to be this kind of emotional game of you show me yours and I will show you mine, but I go first. What I am finding is when I can share and express who I am fully, there is nothing to hide. When there is nothing to hide, there’s nothing to hide. That’s why I feel confident and whole in that space, and that’s really what’s drawing me to this work that brought us here together on this podcast.
Joe: I coached a guy who was the CEO of this startup, and he played basketball for Princeton, I think it was, in college. He played college ball. I have another guy that I coach who was a track star. What I notice in that work is that there is this moment where it clicks where they have a body and an emotional intelligence they can access the same way they would access it on the court or on the field, and when they can access it that way, in business it is a superpower that gets unlocked for them. I’m wondering if that journey resonates with you at all in your experience. Was there that moment of understanding that there is a way you can access your body in the circle or on CBS in the same way you could in the field, and it allowed you to increase your capacity in that experience?
Aaron: That’s a great question, Joe. I’d love to answer that and say yes. Part of my truth is that I never was able to access my full emotional self while I played, and really in my career, which is going into year 15. In case my bosses are listening, I really love working at CBS sports because we are in the middle of a contract negotiation right now. I had this incredible moment last year that may underscore what it is you are talking about. I got a call from my boss indicating that somebody on our team had gotten COVID. The question was if I would be interested in calling my first ever NFL game, and I was like heck yeah. Are you kidding me?
I was so excited about the opportunity. I ran downstairs and told my wife. She screamed and gave me this big hug. This is the opportunity everybody in our business wants, and here it was in my lap. I was getting my shot. After being a little misty eyed, she said this is so great, baby. I looked, kissed my fingers, gave her the peace sign and said I will see you next Sunday, meaning I am about to go into the bunker, to study, to watch film, to call everybody I ever knew and to do the history of both of these teams going back to 1911. It was all of this research, and that's part of my makeup. I am over over-prepared guy, which creates anxiety.
This went on for a couple of days, and my wife in all of her infinite wisdom looks at me, raises her hand, and says are you open to some feedback. I thought oh damn. Every time she asks me that, I know. A fast ball of truth is about to be thrown over the plate. Then she hits me with the follow up of permission to speak freely. I thought damn, this is a biggy. I said yes.
She said I’m a little worried that you are so excited about this that you are going to squeeze it so tightly that you are going to fumble this opportunity. She said I would offer you this. Every time that you are nervous or want to do something or are thinking about how you are going to do X, Y, or Z, instead of thinking about what it is you want to do, think about how it is you want to feel after the event is over. I want you to close your eyes when the anxiety comes up and imagine putting your computer and your game board, which is what every announcer uses to call games. When you look over, what’s the look on your partner’s face when you guys high five? What’s the last thing the producer says as you take your headset off and go down underneath the stadium to the TV trucks? Who is texting you? What are they saying? As you go to bed and put your head on the pillow, what’s the predominant feeling? Is it pride? Is it relief? Is it gratitude? Play it all the way out.
Fellows, you want to talk about a superpower. That was the best game I’ve ever called on the biggest stage in my biggest moment. I’m in the College Football Hall of Fame. I’ve been on TV for 14 years, but that was the only time I never had performance anxiety and wasn’t worried about what I was going to do because I shifted my focus from what I feared to what I wanted to feel. When we talk about feeling your way to freedom, that’s another way it can look. It led not only to the best game I’ve ever called, it is the best season I’ve ever had in television.
Joe: The amazing thing is even in your wife’s description of it, she said don’t squeeze it too lightly. She described it to you in physical terms. She said you might fumble. When you were describing your wife’s words to me, I thought I could feel that in my body. She was talking to your body. That’s pretty cool.
Aaron: She is a pretty accomplished athlete in her own right, a two-time Olympian in beach volleyball. I am that smart that I can choose well. That’s the best spectator sport ever. I just want to throw that in there. She understands what being a good teammate is like. She understands what pressure feels like, being on the Olympic stage and growing up in Communist Bulgaria and having that being the only avenue, the only way out is through sports, and all the pressure she felt. I really appreciated that, and I talk about it a lot because it really was a defining moment in my life. I wish I had known that at 18.
One of the phrases somebody shared with me recently that just blew me away because it hit me right between the eyes was fear is a misuse of the imagination. The flipside of that is what I did. I focused on how I wanted to feel and the positive outcome, and to the brain, it didn’t know the difference. All of a sudden, it starts dropping dopamine, oxytocin and all of these feel-good chemicals.
My experience was different. How that translated on game day when it mattered was I wasn’t worried about the words I was going to say during the opening or how I was going to telestrate or who I wanted to put in my telestrator tool that I thought were going to be there that has this cool effect that I like. I didn’t get caught up in all that. I was present. To me, presence is the portal to a better outcome and reality. That’s what focusing on my feelings afterwards allowed me to do in the moment because there was no downside as far as I was aware.
Brett: It sounds like what was happening there was your fear was transmuting into excitement. You weren’t focusing on the things you were afraid of in a way that was stuck. The fears might be there, but you continued to intend towards what you wanted. I think there is a lot of freedom that happens when you reach this impartiality of being able to be in acceptance of all outcomes and continuing to intend in the direction that you want. With that maximum freedom in both of those directions, then you have full freedom to be authentically yourself and call the shots exactly as they are coming to mind, as you did.
Aaron: One of my best friends from my NFL days, this guy Roman Fort was my center here in San Diego with the Chargers. He was a Christian, a born again Christian, but he was a very approachable Christian. It wasn’t thrown in your face. It was a faith of attraction rather than promotion. He had little baby curses that he would throw in there, but he was a super funny storyteller. We were room dogs, which meant on the road we would room together the night before the game. Everybody would pair up, and since we played next to each other, we could talk strategy, but as you would expect, it often got a little deeper at times.
Let’s just say I wasn’t very Christian-like at 25, 26, 27 years old, but I was Christian curious. I was faith-curious because Roman had something that resonated with me. There was an underlying confidence and joy I think I saw in him that I didn’t necessarily feel myself. I asked him about it and how he could have such faith, and he said man, AT, imagine playing a football game that you know you are going to win no matter what, but the score at the end of the first half is 58 to nothing and you are losing. He said but you know for a fact that at the end of the game you somehow win. He said what’s your demeanor going to be like at halftime. Are you throwing your helmet? Are you super sullen? Are you excited, thinking holy shit, how are we going to pull this off? We win this deal. Oh my God, I can’t wait to see how this thing plays itself out. He said that’s what my faith is. He said for me I know I win the game at the end of the day, so I don’t ever care what the score is.
Brett: It reminds me of a thing I’ve heard Joe say before, which is when someone is stuck in a question or in a binary, what do I do, this or that, a question I’ve heard Joe ask is what you would do if you knew you would be happy either way. From that place, how do you actually approach your problems if you don’t make them responsible for your happiness, if you don’t make the outcome responsible for your joy.
Aaron: It’s challenging.
Joe: I have a question for you. I don’t know where you are, still Christian curious or that whole thing, but how does faith register with you now? The deeper part of that question for me is there are a lot of folks out there who believe that faith is something for the religious. My experience is that you can have a deep faith without being religious, and so I am wondering how faith interacts with your system now. What does that mean to you today? How has it grown since that time hearing that story in the hotel room?
Aaron: I’ll answer that question with another story that I heard in the rooms of recovery about a guy going to the circus. He looks up and sees the guy on the high wire. He sees them up there, and he is walking across. He has got the big stick and he makes it across. He believes he is going to be able to make it because this is a traveling circus, and if it was really that dangerous, they probably wouldn’t let him do it because they would have to keep going through these guys.
But then the guy comes out with a wheelbarrow. He has got sacks of sand and he is pushing this thing across. It is a little bit more hairy, but the guy still believes, in the audience, that this high wire walker is going to be able to make it from one end to the other. He said faith, though, is getting out of the stands, climbing up the ladder and getting inside the wheelbarrow, and that’s a whole lot easier to talk about than it is to do.
I want to think my faith is strong, but when push comes to serve, I want to sit in the stands, and I want a big ass net. I try to create certainty. That’s literally at the core of what my dance is through life is to figure out, to take those leaps of faith. When I look back on everything that’s been good in my life, it is when I was willing to go where I was afraid or unwilling prior to. That’s where the goal in our lives lies. That’s one of my anchor statements is the goal in our lives lies just beyond where we are afraid or unwilling to go. It’s those leaps of faith, and when I have done that, poof, they disappear.
Your question of what I would do if I was happy, and it worked out either way removes that element of fear. What would you do if you weren’t afraid? I would probably do this. Then, go do that. Wait! We talk ourselves out of the richness of life’s possibilities when we let fear into the picture, but that’s the game. It’s the game I believe for all of us in our own ways, with our own actors, our own sets, our own time periods, our own wardrobes. It all looks different, but it is all the same deal.
Joe: That leads me to a second question. There are moments where I’ve done that, gotten in the wheelbarrow and fallen, only to find out that the destruction that happens is a destruction of a part of myself that can be destroyed, leaving with me with the part of myself that can’t be destroyed, meaning maybe it hurts, maybe it sucks for a good long while, but at the end of the day I’m refined. Purified is not the right word but refined. There is a part of me that wasn’t real that’s lost.
I’m wondering if you have a story like that where you have faith. The idea was going to go one way. It went disastrously wrong, but at the end of the day, you are better for it. The faith still was a good bet even though there was a bump or two on the way.
Aaron: Yeah, man. That false self, I’ve been going through this phase where the idea of myself. What’s that phrase? Narcissists don’t fall in love with themselves. They fall in love with the idea of themselves.
Joe: I love that one. That’s good.
Aaron: The idea of myself has been meeting my actual self on a profound level over the last couple weeks, and it is not going so well. It is like a blind date from hell in certain respects. I think part of my origin story is parents divorced at two and I got sent back to Indiana to live with my father and his family. While there, an older, adult male family member molested me. There was some physical abuse that took place. I came back to California. My dad was supposed to show up one day and didn’t. That’s the wounding that happened to me early on. Then we moved every two years, so I was always the new kid in school. Just for shits and giggles, I am biracial so I never felt white enough, never felt black enough, always felt too black, too white and never really knew where I fit in.
But dad was the critical piece for me. I used to fantasize about whether or not if he was around, he could teach me to fight, to make bird houses, to use power tools and do all of the dad stuff, like fish. I had this picture of him working on a door that got sent at some point when I was seven or eight. I think that’s where a lot of that stuff comes from.
After that day at eight when I sat on the couch from 8 am to midnight waiting for him to come, my mom knew right away he wasn’t coming but I refused to move. That’s part of when my light went out. Through the rational mind of an 8-year-old, I must not be good enough to love. I must not matter. I must not be good enough to show up on time for, boom, and go to sleep. That’s a story I’ve been trying to unwind.
Fast forward many, many years and probably a story that could be a podcast in and of itself, I got reconnected with my father. The moment I will never forget is him sitting with his new wife on his couch in tears in my living room, me sitting on the other couch, across from him, next to my wife with me in tears. Both of us crying about the fact of how hard it was to grow up without a healthy father, that’s how we connected. We resonated with our shared experience in that moment, and what I learned very shortly thereafter is how freaking lucky I was that he wasn’t around.
He was admittedly in his own words a disaster at that time. When I wanted him to be there, my life would be so different if just my dad would there, and it felt like I fell out of the wheelbarrow and part of my died, but what I learned in that moment, Joe, was that thank God God didn’t give me what I wanted because I would have been selling myself short. God doesn’t do things to us. He does them for us. He was actually protecting me. It is like the old footprints over people’s toilets in their bathrooms, that old poem about when the adversity hits, there is only one set of footprints. How could you abandon me? Obviously, Jesus or God says that’s when I carried you. Those were my footprints.
That’s what my relationship with faith is. When I get what I want, I am selling myself short. It has been the adversity. It has been the strife. It has been the challenge. It has been the loss where I have grown the most, and on the other side of that is this almost infinite amount of possibility. That’s why I am drawn to the things I am afraid to do because I kind of know that behind there, there are some riches that are just waiting to be unearthed. Then my kids don’t brush their teeth, and then I get all pissed off and throw that shit out the window.
Brett: Back in my day, I didn’t have a father to tell me to brush my teeth.
Aaron: Check this out. Let’s bring this full circle because that’s a really good point. I know you are saying it in jest. They are really accomplished water polo players. They are 13 and 12, each individually good. They are yin and yang. One is really good offensively, and one is really good defensively. They are balancing out their skill sets. They have gotten an incredible coach. The parents are great. It is like a case study in youth sports, and it crushes me that they don’t listen to all of the Ted Talks on success, resilience, teamwork, and the win one for the Gipper speeches I try to firehose them with. I didn’t have a dad, and you guys don’t listen. I get paid to talk, and you guys don’t want to listen to me.
The reality is you don’t know what is going to work and what’s going to be there, and I have to laugh at myself in those moments because it is like what are you doing, dude. They are perfect. My mom didn’t even play hopscotch, let alone play sports, and I got exactly what I needed at the right time in the right way. How about just listening, accepting, admiring and cheering your kids on and stop trying to be what you wished you had when you were freaking 13?
Aaron: I’ll let you know how that goes. To be continued.
Brett: We are going to do an update podcast in six months, six to ten years maybe.
Aaron: A work in progress.
Brett: How did you end up going from the life you started with, not having your father, having the abuse? Having had this moment where you learned, you believe, you took on this belief that you just weren’t worthy, and then found yourself winning Super Bowls and feeling your way to freedom, what was that path between then and now that opened you up to this?
Aaron: I’d say equal parts serendipity, divine intervention and hard work. I got kicked out of the house at 14 because I was a D and F student. My mom who was a pediatric ICU nurse at Children’s Hospital in Oakland.
Joe: Hold on second. What years was your mom a nurse?
Aaron: From ’72 to probably ’83 or ’84.
Joe: My mom worked at Children’s Hospital in Oakland from ’82 to ’86 or ’87.
Aaron: We will have to do a little research and put it in the show notes about whether there was crossover or not. I spent a lot of afternoons there.
Joe: It was a horrible neighborhood back then. I remember that. My mom did the dietetics part of the hospital. Sorry, Oakland.
Aaron: Small world getting smaller. That’s a heck of a coincidence there. She was out of answers and kicked me out. I spent a week sleeping on my buddy’s floor, using his socks and underwear as a pillow. I thought this probably isn’t a good long-term strategy, so unbeknownst to me, my mom was talking to his mom every day and getting updates. Do you want to come back home and have a chat? Of course, I said yes. She basically walked me back from what it is I wanted to do. I said I want to play pro football. She asked how I could do that. I said you just play in college and get drafted. Oh, you just get drafted. Does everybody get drafted? No, just the better guys. When I was in college, you had to have good grades. Do you have to have good grades to play football? I said yes, you have to have a 2.0 at least.
I got college. How do you get there? You have got to play high school football and they just give you a scholarship. Oh, they just give you a scholarship. She was walking me all the way back. The punch line was every time you smoke weed or cut school or fail a class, what you are really saying is you don’t want to be a pro football player. I don’t even really know I wanted to be a pro football player. I just kind of blurted out, but what I did get in that moment was the connection between my choices, actions and consequences. Who and what I wanted to become was being directly impacted by my actions in the moment. I had never really pieced that together.
Once I named that out loud, that’s when the invisible doors started opening. The divinity and serendipity came in. There was a show on that night that talked about the School de la Salle in the East Bay that had this 44-game win streak, and the coach was talking about how his players aren’t it. They are part of it. There is this higher standard. I said to my mom that that was the sort of place I would like to go. Within the course of two weeks, somebody comes into work, and they have got a house to rent right down the street from the school. She gets a job offer that pays her almost twice as much money, so she is able to leave Children’s Hospital in that moment and move to Concord. The rest was history.
There are some really good moments in there where I came up against that fear and came to the Y in the road, but it was that over and over and over. The harder I worked, the better I got. Everybody worked hard, but they got an inch better and I got a foot better. That was the God given genetics I had, which is really odd because neither of my parents had any sort of athleticism whatsoever. That was the story, and that led to a full scholarship at Notre Dame and getting drafted in the first round in Green Bay.
I think for me growing up without a dad what my driver was was good job, good play, good read, good recovery, good boy. These older adult male role models as my coaches started to serve unbeknownst to them and to me the role of my father. They gave me the wisdom, the pats on the butt, the kicks in the ass, sometimes both at the same time. I was drawn to that, but I was also a people pleaser and a coach pleaser, so that drove me to work hard and to grind. I think the combination of serendipity, divinity and hard work led to a pretty good football career.
Joe: It’s interesting. Something that just clicked for me was you were saying earlier on about having that full sense of confidence in football, at CBS or with your marriage, and it seems like what you just said really illuminates that in the fact that probably in circles the only time it is not about somebody’s else patting you on the butt. It is not about somebody else telling you that you did a good job, which also to me relates to what you were saying about your kids. For me, the whole thing about being a parent of teenagers is to have them learn to hear their own voice of good job and to allow them to listen to themselves in their truth and have that move them instead of my good job or my bad job, whatever it is that I want to criticize or not criticize. That’s the thing that you have in the circle is that it is just your truth that you are dealing with, and you are not looking for anybody’s approval in those rooms.
Aaron: I appreciate that, Joe. Just last night, my kids are 13 and 12 and still want me to come in and read and just sit and talk. We do that. They will be 33 and I will do it if they keep asking me. I don’t give a dang. But I started another Ted Talk last night, and it was about details being the difference. I am trying to teach you the skills to be disciplined about the things that don’t matter to you so that when it comes to the things that do, it becomes automatic. I know you don’t care about making your bed and brushing your teeth, but you do care about water polo and your friends. I try to make those connections.
I just stopped because he gave me the huh huh, yeah, okay, and that’s his all right, dad, time out, I’ve had enough. I just stopped and I said being a dad is hard, buddy. I really struggle with knowing how much to give you and to try to motivate you, and to just love on you for the amazing kid that you are no matter what you do. I’ve written my sport’s story. I could give a shit if you do anything successful in sports, and I mean that wholeheartedly, but I know it is important to you, so I want to give you all these things. That’s a very gray area for me, and I don’t think I walk it really well sometimes. I wanted to acknowledge that out loud and say you can tell me what it is you need because what’s more important to me is that you have what you need and I support you in the way that serves you, not me. He said okay. Even when we lose as fathers, we win, I guess. It’s a really good point.
Joe: That story is not over. I guarantee you that story is not over. There will be a moment when that comes back, and you will find out he was listening and that it hit him and all he could say was okay. If we ever have another podcast, I will have to follow up. What happened there?
Aaron: You will have him on, and he will give you the real skinny about his dad.
Brett: My moment of transformation…
Aaron: Transformation, let me tell you about who my dad really is.
Brett: A lot of what tends to drive us to excellence is often like you described, people pleasing and wanting to be something because that’s what is going to get us love or affirmation from the outside. Then on our journey, we find we never needed the outside affirmation. It was actually just our own that we needed. Then you have kids and you think what worked for me, and then you have got to go back and correct. What worked for me, while it drove me, it also became a trap that I put myself in that I needed to find freedom from. What do I actually do now for my kids because what worked for me isn't necessarily the thing I want to bring them through as well?
Aaron: Yeah, and these poor dudes are growing up in a world we didn’t grow up in. The amount of pressure and the freaking meat grinder of the last three years, it is ongoing. Social media. We live in a broadcast world. Everything is coming at us, very little in between us. The interpersonal communication, learning to talk with our tongues and our mouths instead of our thumbs, that’s something this generation doesn’t have much experience with.
I got a brutal look into that with one of my sons who had gotten into a little bit of trouble at school. He was going to miss practice, and I made him pick the phone up to call his coach to tell him he wasn’t going to be at practice, why and what the expected consequence was going to be. He started to text, and I said no, you pick the phone, call him and tell him what it is you did. What do I say? You tell him what you just told me. But what words? I said what do you mean, what words? Do you need a script? He slowly nodded his head yeah.
I see you nodding your head. That was the moment where I thought he does not know how to use the phone and call to talk to somebody and certainly about hard things. I don’t know if I would have known how to do that at 12 or 13, but I had to call up Abdul’s parents to see if Abdul was there so he could spend the night. We had to do that, but these kids aren’t growing up with that. I’m worried about the wrong stuff. I’ve got to work on his communication skills and all of these basic things that you sometimes overlook.
With my national team water polo playing son that’s all As and Bs and I am worried about this stuff over here and there are these basic necessities these children need that is our job and responsibility to provide because the world they are growing up in is not easy. It is very different from the one we were in, and I don’t know how we are doing. I don’t know how you ever know what you are doing, but you do the best you can. I do honor their walk and the difficulty of the environment they are coming up in because stuff is coming at them fast. Damn, silence. I love it.
Brett: I’m here trying to relate. I don’t have any kids. I’m still trying to raise myself. The world just keeps changing every minute. I can’t even imagine trying to unfilter this world for a child right now, but I see people do it.
Joe: My eldest found herself naturally gravitating towards meditation when she was younger, and she asked if she could do a silent retreat with me. I said yes but then nobody would take a nine-year-old for a silent meditation in this country, but we found a place and did this three-day thing. She was so happy at the end of it, and it was so her scene. About three months later, I asked her what she thought about meditation. She said I really like it, but I can’t do that again for a while. I asked her why not. She said it made her too different than my peers. I can’t relate to them, and I need to be able to relate to them to manage. She didn’t say it like that, but that was the deal.
Recently she has been interested in going back into that world again, but it was this interesting thing of teenagers and all of us on some level are negotiating our own development and the environment we are given. It is more important to your son to learn how to text and be able to get that skill than make the phone at this part of his life. It is a fascinating thing, parenting.
Aaron: It has been the toughest and most rewarding job I’ve ever done. Playing football was a layup compared to this. Good lord.
Joe: I’ve got to tell you this story. At the end of the silent retreat, I looked at my daughter and asked what her favorite thing about it was. She said it was the fact that you couldn’t tell me what to do for three and a half days.
Brett: Wait! You didn’t install a voice in her head.
Joe: I thought yeah, fair. Fair enough.
Aaron: I will say this, Joe. That, to me, is a little peek into the job that you are doing as a parent because she felt empowered and had the capacity to share her truth about what she felt with this big meaningful person in her life. If she could do that with you, she will be able to do that with boyfriends, bosses and her community. Again, sometimes when we lose, we win as fathers.
Joe: We laughed. Absolutely. Thank you for seeing that.
Aaron: I want to flip this a little bit. The Art of Accomplishment. Somebody asked me recently about my definition of success, and I didn’t really know if I had one. My question to both of you is what’s the relationship and the context from which this podcast arose between accomplishment and success.
Brett: A thing that comes up for me is if you live your life as art and not as something to get right or wrong and high pressure, then what do you end up accomplishing? Then, accomplishing being what is actually authentic for you, what is most enjoyable for you, what is most truly what you do in this world and how you express yourself. I see that being somewhat different from a lot of framings of success or accomplishment. I like having that twist on it.
Joe: For me, success is a criterion of accomplishment, meaning that if we are going to accomplish something that at the end of the day, at the end of our life we think that feels good and are proud of that thing. It is not going to be dollars in the bank account or number of cars or anything like that though that might be part of it. It could be. What it is going to be is something that is something that was deeply aligned with you. It was how you did it as much as what you did. Success isn’t the end. I think a lot of people think success is the end goal. To me success is just something that has to be met to get to a place of accomplishment. The how is more important than the what.
Aaron: Yeah. It is interesting. Starting first with you, Brett, and bringing art into it, there is a quote somebody shared once that I loved that I am wondering if it applies here. I feel like it does. There is no good or bad art. There is art you like and art you don’t like. Art is in the eye of the beholder, that whole vein of thinking.
With respect to what you shared, Joe, I created a website called Mental Health Best Practices. It is an agnostic aggregation of all these things I’ve used that have helped me on my own journey around my special sort of special. There is a quote on there that I am going to butcher my own quote. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we do. It is about who and what we become in that process. As I am in the College Football Hall of Fame and have a Superbowl ring, I am a father, an employer and have all these accolades on Wikipedia…
Joe: Don’t forget the spelling bee.
Aaron: Minus the fourth-grade spelling bee.
Brett: I’ll make that edit on Wikipedia for you.
Aaron: None of that stuff matters. We have a story about what that moment was like when you got that. I am 49, so I am probably on the back nine or at least around second base. The first part of my life was about being, doing, having, becoming, getting, and amassing, and around second base or approaching the T box, if you will, on the back nine, my life is really becoming about what it is I can allow. That assumption is everything I need for these last nine holes is already there. The key is for me to get out of the way. I don’t have to make it. I just have to allow it, to get out of the way and allow what’s already there to come up. That’s a very different but very important distinction on how I am approaching life now at this age that was very different from an era that was contrary but also led to a lot of accomplishment. That’s why I am interested in this framing and how we think about it.
Joe: I am curious about something. My guess is if I was to meet your sons, they are already far more towards the way you are looking at life on the back nine than you were even six or seven years ago. Do you know what I am saying? To some degree, your kids are already allowing it to come to them. They are doing the work, but their attitude and perspective isn’t I have to prove myself as much as it is I’m letting this come to me. This is me being me and this is what happens when I am me. My question is: How much of that lesson because you learnt it your kids inherit?
Aaron: Some. I guess we could probably measure by the amount of flicker when their eyes roll into the back of their heads when I talk to them about this stuff. They have certainly heard it. I’ve certainly modeled how to make amends perfectly. They have got that down. They are pretty driven right now, which is interesting.
Joe: Is that not true for you though? I don’t see an unambitious, undriven man.
Joe: When I heard your approach on the back nine, I didn’t hear that you had lost your ambition.
Aaron: You have got to let go to take control. You have got to hit your knees to finally stand up. It is this oxymoronical that we are talking about.
Joe: That’s my question. I am going to push here just a little bit. Isn’t that what your kids already kind of get?
Aaron: I’m sure hoping so, buddy. That’s the goal. I think that’s why I am pushing so hard and trying to insert my viewpoint so they don’t, in air quotes, make the same mistakes I made and can advance the story from a much earlier age. I’ve got to value their walk. Never rob a man of his pain or his gold because both serve him equally well. At 14 years old, my mom wasn’t saying that’s my boy. He is on his way. D and F student, look at him. But I was on my way, and that was a critical and necessary part. Again, maybe with my 13- and 12-year-old who are really accomplished in what it is they do and both very good students I don’t have to worry about them quite as much as my mom worried about me and just do the best I can, trust the process and let them find their own way down the mountain.
I love to snowboard, and I love to bomb it. My wife goes really slowly. I used to get really frustrated with her. We figured let’s ride up together. I’m going to bomb it, and I am going to bomb it again. I’m going to meet you and then we are going to ride up together. Let her take her own way, pick her own line down the mountain and don’t try to make her do what I want to do because that’s the way I do it. Respect her journey.
I’ll share this story with you guys. One of the defining moments of my life was at 15, moved to Concord, entered de la Salle, mom switched jobs, she quit her job of 20 years. We found a new house. There was a ton of change, and she was really, really supportive in this process that started to unfold that involved me playing football at de la Salle high school that had that long win streak.
Joe: Did you play at the Oakland Coliseum for the finals?
Aaron: NCS, yeap, against Granada.
Joe: Granada was my high school.
Aaron: No way. Thanks guys. I appreciate you.
Joe: The amazing thing is they all went there oh yeah, and we are going to lose. You guys were the best back then.
Aaron: Oh man, we certainly were. I called it right. All of that was really close to never becoming because I had worked out in the summer, and we had gotten ready. It was day one of full pads and practice. I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast. My mom drops me off. I get dropped off by somebody else’s parents at the end of the day. My mom walked into the house. Hey honey, how did it go? I don’t say a word and I slam the door, into my room. She waited probably 10 minutes. I am sobbing, sobbing, sobbing. She walks in and asks what happened. I said everything happened. Nothing happened. I couldn’t do anything right. The play was going left, and I was going right. The player was going right, and I went left. They just kept yelling at me and telling me I couldn’t do it. I need to break bad habits, and we don’t do things like this here. Mom, I am so sorry we moved here. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. She just let me go on and on. I was so broken, so defeated and so scared.
After I got down, I looked up at her. She said you have got to figure out if what you want is worth the price you may have to pay to get it. She said it doesn’t matter to me whether or not you play football, but tomorrow morning I’ll have breakfast ready for you. If you get up, I will know the decision you made. If you sleep in, I will also know the decision you made, but either way, I won’t say a word to you. She shut the door. There I was sitting on the edge of the bed sobbing, in tears with this internal angst of what I was going to do, how I could go back. There is no way I could endure what I had just endured the previous day again.
But somehow, somehow I got up and I went back to practice. I got my ass chewed again, but I made a block or two. I went back the next day, got my ass chewed again, but I made a couple more blocks and then I made a couple more blocks and a couple more. As it turned out, I was pretty damned good at football. I just didn’t know it yet. I think about that moment, and every time I tell this story, I get emotional because everything that came after that was so close to never becoming.
I don’t know what it was in me that got me up that next morning, but that resilience, that gift that my higher power has given me, somehow, some way, that no matter what, just find a way to show up, to get back up, to go to the huddle, to get the play, to break it, to walk to the line of scrimmage, to put your hand in the hurt, and to give it your all. That’s been something that’s been given to me. It is one of my superpowers, and that was a time it was tested. I think about Notre Dame and the friendships there, the surrogate mom that I met there. Green Bay, the Superbowl, the financial freedom that’s allowed me to do what I do for a living now to enjoy more freedom, talking about sports on television, meeting my wife, my children, all of that, poof, disappears. That’s why I firmly believe that the goal in our life lies just behind where we are afraid and unwilling to go, and that was the most impactful and meaningful way that I ever experienced that. Everything that has happened since has been an incredible, incredible gift.
Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com.
At the age of eighteen — just before the birth of his child — Emile began serving a life sentence for murder. In this episode, Emile tells us how he came to face the fear that drove him to kill a man, and which followed him into prison. He shares how he learned to love himself and see through an identity that might have otherwise imprisoned him in yet another manner. After finding inner freedom, Emile eventually wrote his way out from behind bars as well: his sentence was commuted in 2017 after serving twenty-one years, a testament to his journey and transformation.
"I am under no illusions, right? I cannot make amends to the man I killed. I cannot make amends to his family. I still need to be a north star, right? In my world, in my life. So I can spend my time hating myself, [or] I could spend my time helping to create a world where little kids don't kill other little kids."
Emile is a queer, African-American activist whose life sentence in prison was commuted by California’s Governor Brown after 21 years for his accomplishments while in prison. While in prison, he was a culture writer for Easy Street Magazine; he co-founded Prison Renaissance, and despite the criminalization of organizing in California prisons, he covertly organized in prison to pass legislation that changed the way California treats juveniles in its criminal legal system. Emile is a widely published journalist, essayist, and literary writer. His credits include pieces in San Francisco Chronicle, TruthOut, Colorlines, and the Brennan Center. Emile is available for talks, panels, and workshops on the following topics:
• Power in the Criminal Legal System
• Media in the Criminal Legal System
• Three Principles of Creating Miracles
What We Discuss in Episode 53:
03:51 Emile’s relationship to fear — rooted in a culture of hyper-masculinity and violence — throughout his childhood and early adolescence.
14:53 How Emile came to the decision to write his way out of prison.
19:13 Finding self-forgiveness after murder and redirecting energy to make a positive impact.
25:51 The psychological experience of solitary confinement and how what happens in prison is mirrored in society at large.
31:00 The freedom and power of choice in the face of fear.
41:58 Why welcoming all emotions and aspects of yourself creates the path to an overarching sense of peace and joy.
**Full transcript coming soon! Check back HERE for the link.**
Follow us on Instagram at @artofaccomplishment to learn more about our guests and share your own experiences.
I am under no illusions, right? I cannot make amends to the man I killed. I cannot make amends to his family, and that still needs to be a north star in my world, in my life, what I feel like. I can spend my time hating myself or I can spend my time helping to create a world where little kids don’t kill other little kids.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host Joe Hudson.
Brett: We spend a lot of time on this podcast talking about fear. It is one of my favorite topics, and we’ve covered it from many perspectives, from parachuting off of cliffs to having difficult conversations in the boardroom and showing up authentically in relationships. But what if the fear you are facing is the fear of life imprisonment for murder? That’s not something we’ve really touched on in this podcast, but you are in luck because today Joe and I have the pleasure of speaking with Emile Deweaver who has been there and is here to tell us all about it.
Emile: That is the most interesting introduction I have ever had, and I have had some good introductions.
Joe: I was trying not to laugh too hard, or have it heard, and then once you laughed, I was like all right, good, now we get to laugh at that. That’s great.
Emile: That’s the beautiful thing about human laughter. When you come out the other end, you can laugh. It does feel good to laugh because you know what you survived. You know it’s not a laughing matter, but you know your world is a better place for it. You can make the world a better place for it. There still is joy in it. Let’s laugh at that.
Brett: Yeah, let’s dive into it. I dropped a little bit of a bomb there to get our listeners hooked into the episode, so I hope we have their attention now. Let’s give you the floor, Emile. Tell us how you came to be here today and what you would like to tell us about your journey with fear.
Emile: Those are all big questions. I just start by introducing the context behind your introduction. Since I was 18 years old, I was serving a life sentence, 67 years to life in prison, for murder and attempted murder. At the time, I was basically a homeless kid on the street. I was selling drugs, so I was involved in drug wars in Oakland when Oakland was the Oakland that you read about in the news and felt uncomfortable walking the streets at night.
Joe: Sorry to interrupt. What years was that?
Emile: 1997, 1998.
Joe: What part of Oakland?
Emile: 106th and MacArthur. Back then, it was called the Rolling Hundreds.
Joe: I lived on 47th and San Leandro in those years.
Emile: You are familiar. It wasn’t that many years before ’97 that Oakland was one of the murder capitals of the world.
Joe: Fourth of July, New Years Eve, there would be bullets landing on our roof tops. I have a lot of visceral memories from that time. Your part of the neighborhood was worse. I mean my part of the neighborhood was not good, but it was worse where you were. At least, everybody in my neighborhood would say that where you lived was worse.
Emile: That’s where I come from. I come from a lot of different places, but that’s another podcast. I was tried for murder. I was convicted because I did it. I was sentenced to 67 years to life. My relationship to fear, I think about my relationship to fear in three different stages. That’s before I got arrested, and also sometime after. I grew up in a hyper masculine culture, in a very abusive household where fear wasn’t actually allowed. I put that in quotes because there is no way to disallow fear. It was definitionally a part of being a man, a strong man, to not be afraid.
The problem with that for me was I have some muscles now, but I was a pretty small kid. I was always afraid. I was the youngest of three of us boys and an older sister. My brothers were kind of big, and I was always afraid. But I was messaged that this wasn’t okay. That means I was also always ashamed. I was always hiding this, and there was no way I could authentically show up as myself in any situation because it felt like I was hiding this thing that was very true about me that was saying there was something wrong about me.
I discovered at a young age the power of anger and rage to cover fear. I remember there was this time, my oldest brother who is four years older than me, and I had no chance in hell in standing up to him physically, but he was bullying me as big brothers do. I reached a limit, not that I had courage in any sense of the term. I had just really reached a limit, and I went into this rage. I threw this deodorant at him. We were in a hotel room. He jumped before the bed, and it shattered against the window.
My dad, who was a pretty scary guy, 5 foot five but he was a really scary guy, and he did not play. I would expect for him to skin myself alive for something like that. But instead, he had this look of pride on his face. He said I bet you will leave him alone now, and from that moment, I thought this is the way I can cover up fear and cover up this sense of inadequacy I have, through anger and outbursts. That was a genuine outburst. I don’t feel like I have had many genuine outbursts in my life.
I feel like after that moment, understanding that was a source of power, safety and a way I could not feel afraid and so not feel ashamed, I would manufacture anger, feed it, and stoke it until I could drive myself to move through this fear. My earliest relationship to fear was that of complete denial and rushing through it with anger. That, of course, ended in perhaps the most traumatic moment of my life when I killed a man, which, let’s be clear, it was much more traumatic for him and his family. I am speaking for myself, and that’s something that twenty plus years later I don’t know that I have recovered from fully.
I went to prison holding this tragic act that I committed out of fear and uncontrolled anger, manufactured.
Joe: I have a memory. When I was first out of college, I taught head start in the Hayes Valley Projects in San Francisco. I remember the culture of no fear, and I would say it wasn’t just with the masculine. I saw it in the feminine of that culture, too. There was very little room for fear. I remember even at that age with very little understanding asking somebody about it. I said nobody shows any fear here, and they said if you show fear, you are prey. You are either predator or prey. If you show fear, you are prey. You don’t show fear. I remember how much that viscerally hit me. I just want to say for the listeners to try to grok that. That helped me grok it, so I am hoping that story helps grok it for other people, how important it was not to show fear. Sorry to interrupt.
Emile: If I could take a quick, divergent path to respond to that story, I am going to tell you something interesting. I spent most of my life, even my juvenile life in juvenile facilities, juvenile hall, and youth authority, like boot camps, things like that, and of course, I was always afraid there. I couldn’t show it. I had this pretend person that I was. I was play acting hard core, the hardest method acting you have ever seen. I have never liked to fight. Fighting scares the shit out of me, but no one could ever know that. I had to be able to fight on a dime.
I grew up in that environment pretending that I had no fear, pretending that I liked to fight, pretending that I welcomed violence. As the system is kind of constructed, the same people I knew in juvenile hall, I would run into them in the county jail, and I ran into them in prison. We become adults in our 30s and 40s, and we grew up and out of that. We changed our relationship to fear. Then we started to have conversations with each other about our childhood.
Come to find out everybody was pretending. Everybody was pretending in the name of survival, saying if I don’t do this pretend, I won’t be able to survive because other people are somehow different than me. I am somehow different because I am an imposter. I am afraid all the time. I don’t want to fight. Everybody was thinking that and acting on this pretend character they thought they had to be to be safe, not knowing we were all pretending.
Joe: I have to say this sounds like a lot of board rooms I have been in. There are a whole bunch of people who are anxious and scared and doing everything they can not to show it and not to react from it and trying to have the bravado. They are scared the whole thing is going to go away. It is not too dissimilar. That’s amazing.
You were at the part of the story where you had this trauma. You killed somebody, and then you went to jail, which seems to me like the number one place where you can’t show fear. You were recreating this reality. What happened when you got to jail? What occurred for you there?
Emile: I feel like my relationship to fear changed, and I think it changed in stages. The first one, where it lands is that traditional conception of fear and conception. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It is doing the right thing in the face of fear or functioning in the face of fear. That’s where I ended up landing, but where it actually started was the reality of waking up in the morning. In the act, you can numb yourself. You can force yourself through it. That’s its own traumatic event, forcing yourself through something you know you absolutely should not be doing. In the aftermath of that lives a lot of self-loathing.
For me, I couldn’t have the same relationship to fear of I am just going to work myself up into a rage and recklessly move through it and deny it existed because I could clearly see that had resulted in the most horrible thing I have ever done. That didn’t quite work for me anymore.
Joe: What was that? There are obviously some people who did that in jail and then they kept with that technique. They think I learned to overcome fear with anger worked and then I created this heinous act, and now I am in jail. I am going to keep on with that strategy. You were like no, I can’t do that strategy anymore. What do you think is the difference between the people in jail who keep with the strategy and the people in jail who say that’s not how I want to be?
Emile: I feel like an important part of the answer to that question is luck. There are a number of factors that coalesce that created that impression for me. One was the feeling of utter disillusion with my value system. With this value system I have, this is where it has brought me. It brought me there while the mother of my child was pregnant. My kid was born while I was on trial for murder. I saw my kid through a glass partition when they were born.
I was struck by the reality that this child is going to grow up and one day someone is going to ask them what their father does for a living. I was a junior high school dropout, drug dealer. By society’s standards, I was a murderer. I say by society’s standards because I don’t believe in identifying a person based on the worst act they have ever committed. I did murder somebody. I am not a murderer. I think that is a very important distinction.
I was picturing this moment of when someone would ask my kid one day, and I knew they were going to lie about it and be ashamed or they were going to tell the truth about it and be ashamed. I knew they were going to be ashamed. I knew that with that shame might come some measure of hating me. I knew from my relationship with my father, and I had already sensed on a level that she can’t hate me without hating herself. I said she, but what I mean is they because they are a trans person but at the time I thought of them in those gendered terms. I felt like I had mortally crippled my kid in their first week of life.
I felt like they had just been born and I had failed them in every conceivable way. That was a lot.
My dad did a lot of things wrong, but from what he tried to do, he had already instilled in me the value there was nothing more important in this world than being a father. That hit me really hard. I was in a state of sheer panic, and when that receded, I began to realize that, one, they are not quite old enough to even know what a dad is or even what I did or what prison is, and so I felt like I grabbed hold of that. I thought you have until they are old enough to understand that to completely transform who you are.
I had determined to get out of prison, to write my way out of prison, which is its own story that actually happened 21 years later. I thought even if I don’t succeed at that, if I can at least show them that it is never too late to build something, it is never too late to turn around and go in a different direction and create something for yourself, then that at least can be my gift to them. I think that was the big difference.
Joe: That’s huge. I want to double-click on something you said, which is about being defined as the worst thing you have done. I am sure there is somebody who is listening who is like you are not allowed to let go of that shame of being a murderer. You are not allowed to choose the definition of who you are. Something rankles in people when that happens.
At the same time, when I hear it, I know so much the truth of what you are saying, which is how we define ourselves is how we end up acting. If we think that our value is that we are smart, then we will go round acting like we are smart, maybe less likely to listen to people and more likely to be arrogant.
If we go round thinking we are more important than other people, then that’s how we are going to act. If we go around thinking we are less than other people, that’s how we are going to act.
To take away the self-definition of murderer, to me, is an incredibly important thing because it prevents it from happening again. It allows you the freedom away from an identity that has been put upon you or that you put upon yourself. Either way, you get some freedom from it. But that’s my interpretation of it, but I am wondering what yours is. What makes it important for you to not be defined that way? What’s the practical implication of that?
Emile: I resonate with a lot of what you are saying. I feel like my commitment to not being defined as a murderer functions on three levels. I will start with something close to the one you offered. I think one of the more valuable things that happened to me while I was in prison is I became a writer, and I became a father. Those two things became my identity to the point where I would literally have conversations with myself and others, especially when it came to prison rules and prison politics. You have got to do this thing. Those are the rules of prison.
That identity as a father and that identify as a writer gave me the actual strength to say fuck that shit, no. I know those are the prison rules, and I am not going to live like I am in prison. I refuse to live like I am in prison. That was not moral courage. I needed that to be sane. I needed that to feel like I had a chance of one day going home and being a father to my kid. I had resolved within myself that I am really super clear about how I am going to get out of prison.
You have got to understand. When I got sentenced to 67 years to life in California, what tough on crime meant in California was that there were people who had been in prison with five years to life when I went to prison who had been in prison for 20 years and they hadn’t killed anybody. The grant rate of life on parole in California when I was convicted was maybe less than one percent. It was definitely less than four percent, and of the people who were granted parole, the governors would revoke 80 percent of them. Less than one percent were found suitable who had life sentences, and of that less than one percent, 80 to 90 percent had it revoked by the governor. That’s what tough on crime meant in California.
It was very reasonable for me to feel like I am not quite sure how this is going to happen, but I do know that if it is going to happen, I have got to be ready for it. If it is going to happen, I’ve got to behave in a way that makes that possible. Those two identities helped me resist prison politics because I became something more than a prisoner or a criminal or this identity that you say that if you are this, then that’s what you act like. The thing I want to share with people is how dare you. That’s not a place I came to overnight. I wasn’t 20 years old talking about I’m not a murderer. I wasn’t even 30 years old talking about I am not a murderer. I am 43 years old, and it took me a long time to come to a place where I could, one, forgive myself and, two, recognize that hating myself was not the answer to doing a heinous act.
In fact, it was a bit of a divergence and scapegoat because I know a lot of people spend a lot of time feeling guilty about things, and there is a way in which we can become comfortable in that this is my punishment, this is my penance. Do you know what I am saying? Feeling like shit and saying that I’m not shit, but what does it look like to actually try to make amends? I am under no illusions. I cannot make amends to the man I killed. I cannot make amends to his family.
There still needs to be a north star in my world, in my life, what I feel like, and so I can spend my time hating myself or I can spend my time helping to create a world where little kids don’t kill other little kids. That requires a different orientation. That’s why it is very important to me, and I get it.
I get why you would say bro, who the fuck are you to say I am not a murderer or don’t call me a murdered. I get it, but I respectfully disagree with you. There is the tendency to feel like you are trying to get over, or that’s quite convenient, Emilie, that you don’t consider yourself a murderer. I have got to say that’s for the proverbial you to hold. That’s not for me to hold. I feel really solid about my own integrity.
Joe: What I love about it is that vision you just drew. To me, it was amazing because what it says is you want to be the person who helps little kids not kill other little kids, defining yourself as a murderer makes that a lot less likely than if you have actually learned to love yourself, learned to forgive yourself and overcome that limiting identity. It’s just true. People who feel that about themselves and are still hating themselves in that way, it is very unlikely they are going to make a difference in the way you want to. Beautifully said.
Brett: I’m jumping in here now having been off of most of this conversation due to Wi-Fi issues, but something really there that I like is it is not that you are bypassing the identity of a murderer. That’s something you have done. In some sense, teaching kids not to murder involves saying hey look, I am somebody who has murdered. I am in that regard a murderer, and that’s not the only thing I am. That doesn’t entirely define me. There is still freedom to be had in who I am and how I show up in the world regardless of what I have done in my past. It is not this I am not a murderer. That wasn’t even me. That was just some other thing I am disassociated from, and don’t hold me accountable for those actions. It is I am all of me. I am all of my actions. I am everything beyond that as well.
Emile: Absolutely. This isn’t a conversation about I am not accountable for killing a man. I am accountable for killing a man. I will always be accountable for killing a man, whatever the consequences of that are, whether that’s someone killing me one day because they felt like you killed this person who was important to me. For me, that can happen. Those are the consequences of killing somebody. You have got to live with that but take a different parallel. Take someone who is not me. This is practiced in prison in the name of accountability of always leading with this is the crime I committed, and I am sorry. I can see why in a world where people are struggling to even come to terms with having done a horrible thing, I can see someone can be like we need this extreme practice in order to assure ourselves that this person is actually feeling remorseful for this thing they did.
But I think that goes off the track. Who in this world do you know who introduces themselves with the worst thing they have ever done? You don’t. There is only I will say one class of people we expect to do that.
Brett: That’s how I introduced you.
Emile: Shame on you, Brett. Shame on you.
Joe: The things we are ashamed of are the things we recreate in our lives. I think it is great. Where do you allow the empowerment of accountability to be there without the recursive nature of shame? How do you allow someone to be fully accountable, feel sorry, forgive themselves, love themselves, get over it? When does society’s need or prison’s need for you to feel shame actually get in the way of that? I think that’s the thing I imagine you have been wrestling with for a long time.
One other thing I have got to say, you said something about prison politics in there that I just have to say because we have a lot of professionals listening to this. You were talking about how I am not going to do prison things because if I follow the rules of this prison, I will be defined that way. I can’t do that because then I won’t be able to be a dad and then I won’t be able to be a writer and the things I want to be in this world. I want to know. If you are right now at home and you are in an office and playing office politics, the same is true for you. If you are in that office and you are obeying rules that don’t work for you, it is stopping you from being the father, the mother, the person that you want to be. If it is possible for a man to not play by the politics of prison, it is definitely possible for you not to play by the politics of some office in Silicon Valley. I needed to point that out because that is a truth I see so many people wrestle with and never get the kind of clarity on that you did.
Emile: That is such a powerful parallel. I just want to know if we have time for one more digression related to that.
Joe: Heck yes we do.
Brett: We do.
Emile: I talk to people about solitary confinement in prison sometimes. The science backs it as one of the worst forms of torture that is available to humans. Most people can see the problem with solitary confinement, but what I would like them to understand is it is a different scale. Solitary confinement is not different from prison. It is just more severe than the general conditions of prison, and the thing I would say that would link to what you said is much of what is happening in prison, which is why I am an abolitionist because I think it is what the world and society needs, is paralleled also in society and workplaces.
Think about prison as a mechanism of disposability, and then think about how many people feel in an office. It is something really funny. When you go to prison, that’s a lot of trauma and shit. Anyone who leaves prison after 21 years needs some therapy. They need some help. I have all kinds of therapists, different kinds of therapists from couple therapists to somatic therapists to sex therapists. I need them all. But something funny that I have found now is I know a lot of people in a lot of different circles, whether in tech, in philanthropy, in nonprofit, everyone is trying hard to heal from trauma in their lives.
There are different details, but there is something very similar about my healing journey and the healing journeys of many people around me who have seen nothing of what I have seen. That tells me something. Why is that? How is that so? That’s because these things are parallel. These systemic issues that we are talking about, they infect all of our institutions whether it is a corporate office, college, law school, or prison. What you can learn from what’s wrong with prison is something you can actually learn about what’s wrong with the society we live in.
Joe: When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I was in this men’s group. We would get together every Wednesday for about three hours, and we would talk about our journeys, our healing journeys, our spiritual journeys. I remember there was this woman who wrote something called The Vagina Monologues. I can’t remember her name, but she had this PBS special called What I Want My Words to Say to You. In it, she basically took women in maximum security prison. One of them was famous. I think the woman who cut off the johnson of her boyfriend. Bobbitt, I can’t remember but something like that. She was doing the work with them in this prison. They were sharing these stories.
I remember thinking these women who were mostly murderers, and now I am thinking about the way I just said that. Most of them had committed murder, and they were going through the same stuff we were going through. Their stories were a little bit different, but their healing journeys, it was all the same. I remember just being blown away by it. It shook me that there was really no difference between what they were doing and what we were doing. I remember that moment for me was one of the more profound moments of that year. It was like we are all in this together.
We are on your first relationship with fear is changing into your second. At the beginning, you said there are three. Your fear had three different steps to it. The first one was overcome it and make it violent so that you don’t have to feel it. Then you are in prison, and it is changing.
Emile: It was endure it. The first stage was endure it, but part of that was it wasn’t yet out of a place of courage, feeling fear, but you are going to do the thing you know to be right. You might be wrong about that, but you are going to do the thing you know to be right or believe to be right or at least try to do it. For me, it was rooted in a deep sense of self-loathing. I didn’t really care about my life. I am not going to do this other thing. I am going to be afraid, but I am going to still do the right thing and if that doesn’t work out and someone kills me, okay, that’s okay. I deserve it. I killed a man, so someone should kill me.
Joe: I’ve never heard that. That one is blowing my mind. What’s interesting is there is a freedom. You found a freedom that was basically like I deserve it, which allowed you to be fearless. That just blows my mind a bit. What an interesting way to turn guilt into freedom, to turn shame and guilt into freedom. Fascinating.
Emile: It was a doorway to accountability. I wouldn’t advocate that that’s a healthy way to deal with your guilt. That’s what I mean by I got lucky. There is a way in which the things that were happening for me coalesced in a way that gave me the space and the time to help myself and to expand my imagination because I wasn’t doing the right thing exactly for the right reasons, but I was doing the right thing and that showed me that more was possible.
Then I came to get full engagement of fear as everyone feels fear. That’s really normal. That’s really human. There is no way you will ever escape that, but what you can choose is what you choose in the face of fear. That is what virtue is. At the time, I was reading a lot of great philosophy and stuff like that. In fact, I think that this came as I was reading dialogues of Plato, and they were talking about virtues, courage and all these things. I thought okay, and I am a kid. I hadn’t heard these things. I was like 19. I thought this sounds good. I like this. It is having the moral courage to do what you believe is right even when you are afraid. That became my relationship to fear for a very long time.
That was my relationship to fear I think until the time I got out of prison. It changed and had different manifestations. There was a time I was afraid, and I was running straight towards it, which I don’t advise. This is less in the realms of surviving prisons and more in terms of personal relationships, interpersonal fears. I would be afraid, so I would dive into it. This is only recently that my relationship to fear and emotions in general have changed. At the time, fear was still a bad thing. It was something I felt like something apart from me. It was something I had to conquer in some way. The first stage of my relationship with it was conquering it in the most irresponsible way possible, and the idea of courage was a way of conquering it with something that felt like integrity.
But what I actually came to find is fear isn’t something separate from me. It is not my enemy. It is something I learned in somatic therapy. The things you do, even the things that make you feel shame, whether it is like you have attachment issues and you fall in love really easily, and you feel ashamed about that. Maybe you don’t let people in, and so you are very guarded, any number of habits that we are working through as we heal and trying to become our best human beings.
Something I learned in somatic therapy is the body is smart. Think about where you learned that, and for me, the conversation was often in the context of prison. Let’s be real about what that environment is.
In that environment, all of these things you are ashamed of, can’t you see how smart actually your body was? Do you think you could have survived that if your body didn’t develop these mechanisms and these habits? It is not about demonizing these parts of you that you want to get rid of or feeling like they are holding you back. They have actually saved your life. They have actually made it possible that you are a sane human being. Most people meet you and they can’t even tell you have been in prison. Your friends tell you all the time that sometimes I am sorry. I have to actually remind myself of the trauma you carry because you can easily fool yourself into thinking Emile has it all together. He is fine. You present that well.
That is part of the mechanisms that your body has created for you to survive. Now, let’s honor that. Let’s say thank you. Here’s the thing about bodies. They tend to find something that works, and they use it for everything. Maybe you can just use this when you need it, and not use it when you don’t. That’s the thing you want to learn in somatic therapy. I want a choice about the mechanisms my body employs to protect me, not a default.
That became my relationship with understanding fear as a part of me that I get to love and have compassion for, and also collaborate with. Now fear isn’t something I overcome. Fear is actually a road map for me. Fear is a signal that I need to pay attention right now. Fear is a signal that I am avoiding something right now, and I may need to be careful about how I approach it. That doesn’t mean dive into it, but it is signaling something very important to my growth and my spiritual journey that I need to pay attention to. Now I use it as a road map. I feel nervous about that. What’s going on with that? What’s beneath that? What’s happening for you? What is it that’s crying out to be healed in this moment? What is it that’s crying out to be taken care of in this moment?
Joe: I find in my own journey and in the journey of people that I get to witness and experience is if you are on a quest for a deeper understanding or awakening or whatever words you want to use for that, even in meditation, if you are in meditation, following the road map of fear is one of the most direct lines to finding the truth of who you are, finding the truth of your identity. I remember at the beginning of my meditations I would not want to feel the fear, and so I was meditating to manage that emotion.
By the time I was finished, not that I am ever finished but the time when that journey ended for me of looking for something that was me, when that ended, I was just following fear. It was going right into the abyss every time and finding out that that thing I was most scared of was actually where I find my deepest truth. For me, when I feel fear and when fear moves, I am just like you, very excited. There is some good information here. That is something to pay attention to.
Brett: There was something really interesting you said about not diving all the way into it. I think there are times when diving into it is great, and there is also a way we can build an identity, me speaking as a base jumper here, of diving into the thing that’s most scary. Then that can be something that becomes less free. I see a bunch of things in my life, and one of the things that’s the most scary and I am like that’s the one I have got to dive into.
There can be a way I can become attached to being the identity that dives into certain kinds of fears, and then I am actually ignoring a bunch of the rest of the fears. Why do I keep recreating all of these worst-case scenarios when I do all of this work on myself to accept the worst possible outcome? I’ve actually done all the work to accept the worst outcome, and I haven’t accepted the subtle, small fears of taking any other path than going into that one.
Emile: We are some brilliant creatures, and there are ways in which we can fool ourselves even by doing the right thing. You think I am doing the right thing, but there are ways we can focus so deep on that that we can ignore all of the things we are hiding from.
Joe: I don’t even know where we are anymore. I know I want the conversation to keep going, but I don’t know where it is going.
Emile: We have talked about my three different relationships to fear. We have reached that third one of it is a road map. It is a partner in this life as are all of our feelings and emotions. They are partners in this life that we walk with instead of running from or running through or pushing over or hiding from. Give all of your parts that space, that room to be and love them. Your parts are acting because they love you, so love them.
I have conversations with my body, my heart, my mind, my fears all the time. It is like I want to name that. I am unhappy with what’s going on here, but I love you. Can you trust me? Can you trust me to take care of this? This is what I am going to do. Will you trust me to take care of it? If you can’t trust me, that’s good. We will work it out. I still love you, but can you give me a chance? You will be surprised. People might think that sounds pretty crazy, but you will be surprised by giving yourself the time of day, giving your feelings, giving your body the time of day to acknowledge and say you matter how much space that creates for you to move through them.
Joe: I have a question for you. I have a saying. It says joy is a matriarch of a family of emotions, and she won’t come into a house where her children aren’t welcome.
Emile: That is so good.
Brett: That was a great reaction.
Joe: I am wondering if you can relate to that. As you learn to love all these parts of yourself, do you find your life becoming more joyful?
Emile: Absolutely. I have never had it phrased that way, but it perfectly encapsulates what I feel like I am trying to do and what I am discovering. As I discover more and more heights of peace and happiness, even in conflict. In the last couple of weeks, I have had a lot of conflict in my life. I have felt very much at peace. Conflict is usually a thing that makes me feel insecure. I come from a place where conflict often means death. Even small amounts of conflict have been known to make me super anxious, to make me unable to settle into my body because it is just like I can’t miss anything. I have got to know everything because if I don’t, I could be in danger.
I’ve been finding this place where I am at much more peace in conflict. I am happy. I have a shit ton of faith that this conflict is only going to work towards my growth and the growth of the people I am in conflict with. That is a powerful source of joy. Wow, I am adulting. I am doing this shit.
Joe: Again, I want to just say how similar that is to a lot of the people I coach. These are high powered people in charge of billions of dollars, thousands of people, and that whole idea of constantly having to track the environment for the potential conflict that’s coming, the anxiety that runs their life, looking for all of the ways that it could go wrong and their journey from that to I can trust myself and I can trust that every adversity that comes my way makes me stronger and it is an opportunity to be more connected with myself and more connected with the people around me, more connected with my mission and what I want to do in the world.
I mean that’s the same story for the ones that are lucky enough to make that journey instead of just constantly being the fear and anxiety of the perpetual tax of a capitalistic system and a business system. I am saying it is bad or good for that. I am saying it is the nature of it. It is competitive.
What a pleasure. Oh my goodness. This is the absolute delight of my week. I am so glad you spent time talking to us. Thank you very much.
Brett: Thank you so much, Emile.
Emile: Thank you. I was nervous coming on. I looked at your podcast and I was like this is kind of a big deal. I talk to people all the time. I am a public speaker. I am on panels. I give talks. I do workshops, and I am never not nervous before. I am okay with that. It is a different kind of fear that I’ve developed a pleasurable relationship to. That’s just about being really high functioning and not hamstrung by fear but motivated by it.
Brett: Letting it be your aliveness.
Joe: In the Jewish tradition, I just learned this somewhat recently. They don't have a word for fear. They have two words for fear. One word means the fear of existential life. You are threatened. The other fear is the fear of stepping into a room that’s bigger than you are used to. It is being on stage. It is growing into something that you are being asked to grow into or to be the person you are being asked to be that you haven’t been yet. They have different words for it.
Brett: I love that.
Emile: I think that’s super useful. I haven’t thought about fear in a long time, but I started thinking about it for the show. I was thinking the fear I am talking about, the one I have different relationships to, I feel like there is another brand of fear that’s different than that. I will end with a quick story, and this is the kind of fear it is. It is not a fear I want to ever avoid. This is clearly my friend. It is the thing that keeps us living and keeps us alive.
Last year I drove across the country and back. I was coming back through the Rockies. I was driving through my sixth snowstorm in the Rockies. It is an intense experience. I have got my high beams on. I get out of the Rockies, and I am Utah. The speed limit in Utah is 80 miles an hour, and I am going 100 miles an hour. I think the speed limit is actually 90 miles an hour. I am gone. I am down the freeway. It is two o’clock in the morning. There is really no one on the freeway, which is why I forgot my high beams were on.
I am driving this back road in Utah 100 miles an hour in a fucking Honda Civic, and ahead in the road is a boulder. There are no hills. It is not like it fell down a hill. Maybe it fell off a truck, or there is some crazy ass serial killer putting boulders on the road. The boulder is about as high as my waist, maybe a little lower, maybe my thighs. I barely see it. I say that to mean if I hadn’t forgotten those high beams, I would have been dead because when I swerved, I barely missed it. I am going so fast that when I swerved, the car is going out of control. There are no brakes at 90 miles an hour. You can kiss it goodbye if you try to hit brakes at 90 miles an hour. I am turning into it. I am fishtailing and in this complete tailspin.
As all of this is happening, I am feeling no fear in the traditional sense. I am not feeling that fear that felt like paralyzing that I described my relationship to. It is a very different kind of fear because I am certainly more alert than I have ever been in my life. I have never spun out before, but I am remembering everything I have ever heard about spinning out. Number one was don’t hit the brakes. Number two was turn into it. I am doing it. It is like a fucking movie almost. I am working this car, this Honda. I am on this two-lane highway, and I am seeing the front and flashes.
Every flash I am taking a snapshot. I think ahead of me no light. I can survive this. I see I am moving to the left, towards the dirt and this fence that’s like a cow pasture fence. If I can stop on the road, great. If I can stop in that dirt, I will probably lose a tire. If I hit that fence, this is done. I bring the car to a stop, still on the asphalt, facing the other way, smoke everywhere, and then I stop. Then I take a breath. Then it hits me. Holy shit, that just happened.
I recognized the feeling of before it happened is the same feeling I have had being shot at, the same thing I have had with a gun in my face. Having a gun in my face certainly didn’t mean I turned into Captain Commander. No, you are robbing me. I am going to give you the shit. There is this feeling, this state of intense awareness and activity. If you decide to move, you move. It is the most high performing I have ever been, in those situations. That’s actually not a fear I have ever had a problem with. It can only be defined as fear, but it is not that fear I feel that we have been talking about on this show.
Brett: It is the same kind of fear in a base jump where something goes a little bit wrong and a lot of sudden you are present. You are there. You are not thinking I don’t want this fear to be happening. You are there. You are acting. It is moving through you, and it is energizing. After you get out of the situation, that’s when the next wave hits. You are like oh my God, that just happened. Holy shit.
Joe: Thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.
Brett: Thank you so much, Emile.
Emile: You guys take care.
Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com.
Will Chesney found identity and purpose as a Navy SEAL, one of the military’s most elite teams, where he was required to perform calmly and effectively under the most extreme circumstances. However, years of neurological and psychological trauma left Will in a very dark place. Unable to do what he loved most or connect effectively with others, he turned to drinking and isolation. After hitting rock bottom, a friend reached out and invited Will to join him on a journey of self-discovery that allowed him to tap into his resilience and get himself back on his feet. Tune in as we learn what Will did to find healing and meaning in life after war.
Will served in the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group as an operator and a dog handler in the Osama Bin Laden raid. He was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart for his bravery.
"I woke up and it was me again at one point during the weekend. I know I was a SEAL and everybody always says, “Oh, we can't relate to what you've gone through.” But everybody has trauma. Every life is good but life’s hard sometimes. Everybody deals with trauma no matter what."
What We Discuss in Episode 51:
02:41 The challenges of reintegrating into civilian life as a combat veteran.
05:51 The mindset and techniques that Navy SEALs use to remain calm and effective in any situation.
13:25 Navigating the depression and hardships that come with losing a core identity.
20:26 How humility is essential for executing any successful mission.
24:44 The reflection that put Will firmly on the path to recovery.
**Full transcript coming soon! Check back HERE for the link.**
Follow us on Instagram at @artofaccomplishment to learn more about our guests and share your own experiences.
Intro: I just woke up and was me again at one point during the weekend. I was a SEAL, and everybody always says we can’t relate to what you have gone through, but everybody has trauma. Life is hard sometimes. Real life is good. Life is hard. Everybody deals with trauma, no matter what.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler here today with my co-host Joe Hudson.
Brett: Will is a retired Navy SEAL who I met in a program that was working with SEALs who had suffered traumatic brain injury and other psychological traumas from war and from just anything else related to that kind of a lifestyle. Will served in the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group as an operator and dog handler. He was on the Bin Laden raid.
Joe: What is that thing you just mentioned? What?
Brett: That’s me reading off of his author bio.
Joe: Will, what does that mean?
Brett: Will, what is that?
Will: SEAL team six.
Joe: That’s the badasses of the badasses, right?
Will: It takes a lot to be a SEAL alone, and then you have to go through a certain amount of extra training to actually be selected to go there as well. It is quite the task to say the least.
Brett: Other notable information here, you were on the Bin Laden raid with your dog, Cairo, who joined you on hundreds of missions.
Will: That is correct. I was the dog handler on the Bin Laden raid with Cairo. That’s what I wrote the book about, No Ordinary Dog.
Joe: What kind of breed was it?
Will: He was a Belgian Malinois. That’s kind of like a German Shepherd, shorter hair, a little more agile, a little smaller. The shepherds are 100 to 120 pounds. They get pretty big. We skydive with them on a fast rope. We hoist them up walls. We have got to carry them, so having a 120-pound shepherd or the Malinois are 60 to 70 pounds. They are a little bit lighter. They have shorter hair and can work in hot environments. You don’t need the dogs getting heat stroke. It’s beneficial.
Joe: Do they have that kind of sloped back, shorter hind leg thing that German Shepherds do?
Will: I think shepherds have problems with their hips. I don’t think Malinois have that same issue. I could be wrong on that, but Malinois are a little different breed. I think they have a little more energy. I mean there is nothing wrong with shepherds. They are really smart dogs, and they are amazing. But Malinois are really athletic. They are some monsters.
Joe: That’s, I’m sure, not what we are talking about today.
Will: If you are a bad guy hiding, they are going to find you. They are going to get to you no matter what. They will die trying.
Joe: Let’s see if we can make it through the bio now, or was that it? Was that the whole bio?
Brett: There is more. He has also got a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, which I think is definitely worth mentioning. The context in which we met is interesting, which was in working with veterans who had suffered neurological and psychological trauma and using various modalities and methods to work with them. Will had told me some of his story.
After, I think, 13 years in the service, you came out and dropped into a really dark place, which is very common for people who are reintegrating to civilian life after a very different lifestyle. It has been very hard on their bodies and their spirit. Your journey back from this was incredibly profound for me because I remember the first day I met you was the first day after a treatment weekend you had been through. It was at a social event. You were kind of quiet and sort of hanging in the corner. Your friend who had brought you said this was your first time at a social event since he had ever met you.
Then I didn’t see you until four months later. You were helping run this retreat. It took me several days hanging out with you to even recognize you were the same person. You had pulled yourself out of this dark place, and you had made a lot of progress. You had written your book. In this time right now, given some context on the time of recording right now, we just had the whole Russian invasion of Ukraine happen a couple of days ago.
This is a very different kind of interview than we have done in the past. Maybe this is timely to bring some of this kind of perspective in from somebody who has been through a lot of darkness that isn’t just the kind of darkness you might get as a CEO outrunning your runway and trying to please investors, but a very different kind of difficult experience. You have been through it and integrated it. That’s really what I am interested in talking with you about today.
Will: I was in a very dark place getting out of the Navy. I did 13 years. You are correct on that. I was medically retired after 13 years. I joined the Navy right after high school. I had worked with my father building cellphone communication towers for a few months and then left to join the Navy right after high school. That was just to spend some time with him.
I went through BUDS, no problem. BUDS is Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training, so that’s the six to seventh month selection process just to become a SEAL. I made it through that. I grew up in a trailer park in southeast Texas. It was a nicer trailer park, but still a trailer park. I went from that. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. There is not much around where I grew up unless you like drinking or drugs. I had to get out of the trailer park.
I showed up to a beautiful beach in Coronado, California with a bunch of great guys. You basically just have to get your nuts kicked in. You get to stick around. It was all of the things I wanted to do or was aspiring to do. I got to shoot guns, blow things up and dive. You just have to get through this selection process. Don’t get me wrong. It was very hard, but I made some of the best friends I’ve ever made in my life to this day. Even once I made it through BUDS and got to team and went to war with some people, I still have those friends, but I made a really tight group of friends in BUDS.
I made it through BUDS with no issues. I went to SEAL team four. I spent a few years there. I deployed to Iraq and South America. After that, I was selected to go to the development group. I made it. I squeaked by and made it through development group. That’s a very hard process. It is like going through BUDS all over again for a bunch of Navy SEALs. They know you are not going to quit. You have already proven you have what it takes to be a SEAL, so it is all performance based.
They still beat you is what we call it, make you do runs and physical exercise until you are almost dead, but that’s just the stressor you put on because they aren’t really going to shoot at you or put you in a near death situation. The best thing they can do is scream at you and push the physical limits to the most you can and put you in these really hard circumstances. If you are in the position to save an American hostage or any hostage, then you will actually be able to perform under pressure. Do you have what it takes to think calmly and smoothly in the most extreme circumstances basically?
I made it through that without too many issues.
Joe: What was the trick you learnt there? You might not even be able to describe it, but how to think calmly and smoothly as you put it, just that word “smoothly” is so brilliant as far as I am concerned. How did you learn how to think smoothly under intense pressure? What was the trick?
Will: The same thing you do when you are wing suiting, you learn in life-or-death situations to breathe and to go into your happy place. You get into the flow, I guess. Nothing else really matters. In BUDS, you are sitting in ice cold water and then they have tests to make sure nobody is going to die, but they push it to the brink of hypothermia. Some guys do get hypothermia. You are sitting locked arms in the surf with the waves crashing over your head in Coronado. That water is always chilly.
Same thing here, it is not physical, but you are not doing anything other than laying there and being cold. I would go to my happy place. Anything else that is stress related, I would still just breathe and try to get in the zone and in the flow and just focus. Nothing else is important. If you stress out about it too much, it is just going to fall apart.
Stressing out never helps anybody.
Joe: It sounds like one of the things you are doing is getting out of your head and into your body. That’s my interpretation of what you just said. How am I wrong or right about that?
Will: You are just not letting the outside factors, or the stress get to you. You are staying calm. You keep the heartrate nice and low to where you can think still. If you freak out, you are just going to fail and get somebody killed in the long run. If you can pay attention to your body.
Brett: This might be skipping ahead a little bit, but what you just described was going through BUDS and then team six training. All of these things are something you had to have this I am not going to quit-ness about you. You had this grit, this drive. You knew how to get into flow. You knew how to persevere through it. Then you went through this period after the service where just going back to civilian life, all of that seemed to crash.
This seems to be something that’s really interesting for people who are really high performers. Sometimes we go through these periods when we have really got it together in the sense that we are connected to ourselves and we are in flow, and then sometimes we feel like we have fallen entirely off the train. You have gone there and then come back. I am curious what it is that if you had this flow that got through the trainings and through 13 years with the service, what was it that switched off or changed?
Will: There are multiple factors. I got some brain injuries along the way. I put alcohol on top of the brain injuries, and lost some friends. You know about that. I don’t like to use the word PTSD, but I do miss a lot of my friends that we lost. Pouring alcohol on top of that definitely does not help. Brain injury, alcohol, loss of friends, and I stopped growing as a person. That’s where the ego comes into play. I made it to the pinnacle or thought I had made it to the pinnacle. I started partying more and drinking more and stopped caring as much, I guess, about my personal growth.
I got to see all of my friends who were doing multiple college courses and were going to become team leaders, basically bosses, in our command. They were raising families, running trips, getting their black belt in Jujitsu. They were growing and I was just drinking and living off of my past accomplishments, I guess. I think that’s accumulation. I don’t think I felt like the same person either, but I think that the brain injury definitely had an effect.
I was blown up in 2012 by a hand grenade in Afghanistan. After that, things weren’t exactly the same. I was still able to function somewhat, but I started getting migraines. The memory loss was really bad. Before when we talked about going through BUDS, I was 18. I was 17 when I left for the Navy. I didn’t know I was going with the flow. I was just doing whatever I thought made sense. You would have to kill me to leave.
We had one guy in our class. His hip ball broke in half. There was nothing he could do. He was done. He would never become a SEAL. If that was my case, then it is what it is. It is not in my hands. It is in God’s hands, but if I would have fallen off the obstacle course and broken my neck, I would have been completely content. There was no other place I wanted to be. I wanted to be there, and I was going to give it 100%, everything I had. If I died along the way or something impeded me from making it, that was fine, but I wasn’t going to quit. I just couldn’t do it. It is just not me.
There is nothing wrong with the guys who did quit. There is nothing wrong with that. We have guys who quit and come back to complete it later. That job is not for everybody. That’s for sure, but it was everything I wanted to do. There was nothing else I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t going to school. I could have gone back to the trailer park and done drugs, but that didn’t sound very fun to me. There was nothing else I wanted to do. I wasn’t going to go to school. I didn’t want to become a doctor, lawyer or anything. I would have failed at school, but being a SEAL, it is all I ever wanted. I was going to give it 100%.
Brett: It sounds like when you retired, there was a major loss of identity there.
Will: That was my family. I had my family back here in Texas, but I care more about the people I served with than some of my family members, not all of them but just as much as my family members I do care about. There are some family members I don’t talk to, and I don’t care to talk to. That was my family. That was my life. That was me. Going from that, I mean I got to be on some of the coolest missions and some of the most well-known missions. I was on the Captain Phillips raid. I got to partake in that. I didn’t take any shots, but I still got to go on it. I got to be on the Bin Laden mission.
I got to the pinnacle of my career. I was up here, and then going from that, suffering a brain injury and then fast forward a couple of years after getting blown up, I was moving back in with my parents, and I couldn’t hold down a job. I was drinking myself to death. I was 250 plus pounds. I couldn’t wrap my brain, my mind around what was going on because it was my mind that was messed up, to some extent. Don’t get me wrong. There was booze on top of that and me feeling sorry for myself and other factors, but the brain injury was definitely a big factor.
I remember sitting at my mom’s house and I was drinking a lot. I remember staring at the wall for an hour trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. I went from here and then all of a sudden I am at rock bottom. I was just waiting to die, slowly drinking myself to death. I had people that I cared about and loved me in my life. It was quite the fall.
Joe: The kind of stress that you handled is so different from a CEO, but there is this really interesting study they did where they took all these CEOs and put them in a house. They said the only thing you can’t do is work. Then they took away the phones, computers, etc. They just had to hang out with each other. At day three, they brought in a team of psychologists and told them to assess these folks. You just can’t talk about their work.
The team of psychologists came out and said they are depressed. It is a house full of depressed people. It is something I see all the time when someone who has been a high-powered CEO over an extended period of time. When that adrenaline fatigue hits, when there is no longer that stimulus, there is this bottom that they hit. I have seen some really successful guys who have done crazy stuff in their lives sit in their pajamas for a couple of years afterwards, just recovering. They are so hard on themselves because of that, and then that creates a secondary storm of self-abuse or feeling sorry for yourself as you put it.
Will: I definitely went through it, finding purpose. What do I do now? I can’t do that job anymore. I went from high school with nothing to that to some of the best guys in the world, best times in my life. I had a pretty cool job at the time, and then all of a sudden, I get blown up, my brain doesn’t work, and I am fired.
Brett: That’s a trifecta there. You lose your job, which is something your entire being is identified with, then your family you described as being linked to that as well as your brain injury. Just so much of your internal resources that got you through to what you were over the course of 13 years of combat and then also being blown up by a grenade, all of this stuff dropping. Now I am curious about the moment when it started to shift for you. At what point did you start to connect to that resource again? I am imagining the same thing that got you through training and through all of those years, but now reconnecting to it in order to pull you out of that dark place you were in.
Will: I think it was a slow progression out of it. It was a slow progression in and a slow progression out. I got out and I started trying to think of the first medical things I went through. I went to the Brain Treatment Foundation. They put me through a program where I did the TMS treatment, which is transcranial magnetic stimulation. It is basically trying to get your brain to communicate properly. I won’t do it justice, but it was a very good brain treatment center.
It wasn’t the best thing I went through, but I think it was a good start. I was in a really bad place and didn’t do anything. It took my best friend reaching out. I wasn’t going to do anything. He reached out to me. He basically wasn’t going to go to this place unless I went with him, which convinced me to go with him. I am really glad. I feel like that was the first step and then I started learning about the Wim Hof method. I started doing breathing and fasting. Then there were the hormones, so I looked at my blood levels and testosterone. I think there was meditating and obviously diet and sleep. I started getting better with my sleep. There were a couple of entheogenic treatments. That definitely helped. I think that was very beneficial for me to partake in. I don’t think it is one thing that’s going to fix you.
Looking back at it now, they all lined up together. I went to that brain treatment center. I started learning about breathing and got my diet better. I dropped from 250 pounds to basically normal. I got my sleep good. I started doing all these other treatments. Little by little I started to see progression. I am definitely nowhere near where I want to be, but I am still working towards that goal.
Brett: I’ve noticed there are a couple of different levels to track here. One of them are the modalities you went through, and you explored to hear yourself. Another level is the mindset shifts that occur. There is one that you just mentioned. Your friend was only going to go if you went with him. There was something about doing it with your friend that got you across the hump of learned helplessness of nothing is going to work for me to this can work for me. I notice that a lot of times the moment we have actually started to believe that we can go through a process and trust the process and transform, grow and heal, that is a major point and shift.
Then the modalities or the methods we undertake are less important than that internal shift. Does that resonate with you?
Will: I’ve been through so many treatments getting out of the military. Nothing against it, I did some yoga treatments and a little bit of breathing and diet and everything else, but they also did the antidepressants, the migraine medicines and a bunch of other meds. I had seen so many doctors and many therapists. A lot of them were just full of shit. I was over it. When he reached out to me, I was like I am good. I am going to sit in my dark hole at my lake house. I will be fine. I am just going to drink it away. Obviously that was not the right answer.
I am really glad he told me that. I wouldn’t even get on a plane. I drove to the treatment center in California because I didn’t want to fly and be around people. I was in a really bad place. I didn’t want to leave my house. I just wanted to stay there, drink and seclude. I was over it. I was over seeing all these doctors and trying these new things. They would just give me some antidepressants. I was good. I had my alcohol.
Joe: There is a humility you have in your system right now, and I am wondering when that showed up. Was that something you learned in SEALS training? Is that something that has happened in the reconstruction of your life?
Will: I think I have always had that. You have to be humble to be a SEAL. I let my ego get out of control there for a few years. I didn’t really comprehend what my ego was there for a while. I am only 37 now. I was basically in my 20s, early 30s at the time. I didn’t really understand maybe what the ego was until certain treatments really opened that up for me. Looking back, I was an asshole. I understand I was a SEAL, and I worked my ass off to get to where I was. It was a very high position, but I did not need to let my ego get out of control because I stopped growing as a person. I just thought it was all good and I knew everything. There is nothing else I need to do. I am fine. I am here. I made it. That was a hard fall. It almost took my life.
Joe: Two parts of that that I want to follow up on, the first one is double click on that sentence, “You have to be humble to be a SEAL.” Can you explain that? What does that mean?
Will: You wouldn’t make it very far. It is not Delta Force or Chuck Norris where you are a one man show. I am kidding. All of the Delta guys will love that. It is teamwork. I am not Chuck Norris. I am not going to do everything by myself. It is teamwork from day one. When you show up to BUDS, you always have a swim buddy. You have a teammate. If you are caught without that teammate, you get a safety violation. After enough safety violations, you go away. From day one, you always have a teammate. That’s just your one teammate.
When you get to your team, you have all of your teammates. It is about the team. It is not about you. When you get done with missions, you take care of the team gear, then your gear and then yourself. It is always about the team because you are not going to accomplish the mission without the team. If you are not humble, you are just going to go away.
Joe: Then you have this idea of the ego that comes in later. On some level, it seems like that humility to make it through SEALS is a partial deterioration of the ego. Then, somehow or another, in your definitely of the ego, it remanifested as it was finished.
Will: Once I got to a certain level in my career, I had made it through BUDS, this training, through here, and all these schools and missions.
Joe: I see this all the time, not just in career moves. You see it with CEOs, and they feel like they are finished, done. You see their progress slump if not deteriorate. You see it with people who are looking after awakening as well. You are searching for spiritual awakening. When they think they are done, you can see the corrosion that occurs.
The best story I have on this, which I thought was really cool, was I was listening to one of the world’s best cricket players. I shake my head because I don’t know what it is like watching cricket, but I like this guy. His career went straight up, skyrocketed, and then went straight down and then straight up again. Somebody asked him what the difference was between the ups and downs. He said when I was up, I was thinking about how to improve myself, and when I was down, I was thinking about how to maintain.
Will: I can totally relate to that, for sure. I look back on it and think about it all the time. I remember on deployment sitting in my room going out and looking. This guy is doing college. This guy is reading books, and this guy is doing that. I was not growing as a person. It makes me not the happiest looking back on it. That was what I needed to go through at the time. I don’t know, but I needed to go through that. Now I am feeling much better. That’s good. It could be worse. I could have just drunk myself to death. I almost died a few times. I am glad I am still here.
Joe: You did the brain treatment and the electromagnetic stimulation, breath stuff. You had clicked over into thinking this is possible. Something got you thinking this is possible again. I am not stuck, and I don’t have to believe these doctors who don’t know what they are talking about. Something happened there. You talk a little bit about ego and starting to recognize ego and the part that it played. How did the transformation happen on a mental, internal, psychological, spiritual level for you?
Will: On a treatment weekend I went through, it wasn’t up to me. I had to let go of everything and really open my eyes to some of my shortcomings. It put me on the right path to stop feeling sorry for myself and to realize who I was again. It also helped me with my brain function. I was giving up and drinking myself to death, for sure, but I wasn’t sticking a gun in my mouth. I was basically killing myself slowly.
Brett: What’s an example of a reflection you had that shifted things for you? In this treatment weekend, for example, what was something that came up from your subconscious, something you recognized and just the recognition of which put you on the right path?
Will: I just woke up and I was me again. Life is hard. I know I was a SEAL, and everybody always said they can’t relate to what you have gone through, but everybody has trauma. Life is hard sometimes. Life is good, but life is hard. Everybody deals with trauma, no matter what. You are not going to get out of this without dealing with death and hard times. People can know what I am talking about. I had the deaths of my friends and brain injuries, but everybody has their stuff.
All of that stuff on top of me and all of a sudden I woke up during the weekend and I had none of that. I had no ego, none of that burden on my shoulders. I came to it and it was me, legit me, who I was before I went through BUDS. I felt like the 18-year-old me again, the person that was going to go through SEAL training. Nothing was going to happen to me. I was going to fucking crush it. I had stopped being that person. When I woke up and I had that fire inside of me again, the whole me again, I was unstoppable. The devil himself could have walked into that room and I would have been like we are good. Fuck you bro. We are good. It was good to see that person again. Nothing was going to stop me.
Joe: This is a story I have heard a lot in different contexts. Basically, there is a moment of re-remembering but somehow or another, the journey was important. The integration of the old person that’s remembered is different than it was before. Generally, I heard a lot of times from people talking. It was like they had this big epiphany, a big awakening. It was like I was remembering who I was, but at the same time there is a difference. The journey had integrated something or shifted something at the same time as the remembering. How does that resonate with you, if at all? In the remembering and recognition of who you were, was there also an integration of something that the journey was important?
Will: Me waking up to realize who I was again and who I could be again, I realized I didn’t want to drink anymore. I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself in certain aspects of my life and dealing with certain issues. The deaths of my friends, not that I don’t miss them and I don’t mourn for them and feel bad for their families. I know they miss them. I am not trying to downgrade their loss at all, but I know they are in a better place. I got to feel, at least what I think, where they are. I believe in God again. It was very eye-opening.
I quit drinking. My spiritual beliefs are back. I believe in God and I pray every day now. I read the Bible. It just put me on the right path. It gave me the opportunity to get back on the right path. I was wasting my time and I was killing myself. It was seeing who I was again and remembering, so integrating that old path into the new me and trying to get back there.
Brett: How has this integration affected the way you now look back on your career and the way you relate to those experiences of losing friends, taking lives and having to make really hard decisions that involve lives?
Will: It is kind of weird. I wish I would have found that treatment before leaving the military. I don’t think I would have had to quit my job, possibly. I mean I had some other issues, and I still do. But I definitely don’t have the migraines and the stress. I think the migraines were stress related. I definitely wish I had found that treatment a little sooner. Now that I look back at it, it is not the same level it was. It definitely wears off a little bit after a while. No treatment is going to last forever. There is no fix all.
I just try to remember my friends are in a better place and to live my life to the fullest because I know them very well. If they were to look at me now or look at me when I was drinking myself to death, they would have called me a fucking idiot. I know my friends. Hey dude, what are you doing? Stop doing this. I try to remember that.
Brett: Something we talk about a lot in the podcast and the work that we do is how our social reality is a project of ourselves. If you have gone through an integration and a journey where you found more empathy for yourself, I am curious how that impacts your empathy for others. Going back to my previous question, how does that empathy affect the way that you relate to the enemy, for example, or fighters on the other side?
Will: I think it would have taken away a little bit of hate. Looking back, not that I did anything I shouldn’t have done overseas, but once you lose so many friends, there is a lot of hate in your heart for sure. I think it would have helped me deal with that. I am really glad I wasn’t put in certain positions where I could have done things if that makes any sense. I had a lot of hate. I didn’t care anymore after I had lost so many friends. I just didn’t give a fuck. I was never put in a position that I look back to where I shouldn’t have done anything, but there was a lot of hate in my heart. I know that would have helped me deal with that, for sure.
Brett: How would that have affected you in combat or on missions?
Will: It would have been fine. We are not over there to kill people who don’t need to be killed. When I started, I didn’t care who died. We lost a helicopter, Extortion 17. It was a helicopter that was shot down by a guy we had captured and let go. I just stopped caring. It wasn’t worth losing one of my friends over. I didn’t care if I got in trouble, so I am glad I wasn’t put in certain positions because it is not the right call sometimes. You definitely need to have that empathy and still be a human being.
Joe: In a way, what you are saying here is even in being a soldier, having empathy makes you a better soldier than not having empathy. I think that’s actually something that non-soldiers don’t get.
Will: We used to hand out chem lights to the kid even if they threw them. They didn’t care. The mostly hate us. That didn’t bother me, but towards the end, I didn’t give a fuck. I am not giving anything to any of you. If you die, I don’t care. My heart got really hardened. I am happy to be the old person I am now. Who cares? Give the kids lights and flags. Even if they hate you, who cares? You still need to be a person. We are not them? We are there to make the world a better place, not just kill a bunch of bad guys. There is nothing wrong with killing a bunch of bad people for some reason. That needs to be done sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t care about other people who are there as well. I didn’t care at all.
Brett: It seems like being in this career and in this position, which is a really difficult position. It is a sticky moral position for almost anybody. Also, what I am hearing from you is that having more empathy, having less hate in your heart impacted not only the way you could stay in flow in what you were doing and also the ways you might be able to make a split second decisions when you might spot somebody at the end of a rifle and have to quickly decide whether or not to pull the trigger. Then, also, handing chem lights out to kids, how are you going to interact with civilians where you are? How is that going to impact the relations in general? How is that going to either feed or ease some of the tension that is inherent to the situation?
Will: Which is a big deal. You build those relationships, and they will tell you where the bad guys are. If you don’t build those relationships, they won’t. Otherwise, what’s the difference between you and the Taliban? Getting into the flow instead of being stuck in rage, hate, and anger where I am not going to function as well, I have so much mental bandwidth and if 50% of that is taken up by rage, then you are not going to function nearly as well. Just push all that stuff aside and get into the flow.
Brett: Some of that unowned and unprocessed rage is the source of the tension and the reason you are there.
Will: My hair was falling out, twice. It was a lot of hate, loss, and sadness. I had started losing big chunks. My hair was falling out. It was alopecia. They said it was hereditary and stress related. It was right after extortion went down, so I lost some friends there. That was the first time it happened. Then I lost one of my best friends. His name was Nic [unclear]. He died in a hostage rescue mission saving an American doctor. After that, my hair fell out again in different places. I am not a doctor, but it was kind of easy to figure out. I think that’s from stress. Then, after that, once I started losing so many people, it hardened my heart.
Joe: In your process of integration, how did grief and moving grief play a part, if at all?
Will: I would just drink it away and stuff it down.
Joe: I mean when you started the healing process, after the drinking, after the brain treatment that started you on the path, was there any movement of grief that had to happen for you to open your heart again? Was there some other way your heart opened again?
Will: I think it was a different way. I think it was realizing there is a God and a better place. It was feeling that. Not that I don’t miss them, but I know they are in a good place. I think that helped me a lot. They lived a full life. They died doing what they wanted to do. It does suck that they left behind families, and they died young, but they died doing what they loved.
Brett: I am curious. If you had never been exposed to the SEALS or there wasn’t a military to go into, with that same drive and that same spirit, what would you have wanted to do with it?
Will: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I have no idea where I would be today if I didn’t join the military. I really had nothing else I wanted to do. I am sure I would have found something, but I don’t know if I would have had the same drive. I really don’t know.
Joe: What are you doing now? Now that the military is no longer an option for you, what’s the way you want to leave this world a better place?
Will: I just wrote a book on my dog, No Ordinary Dog, Cairo from the Bin Laden mission. Some things came out that weren’t exactly accurate, so now he has a book. Everything is accurate, and it is a piece of history. I go out and promote that. I teach law enforcement when I can. I have a lot of things that I can pass along that might help those guys out, so if I can, I love to do that. I am getting into real estate, so I do that. I try to do some public speaking here and there.
I want to raise a family. I do a lot of working on myself, honestly. I just want to invest in real estate, so I have money to do what I want to do. I want to go hunting, fishing, diving and raise a family. I am all over the place these days.
I like to give back with foundations, too. It is obviously a big part of it. I work with different foundations. There are SEALs that are killing themselves, which doesn’t really make sense to me. SEALs don’t quit. I know where I was. I never stuck a gun in my mouth, but I was killing myself with alcohol. I was going to die eventually, and I was in my early 30s.
I didn’t have much longer I am sure. I try to work with foundations.
Brett: I am curious about that piece. SEALs don’t quit. You were saying ego was something that was getting in the way at a time. A phrase or a belief like SEALs don’t quit sounds like an easy way of abusing oneself. If you feel like quitting but SEALs don’t quit, and you are a SEAL and your identity is built upon being a SEAL, how does that impact you when you feel like quitting and you are drinking yourself to death? That also conflicts with your identity.
Will: There are certain times you do have to let go. You know that for sure. Not quitting the drinking is definitely not beneficial. Not quitting certain aspects of the lifestyle. Sometimes you just have to let go.
Joe: This might be a weird question, but it dawns me there is a way in which that humility to the team in that it wasn’t going to work without the team. There was no Chuck Norris. There is certain letting go into the team in that. You give up certain autonomy, certain belief in self and you give in to the belief in the team. There is this secondary one in this treatment where you let go. It is almost like a surrendering to God or something to that effect. How are those two things in your body and the way you think about them the same or different?
Will: Letting go and being part of a team?
Joe: Letting go into the team and letting go into God, surrender, into being yourself again? In both cases, you described them as letting go or surrender.
Will: Letting go into the team is for something bigger than myself. Letting go in the second part is obviously something bigger than myself as well. Letting go into the team to work together to accomplish a mission that’s going to save somebody’s life or to get rid of bad people that are going to hurt innocent people, it is letting go into a team to accomplish a bigger picture, a bigger purpose. I was all about it. What was I going to do? Go back to the trailer park or be a part of this team where I can actually benefit humanity, hopefully? It is the same thing, letting go into a higher power, a higher purpose. Sometimes you just have to.
Brett: What would you say to somebody whether they believe their brain was broken from birth, they have got ADD, or they are on the spectrum, or they had a car accident, somebody who feels like they are physically incapable in ways they didn’t like they used to be? What would you have to say to them about joining you in the journey through to recovery?
Will: First, just don’t quit. That’s very important. I know it can be frustrating, but one of the things I tell myself these days is it will pass. That’s a hard thing to see on the bad days. I do not think that. I have got to say it will pass. This won’t last forever. To be open minded, to not let your ego get in the way of trying something you think is stupid. You hear of essential oils or something. You are like I am not trying that hippy stuff. Breathing, sure I breathe every day. Maybe have an open mind.
Don’t give up, and even though you are going through a hard time, you can get through it. It will pass eventually, but you do need to put in the work to get past it. You are going to have to suffer through it, but you definitely need to put in the work to get yourself out of the whole for sure. It is not going to be easy, but nothing in life worth doing is usually easy. Just don’t give up. It sucks. I say that not lightly, not lightly at all.
Even though I am in a good place right now, I think about it all the time. You are going to have your bad days. They are going to come. To be as prepared as possible now for those bad days that are going to come because death is a thing. Your family is going to pass away. There are going to be bad days. You are going to lose the things that you love, or something is going to happen to you. You can get in a car wreck today, tomorrow. It can happen in a heartbeat. To get through those times, to put in the work now so that when those hard times come, it won’t be so hard to get through those hard times.
Brett: I noticed that when you say sometimes it sucks, I see an authentic smile on your face and acceptance. I feel an absence of resistance to the suck in you, the way that you see it, and that seems important here.
Will: Bring it on. It sucks when my brain is not working to think my way through certain shitty situations. I don’t want anything bad to happen, but if it does happen, I will get through it the best I can. Like Jordan Peterson says, you want to be the strongest person at your father’s funeral. Put in the work now. I know it is going to come, so it is just a problem I am going to have to figure out because life is not over.
Joe: It seems like you have learnt some tools that can support a whole bunch of other people in the military. To try to change the VA hospital, I know people who have been involved and who work for it, but there is a lot of stuff the SEALs do that is unique in the support of their people. Is there any inclination in you to figure out how to bring some of this stuff to the SEALs organization so they can support their people so that the next guy who is highly trained and loves his work doesn’t have to have hate in his heart? So the next guy can learn some empathy and get over that stress and not have their hair fall off so they can continue to do what they love?
Will: It is definitely very important to me. Doing things like this, the podcast and talking about it, not only in the military community, law enforcement, first responder, anybody can use it. Life is hard. Life is great, but life can be hard. I do this, and I help with a lot of charity foundations when I can just to bring attention to it. I will go to different events and speak and meet with veterans. I think doing things like this that anybody can listen to is also very beneficial.
Joe: Thanks, Will. Thanks for coming on.
Will: Thanks for having me.
Brett: Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com.
Wim Hof Method, https://www.wimhofmethod.com/
In Episode 49, Brett interviews Joe Sanok, a business consultant and productivity researcher who, until recently, lived full-time in a camper with his wife and children. When he and his wife decided to uncouple, it changed both Joe’s and his children’s lives in a big way. Learn how Joe used his meditation practice and other self-exploration tools to allow his world to unfold beautifully through surrender to reality as it was rather than clinging to what he thought it should be.
Joe’s latest book is "Thursday is the New Friday,” a book about the four-day work week. He’s also the host of the Practice of the Practice podcast.
"As soon as the sun came up at 5:30, I was wide awake. And so to say, I'm awake, what can I do to ground myself to be the dad I want to be? To be the person I want to be? To be the business owner I want to be? My strongest meditation practice started then and it came from a place of need rather than a place of, 'I should be doing this.'"
What We Discuss in Episode 49:
2:48 The pivotal moment that changed the direction of Joe’s life.
9:40 Finding an internal locus of control and how it allows things to naturally unfold.
12:22 Parenting as a single dad in the midst of a major life transition.
18:46 Teaching nuance, healthy rewards and handling difficult emotions to children.
24:59 Boosting creativity and productivity by adopting a 32 hour-or-less work week.
29:09 Why slowing down is the first step to productivity.
32:06 Showing children how to find their own purpose without pattern matching to their parents.
Follow us on Instagram at @artofaccomplishment to learn more about our guests and share your own experiences.
As soon as the sun came up at 5:30 or so, I was wide awake. To say I am awake, what can I do to ground myself, to be the dad I want to be, to be the person I want to be, to be the business owner I want to be? My strongest meditation practice started then, and it came from a place of need rather than a place of I should be doing this.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.
Brett: All right, everybody. Today I am excited to speak with Joe Sanok. Joe is a business consultant and a productivity researcher. He has written five books on the topic, the most recent being Thursday is the New Friday, which is a book on the four day work week, which is an idea I can definitely get behind. He is also the podcaster behind Practice of the Practice, the podcast. How are you doing today, Joe?
Joe: I am doing great, Brett. How about you?
Brett: I’m doing well. I’m really happy to have you on the show today.
Joe: Yeah, this show is awesome. I can’t wait to be here. I am here, so I can’t wait to talk.
Brett: Tell me and the audience a little bit more about yourself. What did I miss there? I know you have also been living in a camper van with your kids. Tell me something more about Joe Sanok to fill us in here.
Joe: I took a really traditional path in regard to studying psychology and getting master’s degrees in psychology and counseling. I worked in the nonprofit world for a long time, and also just mental health. I had a private practice for a number of years. I was in the work of individual counseling and growing a group practice, which I enjoyed helping angry kids for a long time. I think that really positioned me to know a few different techniques in regard to connection. Teenagers often, rightfully so, have a lot of boundaries and shields up. That’s part of my history.
I went into business and podcasting back in 2012 to just teach therapists how to grow, scale and exit their private practices. I’ve been doing that work for a decade now. I have two awesome daughters that are seven and 10, and they are bold, creative and push back on things. It is a two-sided coin, lots of fun and lots of challenges.
Brett: Beautiful. I want to get right into the meat of it then. Tell me something in your personal journey that shifted the way you relate to either your therapy practice or your growth as a consultant and your growth in business.
Joe: The biggest thing actually is pretty recent. In September of 2020, my family and I went on the road in a camper, 37 foot pull behind camper. I had never pulled a trailer before. I had never even backed up a boat, and so there are very few times in life that you have the opportunity to learn something new that if you do it wrong has the potential to kill people. Christina, who was my wife at the time, it was her big dream, and I was totally down for it. We were on the road for nine months living in national parks all over the nation.
In February of 2021, we began our uncoupling. In the middle of this road trip, she decided she wanted to stay in California and not have the family stay with her. We spent a couple of months sorting through some of that and a lot of uncertainty after 17 years of marriage where it was very confusing. In that, getting her a car and an apartment, not knowing if this was temporary or long term, and then taking two little kids, seven and 10, across the country all alone. I had never backed up a camera without another adult helping. To have these little kids with walkie talkies helping me back up the camera and having them have big questions like why isn’t mom coming home, so then throughout that summer, going through that uncoupling and eventual divorce, and now being an unexpected single dad of two little girls that their mom flies in once a month to hang out with them for a bit.
It is one of those shifts that in so many ways revealed in me my own thoughts, and I mean we can do some of that. In the past, I would have tried to optimize. How can we get marriage therapy? How can we work on us? How can we fix this? To really let that go and to go into my own self development during that time, to let things unfold really became a really helpful thing for me in a ton of different ways.
Brett: Wow, that must have been really challenging to be going through uncoupling with your kids, going straight from being together 24/7, living together on the road, and then having the uncoupling happen in that process. That must have been really hard.
Joe: Especially the two months before I left. It seemed like we were uncoupling, and the girls didn’t know yet. Every morning when the sun hits, we are in a camper together. We are seeing each other every day. As soon as the sun came up at 5:30 or so, I was wide awake. To say I am awake, what can I do to ground myself, to be the dad I want to be, to be the person I want to be, to be the business owner I want to be? My strongest meditation practice started then, and it came from a place of need rather than a place of I should be doing this.
Prior to that, meditation was something that I should probably do that. All the smart people do that. All the successful people do it, but to really have it be a place of need where every morning I was doing Sam Harris’ 20-minute daily meditation. I was reading the book Awareness and then the book the Untethered Soul and to really allow things to unfold naturally. I was studying Taoism a ton during that period of time to allow the world to unfold and to stop clinging what I thought it should look like.
To have daily walks, daily planks, and daily push ups to get that physical and frustration, anger, sadness out, it set up a foundation for this new life that still sustains and has become something that are tools I probably wouldn’t have learned as quickly if it wasn’t such an intense situation.
Brett: You mentioned you had studied psychology and you had been doing therapy. You had this realization that you really had this need for this deeper self-exploration and these tools. What was it about your way of being with yourself prior to having this experience that you now recognize wasn’t serving you?
Joe: I’ve always been what you might call a knowledge broker, someone who craved knowledge and curiosity. I double majored in both psychology and comparative religion in my undergrad. After I graduated, I took a year off to travel and I went to Nepal and Thailand and stayed in monasteries. I went to Haiti and met some voodoo priests. I’ve always been someone that wanted to see how other people view spirituality, philosophy and ways of thinking, but in a lot of ways it was kind of a slow creep to go from your head to your heart and just allow that to unfold.
I think for me I am not sure I did anything wrong prior, but it is more that I had been through really tough things. In 2012, my oldest daughter had open heart surgery and a couple months after I was diagnosed with cancer. 2012 was just a rough year, but it didn’t really crack me open in the same way as having all of this stuff hit the fan. There are things I wouldn’t talk about publicly, but they were just terribly, terribly hard. To have that full on cracking open, I think that was almost what was needed in order for me to go deeper into my psyche and into my own role within that couple for 17 years.
Brett: Tell me. Having had that cracking open, one of the things that other Joe and I often talk about is that heartbreak increases your capacity to love. It allows you to see the world more clearly, beyond your ego, beyond your identification, and it is something we often avoid and in the avoidance of that we end up creating for ourselves. When it comes, if we have processed it fully, we tend to find we are okay as we are and have everything we need.
If that resonates with you, what are a couple of gems you pulled from this heartbreak?
Joe: I think the biggest thing is as Michael Singer talks about that natural unfolding of life. I’ve always been an achiever, someone that goes after big things. Enneagram 3 and all those type inventories point out that I like to get things done, but to understand what it means to find peace in the moment without having achievement be the thing or that external reinforcement be the thing that provides that.
My dad is a school psychologist. In that area of psychology, behavior psychology was a big thing. It was a big step forward for the evolution of parenting. To go from the world where in two generations often hit their kids to I am going to give them a star and give them rewards, that’s a huge step. It also created in me a ton of external reinforcement. The star chart that someone in authority gives me doesn’t always help the individual develop internally to find the internal locus of control.
To be able to get to that point where I am able to say I’ve achieved so much, great, but I also have a life that millions of people would die to have exactly as it is.
Brett: This might be a vulnerable question to answer, and you don’t have to. To what extent did that external star chart get projected into your relationship? How much did it impact it?
Joe: I’ve been aware of that star chart mentality for a long time. I’ve been doing a lot of work even since college in adding to that. I don’t think it is necessarily bad to have that as a starting point. I think too often we just throw out the way we were raised and say it is bad. There is this philosophy of personal development called spiral dynamics. At each phase, you are saying the group behind me is so dumb because they think this way and I am so evolved, but the next step is transcending and including, to take the best of things and include that and to say the other things don’t serve me.
I think within the relationship itself I definitely had an idea that there is a way to do this that people have studied and figured out. The Gottman Institute has been studying marriage for 40 years. They have all of these great research techniques. Why wouldn’t we implement those within a marriage? I probably would say it wasn’t as star chart-y as it was we can optimize this. Probably watering the lawn for two people, and that’s why the grass was green rather than letting things naturally unfold. If I had genuinely stepped back and didn’t overcompensate as much as I did, most likely it would have fallen apart years ago because the natural disconnect probably would have been revealed much earlier. But who knows? We can always replay history in a few different ways, if I had done this or that.
What I am saying is for me personally I won’t want to overcompensate for someone else’s lack of development. I shouldn’t care about their development more than they care about their own development.
Brett: Or try to fix them or think you know better for them on how they should develop and have that energy in the relationship. I am curious how your relationship with your children has changed having undergone this experience and whether it is on the axis of the star chart, optimization or some other major axis of shift that has occurred.
Joe: There have been a lot of positive things that have come out of this. To be the primary parent, in a lot of ways the structure I just have for my own life, to be able to do things I know are good for me and my kids is entirely in my control now. That has really helped our relationship for all of us to say we all value a straightened house. We all feel better mentally. Let’s together keep the house clean, and so we do. It becomes part of our new family culture. We converted one of the rooms in the house into a Zen zone, which my seven-year-old initiated. She said what if we had a room that was just for meditation and calming down when we are upset. They have all of their toys that are more self-development toys or ones that will help them relax if they are frustrated.
We went to Target and got a really soft, comfortable blanket and put things in there. They will see things and say this will be great for the Zen zone. We picked out a carpet they can trace when they are frustrated. I think there is a lot of what we are feeling and what we have control over and what we don’t have control over that has helped us bond together differently. I also think that in parenting so often we see people on Instagram or other social media showing how to be the optimal parent. Give your kids milk. Don’t give your kids milk. Give your kids a high protein diet. Don’t give your kids a high protein diet.
There is this idea that you can always optimize your child. Honestly, at this phase they just need a lot of hugs. They need a lot of down time. They need to have time when we are creative, we dance, we move, and we spend time outside. Those really simple human needs are primary. We are not going to be in a million sports. We are not going to do a bunch of things where we are running around. We are going to have weekends when we play the piano and play outside and invite a couple of people over for a campfire.
It has really paced us out to say my kids’ human needs of connection, of love, of touch, that’s good enough. I can provide that all of the time. I think it has really been a settling for the three of us into it.
Brett: Something interesting is what you optimize for. Optimizing is a skill that can be very useful in life, especially with children but also with business or with clients and in therapy practice. Optimizing for connection seems to get better results every time.
Joe: What does a kid who becomes an adult really need to be a successful adult? Sure, there is a basic level of reading, writing, communicating, and math that all adults need. Most kids need to have at least 8th grade reading and math skills to be an adult, but if I really think about the people I see that are successful, what can they do? They can relate and connect with almost anybody. Making sure that my kids keep up with their homework but if we had an outdoor campfire where we had three different campfires, invited a bunch of people from the school and neighborhood with masks, and there was a person that I am really good friends with that my 10-year-old hadn't met. I introduced her to Jay, and she said hi. She was about to leave, and I said wait a second. Why don’t you ask Jay how his week has been or something about himself? She is getting into that habit of having conversations with people different from herself.
To then see her have this micro conversation, a little bit back and forth, and to get better at that over time, the next weekend she was sitting down with one of my closest friends, Paul, who she knows really well. She just sat down next to him and said hey, Paul, how has your week been. This is a 45-year-old guy that my 10-year-old sat down and is chatting it up with him. To me, discovering what the true things are that I want out of the limited time I get to be a parent for them to have as they go into adulthood.
Brett: Interesting. Something I wanted to go back to you, you mentioned you seven-year-old came up with the idea of having a Zen room, a place they can go to calm down their anger among other things. I am curious how you approach emotions and difficult emotions, such as anger, with your kids. Is it on a spectrum on a star chart of these are the kinds of emotions we are going for? Or is it letting things just develop? How does anger show up in your family? How do you hold it?
Joe: Just yesterday, my 10-year-old had been in quarantine for five days. My seven-year-old and I tested negative. She had had a number of days all alone, but she had all this homework she needed to do. She was more amazing than I expected for such a difficult situation for a 10-year-old, but she hit a breaking point yesterday. She was screaming at me. I am not going to do my homework. I said I am going to step out for a few minutes. I am going to come back in a few minutes and let you cool down. Allowing it to unfold, allowing her to regroup, but I would say centering ourselves is a big conversational piece. Saying what you need right now to regroup or to recalibrate or recenter to get back to your baseline. Really letting them initiate that process.
In that situation, she was very mad. I told her I thought she needed to go outside for a little bit to just get back to baseline. Usually she will listen, and other times like yesterday she was like I am not going to do it. I told her that I knew it was what her body needed. Please do it. At that point, she listened and went outside. She is able to process. She built a snowman or a snowwoman, a very nicely sculpted snowwoman. Then she came back in an hour and a half later and said she was sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I don’t want to do my homework, but I need to.
Being able to then say we are all going to get angry. That’s part of having different opinions. Your opinions that are different from mine are important, but we also need to say hey, I am just here to help you with your homework. Ultimately you need to get your homework done. Was that anger serving you in the way you wanted? Helping her understand the function of her anger and that it is normal, but it is more that we aren’t injuring people through that anger and if we are resolving it in a way that’s healthy.
Brett: What’s a good example of when you have had some unexpected or uncomfortable emotion come up and ways you have owned it and shown that vulnerability and let the wisdom of that emotion come through you in the most productive way?
Joe: I will tell a backstory before I get into the story answering your question. Within the family, I’ve recognized that as a child there were things that were always right or always wrong. There wasn’t much gray area, whereas in adulthood there is a lot of gray area. Things often aren’t just right or just wrong. That’s a philosophy I am trying to teach my kids.
In one area, swearing, I’ve taught them that. I’ve said there are words that society says are bad. I don’t believe they are necessarily bad, but there are situations in which you will get in trouble for saying these words. They know the F word. They know the SH word. They know all these words. We talk about where you would say those words and use it in an appropriate context, and where you might get in trouble, school, around the grandparents, probably around their mom. They understand that. When could you use the F word? I wouldn’t make you get in trouble for that.
We talk about when that is appropriate to express an emotion and that saying that’s sticking stupid has a different feeling than that’s so f-ing stupid. Teaching them that, even as seven- and 10-year-olds, the nuances of that, and so they are responsible for putting their own laundry away. I wash it, dry it and bring it up to their room. They were both being stinkers and wouldn’t do it. I had had a long day. I was sick of it. I was also frustrated. I am an unexpected single dad. There was just a lot that was emotionally piling up for me. They just wouldn’t do it. They were being super defiant around it. I just said put your f-ing laundry away, but I didn’t say f-ing. I said the full word. I am not sure how family friendly you want this show to be. I stormed out and I was so mad.
I went and regrouped, and got back to my baseline. I came back and talked about how I wasn’t happy that I let go of my emotions but also why I felt like the F word may have been somewhat appropriate in that situation. We hashed through it about how there are times when you are just so mad that you can’t find another word than that and that also can injure them emotionally by being scary or feeling unsafe or feeling unloved. I don’t want that for them. I should have stepped out. What should I have done? What could I have done? Having that kind of conversation around that just dropped the F bomb, is that appropriate? When do we do that? When do we adjust? How do you recover? How do you apologize? What can I as a dad learn from that? What can they learn from how stressful it can be if you don’t put your laundry away? What else should I have done during the day to not get to that breaking point over laundry?
Brett: It sounds like a common theme of the way you and your family relate is to be sitting in the question of how we want to be right now. How do we want to be with this emotion? How do we want to be with this situation? Rather than should. I heard you mention just a moment ago, what I should have done, but I still hear that being something you are going back and replaying. Now that I have been through that experience, what is it that I would like to do differently? How is that I would like to relate to this?
I think sitting in that is something really beautiful to be teaching your children, which is not that certain things are good or bad, but that certain things have various consequences. Those consequences are different based on your context. Life is an exploration and experiment where you learn what happens when you are a certain way and deciding which way you want to practice being from a place of discovering what is actually authentic for you.
Joe: I think one mindset I have as a parent is that when they turn 18 or 20 or whenever they decide to leave the house, there is probably going to be only a handful of major lessons they hold with them on a regular basis. What are those handful of lessons I want them to leave with? One, as a woman, is that consent is something that you should expect in regard to relationships with other people. Everything I do is around consent. If I am going to give them a hug, I will ask them if they want a hug. If we are wrestling or tickling, and they say stop, I stop. Making sure that consent is a strong part of their lives to make sure that they have some element of choice. So many kids can’t eat any sugar until they are 18, and then they go crazy.
Your whole life you have been told you can or can’t do these things and haven’t had to make your own decisions around food, how you spend your time, how you spend all sorts of things. I want them to have a lot of choice and have a lot of accountability around that. That’s going to inform things differently. For example, yesterday, while my daughter was in quarantine, a friend dropped something off that would make us feel better while we were feeling down. It was a bag of Cheetos. I gave her a little bowl of Cheetos. I said I have a surprise for you. It was behind my back. I want you to think about what is something you want to do for yourself that’s going to make it feel like you are moving forward in any area, and you can choose to use this thing I am about to give you to reward yourself. Instead of it being me giving her the external reward, it is her saying here is a goal for myself. I am going to achieve it and then I am going to eat these Cheetos she didn’t yet know she was going to get.
I showed her the Cheetos. She said I could watch a video, do an art project about the documentary I watched, and then when I am done with that documentary about otters, I can eat the Cheetos. Great! Do it for yourself. It is for your own sense of self, but you are rewarding yourself with the Cheetos. So being able to have those handful of things that I focus on, but those are things that in my own life even outside of being a parent, I am going to think about that intentionality beyond just being a dad.
Brett: I would love to tie this back into your work as well. You have written five books, and I am curious how your writing and your approach to writing as a practice has shifted through this journey.
Joe: I think that when I used to write, it was more about what the audience wants, what the positioning is that I want to have for myself, whereas Thursday is the New Friday has definitely been about the macro societal shift. Do I believe that the way we are living with a 40-hour work week plus is good for society? Realizing as I dove into the history around the 40-hour work week and actually how recent it actually is and how the studies are showing that it really isn’t needed to have a full 40 work week. Most of what we can do in building creativity and productivity can be done in a 32 or fewer hour work week.
That process for me first was just gathering as much data as possible. A lot of coaches are self-proclaimed experts, and they will just write their opinions or a few cases. To me, I wanted the actual evidence that shows this, the historical evidence and the stories behind. Finding those stories, case studies, businesses, even just interesting stories about how the seven-day week was totally made up by the Babylonians 3,000 years ago because they could only see seven major planets. We just as easily could have had a thousand-day week if they had had better telescopes. The Romans had 10-day weeks. The Egyptians had eight-day weeks. This thing we think is really normal, the seven-day week, is completely made up. Discovering those cool things and saying where that would fit in the book. Then, whiteboarding out each chapter and saying what the main points are, and then killing it as much as I could every Thursday when I was writing.
Brett: All of that is really fascinating, and I am also curious how your approach to your internal locus of control, your internal reward system has moved through this process. Did you write books with a similar approach prior to this decoupling experience?
Joe: I finished the book before we hit the road. It was due by October 1st. I finished it on September 1st. I wanted to not have that hanging over my head and just be able to focus on the media side of things when we were on the road. I just knew the focus would be much different when I was in a camper, and things could go awry much easier, whether it is water systems, septic systems or who knows. There were so many things that went wrong in addition to the uncoupling.
I would say that my process in writing the book is that I was learning neuroscience around how to be more productive that I applied immediately to be more productive in writing about how to be more productive. It was very meta. The University of Illinois had this amazing research study that looked at vigilance decrement. Vigilance, how well you pay attention to something, and decrement meaning it goes down over time, so tasks that are somewhat boring get more boring over time. You make more errors, and you aren’t as productive.
They found even just a one-minute micro break every 20 minutes completely eliminates vigilance decrement. Even just saying I am going to set a timer for 20 minutes, and even if I am in the middle of a sentence, I am going to get up and do a plank, walk downstairs, or get a glass of carrot juice, whatever it is I need to do to feel that my body to feel like it is going to be productive. It can’t be looking at a screen. It can’t be continuing to work. Using the neuroscience around sleep, how we structure our days, about how we do sprints, looking at my own sprint type, all of those things, I was writing about it in the book but then directly applying it as I was writing the book.
Brett: Behind all this productivity, I am curious what the deeper motivation is for you to be productive. A lot of people will find themselves in a loop of being productive for its own sake, for churning out more work product. I am curious for you what the deeper want and deeper need are that you are fulfilling in this productivity that you practice.
Joe: To me, productivity is the end of the cycle. We have to start with slowing down first to allow our brains to rest, to allow those good ideas to come out, and then to spend our best time on the best movements forward instead of just across the board. When I enter into productivity, every minute I spend working is a minute I could be doing a hobby, I could be cleaning the house, or I could be putting my kids’ laundry away if I didn’t make them put it away. I could be doing something different that is good for my family, my friends or my relationships.
If I go into my work saying I can’t dink around and be unproductive because it is stealing from my family, it is stealing from my friendships, it is stealing from my exercise or my body, that’s a different posture than being productive for its own sake. Then it becomes if I am going to work, it needs to be the best use of my time in regard to my business. I can’t just waste time to waste time.
There are times I choose to intentionally slow down and I choose to intentionally allow my brain to free associate so that those good ideas can come to the surface. We know from the neuroscience when we are stressed out and maxed out, that’s not when we have good ideas. It is when we are taking a shower, going for a walk, on a long drive without music on. Just allowing those intentional times to slow down and have those hard and soft boundaries, that allows me when I am going to work to have the most productive days possible.
Brett: It sounds like what you are saying there, recognizing everything you are doing in your productive space is in some sense stealing from some other area of your life. Another way to say what you are saying there is that it is a choice. You are optimizing for a different thing, and if you optimize for productivity, you might forget to optimize for connection with your children. You might not optimize for connection to the source of inspiration of what it is that you are being productive around.
Joe: Absolutely, because I think it goes back to those core teachings of who I am in the world, who I want to be, how I am intentional with my family, my friends, my hobbies, my health, all of those domain areas Joe often talks about. If we aren’t intentional in those areas, then the work we do is what you were talking about, productivity for productivity’s sake.
Brett: My final question for this episode, how do you teach your kids or how do you model for your kids how you approach your purpose in such a way that will help them find their own purpose from their internal locus of control without pattern matching too much what daddy does?
Joe: We did a podcast together while we were on the road called Leave to Find, which now has a bit of an ironic title to it. The Leave to Find podcast, for us to do what's interesting to us, so I reiterate that I get to do work that I absolutely love doing and that helps a lot of people. Do I want my kids to be podcasters? Sure, if they want to. I could care less how they choose to make money as long as they choose to contribute to society, do it in a way that they can eventually sustain themselves and it doesn’t hurt other people. For me, it is less important to say here is how you have to do it but let me give you opportunities to explore.
For example, my seven-year-old, when we were at the Fort Collins Children’s Museum, they have this whole amazing section that’s a hands-on DJ scratching, mixing section where kids can do this two turntables and microphone type stuff. From that, she said I want to be a DJ. My backyard neighbor does that. He is amazing at it. He has a new sequencer he just got. Giving her the opportunity to just explore and play. To me, at this age, let’s explore and play.
My ten-year-old, a couple years ago, wanted to do a lemonade stand. I said let’s talk about this. There are really two types of lemonade. You are going to have the powered mix, which is really easy. You will probably be able to charge 25 cents or so for that. There is hand squeezed lemonade which you could probably sell for two dollars each. Here is what that would encompass, making simple syrup, maybe having it be fancier with basil leaves or frozen strawberries. Which do you want to do? We brainstormed. She said she wanted to do the hand squeezed one. We said if you just set up outside, do you think many people are going to come by? No. Where might be a better traffic area? Our friends Paul and Diane have a house that’s right on a main area. Most lemonade stands, you don’t realize there is one until you drive up on it. What if we had signs before it? There was a marathon that was going to be going on. What if you did it on marathon morning? What else do people drink in the morning? Coffee.
We brainstormed all of these things that she is helping lead and come up with the solutions for and that I am helping to support. She ended up making $90 dollars an hour. She killed it. These people were giving her tips. I can’t believe there is basil and frozen strawberries. They were taking pictures of it. She was selling coffee for $2 dollars and lemonade for $2 dollars and just absolutely killed it. She actually hired one of the neighbor boys who was older than her to help because it was so busy. I said she needed to pay Finley a good wage, at least $10 dollars an hour. After she paid me back, after she paid this kid and paid her sister, she still made $90 bucks an hour.
To me, giving those kinds of opportunities and thoughtful discussion. She didn’t want to do it the next two years. Then she said I think I want to do the lemonade stand again. I told her she needed to call Paul and Diane to get it on tehri calendar to rent out their front yard or have them donate that space for you to use it. She is going through the process of just learning how you think like an entrepreneur without it being something I force on her.
Brett: Fascinating. One thing to poke a little bit that I have noticed is that a lot of what you were describing there, she had the idea and it seemed like you came to her with a bunch of suggestions as well. I am curious when she went to do the lemonade stand the second time, how much was she coming up with I remember we did this that time, this the other time and extrapolating from that, I could also experiment in this way. To what extent was that coming up for her internally? To what extent were you going straight to suggestion mode?
Joe: I would see it more as opportunities. If she decided she wanted to do a powered lemonade stand and sit all day in front of our yard and make $2 dollars, that’s fine. I could care less. She will learn from that experience just as much, but I think most kids at her age don’t even know the options. They don’t know how lemonade is made. They don’t know what simple syrup is. They don’t know people like frozen strawberries and basil in their lemonade. They have never made a cup of coffee. Just being able to say here are opportunities, we can do this. It’s going to be more work. What questions do you have about it? How much does a pound of coffee cost? It will cost you $12 dollars, or we have a friend Jen who works at a coffee shop. Maybe she would donate it. You could call Jen and ask her if she would donate that. Higher Grounds Coffee donated like three pounds of coffee to her.
First round kids just don’t know, so saying here are a bunch of options, what sounds good to you? When we got home, they said they didn’t want to keep doing the podcast. Now they do. How do we make it different from just being on the road? Because we are not on the road anymore so now we are making a list of people they think are interesting that they want to interview, their grandparents, a friend Marty who is a DJ. Let’s have these interesting people we just interview. Letting them take the lead second round and third round while still supporting them and giving them ideas.
Brett: One of the things I really like about what you were just saying is there is this impartiality to the outcome. You are not concerned with how successful the lemonade stand is for your daughter and that it makes a bunch of money. You are excited it worked out, and that wasn’t what you were aiming for. What you seem to be aiming for is being in connection with your daughter, your daughter being in connection with what she is doing and providing as much guidance without becoming overbearing as possible so that she is able to optimize her learning and optimize her enjoyment. I think that’s a really great way to parent.
Joe: I think so many people have their egos wrapped up in their kid. My kid got into this college, or my kid got to the state finals. Of course, you want to be proud of your kid, but if your own ego and sense of self worth is coming through your child’s volleyball game in 5th grade, you probably need to do some internal work.
Brett: Indeed. Thank you so much for joining us, Joe. I really, really loved this conversation. I am excited to check out your book, too. It seems interesting.
Joe: Thank you so much for having me on the show. This has been awesome.
Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com.
Joe Sanok, Thursday is the New Friday & other books: https://joesanok.com/
The Gottman Institute: https://www.gottman.com/marriage-minute/
In today’s episode, Brett interviews Heather Falenski, documentary filmmaker, adventure athlete and humanitarian worker. Her early career included several years of working on the African continent with refugees and others displaced by war. She is the founder of One World Media, a film production company based in Boulder, Colorado.
Heather led a fast-paced life working in some of the world’s most remote and challenging environments. Although her work was fulfilling, it was also physically and mentally taxing. It culminated into a severe chronic illness that left her bedridden for over a year. Heather discusses an epiphany that she had after hitting rock bottom that allowed her to move beyond impossible circumstances to regain health and stability.
“The greatest power that we have is to say: I AM that. And whatever “that” is, it’s what we’re defining ourselves to be. It’s what our concept of self is. We can define ourselves in any way that we want. We can say, I’m a filmmaker. I am healthy. I am respected. And once we hold that state as our dominant state of consciousness over a period of time, the outer world will start to conform and reflect that back to us.”
What we discuss in Episode 43:
07:30 The urge to control outer conditions and why it often leads to failure.
10:30 Stabilizing your inner landscape as a way of getting consistent results in the outer world.
14:09 Unconditioned consciousness as your natural state beneath all of the things that you identify with.
19:00 How to consciously shift into a desired self-concept, rather than allowing it to be dictated by outer circumstances.
29:11 Gratitude as a state of allowing a process to unfold, even if it takes some unexpected turns.
32:04 How hitting rock bottom can lead you to the necessary conditions to completely recreate yourself.
Episode 43: Heather Falenski- Navigating Conflict Zones,
Recovering from Chronic Illness and Being Your Own Light
The greatest power we have is to then go I am that. Whatever that is is what we are defining ourselves to be. It is what our concept of self is. We can define ourselves in any way that we want. We can say I am a filmmaker. I am healthy. I am respected. Once we hold that state as our dominant state of consciousness over a period of time, the outer world will start to conform and reflect that back to us.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.
Brett: All right, everybody, welcome back. Today I am speaking with a very special guest. She is the founder and CEO of One World Media, who also happens to be producing our podcast. How are you doing together, Heather?
Heather: I am doing really well. Thank you for inviting me, Brett.
Brett: Thanks for joining us. Can you tell me a little bit about who you are, what your business is and what you have done in business and in life to get to this point?
Heather: Sure, I have been in film production for pretty much my entire career. However, I started in a much different area than where I am today. I started out working on the African continent, and I was working with a lot of NGOs. I worked with the UN. I mostly worked in areas of the world that had been affected by war, so either areas of active combat or areas where refugees were currently living. I spent a lot of time working with displaced populations and recording their journeys, recording the projects that were going on in the camp.
From there, I transitioned into adventure film, so I spent a couple of years working all around the world, in Europe, in the US and in South America, filming with adventure athletes, and eventually I started my own company, One World Media, about eight years ago. I have been running it ever since. We do documentary film. We also do commercial work and other types of film as well, but we are best known for our documentaries.
Brett: To give the audience a little bit more context here, Heather and I have known each other since 2007 partially from the adventure sports world. That’s how we met. Also, we spent some time together in Africa. I visited her in Zambia for a five-week period while she had been there alone for a year producing film for an NGO and had a lot of really interesting experiences. Some of them might come up in this podcast.
Having known Heather for 15 years, she and I have both had a lot of different experiences where we learn something really important about ourselves, sometimes in a very difficult way and by going through a lot of pain to get there. Heather, I am curious to hear one reflection that you have that we would like to focus on today that really impacted your business and your life.
Heather: That’s a really good question, Brett. If I had to distill it down into one sentence, it would be the sentence that I woke up to one morning in December during a really difficult year for me. I had had a ton of health challenges. I was dealing with chronic illness, and my company was in a very big transition point. At the same time, I was starting to come out of it. I had learned a lot of lessons, and I had grown a lot. I was feeling a lot more in my power.
I just woke up one morning with the sentence in my head that said, ‘Be your own light’. Upon first glance, this sentence is pretty self-explanatory, but it means something really specific to me. It was a really important shift that I made during the course of my healing journey. It really impacted the way I showed up in the world and my ability to reach my full potential.
Brett: Be your own light. It sounds like one of those things you might see on a mug that you might find at a garage sale. It is the kind of phrase that people come up with after having a really deep experience. It means something way deeper than just those words. As you mentioned, it means something specific to you. Before we get more deeply into that, I am curious to talk a little bit about what your life was like before you had this particular recognition that led to it.
Heather: In the years leading up to this realization, I had been encountering several challenges at once. As I mentioned before, I had been working on the African continent for nearly a decade at that point. Although it was really rewarding and it gave me a lot of freedom to define my career and understand myself on a deeper level due to the independence that I had and the situations that I faced, the territory came with a lot of stress, just inherently. Working in high-risk areas is inherently dangerous, and it requires you to be constantly vigilant of your own safety.
In addition to that, when you are working in unstable regions. You encounter a lot of logistical difficulties as well. We were constantly battling access to resources and basic living things, for example, not having running water, not having access to regular power. That accumulated into a lot of unprocessed stress from my very fast paced career. I ended up over time developing a chronic illness because of that stress and I also was diagnosed with complex PTSD, which for people that don’t know, that is post traumatic stress disorder.
I was dealing with a lot. I was very burnt out. My body wasn’t functioning properly. I was spending most of my time in bed. Additionally, my relationships weren’t doing that well. I wasn’t sure why.
Brett: You got to this point where you started to feel cornered in by the stress of life, but it was really just this deep low-level stress, a lot of it coming from this complex PTSD from this time in conflict zones and also possibly whatever might have occurred in your life that led you to be attracted to conflict zones. That might be something interesting to double click on as well.
How did it start to bubble up in your mind or the light bulb turn on? Be your own light. What did that mean to you? What was the alternative you had been living prior to that?
Heather: In order for a realization to truly bubble up for me in a meaningful way, I had to truly hit rock bottom. For me, rock bottom didn’t just mean that things were bad, but I had tried literally everything I could to control it. Control used to work really well for me because I am a type A person. I am very organized, and I create strategies. That was my job for a long time. Part of my job was to escort people safely from one town to the next in areas of active combat. Basically your job in that sort of situation is to control the uncontrollable because it is very important that you do so. I found a lot of ways to manipulate my outer world in order to make things safe in order to get my job done.
I think that hitting rock bottom for me meant that there was a situation that I was in, which was my chronic illness, that just would not relent no matter what I did. I tried to do everything right. I tried to clean up my health. I tried to meditate, to see a therapist to resolve my PTSD. I tried just about everything, even just relaxing for months in bed thinking that if I rested enough, it would just go away. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I was relying so much on the outer world, including my outer body, in order to have a sense of safety and security. It just wasn’t happening for me.
I think when you get to that place, demoralizing is a very nice way to put it, but I think I just sort of gave up because even someone who is super motivated, if they try hard enough to get out of this cage they are in and it just won’t relent, eventually they will just relax into it. They don’t know what the next step is when everything you try to do fails. I think the shift that happened for me was that I realized that nothing in my outer world was going to change my situation.
I couldn’t wait on something to come from outside to save me. It just wasn’t going to happen. Also, in addition to that, I realized that I might never have proper functioning of my outer physical body again because of the severity of my chronic illness. I realized that even having a sense of self that relied on having a functioning, able body was not necessarily something that was going to be beneficial for me or reliable for me.
Brett: Something you just talked about, being able to control your environment, control is something that had worked for you in conflict zones. Something we have talked about before is there is a subtlety there where you are never really in control of a conflict zone. There is more of a flow, identifying what you can control and then quickly changing and determining what else might be in your control as the situation moves and evolves. There is a certain amount of faith and willpower there and having a goal. Then there is a certain amount of just reading the river and seeing where it goes.
It sounds like what you are describing here is even that process started to get stopped up when your body was no longer responding in the way that you were expecting. Your interface to your environment was no longer responding the way you were expecting. That took you into a deeper level of flowing. That seems to maybe point at the realization that you had. Can you talk to me a little bit about what that realization felt like when it occurred to you?
Heather: I realized after being disempowered for years and years of wanting a functioning body and waiting for it to get better and having it not get better to having quality relationships in my life in certain areas that just weren’t coming in at the time. Waiting for those relationships to really validate me and to basically tell me that I am loved, I am cherished, all of these things, I am looking to all of these outer markers.
I realized that I was going to have to be my own light. I was going to have to generate that from within in order to see it out. I don’t mean that in a poetic way. I mean that in an actual, literal way. That is the nuance of the realization. It was not just that this is a quote to put me in a happy space, but it is an actual reality that if I don’t first give myself the feeling of being loved and cherished, if I don’t feel that way within, then no one is going to come from with out and validate what I am not appropriating in myself.
The same thing for health, because I was embodying such a state of illness. There was a point in my illness when I couldn’t remember the last time I felt happy or healthy. I mean just having the feelings for a small thing. I spent most of my waking hours having thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that only validated being sick and alone. That realization of being my own light made me realize that in order to have consistent, positive results in my outer world, I needed to start stabilizing my inner environment and being consistently my own light and giving myself these things I wanted to see on the outside.
Brett: Can you zoom in a little more on what you mean by stabilizing your inner world? What was the subjective experience that you had? You were laying in your bed, and you were only seeing evidence for how sick you were, and this was the reality that was continually being reinforced by your nervous system. What was the first moment of the subjective experience of something different that allowed you to start giving yourself your own love?
Heather: That’s a really good question. I would say the symptoms got so severe. Initially, it kind of came from a place of dissociation. Full disclosure, I didn’t really want to be completely present to my outer experience, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise. What I would do is I would just shut out the outer world because what was happening for me wasn’t desirable for me whatsoever. I would go into this inner space, this very meditative space, like the state you are in right before you fall asleep. I would start imagining what it feels like to have stable health and to be surrounded by quality people doing a job that completely fulfilled me and that didn’t drain me at all, just for fun, just trying it on the way someone would try on a new suit.
At first, that suit felt really uncomfortable because it felt unfamiliar. I started small, but the whole process piqued my interest because it was, like I said, originally somewhat of an escape. But as I started doing it day after day, that suit began to feel more comfortable. I started to feel more at home in it, and it started to shift my entire state of consciousness and concept of self to that of what I was imagining myself to be rather than that which I currently was.
Brett: It sounds almost as though the way you had been experiencing yourself in the world was also a suit. There was a way you were changing suits or maybe just removing one suit and seeing what was underneath it and seeing what it would be like to see yourself. Correct me if I am wrong, but it sounds almost as though there was a suit that was installed by your past experience and this complex PTSD, and you were exploring what was underneath it. Does that sound accurate at all?
Heather: Yeah, it is a little bit of both. That’s a good segue into me explaining exactly what being your own light is because I feel that all of us have this unconditioned consciousness that we are born with. When we are born as babies, we aren’t filmmakers or podcasters. We are just awareness. We are consciousness. Maybe you could say we are a loving consciousness because I do believe when you look at children who haven’t experienced adverse conditions, their natural inclination is to love and be connected. There is that essence, which I could call my ‘I am-ness’. It’s an awareness.
I think the greatest power that we have is to then go I am that. Whatever that is is what we are defining ourselves to be. It is what our concept of self is. We can define ourselves in any way that we want. We can say I am a filmmaker. I am healthy. I am respected. I am lonely. I am alone. We are free to choose whatever we want to define ourselves as. Once we hold that state as our dominant state of consciousness over a period of time, the outer world will start to conform and reflect that back to us. That’s what I discovered in my journey.
Brett: It also even sounds like there is an aspect of falling more in love with the part of yourself, the identity of yourself as ill, as sick, recognizing that even that part is you, and it doesn’t fully define you. It is just a part of your experience, and it is not the whole thing.
Heather: I think that’s a very important part of integrating these parts of ourselves that are wounded is to love those parts because I think that that part comes from an unconscious aspect of ourselves that hasn’t been integrated from an earlier adverse experience. It will keep showing up for us until we bring light to it, again, being your own light. Shedding light on it, acknowledging it and then reintegrating it into our system, and I think that’s a really important thing.
In addition to that, I think it is just important to realize the power that we have in our ‘I am’, in our ability to choose because a lot of times it feels like life is choosing for us. What I have discovered is that we do choose what our ‘I am’ is. If we hold strongly and steadily in any ‘I am’, it will start being rejected into our outer reality. Obviously, if I say I am secure but then that lasts about five minutes and I go back into my state of mind of not feeling secure and not feeling loved, I haven’t held on to it long enough for it to really take effect.
But if I hold on to any state of consciousness for long enough, it will eventually start shifting my dominant state entirely. The that is the ego portion of our unconditioned consciousness. It is what makes us into the personalities we are. It is very malleable. It is not as fixed as people think. It is only fixed whenever there is some charge behind it that we are unwilling to look at.
Brett: It sounds like the journey you are describing here is becoming more aware of all of the different possible ‘I am’s we can be as different suits we can wear and take them on and put them off as well or just as the situation calls without even having to invoke our will, just to see what happens. I think a lot of this really harkens back to what you have described in active conflict zones or in adventure sports and being in the flow, being in the place of trusting yourself.
For me, when I walk a slackline, for example, one of the ways I like to describe walking a slackline is that to learn to walk a slackline is to learn all of the different ways to fall off and how to bring yourself from the edge of each one of them. There is a certain symmetry there to our identity, too. I think there can be a common misconception that our belief creates a reality so if we only believe the things that we want to believe about ourselves, then that will create the reality that we want. That can also put us into a trap or create shadows.
This process you are describing is really breaking free of any particular self-concept and then loving more and more of who you might find yourself to be in any moment.
Heather: Exactly, and just realizing that you have the power to do that, too. For example, if you came from a wealthy household, it is easy to have the ‘I am’ concept of I am secure. I am abundant. But if you came from a less wealthy background, then trying on that suit is not going to feel so natural at first.
I think that my message to the world, if I could distill it into this sentence by being your own light, is knowing that no matter what your outer circumstances are, whether this shift is going to be a little one or if it feels so far fetched that you can barely imagine yourself being financially abundant is that if you are able to stabilize your inner world enough in order to shift your ’I am’ to a different self-concept, over time what I have discovered, not just through my health but through many different suits or self-concepts, is that it will eventually take hold and it will start showing results in the outer world. It just has to be consistent, and so in order for it to be consistent, you have to be your own light.
You can’t rely on getting a big paycheck in order to feel abundant. You might be in a financial desert. There might not be anything going on, or you might be so sick like I was that you can’t get out of bed, and I had to teach myself how to hold the state of feeling healthy even under those circumstances, which were extremely trying. But I feel that it is a powerful message to share that it is possible to actually shift your self-concept from within and to be your own light without having to receive validation from the outer world in order to start making that shift and therefore seeing the changes you want to see.
Brett: It sounds like what you are talking about is really deprogramming a lot of these concepts we learn about ourselves from the outer world and going back into that childhood, not even that childhood, that babyhood love that we just are. That consciousness, that awareness.
Heather: Exactly. It is a deprogramming, but not through mental gymnastics. I don’t think it is a matter of- I did a lot of healing work, and I did get to the root of a lot of my limiting beliefs, but that’s not what this necessarily was. It wasn’t a mental exercise at all. It was shutting out my outer experience, getting to the state of neutrality of just this dark beginning we all came from, and then imagining myself in this new state so that I could catch the feeling of it. The feeling doesn’t necessarily mean an emotion. For example, wealthy people are not happy all the time.
If you want to imagine yourself as abundant, I don’t think that it is making sure that you are feeling happy and upbeat all the time at all. It is how a wealthy person would feel as they move throughout their day, and what sort of thoughts they would have, positive and negative. I started just imagining myself, to try on this suit, to catch that feeling of what it would feel like if I didn’t have to constantly worry about my health and that was all stable. I realized I wouldn’t be having all these thoughts. I just caught the essence of it, and it is really hard to describe other than just through imagining feeling it to the point where you start to actually catch as if you already were it before it is actually being shown to you in your outer world.
Brett: I want to hear a little bit more then about how having had this deeper reflection, which of course as so many of the reflections we have in our life are, they are things we have learned all along in newer and deeper ways. A lot of what you described in this epiphany was actually very related to many of the ways you moved around in the world, being a founder, being an adventure sports athlete, being a documentary filmmaker as a female in Africa alone, in conflict zones. How has that deepened your relationship with yourself and your work and your flow in the world, having had this experience and come through it?
Heather: It has made me much more authentic and much more able to stand in my integrity because I no longer look for validation from others or from outer circumstances. I decide who I want to be and what state I am embodying. It is a totally internal process. I feel completely liberated. I don’t feel like I am at the mercy of circumstances even when they are adverse because I know from experience from doing this so many times that whenever I hold my inner world steady, the outer world will eventually reflect it even if it is not in the moment.
For example, maybe I am finding a situation where I might be traveling as I often do for work and I am unable to connect with people the way that I want to, and so I am feeling a little bit lonely. In the past, I was sort of embodying the state of loneliness and also just hoping someone would show up in my life to relieve me of that, but what I do now is I go into my inner space. I get into the state of being connected and being supported by others. I imagine, even though I don’t have at the moment in my outer world, what it feels like. It feels so warm, fuzzy and just fulfilling. I get that state in me and then I just hold it. Because I am able to cultivate that feeling for myself, I am not addicted to any sort of outer band aid or fix to relieve me of my loneliness. I walk through my day without discomfort because I am cultivating that inner state independent of the outer circumstances.
Inevitably, someone will come up to me and strike a conversation. Before I know it, I am having a deep conversation with a stranger. We are exchanging numbers and planning another adventure together.
Brett: I find it interesting you have used a couple of times the word ‘holding steady internally’. The way you just described that was holding internally the feeling that I am connected. I feel like in order to do that, it is actually not very stable. There are actually changes going on in internally, and part of that is grieving the feeling of not having been connected. In order to want something that we don’t have, you have to feel the not having and feel through that enough to feel the want and enough to feel the other alternate reality. There is actually something profoundly shifting in even that description of holding steady. There is actually something going on, moving emotionally inside you. Does that sound accurate?
Heather: What I have discovered is the holding steady for me comes first. There is a bridge that leads me from holding steady to actually seeing it in my outer reality. That bridge is what I like to call the purge. Let’s use a different example. Let’s do something anyone can relate to, which is relationships, romantic relationships. Everyone wants to feel loved and stable, romantically. No one wants to feel in limbo or that they are in a hot and cold situation. It is a great example, but most of us still have a lot of strong feelings both positive and negative that are often churning inside of us when we get romantically involved with another person.
What I would do is I would stabilize the state of imagine I already have my life partner, and that we are old. We are sitting in a rocking chair, and we are 80 years old. We are smiling back on the last 50 years of our life. Every morning I embody that state. I get into it by imagining it, and then I hold it. What happens when I hold it is that it initiates a purge of all of these contradicting beliefs that I am holding inside myself that contradict the state that I am trying to shift to.
What happens is all of these fears and doubts will bubble up. I am about to turn 40. What if I am alone in another five years? But people aren’t reliable, and they are constantly fickle. It is this sort of maelstrom of thoughts and difficult emotions that end up coming up, but the more I hold steady in that state, and I don’t allow it to sway me back into my former, disempowered state, they come up and they get processed. They release out, and then almost like a storm in the ocean at sea, it will calm itself back out again eventually until the next wave hits. I continue doing that until there are no more waves. It is a natural dominant state.
Brett: It sounds like a lot of what you are describing is gratitude, holding yourself in gratitude, perhaps a pre-gratitude for what you imagine might come to your life and just being grateful that this can be you.
Heather: Or that it is you, I would say. I think gratitude is a great way to describe it because you aren’t thankful for something you are not sure that you have. You can know that you actually are embodying the state as the new you, not as a potential new you. I feel like that’s not quite it, but once you actually get into the state and you are like this is how I am now and this is what I did with my illness, I said I am healthy. This is who I am. I know that my body is going to eventually reflect it because I completely misidentified with illness. I had identified with illness for most of my life, so this was really challenging at first to switch from dominant states. I think you know you are getting close, and that you are almost there when you start feeling gratitude because it is like when someone gives you a gift. You are holding it in your hands, and you know it is yours. Then you are going to start feeling really thankful for it.
Brett: I think what you are describing with that purging process is really interesting as well. When I imagine first trying this out and being grateful. Let’s imagine somebody is talking about a romantic relationship, so they are feeling lonely. They tried this thing, and they are like I am going to just feel grateful for having the partner I want. They might go really specific. It is going to be a blonde who is six foot five inches and into this and that thing and checks all these other boxes.
That might not actually lead to that person coming into their lives because that might just be way too specific, but feeling the gratitude deeper, under that just for wow, I am a human who can connect. The awareness underneath everything else that is me is connection and love. Feeling that leads to that state of being that attracts partners.
Heather: Definitely, gratitude is a lovely state to be in just in general because I feel that gratitude is the closest to love. It is a very open and receptive state and also a state that minimizes resistance. Resistance in its essence is fear, so when fear is your dominant state, which I think illness is a form of resistance and a form of fear. Being in the state of identifying with illness, it is being afraid of being constantly, as I was, and understandably because I was experiencing PTSD at the time. I think that gratitude is really that state of surrender, of allowing the process to happen, and knowing that you already have it even if you don’t see it yet.
Brett: I think you could have a similar self-concept of being unlovable or of being incompetent or of being unwealthy or of being insecure. Being an insecure partner in relationships, having that belief.
Heather: That’s very fear based. I think the reason we are insecure is because we don’t know when the ball is going to drop, and we are assuming that the ball is going to drop. We are waiting for it to happen. We are trying to protect ourselves in advance, and all of the while we are stymying the love that may be very well trying to come in. It is very self-sabotaging, and I was in that space for a long time. I have a lot of empathy for it. I also know it is possible to move past these things.
In essence, when you are being your own light, it is like being perched on a ledge. If you are perched on a precarious ledge of a branch of a tree, for example, you are always going to be wondering if this branch is going to hold me. Is it going to break? Am I going to fall 100 feet to the ground? But birds don’t worry about that because they trust in their wings. If the branch breaks, then they are just going to fly away. They are not going to be harmed, and I think this being your own light business is about growing your own wings so that you can put yourself on the edge and be vulnerable without getting into that fear based space of insecurity because you are so secure within yourself to be able to provide everything that you need that even if it doesn’t work out, even if the worst happens and someone betrays you or just completely leaves you hanging, you can still fly away. It doesn’t mean it is not going to sting, but it is not going to decimate you.
Brett: Interesting. There is another thing you mentioned earlier that I am curious about. You had said admittedly this was partly dissociation. Two parts of that are interesting to me, and part of it is there is something to admit about having disassociated. Then there is also something interesting about just disassociation as having been a part of this process that was a healthy process for you. I think it is very common that especially in emotional development circles or in spiritual practices that disassociation has sort of a negative connotation. It is leading you away from the source of your awareness. It also just seems in this case and maybe in many other cases it was actually a tool that allowed you to feel safe enough internally to try on this other suit and see what another self-concept might feel like.
Heather: Disassociation is a double-edged sword. Disassociation is what gave me my PTSD. It is sort of what PTSD is, when you allow enough emotional content to build up in your nervous system by dissociating that it actually just manifests into a full-blown psychological condition and physical disorder. I will say disassociation is a boomerang because it is not just going to keep getting worse, worse, worse and worse to no end. What it does is it gets worse until you hit rock bottom, and then it actually propels you into the completely opposite direction.
As I said before, I had been disassociating for years. It had been quote unquote working until it wasn’t anymore. Then it made me really sick, but that sickness forced me in bed. Then my last resort of dissociation was actually blocking out all of this mess that I sort of created for myself in allowing me to get into a neutral space in order to redefine myself and to reidentify with the things I actually wanted to experience and start dis-identifying with the things I had created for myself that I no longer wanted to be.
Brett: Something that’s really striking me about the way you speak of this is I detect that you have come to a love and acceptance for that whole part of your journey, for the dissociation and for the rock bottom that you hit. Really I do feel from you gratitude for all of it. I feel like that’s really an important component of this being your own light, this practice that you are talking about.
Heather: It definitely is, and I don’t think it is something that can be forced because if you had told me two years ago to be grateful, not that I should or that I should consider it maybe, I probably would have reacted badly to that. I was in the throes of it, and I think it is also important to realize where you are. When you are in the throes of it, sometimes you can’t be grateful for it. That’s totally okay because even that is part of the process.
Gratitude is something that should always come naturally, and it does if you just see the process through. It should never be forced but just keep stepping is how it was for me, just keep taking steps. Eventually it just rose up in me naturally. I didn’t try to be grateful for anything. I just was. It is like the clouds clear when you enter them, when you are flying in a plane. Before you enter those clouds, they still look scary. It is not something you can relax into and be grateful for, but after you enter the cloud and then fly out the other side, you have this greater perspective. You are able to naturally have the gratitude for the experiences that got you there.
Brett: It sounds like what you are describing there is rather than having a top-down imposition of gratitude, which could just feel tyrannical to parts of your system that are not feeling it, what you were doing was really looking for the gratitude that was there and cultivating that and drawing that up and letting that transform you from within.
Heather: I never, throughout my entire journey, even in changing these states attempted to control my emotions. I think that’s a form of resistance and that actually slows the entire process down. I always allowed myself or not feel whatever was naturally occurring, but what I did control, again, was getting into the state of imagining what it would feel like, not emotionally, but just the sense, the vibe of what it would feel like to be healthy, to be abundant. Like I said, it is not dependent on emotions. Emotions can flow through all of those experiences. Rich people are just as unhappy as poor people are in certain instances, so it is not about controlling your emotions. It is more just reimagining yourself in a new role. It is like a character that you play. We are that essence, but we are also the characters. It is the unified whole that comes with the human experience.
Brett: Beautifully said. To close this episode out, I would just like to ask you where you see One World Media and your craft headed. What is most exciting to you in life right now?
Heather: What’s most exciting for me in life right now is to create films that are more authentic and that are more in line with this new sense of self I have that I have cultivated intentionally. I feel that processing difficult emotions helped release the bondage of these weird attachments that I had to projects that weren’t completely aligned. It allowed me to remove those projects from my life and really create a wide space for new projects, projects that related to people that have gone through a similar journey of self-discovery and also just trying to illustrate things in the world that are beautiful, that are good and that are happening right now, basically to say that not all is lost right now because I know it is such a difficult time. I think there is a lot of beauty that’s being created in the world right now, and something is being born. I would love to be the one to tell those stories.
Brett: Beautiful. I would love to tell them with you and thank you so much for producing this podcast. I am really looking forward to continuing working with you and telling more of these stories.
Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com.
In Episode 41, Brett interviews Jaime Waydo, Chief Technology Officer for Cavnue. Previously, Jaime led systems engineering at Waymo, Google’s Self Driving Car program, and collaborated with NASA on the Mars Rover Curiosity.
Jaime came from a mindset passed down generationally that, especially as a woman, it was important to place everyone’s needs — children, spouse, employees — before her own. She quickly realized that this way of being led her to chronically running on empty, which neither benefited her nor her community. She pivoted to putting herself first: speaking her needs vulnerably, organizing systems to support her and designing a schedule that worked for her, transforming her work culture and her home life, while giving her the energy she needed to live life on her terms.
Tune in to this episode to find out how she made it all happen.
“Let’s just look at this like a patient on the table. What are the symptoms? And then, what’s the next step in treatment? And so, solving problems like that and not worrying about whose fault is something, I think is a really good way to keep the shame from cropping up in people and then they can stay much more in the problem-solving mode.”
What we discuss in Episode 40:
1:41 Why it’s okay and important to be selfish.
6:06 How being a chronic people pleaser can result in "chameleon leadership” and create anxiety within a team.
9:23 Generational expectations placed on women to constantly give without having support systems to replenish their own energy.
11:13 The turning point where Jaime realized that prioritizing herself would also allow her to better serve others.
16:00 How Jaime showing up vulnerably allowed her to improve team culture and cohesion during the pandemic.
20:00 Jaime’s techniques for speaking her truth within the context of challenging interpersonal dynamics.
26:26 How Jaime brought more peace and joy into her household by relating authentically with her children.
33:28 Shame as a root emotion behind micromanaging and people-pleasing behavior.
Let’s just look at this like a patient on the table. What are the symptoms? Then, what’s the next step in treatment? And so, solving problems like that and not worrying about whose fault is something is I think just a really good way to keep the shame from cropping up in people, and then they can stay much more in the problem-solving mode.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.
Brett: All right, everybody, welcome back. Today I am speaking with Jaime Waydo. Jaime is the CTO of, fuck. Let me do that one more time.
Jaime: No, keep that in.
Brett: Okay, we are keeping it. Jaime is the CTO of Cavnue. Previously you were at Apple. You were at Waymo. You worked on the Mars Curiosity Rover, and now you are working on autonomous driving.
Jaime: Yeah, I have spent about a decade working in autonomous driving and really trying to realize my passion of making mobility available to everybody no matter if they can drive or not.
Brett: Nice. In our pre-call, just now before I started and completely botched that intro, you were starting to tell me about something that you have learned through your career, through all of these different businesses, and something that really just applies to your life in general. Can you tell us what that is?
Jaime: Yeah, I am struggling with the words a little bit on it. I don’t like the word ‘selfish’, but I am going to use it for a minute because I think it feels right. That is that it is actually okay and important to be selfish, to really go into your self and own your wants, speak your truths, and think about what you need to be successful because that will help everybody else be successful. I think especially as a woman, we are really engrained to think about making sure everybody else is okay, making sure our kids are okay, our spouse is okay, our family members are okay, our employees are okay.
We end up in this cycle of trying to help and make sure everybody else is okay, and we are just empty. What I actually realized about two years ago was at work, and I was like they are paying me because they want me to be successful and maybe I should think pretty hard about what the systems are that I need to be successful and how I set this up in a way that works for me. That’s what I would love to talk about today.
Brett: Great. How did this end up becoming a thing for you? What was your life like? What were the factors that led up to this recognition?
Jaime: Just exhausted. I am very high EQ, and so I can look at people and I can usually read them. When you are high EQ and you are working on trying to make everybody okay, it is very emotionally exhausting. I just had nothing left in my cup. I think back, and my oldest is now 11 but when he was nine months old, I was driving to a yoga class. It was the first time I had left the house without the baby, nine months old. I sat in the car in the parking lot just crying because I was like I don’t even know how to find time to take a shower. My husband took the baby, and I could go to this yoga class. I just had nothing in me to even walk into this class and start working out again. That’s when the seed started being planted. How can I be the mom I want to be when it is all about making this nine-month-old human not die today?
Looking back, what I should have done is say hey honey or call my sister, ask for friends, send him to daycare for a few hours, but I just was putting all on myself that I needed to put everything for me into him, which ended up with me being a crying mess in a parking lot and probably not showing up happy and ready to play on the floor when the baby was ready. That’s where it started.
Brett: It sounds like that would be an easy thing to get yourself caught up in because it is your baby. You care about your baby. You want your baby not to die when you look away for 15 minutes. It would be very easy to think that it is also your baby and your responsibility. Your sister didn’t have your baby or friends didn’t have your baby. It’s not their job. To think that you have to take it all on yourself and not even ask makes it so that you are not able to take as good care of the baby because you are not taking care of yourself.
Jaime: Exactly. Thinking very critically about how I take care of me so that I can take care of whatever else it is that is my responsibility whether it is at home or at work. This started manifesting at work. I was coached very early on. I became a people manager when I was at the Google self-driving car program, and I was coached very early on that great managers change their style for every employee. They meet their employee where they are, and then work their style to speak to that person. I was like great, I am going to be so good at this.
I started what I call now chameleon leadership. I would show up with every person differently, but I got this feedback at Apple when I was there. Somebody was like it looks like you are just so inconsistent. People are very uncertain about how they need to show up for you because you are different in every room you are in. I actually think one of the arts about being a leader is that people kind of know and they can channel you so that you don’t have to be in every room and every decision. This thing I was doing that I thought was so good of taking care of everybody else and meeting their needs and not being clear about my wants and what I needed was actually showing up as a thing that made people fearful and uncertain how to interact with me.
Brett: It sounds like there is a nuance to be found there between meeting people where they are and leaving yourself to be where they are with them and not actually being present and not showing up in the relationship in your truth.
Jaime: Yeah, exactly. Joe talks about this a lot as you can hold space for people, but you have to stay in yourself. You have to stay centered in your knowing, your truth, your wants, and I think I was just going completely into the other person and trying to feed them what they needed. It actually wasn’t working for anybody, so I made some pretty big changes.
Brett: How did that relate to what you were describing as you didn’t even want to use the word, but whatever it attaches to as selfish?
Jaime: To me, at first it was just like that’s just selfish. A leader or a parent that comes in and is like no, I am going to go off and play golf today or my meetings are creative meetings in the morning because that’s when I am creative, and they are one-on-ones in the afternoon because that’s when I am ready to just click through those personal conversations. At first, I was like that’s a very selfish thing to do, and then I started looking at leaders that I really respect and how they run their schedules, how they run their days, how they set up the systems and the processes that make them work. I realized that every leader does it differently. I was like that’s interesting.
Then I started looking and I was like oh, they are being paid to be successful. They are setting up systems that make themselves successful. That’s what they are expecting me to do, too. Everybody is sitting around and waiting and going like you are the leader. Why don’t you tell us what you want? It is not actually selfish, but it feels like it in the moment when you are just like this is what I want, this is what I need, and we are going to do it this way.
Brett: What do you think taught you that visceral feeling of shame or whatever it is that comes up when you feel that fear of being selfish, or you feel that taking care of yourself is self-centered or selfish? Where do you think that comes from?
Jaime: I think some of it is in gender, for me at least. Growing up in a small community where the matriarchs of the family were just the superheroes. They are making dinner on the table. They are throwing these amazing birthday parties. They are showing up at all the kids’ events. The kids are all well dressed, and their hair is combed. I just grew up in this community where the observation was the matriarchs are pouring everything into their families, and the success of the family is the success of the matriarch.
I never really peeled back the curtain to understand what goes on at home inside the four walls to see if that’s actually what’s going on. I can say in my own home my mother was exhausted. She worked a full-time job. She took care of four kids. My dad was out of the house a lot with his work, and my mom did everything. I think I just kind of by example absorbed that that was the expectation, and I never saw my mom be like I need a break, or I am going out. Even when she would go hang out with her friends, she would always have a kid or two in tow. She never took that time for herself, so I never saw it modeled.
For me, it was about taking the realization and realizing that I want a bigger and more joyful life and that it will actually probably lead to more clarity and actually drop the fear level in work and will enable me to show up the way I want to show up.
Brett: Tell me a little bit more about how this started to land in you and how the transformation occurred.
Jaime: This is going to sound weird, but I was on a business trip. We were on the plane, and the flight attendant does their thing where they are like if you are traveling with a small child, put the oxygen mask on yourself before putting it on the small child. I was like I need an oxygen mask for myself first. It was just this deep knowing from within me. Where is my own oxygen mask? I started just thinking about that. I started studying how leaders work.
Joe and I were doing a lot of work at the time about speak your truth, own your truth, and I was working for a leader at the time who is a very dominant leader, someone who walks in the room and just like screams at everybody if it wasn’t exactly the way they wanted it. I was working with Joe, and I am like I don’t know how to deal with this leader. Everything I try to do doesn’t please them. Joe was like why don’t you just show up and do what you want to do and ignore the leader. I was like okay, that’s an interesting experiment.
I walked into a room one day and this leader had been yelling at me for like six months in front of the team, behind the team, one-on-one. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t that he was mad at me. It was just like he was so frustrated if everything wasn’t exactly the way they wanted it. They started yelling, and I said I can tell you are scared. It was just so clear to me that the yelling was actually out of fear of not being successful. I just said I can tell you are really scared, and I said I just want you to know I don’t respond to yelling. I actually become less creative and less able to help you solve the problem. Then I just sat there. I didn’t try to fix him. I didn’t try to make it okay. I just sat there.
He looked at me and then he smiled. He leaned forward, and he was like great, let’s start solving the problem. It was just like this total 180 in our relationship. I was like oh, maybe I should just do what I want. That was a big piece of it. Joe had also come in and worked with my team. He came to me, and he said Jaime, I just want you to know I see a lot of fear and uncertainty in your team. We started unpacking that and thinking about where that came from. I think, again, that was a lot of just they couldn’t channel me and my thought process and my decisions because I was so focused on managing each of them to the way they wanted to be managed that there wasn’t an ability to be like no, she is always like this. She’s just going to say this. Every single meeting they were like is she going to want this today or that. Is this going to be wrong or right? That sucks when you are an employee.
Brett: They are spending a lot of time calculating how you were going to respond, and they don’t have a consistent model for understanding it because you are not showing consistency. You are showing some mirror of how they are to be with them and the way you see them as being. It is not really how you actually want to show up. That decreases trust. People are just unable to trust what they can bring to you and how you are going to respond to it.
Jaime: Exactly. It would actually be far better to be like my boss who is just screaming at me all the time because that’s very consistent. I know exactly what I am going to get. I didn’t want to be that leader, but I did make a bunch of changes kind of all at once. I changed the way I ran my schedule. I like to do my deep thinking, problem solving in the morning. I like all my one-on-ones on one day, whatever they are, just structural kind of things for a day. I had my assistant help me get all of that lined up. I made sure that there was fifty percent white space on my calendar at the beginning of the week so that I had time to work on the problems I wanted to do because that’s just what I need.
I changed the meeting structure, how we communicated as a team, and then I pulled the whole team together. I said look, this is a team, and this is right as we were going into COVID. I was like this is a team that’s kind of newly forming, and we are not cohesive. I just showed up super vulnerably and the way I wanted to show up, not worrying about what they were going to think and just said we have really got some work to do on team culture and team cohesion. We went through a series of workshops over about three months, all virtual because it was COVID. We came out with a series of commitments and how we wanted to work, the principles we had for a team.
I just watched this team go from not being able to set goals or agree to anything, completely fearful, to a virtual team where they were collaborating with each other. They were working to solve problems. They were bringing me decisions and not just squabbling about things anymore. They were setting goals and hitting their goals, and so it was like all I had to do was just show up vulnerably and be like I don’t have confidence that this is a team that can win. We have a lot of work to do, and I need you in it with me. We did a bunch of work together and we came out the other side. It was just such a great transformation that I saw with them, too.
Brett: It sounds like when you went through this process of just reimagining the way you show up. How do I show up the way I want to? How do I show up to work the way that makes me successful? Not only did you succeed in restructuring the work environment for yourself but it also permissioned it for others who work for you and also modeled it for your manager at that time. That sounds like a really vulnerable thing to say to somebody who is yelling at you and who is a superior to you in the organization to say I see that you are scared.
Jaime: Right, but it was just so clear to me. It was like oh, this is what my kid does when he is scared. I bet we all do that. It is like it came out of me. The filter was gone. The filter of how he is going to respond to this. Maybe you don’t do it, but you start playing chess in your head about if I say this, then they are going to do that or they are going to feel that. That chess game starts happening.
Brett: The 4D chess.
Jaime: I hate it. It was like the first time in a long time that I just shut the chess game off and was like I am not going to do that. I am just going to go with the first thing that came in my head. The first thing that came in my head is he is scared. I see you are scared. Then the second thing that came in my head was we have a problem to solve, but I can’t do it with you yelling at me. I said that. Yeah, the 4D chess, that’s kryptonite for me. I hate it. I am bad at it. I am bad at chess.
Brett: I want to speak to some of the fear that would hold us back, the fear and the shame that would hold us back from taking these steps. I am imagining an extreme edge case here where you are with your child. You have been with your child all day. You need space. You need something, and nobody is there to provide it for you. Maybe you are hard on yourself for not having asked, so no one is around. Your first impulse is just to get up and walk out and go for a walk and leave them alone. What would make it that you wouldn’t do that?
Jaime: When it is a nine-month-old baby, you shouldn’t do that probably.
Brett: Exactly. My question here is there are times where your impulse. You were just telling me a number of stories where you trusted that impulse, and you just did it. Wow, things transformed and changed around you. I think the thing that holds us back from trusting our impulse is we believe if we actually follow that impulse, everything is going to fall apart. We are going to be attacked. Our baby is going to die, put its finger in a light socket.
Tell me a little about how that has shifted for you, how your fear of the consequences of taking care of yourself and getting what you need, and how it has shifted the way you go about it to maybe dispel the notion you would start acting in ways that are damaging to your child or to yourself.
Jaime: I started with a lot of playing the 4D chess ahead of the thing. I guarantee you I am going to be in a meeting, and I am going to get yelled at. Probably this person is going to yell at me tomorrow. I started playing the 4D chess, and it was like, if I say this, what’s the worst thing that can happen and go through that exercise. The Stoics do this all the time. They say to imagine your death and then imagine past your death. What happens the hour after you die? What happens the day after you die? What happens the week, the month, the year, the decade? You become just totally okay with death as part of this process that the Stoics lay out.
I started doing that with scenarios that I was worried about and saying if I said screw you, you can’t yell at me, what’s the worst thing that can happen? If I got up and walked out, what’s the worst thing that could happen? If I sat there and started crying, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Just try a whole bunch of different things and feel what feels right and resonates in me. Am I okay with those consequences? In all cases, by the way, it works. The worst thing that can happen is you get fired. Okay, I have three recruiters calling me right now, whatever it is. I am probably okay with getting fired.
For me, it was thinking through that a lot and realizing the consequences weren’t as big and scary as I thought they could be and really imagining and experiencing them, sitting in that, really imagining and feeling yourself getting fired. Then what happens the day after you got fired? What happens the week after you got fired and the month after you got fired? I got to a point where I was okay with it, and then I felt very free at work because the worst thing that could ever happen is I got fired. That would be okay.
At home, I started doing similar things where it was like what’s the worst thing that can happen if I leave. Now my kids are eight and 11. If I leave and go for a walk for half an hour, what’s the worst thing that could happen? They could get in a fight. Okay. I think through all of those things. Sometimes I set up preventative measures where it is like I need some me time. I am going to go for a walk, and I will be back. Here is an activity for you, and here’s an activity for you. Now I am out. Sometimes it is like I am going to go for a walk, and we are all going to the park. You can play at the park while I walk around the playground. I try different things like that to realize what I need and how I set it up in a way where people are safe and that’s it.
Brett: It sounds like a major difference in what you had just been describing about playing the 4D chess in advance, which is a lot like rehearsing a conversation versus the Stoic practice of seeing through your death, which ultimately everything seems to land in that. If I lose my job, then I won’t be able to take care of myself. I will die alone and miserable and I will be disrespected and everything. It all seems to finally end in that, but we are often just not willing to vision that far into our future and actually test the hypothesis in our simulation.
I think the major distinction here is that often people rehearse a conversation so that they can play the chess game and avoid the consequence they are trying not to get, being yelled at, rather than just seeing all the possible moves on the table that they could play and then all the counter moves they could play to all the possible moves played back at them and then accepting the entire thing. Then showing up and being like, I am just going to be me because that’s what feels better in my system now and in the long term, and I also trust that’s going to lead to better outcomes for me and everybody around me. That might even include that I am fired and then I go to a different job where I am not being yelled at.
Jaime: Or I get a week off in the summer to hang out with my kids or a month while I look for a job.
Brett: Or your kids learn to resolve conflict with mom not around. I am also curious now to whatever extent of helicopter parenting. I think all parents have some level of it. Am I over parenting? Am I under parenting? How has that shifted as you have gone through this transformation of taking care of your needs and putting on your own oxygen mask and seeing through the negative consequences you don’t want?
Jaime: A thing I have done is I have tried to empower my kids now. There is a checklist on the fridge. These are the things you need to get done today, and they are responsible for getting it done and then at about six o’clock after we have had dinner. I am like is your checklist done. If it is done, then great, you can have free time and do what you want. If no, you know you need to get that stuff done. That’s just an example of where I have totally pulled out because I don’t want to micromanage. I even told them that. I said I don’t want to micromanage. I find it really stressful. I don’t want to get in an article with you about if you need to have a shower for the second time this entire week or not. You need to be clean. It is just on the checklist. You follow the checklist.
That’s brought me more space so that I don’t have to be like mad and in these negotiations. I hate negotiating with my children, but at the same time it has also given them empowerment. They can decide what order they do it in, what time they are going to do it as long as it is done by six o’clock. Otherwise, they don’t get free time. That’s just brought a lot more joy and peace into the household.
It has also made me much more connected to them and then more connected to me because the interactions we have aren’t about negotiating if you should bathe for the second time this week, but they are much more about great job in school today. I was looking at your homework. I am so impressed with how well you did on your math test. We are connecting on things that feel much more meaningful and less on things that are just the minutiae of being in a family together and getting chores done.
Brett: It sounds like from what you were saying earlier, there is a similar letting go of micromanagement in your team at work. You recognize that those who hired you want you to be doing what you need to be successful and meet the goals and metrics and be an active and empowered part of how you work. That trickles down to those on your team.
Jaime: That’s right. Even now we are hiring a bunch of people. We are an early-stage startup. I interview everybody that’s coming on the team, but very rarely do I veto. I have done it twice in all of the people we have interviewed because I am much more here to empower you as the hiring manager to make your own decisions, and I am just going to give you perspective on here are some things I think are going to be important as they onboard, here are some challenges you may have with them as you are managing them, whatever the insights are that I see.
But they will sit there and at first it was very odd for them, I think, because they would look at me and be like should we hire this person or not. You interviewed them. You are the boss. I am like I am not the hiring manager. I am not deciding. Here is what I see. Just really pushing that empowerment to my team is really important to me.
Brett: Where do you see your next edge? One of the things we talk about a lot is that this process of self-discovery is a corkscrew. You swing around one time, and you find all these ways you have been holding yourself back and limiting yourself. Then, through deeper awareness, you transform, and you change the way you show up in the world. You swing back around the corkscrew, and it is the same thing again but on some fractal, more subtle layer or level. I am curious. For you, what is the version of this that’s most alive for you as an edge today?
Jaime: That’s a great question. Right now the thing I work on a lot is I can’t save people. I have this tendency to be like you are empowered. You do you. But then when they are about to fail, I am like let me help you, let me catch you. Now the thing I am working on is like no, maybe they are not going to fail, and I am wrong. Maybe the failure is the learning that they need or maybe them being weak in that role is actually what’s going to strengthen the team by having the team see it and come around. There is a lot more of me pulling back. I am working on it. I am not perfect at it right now, but it is very top of mind. Me pulling back and being like I see where this is going, I think it is going to be a problem, but I need to let the person who is responsible and empowered, I need to really mean that and let them go and forget their own path.
I’ve done it right a few times and wrong a few times lately. When it is done right, what I see is the team is stronger.
Brett: Something I have learned on this same kind of path, being a classic savior myself, is that when I am on the path, I am often vacillating between over controlling and trying to save them from the inevitable failure I see them walking into, whether or not I am actually correct about that, or I am just hands off. I am like okay, they are going to learn on their own. I miss opportunities to give them really clear, something that I see that might be difficult for them to hear and be able to deliver it lovingly and without fear and without talking down to them. That’s an edge. Again, it is a fractal that you just continue to deepen into the subtlety.
Jaime: You keep it hitting that bump. You can take it too far the other day, which is like you do you, good luck, and that’s not helpful either. It is finding, like you said, that sweet spot. That’s the thing I am working on now.
Brett: You can get to that point where you are so hands off where you are like why is my team continuing to fail. I am letting them be empowered and do their thing.
Jaime: They are empowered. It is up to them. No, it’s not. You are the leader. I always say the wins are yours, the failures are ours.
Brett: There is another phrase I really enjoy, which is: What if it is not your fault, it is your responsibility. As a leader, when I start to think of something that might be my fault, whether it is me or somebody I am leading and a decision that I could have been a part of and steered or brought reflection to, if I am afraid of fault on some level, then that creates a threat on my system. Then I come from fear, which leads me to either over control or avoid. But if it is just responsibility, my own self responsibility, like not outwardly, imposed responsibility that I should do something. I am responsible for the outcomes in my life, and if I am running a business and I see things going on, if I want that to be addressed, it is my responsibility to speak up. But it is not my fault if something goes wrong, fault meaning I don’t have to shame myself for it. I don’t have to love myself any less because I allowed something to occur that I could have spoken to and didn’t.
Jaime: I think that’s right. I think most of the time for me when things go sideways, it starts with shame. The voice in the head turns on and goes you should have done blah. Then the shame starts, and then at that point, you are not only trying to manage the situation, you are managing yourself. You are not in connection with anything. I find that you have really got to get back in connection with yourself.
I always try to tell the team. The phrase I like is let’s just look at this like a patient on the table. What are the symptoms? Then, what’s the next step in treatment? Solving problems like that and not worrying about whose fault is something I think is just a really good way to keep the shame from cropping up in people. Then they can stay much more in the problem-solving mode.
Brett: I could imagine an ER doc being the person who had crashed into somebody, rushing to the hospital with them and then being the person to work on them, carrying the whole what have I done with them. How effective is that going to be? That person just needs to go through their process and then somebody else who is not as directly attached to the situation. Maybe there is a case where somebody would actually be able to do the best possible job because they feel a deep responsibility to themselves to show up to that situation and be fully present with it, but to the extent they are hard on themselves about what happened, it wouldn’t be very effective.
Jaime: That’s right. I think we show up better, we solve problems better, we get to better solutions when the shame is off, and we are just focused on here’s the thing. I’ve got to get this thing done. I am responsible for getting this thing done. I think our businesses are better, our families are better, and our personal lives are better for it.
Brett: It sounds like not only for yourself but for your family and for those around you and those who work with you, which flies in the face of this impression that we are taught that it is selfish.
Jaime: Exactly. I think it is not selfish. I think it is being in connection with yourself, for sure, and owning what it is you want and speaking your truth. But I think it is setting up the conditions for success in whatever it is that you are doing in that moment. When you do that, you are actually much better to be around. The things you are delivering are much better. I don’t know. Maybe selfish is okay, working title.
Brett: I love it. Thank you so much, Jaime. I really enjoyed this.
Jaime: Thank you. It is so good to see you.
Brett: You, too. Take care.
Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check our courses at artocaccomplishment.com.
In this episode, Brett and Joe interview Sam Altman on how self-awareness gained through meditation can be combined with intelligence in business. Sam is an entrepreneur, investor and programmer. He is the CEO of OpenAI and the former president of Y Combinator.
Sam discusses his experiences with meditation and how it has transformed his decision making and resulted in a much calmer, more joyous default state of being. He explains some of the most profound realizations that he has had about himself and humanity in general through his work with AI. Join us to hear more about how Sam arrived at a place of calm detachment that allowed him to respond to challenging and stressful situations with ease.
“Intelligence and awareness, to me, seem like that have to go together.”
What we discuss in Episode 39:
1:30 A realization that completely changed the way that Sam operates in business, the way he thinks about AI, and his life.
5:04 The moment Sam realized his old way of operating, from a place of stress and anxiety, needed to change.
8:00 How to really care about something while remaining detached from the outcome at the same time.
11:03 The most transformative aspect of meditation according to Sam.
14:40 The experience of non-duality — how it shifts perspective and provides clarity on self, passions and priorities.
22:22 Whether human emotions are possible for artificial intelligence to experience.
29:38 How intelligence needs self-awareness to reach its full capacity.
32:50 How meditation shifted Sam’s relationship to anger and joy.
35:55 How the work that Sam has done on himself has evolved his work culture.
If you are going to get as smart as possible, you want to be able to make the best predictions about what will happen. One of the things that will act is you. Yeah, I think there is something there, which is intelligence and self-awareness to me seem like they have to go together.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment, where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler, here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson.
Brett: All right, everybody. I am really excited about our guest today. Today we are speaking with Sam Altman. Sam is the CEO of Open AI, and he is the former president of Y Combinator. How are you doing today, Sam?
Sam: Doing really well. Thanks for having me.
Brett: I am really excited to talk to you just because it seems like what you are doing and what we are doing is somewhat parallel in that you are working to make sure the AI we create and make self-aware is aligned with human values, and what we are doing is just making sure humans are aligned with human values and discovering how to discover what those even are. I am really excited for this conversation.
Sam: Awesome. Me, too.
Brett: Sam, I would love to dive into something you learned about yourself over the course of your life that really just changed your world, and the changed the way you operate in business, and the way you think about AI and about your life.
Sam: I think there are a bunch of interesting things I could pick here. It is a fun question, but the one that resonates with me the most and it wasn’t intentional at the time, but what became intentional during the process was becoming a calm person. I think I started off my career in life as a very anxious, high-strung person, much more than I realized. I think it was a negative in many ways, the obvious ones being sort of just generally unhappy and somewhat miserable and also just work-wise, tremendously less effective and a much worse leader.
Then through a conscious effort, eventually what started off as just mostly exploring meditation and introspection about why I was the way I was and why I was so sort of high strung and just wound up in an unproductive way, it started, I guess, as trying to explore why this was in the way of productivity and then it became why it was in the way of my happiness. That process, I think, made me much better at my job in addition to much happier in my life. I think one of the things anyone learns running a company is there are a lot of crises all of the time. You can get through them. You do get through them, but to the degree, you kind of believe you are going to get through them even if you don’t see exactly how, you get through them much more effectively. Also, you really have an effect on how other people that work with you when they look to you for guidance and culture setting and how they should react, it really changes how they should react.
Basically, the situations that don’t benefit from calmness and sort of thought and appropriate perspective before action are very few and far between. I think the steadiness that brings to work leads to the ability to get to much better answers on much harder problems. It is also just a much more pleasant way to live.
Brett: How did you recognize this was a blocker for you both in business and also just in your personal, subjective experience?
Sam: As I experienced, it started off with this thing I can tell this is in the way of my productivity, which I think says something about my mindset at the time. It then very quickly became this inner exploration and realized that it was something obviously better to me, seemed cultivable, and the thing I obviously wanted.
Joe: The idea that it was messing with your productivity, the anxiety or anxiousness was messing with your productivity, how did you see that? What were exactly the things you saw you were doing that you said oh wow, this is not productive? For people who might not know this is getting in the way of their productivity, how could they recognize it?
Sam: A common thing I did myself is every day I would come to work in some sort of a panic. I would think we were doing the wrong things. I would have totally new priorities I thought we needed to go after. I would get really convinced if we just go do this one thing, everything will be much better. We have got to totally reorient the whole thing now. I have this big, new strategy and this big, new thing. Everything I thought yesterday was bad. We have got to do this immediately. That was one way in which it happened. I ‘ve heard a lot of other people tell similar stories where you just feel very reactive and all over the place.
This was like 15 years ago now, but I still remember it, like watching a movie. I had been negotiating this deal. It was not going that well. It was pretty important, and it was under extreme time pressure and down to the wire. I remember at one point just like feeling like I was going to explode from the stress about it. I lived in this little studio house in Mountain View at the time. It was a summer day. There is no air conditioning. It was probably 95 degrees inside. I was just in gym shorts. It was on a weekend. I was so stressed I was laying on the ground with my arms out to the side and trying to breathe and feeling like I was just like going to explode. It was this terrible feeling.
I realized that I just didn’t want to be doing this, and also, me feeling this way was not helping in any way. It was not making the deal anymore likely to happen, clearly only less. It was making me want to quit and not do this anymore. I was subjecting myself to this thing because it’s how I thought I was supposed to be feeling when it was just strictly bad. There was no benefit at all. That was a moment for me when I was like there has got to be a better way. This doesn’t feel to me like the right way to be doing things.
Brett: I heard you say there that the feelings you had there were strictly bad. I am curious. What were they trying to tell you, if anything, that you needed to hear to approach the deal in a way that was healthy for you?
Sam: The thing I would say now is people say you need to be detached. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. It means you do whatever you can, you control what you can control, and then beyond, the outcome is going to be what the outcome is. You realize there are some things out of your control, but also in the long arc of a company, if you get the inputs right, the dice rolls don’t always go your way, but the outputs eventually come. If you really focus on doing what you can do and be detached from the outcome in any specific case, eventually you get to the right outputs. But if you don’t focus on what you can do, you end up. In the moment, the way I was acting, responding and feeling, that did not help me clearly figure out what to do. That did not help me think about better ideas. That certainly did not instill any confidence in our counterparty.
Brett: I heard you mention just there that piece about detachment to the outcome. Something we talk a lot about in this work is impartiality. I am curious what the difference there is between being detached from the outcome and somewhat disassociated from it, but then on the other side of that, actually really caring about the outcome but also accepting whichever way it might go and also trusting yourself to navigate however that might flow.
Sam: I don’t think I have a magic answer there other than it sort of came to me over time, and now I both really care and feel quite detached. I also trust that it will all somehow eventually work out even though the luck multiple in any given moment is big. I think there is a lot of introspection work that comes there, but I also think that just seeing that work enough times over the course of a career is the best place to really internalize it and learn it. These things that just seem like company ending crises don’t end the company.
Even if they do, you get to go start another thing. Eventually you realize I went through all of that pain and suffering, and I didn’t need to. Here we are. It probably only hurt the eventual progress.
Brett: In my experience, the things I have considered to be a company ending crisis tend to become more likely to end the company the more I believe that.
Sam: There is something there, for sure.
Brett: After this moment, you had this moment where you are lying on the ground, and you could barely breathe. You had all of this sensation, all of this emotion. You were clearly not operating in a way that was effective. You recognized that something needed to shift and there was a change of strategy that was called for. How did you then approach and find your way towards this introspection and deeper self-awareness, the path you are on now?
Sam: There was an awareness that something needed to change, but for anything to start changing unfortunately took quite a long time after that. That was a moment where I was. There are many moments where you realize something needs to change, but that was a moment where it was very clear something really needed to change because that was just sort of no way to live and also to be productive.
I was a very dismissive person of anything that had any. I have done a total 180 on this. If someone was like you just need to go meditate more, I would basically be like fuck you, I’m really busy. That’s a dumb thing. You don’t get it. I would say that about lots of other things as well. But then I think at some point I was like okay, I will give this a try. I think it was years later from that moment, but then man, it really changed things quickly.
Then this thing I had done because I thought it would make me more productive, I realized I just wanted to be happier. There were a number of things. Meditation was probably the most valuable to me, but particular forms of it. A lot of other work also helped, and then I realized that just in the spirit of wanting to be happier, it also had come full circle and made me, maybe not more productive in terms of volume of work I do but certainly on better inputs and thus better outputs.
Joe: You were talking about different modalities and meditation there, and that there's an arc of meditation. You have been meditating for something like 10 years now. How can you describe the difference in your approach to meditation when you started, in the middle and the end? How has your attitude towards and your approach changed, if at all?
Sam: It started with more guided meditations or meditations that were focused on awareness or calmness. The transformational part for me was getting to unstructured meditation, sitting for an hour with your eyes closed and making no effort towards anything. The arc on that for most people starts as some version of self-therapy with your eyes shut for a while, and then you work through that backlog, and it changes to something else. I certainly changed a lot out of that.
Joe: It sounds like to some degree that that same impartiality or detachment of business results also happened internally, meaning that now you can just be with yourself with whatever showed up instead of trying to manage yourself into a state.
Sam: For sure. Eventually the stuff stops showing up or at least shows up much less. I think this is, at least for me, a long path of meditation. It was not the shortcut path. The shortcut path, at least in most of Silicon Valley, is plant medicine, which I think is great, too, but I think there is really something to taking the long path and letting this process play out over years that I encourage people to give consideration to.
Brett: Absolutely. In my experience with plant medicine, you can often get to places with it that are hard to then re-access when you are not on any kind of medicine. To be in a process where you learn to let your system process information straight from the source, straight from your sensory experience without any alternants, then it is available to you all the time and not just on weekends.
Sam: I think this is all worth exploring. It is all great, but the long path or the hard path is also I think really worth consideration.
Brett: Along those lines, then, how has your relationship to meditation changed? What are some of the points you experienced along the path where you recognized a different and more effective way to be meditating? How does that relate to the way you relate to it now?
Sam: I definitely didn’t go into meditation saying what I want is calmness. I maybe would have said what I want is to figure out if there is anything here or if there are all these people saying it is a good thing to try and I just don’t get it. Probably even more, I would have said I would like to be less unhappy. That probably would have resonated. It was very strange how much stuff started changing and how little I could predict where it would go.
I think the first moments anyone gets through a meditation where you really, deeply feel. You have read about people’s descriptions of non-duality. It always sounded vague or bullshit, and you really deeply feel it. That’s always, for everyone I have talked to, a pretty profound moment of interchange. I think when you get there, then at least for me a lot of external things changed pretty quickly. For me, it was a slow build and then a lot of stuff changed pretty quickly.
To be honest, I don’t meditate as much anymore. I used to do it a lot, and I still do it now just out of enjoyment or nostalgia or something. It is definitely in a different phase now.
Joe: What are the things that changed when that threshold got hit? What are the things you saw that shifted in the external world?
Sam: I guess there is just this sense that none of this really matters that much, and so I am going to have a very different relationship to how I interact with all of it. Also, there is this clarity. That’s one factor, and then there is also this clarity of here are all of the things I am doing that are actually causing all the things I don’t want. I sort of now can see those as a very detached observer. Actually, if I want to stop that stuff, I am now able to do so.
Brett: It sounds like what you are describing there is that through the practice of meditation you have made it so that you can, in real time, process your inputs. You have cleaned up the inputs of your sensory system, and you are letting all that information in in more real time without having to go sit on a cushion and meditate because it just happens throughout the day. Meditation is now something you do for enjoyment and not necessarily something you need to do because you are just more emotionally fluid in general. Does that sound accurate?
Sam: Yeah, roughly.
Joe: What’s inaccurate about it? What’s the piece that’s missing or is a bad description?
Sam: I mean there are people who need to say I don’t need to meditate anymore because now I feel like I am meditating all the time. I certainly haven’t had that experience. There is something about sitting for a long period of time that is still really different and not something I experience in day-to-day life. But the ability to observe the world and myself in a more detached way, that’s definitely stuck.
Joe: One of the things I hear people talk about when they get to that place is that they start worrying that they don’t care or that they feel like it is listless. They feel like they don’t have the passion anymore because they are associating with the non-personal nature. What would you say to those people?
Sam: I definitely worried about that happening to me. I didn’t want that to happen. In the spirit of full transparency, I know some people to whom that has happened. It certainly didn’t happen to me. It made me care more about work. It made me more productive. It sort of took on a different valence, what I wanted to work on and what I cared about. There is a bunch of stuff I didn’t even realize how much I cared about that I really stopped caring about and there were some new things I really started caring about. There were changes, for sure.
One of the things I realized actually early on during meditation was just how much I cared what other people thought about me, which was a hugely limiting thing for me work-wise. Of course, I still care somewhat but that was a relatively quick thing to drop. That was a very freeing thing in terms of going to work on things that weren’t going to seem cool or at least weren’t going to seem cool for a long time. It changed what I cared about, but in ways that I have felt happy about.
There is definitely shit that happens to you during intense and prolonged meditation. There are probably moments when I was just like wow, I shouldn’t be working at all or whatever, but none of that stuck.
Joe: That’s what I often see in people. Their listlessness or the lack of passion is when they are looking at the parts of themselves that no longer want to exist. Then when they find the parts of themselves that are ready to emerge and evolve, the passion is always right there. But obviously the longer they stay in that fear, the harder it is to find the thing that does move them now.
Sam: Obviously, when you are on the front side of it, this idea that your sense of self is going to diminish, maybe diminish a lot is a scary thought. People are like, what is that going to do to my motivation. Almost everyone I know who meditates a lot does have some degree of sense of self diminishing, often a lot, and yet they still do whatever they were doing. They still often do whatever they were doing before, or some adapted and maybe better version of it.
Joe: When you look back at your resistance to meditation, what it is that you think you were actually resisting?
Sam: I think it was that I felt like it was a waste of time, and this sort of hippy feelings bullshit I just didn’t want to entertain.
Joe: When you look back at it, the resistance was the same as what you thought it was at that time.
Brett: How do you relate your experience in meditation and feelings in general and the way that that processes through to create your experience and drive your decision making? How do you relate that to the work you are doing at Open AI and the way you understand intelligence in general?
Sam: I think for most kinds of work, but certainly very uncertain scientific work that often feels high stakes and that brings up a lot of emotions for people, the ability to stay calm and centered during hard and stressful moments and to make decisions where you are not too reactive, sticking to long term principles, I think that’s really important.
I think in this field in particular unfortunately some of the communities that have been most involved in AI safety I think are the people that are the least calm. I think that’s a dangerous situation if you have some of the people who have historically been most active thinking and talking about AI safety actually build AI and be responsible for its safety, I think that would be quite bad. It is an extremely high-strung community with some peculiarities. I remember observing one thing I could bring to this is the opposite of whatever that community has.
Joe: There is a principle I see a lot, which is the thing we are scared of is the thing we attract. It sounds like that’s at least in part of the way you are seeing this. These very high strung, very scared people are the ones to protect us from it. They also might be attracting the thing they are trying to avoid.
Sam: Yeah, I think that would be quite bad.
Brett: I can see fear justifying a lot of the arms race-y type things that occur in the field.
Sam: That could happen for sure, but I think there are a bunch of other worse things that could happen, too. There is this great short story about AGI called the Gentle Seduction. There is a line in there that I am going to misquote, but it is something like, only the worlds or only the people who knew prudence without fear made it through. That’s not the sentence, but it is something like that. Maybe it was like caution without fear.
That’s basically what I think it is going to take to get through this very wild and complex transition we are going through. If you create the existence of humanity from a place of deep fear, panic and anxiety, that seems to me like you are likely to make some very bad choices or certainly not reflect the best of humanity in that.
Joe: Neurologically speaking, we make decisions emotionally, meaning if we take the emotional center out of our brain, we cease to be able to make decisions even if our IQ and IQ would stay the same. Also, I always pronounce his name wrong, Gödel. He talks about the limitations of logic through the mathematical incompleteness theorem.
As you are building artificial intelligence and you see that the postulants we are working on and the way our intelligence works is through emotions, how does that translate into AI? How do emotions translate into AGI, if at all, as the thruster?
Sam: First of all, I think it is important to stay quite humble here and realize that although it does appear now that we know how to build intelligence, we may be building a very alien intelligence. We don’t quite know how it is going to work or how it works. It is possible that we build something that still can solve problems and can still understand and learn but just does so in such a different way than we do that if we try to project our own experience of deeply emotional decision making, that’s just wrong or that just won’t work.
But I think it is also possible that a lot of those things that we experience as emotions, depending on how we train the system, a lot of those ideas of things like emotions are going to appear in artificial neural networks as well. There is certainly no reason why it couldn’t. People say we aren’t going to have that because hormones can’t act on artificial neural networks. Of course, you can model that. This is clearly possible. We just haven’t done it yet.
It also could just emerge entirely in the neural network without us ever doing anything active there. There could be something very deeply inherent about creativity or social dynamics or whatever where that is unavoidable. I think the honest answer is we don’t know, and we need to be open to it doesn’t happen at all or it happens in a very deep way.
Joe: The follow up question is a weird one. If you could push a button and the button was basically fear is something that AI gets to experience, would you push the button?
Sam: Of course.
Joe: What makes that so? I say that because obviously moving out of anxiety has been incredibly important to you. You see some wisdom in the fear. What creates that?
Sam: I think fear is an important emotion. I think fear underlies not all emotions but quite a lot of them. I think there is often a very important signal there. I think it evolved for a reason. I don’t think we would have made it through to where we are without that. I think it is an important part of the full experience of life, and it is also a useful signal for learning and staying alive, all of that.
Brett: There is something really interesting about often the framing around AI is that emotions are a human thing and AI is a logical thing. That piece about fear and the endocrine system, the distribution of cortisol receptors in your body is trained by your experience and determines your bodily response to a fearful stimulus. How could that not be part of a learned system that may not be neuro in nature but is part of your overall system?
I am curious what you think about that, and how emotions do actually play into creating the context in which decisions are even made and proposals for actions are even thought of.
Sam: As Joe said, we clearly make decisions emotionally and then justify them with intellect later. Again, just to repeat it, I think we need to be very open minded to the fact that the digital intelligence we build is just going to be super alien and maybe it won’t be. Maybe there is something so fundamental about the relationship between fear and intelligence, which I could totally believe, that building any sort of AGI like system necessarily has the ability to experience fear, but also maybe not. One thing I think we will find is that biological intelligence is just incredibly limited relative to what we are capable of producing.
Joe: What’s the biggest example of something you have learned about yourself by understanding AI? As you have built this thing, what I mean to say is if I write something on fear, I am going to learn something about fear by writing on it. You are building AI, attempting to build AGI. What is it teaching you about yourself or about humanity?
Sam: We talked a little bit earlier about this idea of when you meditate, your sense of self recedes, but one of the things I and I have heard a lot of other people describe it this in different ways or sometimes the same way, that working on AI really makes you think about all of the old, deep, philosophical questions, not all but many of them come up a lot in this context of: What’s going to happen when I get uploaded? What’s going to happen when there are copies made of me? Do I want to merge? Do I want to go off exploring the universe? Will that still be me? How much of me will that be?
One of the things I think of as an interesting continuation of meditation was this very deep-felt sense that there is no self that I can still find to identify with in any way at all. I’ve heard a lot of other people who have spent a lot of time thinking about AGI get to that in a different way too.
Joe: It reminds me of the moon. There is a phenomenon that happens with people who go up into space, astronauts. I don’t know if it is still happening, but when they go and look at the Earth from a distance and look at the Moon from the new perspective, they have the same thing happen. The sense of self changes. One of the, I think. I am trying to remember the name of it, but there is this whole institute in Petaluma, California that was all built around this man’s experience, this astronaut’s experience of seeing that and then building a center to promote it in the world. It seems like it has got a similar phenomenon.
Sam: I think really having to contemplate these questions of what it means to get uploaded or merged or whatever leads people down an interesting path. Certainly, the more you work on AI, the more you think about that, at least for me.
Brett: Something I mentioned early on in the podcast, there seems to be this parallelism between AI and self-awareness and meditation. It seems like the sense of self itself is a specialized form of intelligence that is trained on a certain subset of our history. This is particularly visible in something like a trauma, where you recognize a couple of features in your environment. Then you collapse your entire world to what your environment was like at the time that trauma was programmed.
The process of feeling through and healing our traumas and integrating those experiences as well as the process of meditating and just feeling past our sense of identity into the rest of what we are actually is a way of increasing our general intelligence by allowing us to move through a wider range of experiences in the world and be able to act on those experiences as they distinctly are and not just as our history was.
I am curious how that lands with you in your experience with both AI and with meditation and your own self-awareness.
Sam: The part about relating this to traumas didn’t connect for me. I probably just didn’t understand it, but the part about how intelligence past a certain level should necessarily have some model of self-awareness, that deeply resonated with me because I do think you have to be able to understand your place in the world, yourself as an agent and an actor in the world. If you are trying to get as smart as possible, you want to be able to make the best predictions about what will happen. One of the things that will act is you or your whatever. You also want to think about hypotheticals. I think there is something there, which is in the limit. Intelligence and self-awareness to me seem like they have to go together.
Joe: The other thing I see happen in people. You called it non duality, but when the sense of self opens up to a more universal sense of self, that cognitive thing has moved. What I noticed is there is a movement. Eventually the person starts moving then more and more into joy. Sometimes it takes them ten years for them to just hang out in that space. The peace is fine, and they don’t think there is anything besides peace that’s available. Then they move into joy. How has that experience been for you? The movement, this is a depersonalized life that I am not taking personally. I still have my passion. How has that movement into joy been for you?
Sam: This is sort of amusing to me because I think on the outside I probably seem much less joyous than I used to. I am not a loud, boisterous, laughing person. I used to prioritize more doing things that at least match with my image of what a joyful thing looked like. I now am pretty happy to sit around and not do much, go hiking or whatever, but I feel incredibly joyful all of the time, not all of the time. It is rare that I don’t, yet I feel no need to express it. I don’t think it comes through talking to me. It wouldn’t have fit in my model of how a joyful person acted, but there is a quiet version of it that’s really strong and I am really grateful for almost all of the time.
Brett: I definitely sense a lot of calm just talking to you. Wrapping this back around to your personal experience, having gone through this journey and being wherever you are in the journey yourself now, what happens when you are in a meeting, and something happens that is some kind of crisis? Everyone else gets elevated and alert, and something happens in your system. You find yourself that you might be reactive. What do you do then?
Sam: Once in a while, I do react. I don’t sit there and try to make myself not react. Someone I work with just said that was the one time you get really heated per year. It happened a few days ago in a meeting. I wouldn’t claim to have and certainly not want perfect control, nor would I say I try to pretend to be calm when I don’t feel it. I will happily get mad if I feel like the situation calls for it. It just doesn’t seem to call for it very often, but it is not like I am sitting there making this effort to be really calm.
Brett: How do you experience anger when it arises in you differently than you used to?
Sam: I don’t think differently, just less often. The physiological response in me is heat and energy.
Joe: I don’t find it appropriate to have the response of anger. How does it feel appropriate? What’s the moment where you are like this is appropriate? Or just it happens?
Sam: Just when it happens. I don’t fight it when it happens. It just doesn’t happen that often. I don’t sit there thinking is this worth getting angry about. I just almost always feel like it is not, and then if for whatever reason something is, I don’t try to stop it, but it is rare. You know how most people are somewhat, not most, many people are somewhat conflict avoidant but there are these rare people that love conflict. It seems like an awful way to live, to me, but they love conflict. They go searching for it. Those are the people that seem to trigger the anger in me the most.
Joe: I would make the distinction there between loving conflict and wanting conflict.
Sam: They want it. Yes, I agree.
Joe: I love conflict because I always find a better solution at the end of it, but I am definitely not interested in creating it.
Sam: People who want to create it, that’s a better phrase for it.
Brett: I love when people want to recognize where there is some conflict and bring it to the surface before it becomes a bigger, festering conflict, definitely.
Sam: I am happy with that. What I don’t like is when people want to make fights because it entertains them or whatever.
Brett: Because they feel safe in drama somehow.
Joe: Which is interesting because I notice that people who have that tendency, they don’t feel calm unless they are contained. It is their anxiety. When you meet them with anger, that is the containment that actually calms them down. Interestingly appropriate even though it is not a conscious thing that’s occurring.
If you were talking to either yourself when you were hippy bullshit meditation or if you were talking to a young, brilliant kid who is like hippy bullshit meditation, and for whatever reason, because you probably wouldn’t want to convince them, you were making the argument for meditation, what would you say?
Sam: I was going to say what you just caveated, which is I can’t ever imagine trying to convince someone this is what they should go do. I think if I had tried to convince myself or if someone had tried to convince me before I was really desperately ready, it wouldn’t have worked. I don’t think I would try to convince anyone, but if I had to, I would just be like just come try this once with me. It probably won’t be your thing. You will probably think of it as a wasted hour, but we will hang out and do something fun afterwards. I would have done it in some very easy to dismiss lightweight way.
Joe: It is funny. When we are talking about introducing other people to the work we do or on one of the courses we talk about the same thing, and it is like if you are trying to convince them to get there, it is no good for anybody, you or them.
Brett: From that perspective then, how do you approach your company? When you have found something that’s working really well for you and you may be aware that the consciousness that you have is projected throughout your company as its leader, how do you see your company evolving either on the self-awareness front on the individual level or organizationally due to the work you have been doing yourself?
Sam: I think one of the things that’s remarkable about Open AI is we have a very high, highest I have ever seen density of talent and ability, but people that bring extremely different approaches to work and have very different styles, much more so than I would say most companies have. Most companies tend to have a culture and people can fit into that and get promoted or not and get fired or not hired. You end up with people who all feel pretty similar. I think a thing that I love about Open AI is just how different people are. There are some very non calm people. They are very effective, and they sort themselves into the right places in the organization. That’s probably a good complement.
One thing I think I have gotten good at is figuring out how to sort people, figuring out what people’s inherent strengths and abilities and styles are, and figuring out how to sort them into the right roles. I can’t articulate exactly how, but objectively I think I have been much better at this than most people running companies. It has been a great asset for us.
Brett: It sounds like the more you understand yourself, the more you can see the parts of yourself in others they might not see.
Sam: Maybe, or maybe you can just observe other people in a really detached way because you are not trying to do it in relation to yourself. You are not looking for yourself. I think most people do end up just promoting people that look like themselves. Instead, when you have got that out of the way, you can really focus on what makes this person them, what are they going to excel at, and not have to relate it to yourself and make a better decision.
Joe: One of the things particularly I notice around people who are in any kind of search for non-duality is they think non duality is some sort of end. There is some sort of place they are going to end up and there is nothing left to be done. Since we have been talking about it, whenever I speak about it, I always point to the fact that evolution doesn’t stop at any particular time internally or externally.
I was just wondering what’s the thing now inside of yourself that you are exploring or working with or seeing through. Where is your journey now?
Sam: I just want to see what happens. I think we are in the midst of this most exciting time yet in human history. I am sure there will be more exciting ones in the future. I just feel tremendous curiosity about how all of this is going to play out. Because I identify with all of it, I am deeply interested and curious about all of it. It is pretty exciting.
Brett: I am deeply curious as well and I am really excited to see where you and Open AI and all the rest of us take this existence during our lifetimes. Thank you, Sam.
In Episode 35, Brett interviews Carla Piñeyro Sublett, Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President of IBM on a heart-opening experience that radically altered the dynamic of her business and personal relationships. Carla came from a mindset that doing self work was self-indulgent. Stemming from that belief, she took on the role of being a manager of herself, her emotions and others around her. Through a sequence of transformative self-discoveries, she uncovered a greater capacity for love that was immediately felt and reflected back to her by her family and colleagues. In this episode, we follow Carla on an exploration of how making space to allow her own feelings to be felt invited others to do the same, thereby shifting the dynamics of her relationships both to herself and others into profound alignment.
"As I was going up on stage, one of my peers grabbed me and he said hey Carla, I am going to tell you something. I said what. He said I love you. That just doesn’t happen. It is wild but since doing this work, not only have I felt differently, somehow it has given people the permission to be their authentic selves and be open with me."
As I was going up on stage, one of my peers grabbed me and he said hey Carla, I am going to tell you something. I said what. He said I love you. That just doesn’t happen. It is wild but since doing this work, not only have I felt differently, somehow it has given people the permission to be their authentic selves and be open with me.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.
Brett: All right, everybody, today I am speaking with Carla Pinyero Sublett. I am really excited about this conversation. Carla is the chief marketing officer and senior vice president at IBM. She is also a recognized leader in Building a Better Society by the Aspen Institute, serving on their board of trustees and as a member of its Henry Crown fellowship class of 2016. The following year she was named a woman to watch by Inc Magazine. Wow, that’s a lot, Carla.
Carla: Hi, Brett. It is good to see you.
Brett: Good to see you, too. Tell me a little bit about your journey, and I would really love to dive into something in particular you have learned about yourself through doing this work that has impacted your life and your business and really just changed your world.
Carla: There are so many things. I have to say this work has really changed my life both personally and professionally. I had no idea coming into it how big the impact would really be, but I am truly grateful because it has transformed every aspect of my life and really had a very positive impact on the relationships that I have.
Brett: Tell me a little bit about what Carla was like prior to countering this particular form of development, of exploration and what brought you to it, what brought you here.
Carla: I was already at an inflection point leading up to the work, but prior to that inflection point, I would say I was a super intense individual, very driven, very defined by my work and my job. In 2017, I came to the realization that I was disconnected from the people that mattered most to me and I realized I had lost meaningful connection to my husband and children. In that moment, I decided to quit my job, unenroll the kids from school and travel the world. That was leading up to this work and in search of connection to my heart.
It was about at the end of that journey when someone introduced me to Joe. I began working with Joe in earnest in the months that followed. For me, it was the culmination of that search for connection to my heart that brought Joe into my life.
Brett: What was it you learned about yourself in those first interactions that made you recognize that this was going to be a fruitful avenue of exploration.
Carla: For starters, I will say my first one on one with Joe, about five minutes in, I said holy shit, you are a therapist. I hate therapy. I hate anything of or pertaining to it or I used to. I felt like it was self-indulgent, and I was really the sort of person that gleaned value from providing for others and putting others’ needs before myself. Initially, going into the work, once I first got to know Joe, I have to tell you I was extremely resistant, Brett. I felt like I don’t have the time for this. I am a mom. I am working. I need to be spending time with my teen and my family. I don’t need to dwell on all of this stuff. I put up quite the fight going on.
It was really interesting to see how Joe responded to that, but I eventually came out the other side. I am so glad I did.
Brett: Tell me about that moment of coming out the other side. When did this really start to crack for you? The thing I am pointing to here is this resistance to self-indulgence. This is something that is very common that people have, which is I don’t need to spend the time on myself. I don’t need to spend resources or indulge in exploring and becoming more aware of who I am and aware of what my wants are because what’s more important is I am taking care of everyone else in my life. It seems like that’s a flavor of the resistance you brought into it. What started to crack that open for you?
Carla: For me, the significant shift happened at a weeklong course that Joe holds called Groundbreakers. He calls it a retreat, but we joke with him that there is nothing retreat about it. It is definitely an intensive. It was during that week that my heart literally broke open. I realized my full capacity for love. I know that sounds ridiculous, but up until that point, even though I was searching for connection to my heart, I was very much operating from a place of mind and gut. I think if I am being really honest, I was always holding a little piece of myself back whether it was for fear of being hurt. I don’t know that I fully appreciated and understood what my full capacity for love was, both for self and others. That shift happened during that week. The impact that followed was really profound in my life.
Brett: What does that mean for you to have been mostly operating from your mind and your gut?
Carla: It means I was totally disconnected from my body. Every move I made was cerebral, intentional and thoughtful in a way, but I wasn’t really listening to my feelings or my emotions. I had really decided to push those down. What was pointed out to me was from a very young age we are trained out of our emotions, particularly for women in the South. Don’t get angry. Don’t cry. Then growing up in corporate America, particularly in tech in the 90s, that was just exacerbated. If you are a woman and emotional, that was just the end of your career.
I had learned to operate from that place as a way of surviving or at least that’s what I told myself. So long as I could separate myself from what I actually felt, then it was possible for me to my most effective at my job. How very wrong I was. I realized that in the weeks and months that followed Groundbreakers.
Brett: Tell me a little bit more about that suppression of those emotions, a lot of it being societal, much of specific to being a woman in the South and then exacerbated by being a woman in the tech, especially in the 90. How was that impacting the way you made decisions and the way you showed up professionally? Also, how did that impact your personal life?
Carla: I made decisions based on what was going to serve my family over myself, so I put my own needs on the backburner. But then something really interesting started to happen, Brett, as I got older and more recently was, I started to realize decision making became difficult. I started into a loop and to get stuck. I learned through this work that that was a sign of emotion that needed to be moved. It was extremely clearing for me. Once I let myself have access, once I learned to have access to things like fear and grief and anger, it was immensely clarifying. It enabled me to make better decisions. It was a massive gift. With that, came along a tremendous amount of joy and love.
Brett: You mentioned at this Groundbreaker’s retreat that your heart broke open. It sounds like this was a rapid experience that happened in a moment. Suddenly you became aware of how much capacity you had to love that had already been there all the time, but you hadn’t been connected to. I am curious in that moment what was it that opened up in you. What did you see that you hadn’t seen before? How did you come to see it?
Carla: I can explain what happened to me, and then I can explain, Brett, maybe what happened after the fact. It is a little bit hard to describe. After the exercise we did, we were moving grief and anger came up for me. I should rage came up for me, which quite surprised me. It shocked me. I had a pretty significant emotion release, and at the end of that release, I was laying on a mat. I looked up to see one of my colleagues come into the room. His face looked like that of a little boy. I stretched out my arms to him, and he came down on the mat and curled up in my arms almost like a child. This is someone who is much larger than I am.
Throughout the week, he had mentioned to us he had a lot of trouble sleeping and was struggling with insomnia. As soon as I held him, his whole body collapsed, and he went boneless and started to snore. He fell completely asleep. We started to laugh about it. After the fact, when we were debriefing, I expressed the fact that I felt my heart had broken open and that I just was really feeling this overwhelming sense of love. My friend and peer in the group said I was the first recipient. I felt it wash all over me. It wasn’t just something I was feeling. The people around me were feeling it too, and the response was really beautiful.
Then coming out of that week, the very first thing, I kind of broke the rules. We were supposed to do a slow re-entry, and I went straight into hosting an off site for our CEO and my peers remotely via Zoom because it was in the middle of COVID. There I was at 6:30 in the morning from Tahoe rounding everybody up on this Zoom call and doing a check in. We get to me for the check in, and Brett, I will be damned if I didn’t burst into tears. I mean huge sobs. Prior to this, I would say I had cried maybe three times in the last 15 years. The birth of my children and the death of a friend. To have this sort of emotion on this call was pretty remarkable.
In response to those tears, one of my colleagues on the call said hey, I would really like to hug you right now. Would it be okay if we hugged you? Everybody went up to their screens and hugged their cameras. Then we went on with our day. It was really powerful. Even my boss’ coach was on the line and texted me on the side and was like what did you just get out of. Did you have an Ayahuasca experience? You are totally transformed. He was like your energy is so different and it is beautiful.
At the end of that day, we were doing a checkout and one of my peers said I just want to say how much I admire Carla. Whenever I am stuck and trying to figure out what to do, I think about her and what she should do. Again, I started to bawl again. The closeness that that brought from that team moving forward was really, really powerful. It was also my realization that I needed to leave that job and my boss saw straight through me in that moment. That’s what the work looked like.
Brett: What was it like to have had that realization and also have your boss see straight through you? I assume what you mean by that is he saw that you saw that you needed to leave that job.
Carla: Yeah, as soon as the meeting ended, he called me, and he said what time do you land. By the time I landed, he was at my front door the next door. We went on a walk. I don’t know that I had fully come to appreciate that I needed to leave my job at that point. I will tell you on that walk I was able to state my wants and needs very clearly without any shame, which was super empowering. I will say that when the time did come for me to leave, I felt like I had spoken my piece. It was a tremendously clean and high integrity way to exit a role. I felt really good about it. I also maintain relationships with that team to this day.
Funny enough, I ran into members from that team at my first speaking engagement coming out of COVID. As I was going up on stage, one of my peers grabbed me and he said hey, Carla, I want to tell you something. I said what. He said I love you. That just doesn’t happen. It is wild, but since doing this work, not only have I felt differently, somehow it has given people the permission to be their authentic selves and be open with me.
Brett: That moment you had described at Groundbreakers. You said colleague. Was he actually a work colleague of yours or a colleague in the program?
Carla: He was part of the L12 group. I am part of Joe Hudson’s L12 group. It is me plus 11 other folks he coaches. It was one of our L12 colleagues.
Brett: It was a colleague in the program, not somebody you work with, but you had the experience of a grown man curling up in your lap and you seeing him as more than just a grown man but as a child and finding your capacity to love him in all of what he was in that moment. Clearly other people saw it and they felt it and described it. I am curious how that impacted the way you see how you saw your boss, for example, when you came back and when you went for that walk with him. How did you show up differently having had that experience?
Carla: With a tremendous amount of compassion and understanding and patience. Now when I see that people are in fear in the workplace or that they are grieving something or they are angry about something, I can see it for what it is and not be triggered by it and not take it on and show up in a way that holds it for them if they need me to but is not consumed by it. I think, Brett, one of the other big changes in me was going into the work because I saw myself as always giving to others but in reality what I was doing was managing everybody and managing everybody’s emotions and trying to keep everybody happy.
Letting go of that has been massive because what I didn’t realize is that wasn’t fun or enjoyable for people that I love. I thought I was serving them all this time, but in reality it doesn’t feel good to admit but it was a form of manipulation.
Brett: I am curious how much dropping that projection, dropping that way of relating makes it so that others can show up and tell you I really want to tell you that I love you because they might feel that is something you might receive and not be contrary to whatever plans or management you have for them.
Carla: That’s exactly right. When you get out of the way, it is really remarkable what happens. I will give you another example. I just came back from my second long intensive with Joe, and while the movement wasn’t as significant there during the weeklong as it was for Groundbreakers, the movement after the fact was really significant for me. It was because a big part of the week was dropping roles, the roles that we play, and manager is one of them for me. Managing outcomes. During that week, it was my husband’s birthday coming up on Friday and I was going to fly back Friday and was running the risk of not making his birthday. In all the years my husband and I have been together, I have never missed his birthday. I always make a really big deal out of birthdays.
Funny enough, because I was in the weeklong, I just didn’t get to planning anything. Rather than feeling shame or guilt around that, I just let it go. The wildest thing happened. As I was away, I started to get text messages from my 17-year-old son. Hey mom, could you send me dad’s friends’ contact information? Hey mom, I grabbed your credit card. It is okay if I buy dad a new golf club. Mom, I am going to order a cake for dad and some barbecue. I am going to invite his friends over on Friday. With me stepping out of that role and dropping that role, I will be damned if my 17-year-old son didn’t show up for it in a way I never would have thought to ask. He showered his dad in love and made it a really big deal. My husband in return never felt more loved because his own son planned everything. It was really special.
I’ve seen that happen in the workplace, too, but just at home, that was really wild to see and really gratifying.
Brett: I am really curious about the difference of the experience of your son from you doing all the planning and asking your son to do a certain to-do list of things and him just coming up with these ideas and taking full ownership of them.
Carla: It was better than what I would have come up with. I am sure it felt a lot better to him because he initiated it all and he did it from a place of love and what he wanted for his dad.
Brett: Now I am curious about if you find yourself no longer taking the management role or being aware of when you are that role of being the manager and the overseer, how do you relate to perhaps the fear that might have underlie that, which is if I don’t manage everyone around me, things won’t get done or everyone else will have to do everything for me and then they’ll resent me. How has that structure shifted or evolved?
Carla: I’ve hit a slightly nuanced flavor of it, Brett. My flavor of that has been I really kind of zeroed out at that retreat. I had lost all the roles. One of the things Joe said to me coming out of it is don’t build back too soon. We are almost two months out and I still haven’t built back. The fear for me has taken more of a flavor of do I not care anymore. Am I disengaged? Am I depressed? Is this okay? But then what’s really wild is I am starting to see it play out in really beautiful ways. When I get out of the way, it gets replaced by something better.
I was on a call probably a few weeks after the retreat and it was probably one of my favorite meetings to date in this new job. We had about eight people on the call, and it was people early-stage career, veterans of the industry discussing the new brand of the company we are going to roll out. I just asked questions in VIEW format, how, what questions vulnerably and impartially with empathy and wonder. Through that, something which I have recently learned to be called group intelligence took over. The group began to push each other and challenge each other and debate and push further. Title didn’t matter. Level didn’t matter. We got to the best possible outcome. All I did was just facilitate it. I asked questions.
That’s what it looks like now, versus before I would start a call with this is what we need to achieve before this call is over. This is what I think we should do, blah, blah, blah, and really start to dictate. This was very different. What came out on the other side was much better than what I could have envisioned or what I would have planned myself. It really did leverage the group, so the sum of the parts was greater.
Brett: How much have you seen that trickle down in the teams you manage and the way they show up to the teams that they manage? How has that permissioning of letting go of that role and facilitating the group intelligence percolated through the team or through the company if at all regardless of others having contact with this work directly through Joe or just being in contact with you and experiencing your change?
Carla: It is a few different ways. I had a peer tell me early on, a few months in, offered to give me some feedback. I said yeah, of course, please. He said I love your feminine vibe. You have brought this energy to our team that we really needed. We were just a ton of testosterone, and now you bring humor, and you laugh at yourself. You are vulnerable when you don’t understand something. If you don’t get something right, you saw how you are going to fix it. He said you have given us all permission to do the same. It has been super fun to have you on the team and I am grateful that you are here. That for me was just like wow. That was the ultimate compliment. That felt amazing.
The other way I’ve seen it show up is interestingly enough, I am triggered when people don’t ask questions, when people talk at each other. I’ve started to say it out loud. Now members of my team and my organization are starting to ask how, what questions even though they haven’t been through VIEW. They are starting to see me do it, and they are starting to model it. The last part I would say, Brett, I am seeing is I am starting to see more emotion, love and openness with emotion. I just pulled my team together for the first time in person, and the first thing one of the people on my team noticed is there is a lot of emotion. I said absolutely, that’s awesome. People are really expressing themselves vulnerably.
I almost wonder if it is not just related to me and the work but also related to this time we have just been through. It is just these two things coming together at the perfect time, which is people are also really longing for connection. I think that makes people more open to me in this state.
Brett: With the way you had seen people in that role, having that role fall away, now it sounds like you are able to see a different level of what people want and what they need rather than just seeing what they want or need from a to-do list standpoint or from getting things done. You are also seeing a deeper layer of what their emotional needs are, and the underlying social mammalian need for connection we all have. It sounds like that’s really helping you to really see more of the value and the potential in a team as well as show up in a way that brings people together to be communicating in a more effective way.
Carla: Yeah, I will even add something to it, Brett. I’ve come to learn that my wants and needs are the wants and needs of the organization. I feel that it is my responsibility to express them whereas before I pushed them down. Now when my team is expressing their wants and needs and sometimes I have to pull it out of them, I literally validate them by saying if you are feeling a certain way, it is because your team or your organization feels that way. You owe it not only to yourself but to them to say it out loud. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be messy, but let’s talk about it.
The other thing we talk a great deal about, and this was something one of the L12 colleagues have that has really stuck with me. How cool is it that your body shines a light on the very thing you need to deal with. If there is discomfort in your system, if you literally don’t feel good about something, if there is resistance or friction in you, that's something we need to go deal with. Let’s go unlock that. I’ve made an open invitation for folks to bring those things out into the open.
Brett: It sounds like that journey through the fear of self-indulgence has unlocked your ability to see others’ needs as valid, whereas when you were living in the belief system that getting your needs met, doing therapy with yourself would be self-indulgent and that you need to take care of others, there also seemed to be this way that you saw others as not being able to take care of their own needs and if they did, that might be self-indulgent perhaps. That projection started to fall away when you started to really let yourself have needs and let yourself honor your feelings as something pointing to some deeper truth for you. That is good for your entire company and for your family.
Carla: That is so profound, Brett. I had not realized that until you just said it, but it is very true. I’ve seen it in my own children. I’ve never felt more connected to my kids than I do right now, whereas before if one of my kids would throw a fit, be upset about something or cry, I would try to make them feel better. But now I sit with them in it. If they feel like crying, let’s cry. Let’s let it out. If they feel like having an anger session, let’s whale on the bed with a tennis racket. It has been transformative. I never realized it until you just said it. That is so crazy. I wasn’t meeting people’s needs at all. I wasn’t validating their needs at all. I was just trying to fix it all the time. I think that’s why the response to me has been so different. Wow, thank you.
Brett: It was just a question.
Carla: There was an insight in it.
Brett: I am curious what advice you would have for somebody who has been listening to this who feels connected to that trauma that you described of not feeling like they can indulge in their own feelings or that it is safe to or that society will allow it or that it is even good for them or for others around them. They don’t have the availability to come to a course. Maybe they could do one of the online courses, but maybe they are not going to make it to a Groundbreakers and have the experience you just described. What would you have to say to somebody who feels that way? What advice would you have for them to be able to feel through this and move through this on their own, learning from your experience?
Carla: Joe says something really beautiful that I quote all the time, which is joy is the matriarch of all the emotions. Her children are fear, grief and anger, and in order for her to live in a house, she has to be with her children. I think it starts with giving yourself permission to feel all the emotions and to access them and to reconnect to them because in that there is clarity of decision making. It can also bring tremendous clarity to wants and needs, which is the second part of my advice.Get clear on what you want and need and articulate it because that gives permission for those around you that you care about it to articulate their wants and needs. It is one of the best ways to drive a true meaningful relationship with someone whether it is a work colleague or a friend or a family member.
I think the last thing is get curious. Ask lots of questions, in particular when in conflict. If you are in conflict with someone or something, get curious. Get into wonder. Ask a ton of how, what questions. It is unbelievable if you have an open mind about what you will learn and unlock. Sometimes the very thing that you thought was a point of contention actually ends up being a solution.
Brett: How do you experience the difference between asking an open ended how, what question from curiosity, a curiosity that’s deeply felt in your body with true openness, to what you get might back versus asking a how, what question formulaically as a defense or from an unknown trigger? How is that something that has shifted for you? What are some breadcrumbs you could offer for others who might be walking that path?
Carla: I think in the early days when I was learning the VIEW format, trying to ask how, what questions vulnerably, impartially with empathy and wonder, I was missing the impartial part because I was trying to drive to an outcome with my questions. I was trying to get people to see a certain point or to change their mind. That’s not the process. The process is to literally get curious and to remove your impartiality from it. For me, the difference is asking questions from a place of huh, I wonder what this person was really feeling. What about this particular issue is creating fear in them? That makes all the difference. If you are not trying to lead the witness, drive to an outcome or to prove a point or change somebody’s mind, what you can learn is really profound.
Brett: That impartiality is often the trickiest part. You pointed to it there when you were talking about being curious about what they might be afraid of. I find I am unable to be curious of someone else’s fear unless I am aware of my own. Part of coming to that impartiality is finding out what makes me want to drive a conversation towards a particular outcome and then what’s the helplessness I need to feel to let go of that particular level of attachment to outcome so that I can be curious. If I am allowing myself to feel my fear, then I can allow myself to feel and be with their fear.
Carla: That’s interesting because that is the other side of the coin, right? If you are triggered in a conversation, and you take a moment to check in with yourself and try to understand what it is that I am feeling, is it that there is something here I need to deal with that’s unrelated or correlated? Do I have a boundary that’s being crossed? What’s happening in my system right now? Doing that check in before you start to try to impact the other person is so valuable. That’s another skill that I’ve learned that’s been tremendously powerful. As a Latina, I am pretty trigger happy.
Brett: This circles back to something you said earlier about the way you showed up in your team where you found that you became triggered when others weren’t showing up curiously or when they were just talking at or past each other. You said now having gone through this work, this process, you have been owning that trigger. Not being triggered, you have been calling it out, which is different than not being aware of your trigger and then trying to change the world around you. But just saying hey, wow, I am triggered right, how do you do that when that comes up? When you are in a meeting and you feel that trigger and you are wanting more curiosity in the room, what does that exactly look like internally and then externally?
Carla: There are a few phrases I am starting to employ pretty consistently to bring my attention to them. One is: Wow, I need to call out that I am triggered right now. Here is what’s happening in my system. Help me understand x and x. I am just really open about it. The second is I’ve started to say: I need to be vulnerable right now. Here is what I am feeling. Using that language, interestingly enough, I am starting to see people within my organization use that language. Even people outside of our organization, even partners and vendors have started to use that language with me, which is super interesting. It softens the ground for the conversation because you are like this person is afraid to say what they are going to say right now, or they are unsure how it is going to hit me. I am going to treat them with some compassion. It has been super fascinating to see it employed.
Brett: That’s fascinating. There are a couple of things going on there that I see. One is that by naming the vulnerability that it is for you to own your trigger, and bring it consciously into the space, first of all, people are either going to notice you are triggered anyway and that might trigger them, or they are not going to notice you are trigger and also not noticed they are triggered, and then you will both be in a dynamic. Speaking to the vulnerability that it is for you to shine light on the trigger that is already in the room, already impacting people, then that permissions them to do the same for themselves.
Carla: It does. It is wild to even see the body language when you say those phrases. You can see people go from tensed to relaxed. You can see shoulders drop. You would think it would be the other way around, but people soften to the conversation when you are that open. It creates an environment of trust.
Brett: Something about the way you describe this language and the way you bring the trigger up is that I don’t feel any implication that somebody needs to change it for you. There is an owning of the trigger, and it is your trigger. There is something going in my system right now, and it is telling me something. I want to know more about what it is that you are saying to me. I want to know what’s underneath that. There’s a way that you are curious about it because you are not avoiding feeling that feeling and demanding the curiosity or whatever it is that is bringing that trigger up in you.
That seems like a really powerful thing because if you bring a trigger into the workspace, but it is unowned, then that can create a lot of unsafety. If you bring it in the way you described, then it is just a permissioning for people to be humans and have their feelings be present in the room. Then you get that higher bandwidth communication with people that happens when feelings are welcome.
Carla: Exactly. I want people to realize there are going to be things that trigger you every day, all day. This is a safe place. You can tell me if I have triggered you, if someone else has triggered you. It is information. It has been really fun to watch people open up in that way. I think the other thing I’ve done, Brett, is I used to, pre this work, say there is an action here. I want to give an action. Here's the action, and here’s who has to do it. Now I just say I want and need x.
Brett: How does that land in people differently from the first way?
Carla: The first few times, it was interesting. No one picked it up because they were so used to my saying there is an action here. But now it is really happening, which is super cool. Instead of me giving an action to somebody that’s aligned to their job function, now folks who actually want to take on the challenge regardless of their function will jump in and be like that’s what you want and need. I think I can help. I got you. Even better, sometimes I will have multiple people say Carla we are going to go work on that together. We will come back to you. That has been super cool to see, too.
Brett: Let go of some of the requirements for you to coordinate the room and allow more of that group intelligence to come up. Where there is an impulse in somebody, they can just jump in.
Brett: That’s fascinating. To close this up, I would love for you to tell me a story of how you showed up in your family in this new way that you bring your triggers into the space either your own trigger or maybe somebody who in your family is modeling this or who picked this up or was permissioned by the way you showed up to really own a trigger in a way that was super healthy for the relationship.
Carla: I will tell a funny story and then I will tell a real story. When I first started to do the work, my daughter would get upset at things. If I would start to manage her, she would stop and say you told me to express my emotions. I am trying to express my emotions. It was really sweet because she would call me out on it if I would ever revert back. I think the biggest response is what I said earlier, Brett, was the dropping of roles has created space for my husband, daughter and son to step into different roles. The family dynamic is different, and there is a lower level of anxiety in the family dynamic. I feel extremely connected to my children. I even find that my children are more affectionate with me than ever before. We have always been an affectionate family, but it is a big deal when your 17-year-old and 14-year-old are still affectionate with you. There is a real deep connection there.
I think the last piece, and this is probably one of the ones that is the most special to me is my kids are really honest with me. They talk to me about stuff that most teenagers don’t talk to their parents about. There is this mutual respect and openness there that I always dreamed of having with my kids, but now it is actually playing out. We talk about all of the things you are not supposed to talk about with teenagers and really openly. It is really beautiful.
Brett: That’s amazing. I am curious how rapidly that shift occurred in your relationship with your kids.
Carla: Coming out of the first Groundbreakers, it was immediate. Much like my friend and colleague described my love washing all over him, I could say that happening with my family. I could see their response to me.
Brett: You showed up and without having created any new history of experience with them, they just felt you in a different way. That permissioned them to open up.
Carla: It was energetic. Coming out of the second one, I would say the shifts have been even greater. It has just accelerated. It has been a really huge gift for me personally and professionally because we are one person. That’s the other gift of all of this. There is no work persona and home persona. It is all one person. We take all this stuff from work into the home into the workplace and vice versa.
Brett: If we don’t own that we bring our personal life into the workplace and we pretend they are separate, we show up with a bunch of unspoken subtext that gets in the way.
Carla: That’s great, and undermines ourselves and our teams.
Brett: Thank you so much, Carla. I really, really loved this conversation. I am so glad you joined us.
Carla: Thank you. This has been such a gift, Brett. I really appreciate it.
Brett: Thanks for listening to the Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us on your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com.
Aspen Institute: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/
Brett and Joe interview Stacy Brown-Philpot, former CEO of Task Rabbit and founding member of the Softbank Opportunity Fund, on her journey through childhood abandonment to self discovery. Stacy identified that by choosing the path of self-exploration, she was able to feel through difficult emotions of fear and anger to find deeper love and joy. We will learn how her willingness to confront her past traumas has helped her become a more honest and empathetic business woman.
"You want to really work on yourself that deeply to process emotions like fear and anger, and on the other side of it is love and joy. How does that happen? The answer is it is a journey, and my journey is very different than what someone else’s journey might be. But the important thing is to be willing to take a step, one step."
You want to really work on yourself that deeply to process emotions like fear and anger, and on the other side of it is love and joy. How does that happen? The answer is it is a journey, and my journey is very different than what someone else’s journey might be. But the important thing is to be willing to take a step, one step.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment, where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.
My name is Brett Kistler. I am an adventurer, entrepreneur and a self exploration enthusiast. I am here with my co-host, Joe Hudson. Joe is a business coach who has spent decades working with some of the world´s top executives and teams developing a unique model of human patterns that underpin how we operate with ourselves, each other and the world. A good entry point into this model is a mindset called VIEW, vulnerability, impartiality, empathy and wonder.
Through understanding and cultivation we learn to easefully drop into the VIEW state of mind, deepening self awareness and increasing our connection with the world around us. To learn more about this podcast or courses, visit artofaccomplishment.com
Brett: All right, everybody, I am really excited today. We have a three-way conversation today. This is Joe and myself, and joining us is Stacy Brown-Philpot. She is the former CEO of TaskRabbit and a founding member of the Softbank Opportunity Fund. How are you doing today, Stacie?
Stacy: I am good. How are you?
Brett: I’m doing well and I’m excited to try this three-way conversational format.
Stacy: Me, too.
Joe: Me, too.
Brett: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to this work.
Stacy: I came to this work really initially not open minded, but eventually open minded, I would say. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and grew up in a house of independent women, who taught me the importance of independence. My parents got divorced when I was very young, and there were four generations of women in the house that basically taught me how to depend only on myself in order to make things happen. That has served me so well in my career.
What brought me to this work is that I learned that while the things that served me well in learning how to be independent, also didn’t serve me well in other areas, which was learning how to depend on other people. When I realized I didn’t spend a lot of time waiting for other people to do things for me, I learned through this work to get to the core of what that looked like. It really centers around abandonment and fearing being abandoned because of things that happened in my childhood. Here I am.
Brett: Tell me a little bit more about that abandonment, how you came to recognize that this was something for you to feel into and what’s one pivotal moment of transformation where you started to work through this and experience it in a different way.
Stacy: The abandonment, it wasn’t like all of a sudden I realized, oh my goodness, I’ve been abandoned. I think what I realized is that I compartmentalized a lot as a leader and as a person. The compartmentalization was a coping mechanism for me to handle my emotions, and what I realized was, that I was trying to not show certain emotions because when I did, I was abandoned by those people.
Overtime and through this work, I realized that the compartmentalization had served me well in terms of being a really good CEO who could operate well, who could get things done, who could hire good people and who could really just muscle through success, but I hid a lot of how I truly felt about people and how I wanted people to see me and especially depend on them.
A pivotal moment for me in thinking about what that abandonment meant was just realizing that my parents got divorced when I was a kid, and so I didn’t grow up having my dad around all the time. Because of that, because he just wasn’t around, I never knew how much he mattered to me, or I mattered to him. While he did lots of good things, like bring us Christmas gifts and bring us toys and sometimes come see us on the weekends, I never felt really the love on an ongoing basis that other friends I had growing up experienced. Just knowing that he mattered to me really would have been everything for me.
This year, fast forward 40 something years later, I had a conversation with my dad, and I went to Detroit this past July 2021 and said I wanted to talk to him about my childhood and really open up. I told him that, because of how we grew up, I never thought that I mattered, because he was not around. It was a moment where we were going to take a drive, Brett, and go and have this conversation. We actually never left the parking lot, because he just opened up and both of us were in tears just sharing. He said to me you have always mattered to me, and I don’t think I knew what I expected from that conversation.
All I wanted him to know was how he made me feel, but when he said you’ve always mattered to me and in fact there are some things you did when you were a kid that helped me change my life for the better that I never knew about, that helped me see, not only can I just make this statement to the person who I felt abandoned me and just feel the release, but also get information about what his experience was that just totally flipped everything. I thought about what was happening to me as a child. That pivotal moment for me was just a release of freedom and knowledge that the one person I thought didn’t care about me as much, actually really did and it changed my perspective on how I saw basically everybody else.
Brett: How did that impact your life as a leader? Looking back on your time as a CEO in the way you just described, being the CEO who was just getting it done, super independent, doesn’t need anybody, how was that negatively impacting your business and your relationship with your team? How much did you notice at that time? How much do you notice it now?
Stacy: I don’t think I noticed it that much at the time, because it worked and when I was leading the company and now helping to run a venture fund and serve on a number of boards, people valued my efficiency, ability to get things done, and I am pretty good at talking to people and being empathetic and understanding their perspective. But what I wasn’t good at was really being truly vulnerable and showing all of who I am, and so what happened is there were only glimpses and moments where I would do that. For example, when George Floyd was murdered, the only thing I could do at that time was show up as a black woman who was in pain. It didn’t matter what title I had. Nothing mattered in that moment.
I could tap into that place, but I wasn’t able to tap into it often and frequently. When I did, it wasn’t often a very scary thing for me to do and not a very easy thing for me to do.
Brett: What happened as you started doing that more scary thing, stepping into who you are with acceptance of that feeling of abandonment?
Stacy: I felt so much love and that was joyful, because to really feel seen was just amazing, and so to be able to stand up in front of people and talk about who I really was and to feel the shared empathy, the shared understanding, the shared pain, it felt so good. As a CEO, everybody wants you to take care of them, and they come to you with the hardest problems, the most complicated problems, the ones that have the least amount of information to solve, and we take on that responsibility. We forget that somebody needs to take care of us, too, and so who is going to do that? Who is going to take care of us?
Showing up with this is my pain. This is what I am dealing with, and I am now going to see if you are going to take care of me. That used to be a really scary thing to do, because when I did that, it didn’t happen, but it did. I felt a sense of joy and a sense of love and a sense of truly being seen, and in fact, it translated into a higher sense of commitment and dedication to the company, what we were trying to create and more importantly to themselves. It didn’t matter that people were more dedicated or loyal to me. What I really wanted, was for people to be more who they were, and me being more who I was, allowed my team and the people around me to be more of who they are. I think that mattered more than anything else.
Brett: That seems like a common theme when people have avoided abandonment trauma, they will feel like others aren’t there for them even when they are, because they are just not letting it in. Something you just described is having worked through this, you want people to be there for themselves. In that way, you are there for them even more. The extent they are with you, you allow that in and allow that to impact you.
I am curious to go back to that moment with your father. What led up to this moment where after 40 something years you were able to approach him to speak about this and became aware of this feeling you had with them and then approached him in such a way that you had the conversation where you never even left the parking lot? It was tears and heart opening conversation.
Stacy: Wow, Joe hasn’t said anything yet in this conversation.
Joe: I’m just enjoying listening. Goodness gracious.
Stacy: I give him a lot of credit for pushing me to go deeper into understanding myself. I’ve learned that there are layers of trauma that I’ve dealt with and layers of abandonment I’ve dealt with, but at its core, that was really it. What allowed me to realize that it was a journey. My first conversation with Joe was like I think I have some daddy issues I need to work on. That was like two and a half years ago. It was really more facetious and true at the same time, but it was just a recognition that I knew I could be a better person. I could show up better as a mother, as a wife if I processed some of the things that happened to me as a child.
Over the course of two years, as I unpacked what was really holding me back and what I was fighting for– I spent two years really working with Joe on understanding why I was always trying to prove something to somebody and fight for something. I was the one who would get out there. If we need to take this mountain, we will take the mountain. I will be the first one up there. You are coming with me, and we are going to do whatever it takes to win. I was always trying to prove something, and that could translate into ambition. People saw that ambition and said, “Wow, she is really ambitious. We are going to work with her, because we are going to get there, because she wants to get there.”
But underneath it was this desire to prove and this desire to fight, and what I realized was that the proof and fighting, something was underneath that. Underneath that was this feeling that I needed to prove something, because if I didn’t, I would be abandoned again, again and again. As I went back to the original source of where that started, that’s really where it started. It is the case for me, and I know it is very cliché that the things happened to us as children often shape who we are. That’s ultimately what happened. I can’t just worry about some manager I had who didn’t promote me, and so they abandoned me, because I didn’t get promoted. All of these things go back to abandonment.
At one point, I had to go back to the original source, which was the relationship with my father. Dad and I had developed a really good relationship over the last 10 years, so we weren’t at odds with each other. We didn’t hate each other. We loved each other, and yet that conversation hadn’t happened. I decided that this year I wanted him to know all of who I am, because I had changed, and I wanted him to see me for who I really was. In order for that to occur, I needed to say these words to him.
It was so scary. I had a script. I wrote it down. I took many notes. Joe is laughing, because he knows. I practiced. I practiced all possible scenarios of how this conversation could go. It could go really good. It could be really bad. He could reject me again. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but what I did know was I wanted to say it. I became okay with any outcome, meaning if there was no watershed moment, if he did pretend like nothing ever happened, I became okay with that possible outcome.
I think because I was okay with any outcome, I just really spoke. I spoke from a place of empathy, understanding, but also wanting him to know my truth and how I was feeling and not expecting anything but wanting an apology. The first thing he did was I’m sorry. That was it, so it was wonderful.
Brett: It’s fascinating what you describe here. In this moment of coming to him and sharing this. You had some fear. You had a script. You were prepared, in a way, but also you had done the internal work so that even if he did abandon you then, then that was an acceptable outcome. You also allowed yourself to want the connection with him. Having those two things at the same time, I see, is really important here.
I am curious how having that when you show up in your team, when you show up as a CEO, how does that interact with the history you had of showing up with a lot of fight and with a lot of something to prove? How does the way you showed up with your father impact the way you show up with others now?
Stacy: It’s very different now. Unfortunately, we can’t invest in every company that we see with the opportunity fund, but we invest in Black, Latinx, and Native American founders. I want all of them to be successful, but we are not going to be the company that provides the capital. When we pass on a deal and it is someone I know, I talk about wanting to stay connected with you. I want you to be successful, and here’s why we are not going to invest right now. It is a very different conversation.
Almost always the response that I get is a thank you, which is weird, because I am basically saying we are not going to give you money or someone on our team has said we are not going to give you money. Then they want to know why, and they ask me. I tell them, and then they say thank you.
Brett: You are abandoning them.
Stacy: That’s weird, right? But they say thank you, because they appreciate the honesty and unfortunately in the world of venture capital, a lot of times you get ghosted. They don’t actually respond. They don’t give you the truth, and I can speak from a place of truth and love. Even if that truth doesn’t get the founder the outcome that they want, it comes from a place of love and a place of wanting connection, which I think sets us apart as a fund, but it is very different from how I would have gone into those situations in the past.
Joe: You came into this work hesitantly and with some skepticism. Just recently you were talking to a friend about the work, and you said to me something like, I don’t know, she probably thinks I am crazy when I was talking about the work. I just got an email from her saying, I talked to Stacy. I am totally motivated. When can we start? Go, go, go.
Tell me about your journey about accepting doing the work. It can feel crazy and expressing that work to other people. What has that been like for you?
Stacy: It is hard to describe, because people will ask me who is Joe, and then I will say he is a coach. But he is not like an executive coach like most people have. Is he a therapist? He is not a therapist, because he is not licensed in anything like that. He is just this person. You start with something like that, and everyone looks at you in a weird way, like what are we talking about here. What I try to say is working with Joe changed who I am as a person. He has helped me become a better person.
One of the reasons why is because it is the work that I put in and not the work that he has done. I told this friend that the first time I had a meeting with Joe, I was like over it. I was like I am not going to do this. I don’t have time for this. He was like, okay. That okay was like, woah, he didn’t try to save me. He didn’t try to keep me. He basically was like if you don’t want to do the work yourself, okay. If you do, I am here. It was a choice to lean in that had to be completely my own. That was very different.
Then I remember. Joe, you may remember this. I asked you going into 2021. I was like, “I am not really sure what I am going to work on this year. I have done so much work in 2020. There was a pandemic, social justice. There were all sorts of stuff that happened, and I feel pretty good.” Joe, you said, “What I do know is if you don’t come up with something that you want to work on this year, you won’t work on anything.” It was this moment of realizing that I still had complete ownership on how deep I wanted to go in my own development, and how much I wanted to push myself. It was, again, my decision.
When I tell people that, it sounds crazy, because it is like you want to really work on yourself that deeply to process emotions like fear and anger and pain and hurt and abandonment and trauma, and on the other side of it is love and joy. How does that happen? The answer is it is a journey. My journey is very different than what someone else’s journey might be, but the important thing is to be willing to take a step, one step, on that journey and then the next step on that journey. Even if it gets scary, actually when it gets scary, that’s when you really have to take the step, which sounds crazy.
Brett: Something really interesting there is you describe that before in your life, you were a fighter. You would really push. You were the CEO. You were the one who was just going after it and pushing yourself. Then the way you are describing pushing now is a very different kind of push. The first kind of pushing is if it is coming from an abandonment wound that’s being avoided, then it is actually abandoning yourself in the driving and in the pushing. I think this can occur often when people do self-work. They will push themselves without letting themselves be ready for what they are pushing themselves into. It is more of an invitation.
The way you are describing it now is you see the invitation. You spoke with Joe. Joe gave you an invitation, and you decided how much you wanted to move into it. In that way, you were abandoning yourself less than you previously had. This process of going and doing the work isn’t one of pushing yourself into it, but one of just letting yourself do it, letting yourself naturally follow what’s next for you and have a question come up to work on.
Stacy: That’s true, and I like to say I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. There’s a freedom that comes along with that, because I don’t have to step outside of myself. I can just stay all of who I am and show up with all of who I am. Whatever presents itself is what’s there. There’s an element of comfort, calm, peace that I have now that I didn’t have two years ago, three years ago, five years ago.
Brett: Looking back on yourself two, three, five years ago, how do you feel towards that version of yourself at that time?
Stacy: I love her. I love that little girl, who was sad when her dog died, who was 14 and wanted a Coach bag and said she was going to make as much money as she could so she could buy as many handbags as she wanted, who was terrified to talk to her father and then she did, and who built a great company and hired lots of people, and motivated and inspired lots of other little black girls to pursue careers in technology. I love all of who she was, because I couldn’t be who I am today if she hadn’t been who she was five years ago. I love her. I keep her. I don’t want to lose her. She is like a part of me.
Joe: One of the things I get a lot when I work with people, particularly for the first time, is I get some sort of version of, they see the thing, and then they ask how I keep the thing. They see through the abandonment, for instance, and the first thing is how do I keep this recognition? How do I stop acting like I was when I was in abandonment? Some version of now that I see it, what do I do? I am wondering what advice or what thoughts you have on that for those people. So many people are just like, “What do I do next, so that I can be out of this emotional state or so that I can not have this pain in my life anymore.”
It is something I just notice doesn’t come up very much with us. That’s never the case. Somehow, you see the realizations differently. I was curious what your thoughts are there.
Stacy: I have a sense of awareness and I’m more comfortable, I think, knowing that I don’t have to always feel everything all the time. But I know over some period of time I am a different person today than I was some time ago. Reminding myself of that has really helped me want to think about what could be next.
I am also a person of faith. Joe, you know I am a Christian. Brett, you don’t know me, but I am a Christian. My faith has really guided me throughout my life. I mean God has carried me at times when I couldn’t carry myself. He has been there for me when I didn’t think I needed the Lord. I have prayed to God for things that I have needed, and he has blessed me in so many ways. I am grounded in that faith, Joe, that helps me know that even when I don’t feel like I am making progress somewhere, it is for a reason too.
There’s probably something on the other side of that, that wall or that barrier, that seeming obstacle that’s going to be okay, that’s going to be good. Sometimes I’ve got to wait for it, or sometimes I’ve got to jump over it. I’ve just got to pray about it. That helps me sort of deal with the process of doing the work.
Brett: I’m curious how your relationship to your faith has shifted from having done this work, and how having something to prove or abandonment might have shown up in your relationship to your faith prior to having these self-reflections.
Stacy: So much in so many areas. Even in feeling abandoned, I always know God is with me, and yet it is not easy to remember that truth, when you are in the moment. I was diagnosed with breast cancer and found out about my diagnosis when I was traveling. I was traveling for work. I was in New York. I was by myself and super scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I called my mom and cried. She was like everything is going to be okay. That’s what a mom should say. That’s it. She was like, everything is going to be okay. She was the perfect mom in that moment.
I called my husband. He was dealing with the kids. I didn’t even tell him, because I figured– He is trying to get the kids to sleep. I am traveling. It is crazy. I was like I am not going to lay this news on him in this moment right now. I hung up the phone, and my pastor called me. He said hey, Stacy, I am just checking in on you. I know you had this biopsy, and you were waiting on the results. I don’t know if you got the results, but I just wanted to call and see how it is going. I literally just started weeping. I told him, and he prayed for me in that moment. He said to me, you know, you are going to cry, and you are going to be sad. But I want you to know that God is with you. He was like, that’s okay. I was like I am by myself. I am in this hotel. He was like just cry all night. Just sit there. Put on some church music if you want to, whatever makes you feel better, and he was like, I will call you tomorrow after he prayed with me.
I hung up the phone. I put on some music, and I just sat in this corner, and I just cried. I cried and cried until I was done. There was this emptiness that I felt of like, ‘wow.’ This is like the bottom of something, but I am still being held. In that moment of feeling like I was alone and abandoned, God was there with me. Why did my pastor call me in that moment? I knew that was something. As I said in that emptiness, I realized I am never, ever, ever alone, ever because my God is always with me.
When you ask about my faith, I always get emotional about this. You ask about my faith and abandonment. I know I am never alone, because I know I have my faith. That has shown up for me in so many ways, and yet I still have the need to process it in all aspects of my life. I don’t know if this is important for the podcast.
Joe: It is.
Stacy: It is important for me to tell the story.
Brett: I also just love the beauty of that story of feeling your pain. Being there, you were with yourself as well. It wasn’t just God with you. It was also you being with all of your pain until it had been felt all the way through. Then, what happened? You reached this point of emptiness, and then what?
Stacy: I was empty, and I felt truly held. It was the moment that I realized that in my life I’ve always felt like I was the one who could do it myself, make it happen, and in this moment I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it myself, because I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I truly had to depend on someone else, in this case my God, to comfort me. The comfort came. It felt like this blanket just came over me. It was super warm, cozy and cuddly. I just relaxed into it and fell asleep. That’s what happened.
Brett: What happened when you woke up next?
Stacy: I woke up in the morning. I had this sense of, “Wow, all right, I can do this.” I needed that sense, because it was the opening of the Nordstrom store in Manhattan, the grand opening. I had to show up as a board member and cut a ribbon. Everyone was cheering. I could show up and genuinely be excited about this opening in the face of what had just happened the night before. I knew God had it. I had it. We had it. It was going to be okay. I am so thankful to have my health today.
Joe: Part of the question I still haven’t fully grokked is, so there’s the time when we first started working together to– after the talk with your dad, how has, if at all, your relationship with God changed?
Stacy: I think we have a more open relationship. I would describe it. My prayer life is really about what God wants for my life, what I want for my life. It is mutual, and it is not from a please make this happen for me. It is more like, “I want this. If you want it, it will happen.” It is very different. I feel like I am walking alongside. He is walking alongside with me all of the time and constantly there. It is conversational. It is open. It is not this sort of hopeful thing. It is more like a knowing that I’ve got that relationship, and it is not ever going anymore. I don’t have to worry about whether it is going to be there or not. It is just there. It feels very natural. I love it.
Joe: There are a whole bunch of young CEOs out there whether they are part of the opportunity fund or otherwise. What is your advice or thoughts for them about doing self-discovery work and business and that intersection? What do you want to tell them? What gift would you want to give them around this?
Stacy: I would want them to know that part of becoming a CEO or founding a company requires a little crazy, because you are seeing the world the way other people don’t see it yet. You are trying to convince them that this is the way the world should operate, and that might feel like you are alone. I would invite you to do some self-discovery, some learning to really discover what grounds you, what is true for you, what keeps you going, what keeps you motivated, and share that with other people, because the more you open up about who you truly are, the more you continue to discover who you truly are, the more people will want to support your vision, your mission and your goals and all that stuff. None of that really matters unless they see the human, and all of the human that you are.
Brett: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Stacy. Thanks for joining us. Joe.
Joe: A total joy to be with you, both, but Stacy, it just feels so good to listen to you. Thank you.
Stacy: Thank you for having me.
Thanks for listening to The Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe & rate us in your podcast app. We would love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions and comments. To reach out to us, join our newsletter, or check out our courses at artofaccomplishment.com
Brett interviews Ant Taylor, founder and CEO of Lyte, on a profound self-reflection that changed his life and business. Ant discovered that shifting from living largely in his head to operating from a more intuitive and embodied space allows him to tap into the wisdom of his emotions. We will learn more about how he now embraces the ebb and flow of emotional intensity, resulting in the uncovering of deeper truths.
"This moment, when he called out the anxiety, I didn’t know it at the time. It just triggered a different kind of, I guess, leadership style that was a little bit more like I am going to jump into that pit over there, guys. I’m pretty sure it is filled with snakes. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get my ass handed to me. It’s going to be at least funny, possibly dangerous, but if I live, come with me."
This moment, when he called out the anxiety, I didn’t know it at the time. It just triggered a different kind of, I guess, leadership style, that was a little bit more like, “I am going to jump into that pit over there, guys. I’m pretty sure it is filled with snakes. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get my ass handed to me. It’s going to be at least funny, possibly dangerous, but if I live, come with me.”
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment, where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.
My name is Brett Kistler. I am an adventurer, entrepreneur and a self exploration enthusiast. I am here with my co-host, Joe Hudson. Joe is a business coach who has spent decades working with some of the world´s top executives and teams developing a unique model of human patterns that underpin how we operate with ourselves, each other and the world. A good entry point into this model is a mindset called VIEW, vulnerability, impartiality, empathy and wonder.
Through understanding and cultivation we learn to easefully drop into the VIEW state of mind, deepening self awareness and increasing our connection with the world around us. To learn more about this podcast or courses, visit artofaccomplishment.com
Brett: All right, everybody. Welcome back to the Art of Accomplishment. Today I am speaking with Ant Taylor. Ant is the founder and CEO of Lyte. How are you doing today, Ant?
Ant: I’m well. It’s great to be here. It’s surreal to be here, having listened to your voice for a year.
Brett: It’s surreal being here after seeing in the Art of Accomplishment, on Zoom calls, but never quite having any face-to-face. This is really the first time we, I can say, have met.
Ant: Exactly. It’s always remarkable when Joe rattles off your resume at the various bad ass shit you have done. I always want you guys to pull up for a second. You are a little bit of a thrill seeker, right?
Brett: A little bit. You could call it thrill seeker. It is really hard to say what I’ve been seeking, but that would be a podcast about me. Maybe we could do that some time, but I really want to hear about you. Tell me a little bit about your story. Just introduce yourself to our audience.
Ant: I’m the founder of Lyte. I aspire to be the CEO of Lyte. That’s a big part of why I started to do the work with Joe. Lyte is growing really quickly. It is a live events business. It helps people get to more shows and helps more shows happen with a lot less risk. Maybe you guys have heard there is a little bit of a pandemic on, to navigate the waters of all of that treachery and keep the business growing, which we have been able to do.
Before that, I had two previous startup experiences. One was a giant success. One was a personal failure, but a good success for the company. All in advertising technology in New York. One of the companies sold to Yahoo. The other company sold to Oracle. Before that, I was in school on the East Coast.
I grew up California, in Berkley, but very much consider myself an adopted son of New York City, because that’s where I feel like I really came of age. Now I am back living in California working on things Lyte all the time.
Brett: I heard you also played basketball at Princeton. You have summited Mount Shasta, and this is something we have in common. You once scuba dived deeper than legally allowed in the Blue Hole in Belize. As we mentioned in the pre-call, it turns out both of us did it for the same reason, which was one dive partner getting narced and sinking far deeper than intended and needing to be rescued.
Ant: When you get down to the deep depths, below the sharks, into the darkness, all of the beautiful things going on on the side walls, they have warned about getting narced, but it doesn’t feel like you have lost your mind. I’m forgetting it now, so if I am exaggerating this now, please forgive me dive master of Belize Blue Hole. I want to say it is acceptable to be at like 140, right? Even then, only for like five minutes. I think I had found my way down to 180, 190 feet.
Brett: That was way deeper than we went.
Ant: I can’t tell you for sure, because I was basically black out drunk, but I want to say the emotional feeling of that moment was pretty amazing.
Brett: I’m glad you made it back and also had the experience. I wanted to get into today, what something is, that has shifted for you over the course of all of this journey, diving, basketball and these businesses. What is something that has shifted for you personally, in your consciousness, that has just shifted everything for your business?
Ant: I think the things that are different daily in my life are a mixture of I’m in my body a lot more. I realize that my brain is a fantastic survival tool, but when it comes to thriving, maybe it can move a little slower than I want it to move. I am in my somatic system a lot more. I trust my intuition a lot more. I think I did the 20% to get the 80% benefit, the 20/80 rule, radical self-acceptance, and really understanding the voice in my head was coming from a place of love, if misguided for all sorts of reasons, trauma and otherwise, ultimately coming from a place of love.
Getting to a place of really accepting who I am, accepting what that voice is telling me, and loving on it as it is trying to love on me has changed my daily practices and how I move through the world. I think the last piece is just really embracing my emotions more. That’s a constant fucking battle against a lot of muscle memory in the opposite direction. I was like a class A avoider empresario, just all sorts of tactics to get away from feeling for much of my life. But now with a lot more reps, I really see the power of embracing all flavors of emotion all the time, not just for the emotion of it, but for the truth that is behind it.
Brett: If I could try to hone that down and sharpen it a little bit, it sounds like you are describing having started from a place of living in your head and in a mental space feeling somewhat separate from your body, feeling like emotions are just something that happens and are meant to be managed or put out of the way so you can continue to meet your goals. Coming into a place of embodiment, feeling your body, feeling your emotions, including noticing the voice in your head, and just coming into acceptance of all of your parts and less dissociation.
Tell me a little bit about how your life and your business looked prior to having this recognition.
Ant: The one other thing I want to say on that before we get to that question, there was no epiphany moment, carpe diem, stand on the desk and scream and shout breakthrough moment in the work. It was much more of a series of experiments and really kind of an ebb and flow of intensity that was just pushing me ever wider into undiscovered country. That sort of sustained. Maybe we will talk at the end. I’ve labeled this summer the summer of resistance, because for whatever fucking reason, this summer I started to just reject, just push back on all, a lot of old stories but new stories that were keeping me from the work. Just to say, it wasn’t a single point in time breakthrough.
My beloveds at Lyte have coined an expression for pre-work. It is simply Ant 1.0, and I love this, because I discovered the moniker kind of by accident when it just slipped out in a meeting. Oh, I’m sorry, what the fuck is Ant 1.0? Again, part of the lies our mind tells us is that nobody can see I’m out here avoiding the shit of every emotion I have. Nobody can see I am managing myself and in my head. Nobody can see that this anxiety is eating me from the inside out. Of course, everybody can see it. Everybody can feel it. It is like the most obvious thing in the world.
The way I came to the work actually explains a lot about who I was at the time. We have 24/7, 365 business. In some respects, there couldn’t be a worse business for me to be in. Our events happen all the time, at night and we are building technology by day to make those things work. It happens all the time. When you go on Christmas vacation, you are going to go see shows with family. There is no real time to pull up.
Luckily enough, someone had come to work with us for only a brief time, but she had come. Amy Vernetti was her name. One day I am banging away at my keyboard. She is a mile a minute kind of person. Do you want to 10X your life? Do you want to be a fucking game change CEO? I don’t even think I looked up from my laptop. I am just banging away. I am like of course, that sounds amazing. Sign me up. No thoughts. There is a perfect complexity in that moment. I didn’t have enough time to pull up and ask what is this, who is this, what do you mean, 10X.
Brett: That sounds a lot like standard pushy marketing. What was she bringing you? Do you want to 10X your life and increase your penis size?
Ant: She might have said that. Sure. I kept banging away. I trusted her, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the dissociation for me was even in the realm of taking the right steps to really hit another level of performance personally and professionally, there was a relative detachment to anything. It was just like I describe it as feeling like I was constantly sprinting across a tightrope, destined to fall. You can’t sprint across a tightrope. The wind could be off. You lose focus.
But there was constantly this notion of like, “I’m going to sprint across this tightrope. As long as I don’t look back, and as long as I don’t acknowledge there is no net below me, I have the best chance to get within distance to leap out and grab the ledge on the other side.” That was my MO, and obviously that’s super reductive and missed a lot of things.
My 1.0 self was prone to a lot of anxiety, really terrible at stress management. High performing, high achieving, no doubt, but at great cost. At the time there was no somatic feeling. Let’s just make that very clear.
Brett: Except for the feeling of stress.
Ant: Nothing that I used as a dashboard, nothing that I harnessed. I brought Joe soon thereafter, actually before I started the L12 work, I needed to do some team cohesion work with my executive team. There was nobody better at that moment than Joe. I remember we were doing a VIEW exercise, but one of the really elementary stuff, getting in the flow of really understanding wonder, I think.
I’m sitting in the middle with Alex, my head of engineering and second employee. He is throwing me softballs. He was trying to trigger me. That’s what it was, but he is just throwing these softballs. I’m in the middle of the room, and all of my executives are paired off around me. Just randomly. It just ended up that way. Joe did his annoying thing, where he saddles up next to you and he goes do you mind if I give it a go.
Brett: You are bracing for it.
Ant: What the fuck! At the time, I am brash, and I am like, “Yeah, dude. Shoot your shot. Good luck.” He leans in and he is like, “Your anxiety is going to kill your company and everybody in this room knows it. Ooh. Yeah. Feel that shit. Feel that shit.” The whole room was just like, “Ooh!” The one thing I will give myself credit for in all of this is, I was so starved for this work. I was so ready to go that for me that was a release. I think I might have started laughing, because it was just so much. Let’s just swan dive into this shit and stop fucking around.
Brett: We laugh when it hurts too much to cry.
Ant: Right. There was some of that actually. He was so full voiced about it. He didn’t whisper that. That was a lot of the pre-work. Some of the symptoms for me, the life symptoms, and I think I said to you in the pre call. I’m still mining a lot of questions for my personal relationships. Professional relationships, it is easier, because that’s where I’ve done a lot of the work.
The symptoms were pretty evident. I had this feeling of something between a glass ceiling and being bound to some floor of achievement that I hadn’t really broken through. I remember when I started, I had such imposter syndrome coming out of my last experience, really all of my experiences professionally. Because we had had a lot of success, some of it felt earned and a lot of it felt not earned in a way, like it had come too easy. There were a lot of things left unknown that I wanted to learn.
When I started Lyte, I really wanted to drive every nail. I wanted to learn every part of the process of building a company. That had occupied my mental time in a great way, but I still had a feeling of being bound. There was some upper limit of what I could achieve, and I couldn’t put a finger on it. I was like maybe I should have gone to business school like my friends did. Maybe I should have taken a sabbatical and tried to write that novel, I’ve always fantasized about doing. I hadn’t done enough to break up my rhythms. It was sort of like the mental diagnosis.
The other feeling is that experience of moving through a dream, in a dream scenario where you are running either from something or toward something, but you are running in slow motion. You can’t make yourself run faster. I don’t know if you have ever had a dream like that, but it was that feeling more and more, not a present feeling but a slow burn in the back. My anxiety, my endless well of anxiety, that kind of weighed on me. That was a symptom, feeling kind of bound. The anxiety was a big symptom, and then a lot of exhaustion.
I pushed the organization hard. It is a hard space that we do our business in. There hasn’t been a lot of technology innovation in it for a lot of entrenched reasons. We had endured through a lot of those things and gotten the company to a pretty good level, but you looked around. I think everybody was sort of bleary eyed and exhausted. If I was really honest, that exhaustion stemmed from a lot of the way I moved through the world and the company.
Brett: What you are describing there is Ant 1.0, you could see it fractally distributed throughout your organization. You avoided stress, you knew it was there. Everyone else knew it was there. You had this belief that maybe others didn’t see it, and if they saw it, something bad would happen. It was better to just keep it hidden and pretend it wasn’t there. As a result, one of the symptoms of this is you kept feeling like you are just in this morass as you are moving forward. The wins you have feel like they come too easy, and everything else just feels hard. Is it something like that?
Ant: Something like that, the wins with Lyte felt sweeter. They didn’t come easy, but I was addressing a lot of them, surface level imposter syndrome stuff, because there were essentially three of us, then five of us, and then about 10 of us building it. I felt the wonderful dopamine hit of our successes, but they come at the cost of a lot of exhaustion and there was a sense that in that hamster wheel you are in in an early-stage startup, every rev of the wheel, you felt took the equivalent amount of energy. There was no force multiplier or escape loss where things really started to spin. Some of that had to do with being an early-stage startup, but a lot of it felt it had to do with some of the 1.0 tendencies.
Brett: Let’s get into how this transition started to occur and how you started to allow yourself to see and feel what was going on inside you. Starting with this moment with Joe, tell me a little bit about what you might have expected to feel, if somebody told you something so direct and truthy in front of your entire team and what you ended up actually feeling.
Ant: Would you call that truthy? I would say that was some fucking, cold hard raw form truth served up in my face. No. I think if you describe that incident to anybody. I have told this story to people not doing any work, and I throw them into trauma. What? You are the CEO. Those are your execs. That fucking narrative.
Just remembering that time, I would have expected to feel defensive, enraged, offended, hurt, and frankly to have called it. Thank you facilitator that we have hired. Go fuck yourself. We will take it from here. That’s the textbook version of that experience. But the release was, and this was really the start, I think, of connecting mind to somatic response, which it took me so many reps to really get or feel. The reality was to the words you use, when I am in the presence of truth, my entire system just feels an intense ease and almost to the level of like a body high or like a tantric fucking extended orgasm of ‘whoo’.
It is funny. I remember it almost verbatim, because I think every word and what he said had such a resonance, not just to me but to that room of people, to that community of people who come together and fight their asses off to make Lyte a thing. It was all from love. It was literally love.
Brett: What had been holding you back from recognizing this truth? The moment you said it, you already knew it was true. It resonated in your system. What had blocked you from allowing this truth in that you had already known prior to somebody saying it?
Ant: From an early age, my traumatic early childhood experiences taught me that to feel emotion and certainly to express it, meant anything could happen. I would be physically in danger, and so I think that cycle of avoiding that kind of early detection system or that dashboard that we all carry. It was more of a muscle memory, going all the way back. Like I said, there was always this notion of a tightrope and of running across it, trying to get away from a past that was less than ideal and ignoring the risk and pitfalls that lie beneath and instead just try to get to something where that all goes away. If you think about it, it is a very childish conception of the world and life, but I don’t think it is an uncommon one.
The only other thing I would add to what I said earlier is, I do think there is a historical lineage that feels familiar to me. A lot of my father’s family came from eastern Texas in the time of the Great Migration. We never really talked about it frankly as a family. My father was African American, and we were all coming out of the South at a time when racial terrorism was if not legal then the law looked the other way. When I talk about sprinting across the tightrope, there was also a feeling that I think that I learned in childhood, around just working your ass off to get to a better place than the folks before you. You stood on their shoulders to do that, and that meant in some cases subjugating your emotions and looking normal, whatever normal is. Showing up normal and achieving.
All of those things were factors in how I would have expected to show up and why it was so surprising that I didn’t.
Brett: Let’s get a little bit deeper into this moment when this truth hit you and it landed in your system in a different way than you expected. It felt like some form of relief. I am hearing there was a gratitude for recognizing this truth, and also it was very activating for you. How did that moment continue in the room? Just continue that story.
Ant: I wish I could do a reenactment of the moment. I was talking to Crystal, my chief of staff, who is also deep into this work and a comrade in all of it. I think it was like her second week at the company. I remember her description of it was like, “What the fuck just happened?” But it also became a permissioning, because honestly it wasn’t even like I took it on the chin, and I just kept marching through. I showed the team they could battle this. It was not that at all. It was more like it cracked me open, and what flowed out of that was a deeper state of vulnerability that I think then allowed the team to show up and go deeper in their own vulnerability.
I think getting a couple levels down into the work in community. Execs that are working 12, 15, 16, 17-hour days together, it means that everybody could go. It was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am going deeper so you are going deeper. You are going deeper, so I am going deeper. The deeper we go, the more benefit we get from the work.
Brett: I can imagine everybody in the room who saw this moment with you also felt the similar truth in them and in their role in their company and also in their lives and their avoided emotions and their stress.
Ant: Totally. It was one of the great things I was reminded of in the AoA hotseat days. I loved those, because it reminded me of the early work with the L12 where we were all still kind of strangers to each other, but I took so much from the stories of strangers who are in the work and talking about things at the level I am thinking about them.
In this moment, I mean this started like a daisy chain of moments. Sometimes humor for me is a great tactic for avoiding, but for me humor is really in truth a way to experience, I think, this work at an even deeper level, to experience the love around this work at a deeper level. This set off like a daisy chain of moments of incredible failure by Lyte’s fearless founder and CEO, incredible moments that have continued now for 18 months.
I remember we were doing work. There is an assessment called the Harrison Assessment, which is really about charting qualitative attributes but in the form of a paradox graph. The y-axis might be my ability to achieve, and the x-axis might be my ability to manage stress. If I am in the top left quadrant, I am a really high achiever who is really bad at managing stress, which is where I still happen to be. I am trying to edge my way to the top right quadrant where I can do both well.
We were doing this work as executives, and it wasn’t getting to where I wanted to go fast enough, and I couldn’t figure out fast enough. We ended up doing a group session. This was almost a year after this moment. I had Joe come on and facilitate, and what we realized is, we weren’t getting anywhere, because I didn’t understand how to do the process myself. We ended up taking the three hours we had allotted for all executives for me to actively figure out how to fucking make this thing work for me for three hours.
Brett: Make what thing work?
Ant: Make this Harrison tool really work for the outcome, which was more team cohesion, understanding each other’s tendencies, understanding how this gets reflected. We use the V21 process to manage prioritization, with the ultimate outcome we are all sort of aligned and we are all chasing the right things with the right prioritization.
This would have been a mortifying discovery greater than 12 months ago to realize that I was the problem in the room, but now 12 months on, it actually became a super intense moment where my team got to watch me fail over and over and over again for three hours until I had that breakthrough. There is no way I can simulate that for them. There is no way they are going to get better than to watch me struggle and find the thing, whatever the thing is, right in front of their eyes.
This moment, when he called out the anxiety, I didn’t know it at the time. It just triggered a different kind of, I guess, leadership style that was a little bit more like I am going to jump into that pit over there, guys. I’m pretty sure it is filled with snakes. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get my ass handed to me. It’s going to be at least funny, possibly dangerous, but if I live, come with me.
Brett: That sounds like a contrast to walking through a dark jungle full of snakes with no flashlights or lanterns and say, “Don’t worry, guys, There are no snakes here. Just come along.”
Ant: That’s the perfect juxtaposition. It is one I can do really well, one I can do authentically. One is authentically me. The other one, nobody believed there were no snakes in the fucking jungle. They never believe that, and they became burnt out by it. Some of them left. Some of them said go fuck yourself, I’m not walking into that jungle. I know there are snakes.
Brett: Tell me about how things have shifted since then. You mentioned now this Harrison assessment moment, which was about a year after that moment with Joe in the workshop. How else does this show up in the day to day? Describe a little bit more about Ant 2.0.
Ant: I show up with questions more often than I show up with declarations. I am in wonder a lot more. Questions are so important. You wake up with a to do list versus you wake up and say what does the universe need me to see today. What am I curious about today? Those are two very different days. Same shit can happen, but very different days in terms of how I show up.
Brett: How does anxiety move through your system now?
Ant: I’ve developed some hacks since then. This may or may not be intuitive, but now I know that if I am feeling anxiety, many experiments on from this first one, that it typically means I haven’t articulated something I need. A boundary hasn’t been set or I am in that state of managing people, where I feel like I’ve got to go do something to bring something out of this person or protect them from something. Therefore, I need to not talk about the things that I or the organization need, so I can make sure they are okay, which Jesus Christ, does that ever work out? Does anyone have any case studies of that working out like twice?
Brett: It seems to work out in teaching us new ways to do it differently.
Ant: That’s right. It’s successful in that respect. Now when I feel the anxiety, I feel the anxiety and I name it. There’s another person on my executive team. He is also deep in this work. For him, he has a hack where he tries to think about anxiety as excitement, just that slight mental model shift for him is a real shift in the resonance of what he is dealing with.
Brett: That was a deep shift for me as well in air sports and base jumping, which was when we had fear and anxiety at an exit point. Somebody once told me, and this was a big shift for me. The other side of the coin of fear is excitement. It reminds me of a tool that has come up through this work, and I don’t know where it came from. I think there are even some studies on this. If you are feeling anxiety, you can just jump up and down screaming, “I’m excited, I’m excited, I’m excited!” It will actually transform the experience from anxiety to excitement, and you have the energy to go draw the boundary or take the responsibility that you are ready to take but you are feeling anxious about.
Ant: I think that’s totally right. I love that your example is base jumping and mine is the data portion of my staff meeting.
Brett: It is all emotional base jumping. That’s one of the things I like to describe this work as to a lot of my friends. It’s emotional base jumping. It has scared me more than jumping off of cliffs on many occasions.
Ant: For sure. The anxiety piece, I like LP’s hack a lot. My hack is to name it to my team, and then to find the need. The other part of my 2.X is I start doing a simple thing, like I want to be surrounded by people who make me stronger. That was a weird one. That one came out on another podcast I was doing in remembrance of the murder of George Floyd. I did it for 12 months, on the last month, I was talking to [unclear], and I said something about how we want to take a look at the board. I said my criteria is, who makes me stronger. That has been an incredible breakthrough for me.
The work I do with Crystal, my chief of staff, with Kaitlin, my [unclear], with my executive team, LP I mentioned, Wendy and others is really inviting them into this work, because I think as we do it in community, we do it at a deeper level. We make each other stronger. That’s been another piece of prioritizing my needs in that way. Another thing that’s been a fun one is I love ‘no’. I love ‘no’ so much that I have a ‘no doctrine’.
Brett: What’s your no doctrine?
Ant: It is still under development, but it has been in place at Lyte for six months. I was discovering that people are prone to platitudes and there’s a lot of sentences that go something like this: I totally agree with that comment you made about base jumping and this being emotional base jumping. I really see how it is super scary. You are standing on earth and then you are jumping off earth. Blah, blah, blah, and then there’s like a dot, dot, dot. Then they say, but I actually think it is more like skydiving. This is fucking exhausting. I want what’s after the but, because what’s after the but is a no. Inside of that no is a deeper truth of a more robust product solution, a better response to this client, a strategy, and you are just not saying that, because I don’t know, but I know that there is some emotional story you are in that makes you think I need to hear a bunch of platitudes before we get to the no.
When we think about no as an enabler, not something to be overcome, but something to point us collectively in a group of people at something closer to the truth that we started with, then to me, an organization. This is a little strong, but I think an organization might be the sum total of its no and its speed to nos. It’s individual no’s and its ability to get to those no’s quickly and explore them. When we collide with each other, like when Joe saddles up next to me and the result of it is the comment he made to me, that’s collision. That collision unlocks a lot of energy that can take the conversation to another level.
I love ‘no’. I introduced the no doctrine as we lead with our no’s. We just flip it. You can do all the platitudes you need to do and make yourself feel good on your emotional journey, fine, but just lead with the no’s. Then I permissioned no’s aren’t anything we try to overcome. They aren’t anything we try to break down. They don’t even necessarily mean everything has to stop. We are going to get to the no’s as fast as possible and then we are going to explore those.
Brett: Welcoming the no.
Ant: Welcoming the no.
Brett: How has that impacted your ability to say no and what’s in there for you in how you communicate?
Ant: Where I struggle still is, I get into this thing of managing people, and it is really connected to my childhood, feeling I can’t say no, something I am going to say no is going to be misperceived and I am going to lose connection to the person I am talking to. That’s a big one for me, presuming I don’t want to lose connection to the people. If I don’t mind losing connection with you, all day.
For me, the practice of the no doctrine is exactly that. If I can start with no’s, then I have already set myself up. I have already knocked out fifty percent of my proclivity to try to manage your experience of what I am saying. That’s one I am still working on.
Brett: I would like to get back to that experience of stress within you. You have described a lot of the 2.0 Ant being different from the 1.0 symptoms you were experiencing. I am still curious about the somatic experience about when stress arises now, how is it different from when stress arose before when you were more dissociative?
Ant: Of course, I still feel stress, but I guess the point is I feel stress. I don’t then work out four times in a day and then rip out reactive emails to people, all the things we do in our crazy stressed times. I feel it. Typically behind the feeling of the stress is an emotional feeling that we are familiar with. Maybe it’s sadness. Maybe it’s anger or resentment. Maybe it’s old shit, shit that when you actually sit with it, you are like ‘woah’. You are not 8 years old. What’s coming up? You are good. You are here. You made it. Let me sit with that and love on that and let that move.
I always say move through me, and I don’t mean it like that. I had to let someone go. I called Joe right after, and I said I’m feeling super stressed, super anxious like my life is going to end. What the fuck? He said sit down for a second, close your eyes. What comes up? It was old stuff. He said sit with him, young me. We had a conversation. Then I basically told him to fuck off and go outside and play. At that moment, it was at a cellular level, it felt that stress had melted into fear, terror that had melted into just release. Then the joy came in. It was an intense body high. I could almost feel my body in that energy release moment, not like a sigh, like something had collided and now the energy was flowing back out of me ready to be creative, ready to build connection, ready for the next thing.
That to me is what sits behind the stress now every time it comes up. I’m not batting 1,000, but the on base percentage is getting better. At the bottom of that well, every time is a truth and an energy release that becomes creative and constructive.
Brett: What I hear you describing there is that before the shift, the stress felt like something that was just going to get in the way and then after having a couple of really big release valves open up, you started to build a trust, this faith that behind the stress comes energy, creativity, joy. Stress comes in all different types of flavors and somatic feelings. Some of them are still stuck from our childhood experience or other life experience. We can start to develop a meta-awareness of when stress comes up, feeling it transmuted into something else. What it sounds like you just described is you started to feel more alive than Ant 1.0 at these moments when stress came up.
Ant: That’s exactly, more alive.
Brett: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much Ant, for joining us and telling your story. I resonate a lot with everything you said. It was really a challenge to keep this podcast about you, because I kept wanting to be like there is a way that that resonates in me. I would love to do another one some time.
Ant: Remember that time Joe came into my team meeting and told everybody I am a stress ball because he is a fucker.
Brett: Maybe we should close this episode with one fuck you, Joe Hudson.
Ant: Let’s do it.
Brett: 3, 2, 1.
Brett and Ant: Fuck you, Joe Hudson.
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