Jedi Mind Tricks – How to Travel with Family

I’m traveling with my family to Mexico for two weeks this winter. The trip is a throwback to holidays from my childhood. Every other year, my family avoided the holidays altogether and traveled to Latin America. As a kid, I was sad to miss the holidays, but in retrospect those international trips were formative. This will be the first family trip in a decade and the first time with my nephews (7 and 10).

Know why

When I took a month-long trip with my mother to Ghana, I had to get very clear in the months leading up to the trip why I was going. And my purpose for taking the trip wasn’t to have a great experience.

Visiting Ghana was a lifelong dream of my mother’s and a trip she wouldn’t have attempted alone.  My primary reason for going to Africa was to support her; to facilitate her having a positive experience. 

As you are heading into an experience with family, ask yourself why you are prioritizing spending time in this way:

The more clearly you know why, the better you will be at boundaries and making productive use of the time.

Habit: Write down 10 different reasons “why” you are taking the action that you are. They won’t all feel true, but you’ll find something new through the exercise.

There’s no problem so big you can’t walk away

I use this phrase, which is oft repeated by a close friend, to remind myself that I have agency. We always have the ability to leave – even when it feels like we don’t.

It is something of a cardinal sin in my family to leave a conversation or issue unresolved. And yet I’m always calmer for stepping away for ten minutes and coming back to the issue later.

Any of us is free to take a break or walk away at any time.

Habit: Remind yourself, maybe even aloud, that “There’s no problem so big I can’t walk away.”  Repeating that serves as a reminder that you are not stuck in a difficult situation.

Take a pee break

Years ago, a friend taught me the trick of taking a “pee break.” Maybe you actually need to use the toilet, but that’s beside the point. 

The goal is that when you are upset you take a couple of minutes to reorient yourself and come back refreshed.

Under very few circumstances is it considered socially inappropriate  to take a couple of minutes out of a conversation “because I have to use the restroom.” And often you come back better able to handle whatever challenge has been going on.

Habit: Practice “taking a pee break” when the stakes are low. During an otherwise unheated conversation say, “I’ll be back in 2 minutes. I need to use the restroom.” The better you get at taking a break, the better you’ll be able to when things get heated.

Therapy with your parent/child

I’m a proponent of facilitated conversation: therapy, coaching or anything else that works for you.

In advance of our trip to Ghana, my mother and I went to therapy together. The objective was to create some guidelines about what we might expect while we were traveling in Africa, and how to collaborate better.

My mother and I walked out of therapy with a new willingness to listen to each other, which led to a gentler trip in Ghana then might have happened otherwise. (It was still an intense experience!)

Habit: Organize a facilitated conversation. It might not change anything, but it might also result in less drama.

Family meetings

We had regular family meetings growing up. Once every few weeks, our family of four would sit down and discuss challenges that had come up recently.  

I don’t remember what got discussed, but “let’s have a family meeting” remains my family’s shorthand when communication is getting tough.

Habit: Schedule a brief “family meeting.” The goal isn’t to change anybody’s behavior, but to create space for airing of grievances – so they don’t bubble over at inopportune times.

As I get ready to spend two weeks in close quarters with my family in Mexico, I know that I am going to need to practice a lot of these habits and tools. I hope that one of these habits is useful for you as you head into your own holiday plans.

Habits for Gratitude and Celebration

Throughout my life, I’ve believed that in order to acknowledge what’s going well in my life, I have to first solve any difficult emotional situations. Over the last several years, I’ve realized that it is often more effective to focus on the positive, instead of first trying to solve the negative. 

Instead of waiting for things to go just right, it’s a lot more effective – and more fun – to focus on the things that are already going well. Here are some tools that can help… 

Celebrate the small things

By celebrating the small things that are going well – no matter how small they are – we get more practice with celebrating. Don’t wait for things to go well in order to celebrate. Practice and you’ll be surprised at how much more quickly you are able to feel good about seemingly mundane things in your life.

Habit: First thing in the morning, write down one small thing that went well from the day before..

Flip the negative

I have daily practice with my best friend: we phone each other and inquire “Is there a judgment that you would like to flip?” 

We choose a negative judgment – that we’re holding about ourselves or in the world around us – and look for the positive.

If I’m berating myself for a misunderstanding with my mother, I’ll look for ways in which that misunderstanding could be beneficial. If I’m judging myself for pushing through an injury, I’ll examine how that pain could actually be helpful and result in recovery.

By taking something that you are judging as bad and looking for the positive in that same example, you are ” flipping the negative” and practicing gratitude.

Habit: Flipping judgements requires a lot of mental dexterity, so start small. Select something small about yourself or something else that you are judging as bad. Write a few sentences about how that situation could, hypothetically, be beneficial. 

Worst case scenario

Tim Ferriss popularized the idea of “fear setting” through this TED talk and the article “Why You Should Define Your Fears”. The purpose is to identify the worst case scenarios, which usually turns out to not be quite so bad.

My worst case scenario usually ends up with me shitting my pants in public and leaving the country in humiliation. But even in my hypothetical worst case scenarios, I usually survive and learn from the experience.

For extra credit, you can also explore the Best case scenario!

Habit: When you’re considering something you are scared of, ask yourself “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Write down a few of your answers. You might be surprised by some of your answers.

What went well exercise

What Went Well is my favorite among the many exercises Martin Seligman, teaches in his book Flourish.

Traditionally, psychology research focused on “abnormal” psychology or problems to be solved. More than 30 years ago, Seligman began researching and teaching tools that help everyone improve.

One exercise that Seligman teaches is “What Went Well.” Very simply, the practice is to list out three things every day that have gone well. 

This practice forces you to focus on the specifics of what has gone well. By bringing attention to them, you recognize them, reinforce them and make them bigger.

Habit: Write down three things that went well for you in the last day.

Feel shine

In Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg coined the word “Shine” to describe the internal positive emotion we give ourselves when we’ve done something well. When we reward ourselves with that internal feeling of celebration, we create a positive feedback loop. For more on Shine, here’s an article on the topic from TED.

Habit: Take 2 minutes and deliberately feel good about something you’ve done today. Pat yourself on the back, pump your fist or smile in the mirror.

Look for awe

I was sitting in the sauna a few weeks ago and struck up a conversation with UC Berkeley Professor Dacher Keltne, who has spent his career studying awe. 

As we began to talk about his research I was reminded of the life changing moment when I first saw the circus. My parents took me to see Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria, shortly after I began studying gymnastics at 17 years old. Watching the acrobats opened my eyes to what the human body is capable of and led to the last few decades of my movement career.

Awe has the capacity to fundamentally change our perspective or widen our world view. 

(I’m also going to attend the professor’s last class of the year next week and will report back!)

Habit: Seek out awe. Whether through a beautiful view, over a meal with family or in listening to great music, look for an experience of awe. When you open yourself to the feeling of awe, you’re more likely to experience it.

As you spend time with friends and family this holiday weekend, or go about your life, I hope one of these tools is helpful.

Habits for Grief

Two years ago, my best friend was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Two months ago, I went through a breakup. Whether personally or globally, challenges arise.

Grief is complicated. We aren’t taught much about it or how to deal with it.

It is important to take time to mourn a loss.

Here are some habits and practices that might help.

The role of emotions

Sometimes emotions are almost too much to handle. You’ll criticize yourself, or other people. You are less happy or healthy than you want to be. But, it turns out, without emotions, we are unable to function in the world.

There are some interesting studies done on the role of emotions. When someone suffers brain damage such that they can’t experience emotion, they are also unable to make decisions.

While you sometimes might prefer to do without emotions, the alternative is much worse. You can’t enjoy the beautiful things in life if you don’t also experience some of the challenges.

Habit: When you are grieving, find something in the same situation, however small, to be grateful for.

Take time to grieve

Grief sneaks up at random times. When you least expect it, you may see something that reminds you of someone who’s died and the upswell of emotion can be hard to handle.

It doesn’t have to be an actual death, either. The loss of a relationship, or even a missed opportunity can be something we need to grieve.

It helps to take time to grieve. Difficult emotions will still come up, but setting aside time does help.

Habit: During a difficult time, carve out at least one minute a day to be present to your emotions. I like to set an alarm on my phone as my cue. I prefer to write during this pause, but any reflective activity can help.

Don’t judge your process

Everyone’s process for getting over a challenging situation is different. It might mean going to therapy or bitching to a friend. I process emotions by waking up at 5 a.m. full of adrenaline and going for a hard run.

The key is not to judge yourself for the fact that you are grieving. Then you’re not only feeling bad, but you are beating yourself up about it, too.

Don’t judge your process.

Habit: Recognize what helps you. Take 10 minutes and write down a list of things that help you take care of yourself.

Grief takes the time that it takes

I was in a serious car accident last year. I knew that it would take some time to heal and I was gentle with myself for the first couple of weeks.

But a few weeks in, I started getting anxious to get back to my movement practice and the rest of my life. I wasn’t in pain, but I was still very shaken up and the added pressure didn’t help.

In all, it took more than six months to get back to baseline.

Just like healing from physical injury, grief can’t be rushed. Healing happens on its own time.

Habit: If you find yourself pressuring yourself to “get over it,” decide on a timeline. Give yourself one day, one week, or one month where you won’t pressure yourself to “be there” already.

Don’t use force

The Morningstar Company, which I wrote about in my book Responsive: What It Takes To Create A Thriving Organization, is one of the largest tomato manufacturers in the world. What makes the company unique is that it is self-managed by the employees.

One of the company’s two core tenets is “Don’t use force” in working with each other.

We’re accustomed to using anger, pressure, and blame at work – but at what cost? To the detriment of relationships, our own health, and building the habit of doing more in the future.

Instead of trying to force yourself to feel better, acknowledge your grief. Take time to feel what you are feeling.

Habit: You wouldn’t use force – physically or emotionally – with a young child or in an intimate moment with a partner. Treat yourself that same way, even if only for a moment.

We don’t get to control what happens to us or to the people we love.

(I can’t. If you’ve figured out how – please email me!)

But we do get to control how we respond.

Grief is a natural part of life. It is how we make sense of what’s happened and move forward.

When you’re going through a challenge, take the time to acknowledge your grief. I hope some of these habits help.

My System for Emotional Self-Management

I spoke with an entrepreneur recently who described founding her startup as the loneliest of jobs. Elon Musk, somewhat more dramatically, said that “starting a company is like staring into the abyss and eating glass.” Running Robin’s Cafe was the loneliest job I’ve held. It taught me a lot about my own emotional management, which has made running companies since somewhat less difficult. 

Regardless of whether you are building a business, trying to get better at managing a tough situation, or starting something new, I approach emotional management in two stages: avoid the spiral and incremental growth. 

What is the Emotional Spiral?

Throughout the first few months of running Robin’s Cafe, I lived in a state of overwhelm. With everything that needed to be done, there were nights that I’d finish cleaning the cafe after midnight and then sit alone in the dark, too tired to go home.

That’s the emotional state I call the spiral. A state of overwhelm, of being upset about being upset, where it is impossible to make forward progress or to plan ahead.

How to Get Out of an Emotional Spiral

Recognize the spiral

During the worst moments of Robin’s Cafe, I often called my best friend and complained that I wanted to close the business. She would remind me that I could, in fact, walk away at any time. 

The reminder that I wasn’t stuck – that I had the ability to shutter the business –  allowed me to step outside of my emotional spiral and move forward slightly less overwhelmed.

I’ve described bystander apathy, the cognitive bias in which we assume someone else is going to take action. Just as the solution to bystander apathy is to remember that it exists, the path out of an emotional spiral is to recognize it. Simply identifying a spiral can serve as a heuristic to take action.

Take Incremental Action

One block from Robin’s Cafe is another cafe called Stable Cafe, which has been around for a decade and functions seamlessly. On my bad days at Robin’s Cafe, I would compare my business to Stable – and berate everything about my own small operation.

It is tempting to focus on goals and aspirations that are far out of reach, but the consequence is feeling bad about where we are. We amplify that which is at the center of our attention. Being stressed about being stressed results in even more stress! Take some small positive action to build momentum.

Begin by taking one small step in the direction you want to go. 

Take Any Small Step

Sometimes you don’t know what the right next step is. I didn’t know how to start a cafe! As I’ve written about in How to Conduct an Effective Interview, I had to interview a lot of professionals and then take some action. When you are in a spiral, take some action. 

Don’t attempt to solve everything in a single moment. Put one foot in front of the other. Make each step as small as possible. If you try to do something dramatic, you are more likely to fail and resume your spiral. 

Adjust Course As You Go

Think of a sailboat leaving San Francisco for Hawai’i. You don’t leave the coast, point the ship towards the Hawiian islands, and then stop navigating. You’ll get off course. 

The best way to navigate is to adjust course as you go. The best time to adjust your trajectory is while in motion. 

There were a lot of difficult days building Robin’s Cafe – moments of panic, overwhelm, and loneliness. The businesses I’ve built since then have gotten progressively easier. There are still incredibly hard moments, of course, but I don’t stay stuck.

I have more mental and emotional fortitude, better habits to avoid the spiral and to get out quickly. I hope this framework will help you do the same.

The Unexpected Benefits of Celebration

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August 2016 was a wild time for me. Three months prior, with no experience and little idea what I was getting myself into, I opened Robin’s Cafe. We were just figuring out how to operate the restaurant and August was our busiest month so far.

I also was just one month out from hosting Responsive Conference, my first convening about the future of work.

But one thing stands out from that time more than any other: a phone call to my father at the end of each day to report on the numbers. While so much of sales is dominated by aggression and pressure, the call with my father developed into a sweet habit. “We sold two tickets to Responsive!” I’d report, or “Today, we broke $10,000 at the restaurant for the first time!” During one of the most stressful months of my life, those short phone calls are a reason I came to love selling and the thing I remember the most. 

Knowing now what I do about behavior change, it makes sense that those celebratory phone calls made a difference. Celebration, as it happens, is a secret trick for forming new habits quickly and easily.

Emotions create habits

Here’s how it works: when we have a pleasurable experience, dopamine is released in the brain. Over time, we learn to repeat that behavior for the resulting dopamine hit. 

We tend to think that emotions occur as a result of a behavior. I do something successfully and then feel good as a result. Behavior -> dopamine.

But actually this pattern works in reverse, too. I can deliberately decide to feel good and that good feeling triggers dopamine, which reinforces the behavior. Dopamine -> behavior.

This reversal of the typical f behavior -> dopamine pattern opens up a hack for reinforcing desired behaviors quickly and easily. By cultivating a feeling of success and confidence (in other words, by celebrating), we manufacture an internal state in which we’re more likely to repeat a new behavior and turn it into a habit.

Learn to Celebrate

Celebration can take many forms. 

When I get out of my 39 degree cold plunge, I scream like The Hulk. At other times, I just say “yes” to myself in the mirror, pump my fist, or tell myself I’ve done a good job. During that memorable month in August 2016, I phoned my father to celebrate the day’s numbers. 

The key is to feel good about ourselves, intentionally, for a few moments.

Celebrate Together

Celebrating with another person is an easy path towards solidifying habits. I can’t say for sure that Robin’s Cafe and Responsive Conference wouldn’t have been a success without those nightly celebratory calls with my dad, but I do know those phone calls ingrained my sales habit, which contributed to the success of those businesses.

One of my favorite practices is the “What went well” exercise, coined by the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman in his book Flourish. Phone a friend and celebrate one thing that’s gone well today. That simple act of celebrating changes your state and reinforces the celebrated behavior.

Practice Celebrating

One additional trick to use celebration to create a dopamine pathway and thus to cultivate new habits is to practice, multiple times and in quick iteration the new behavior we want and to celebrate the behavior each time.

For instance, one habit I’m cultivating is taking a supplement called Glycemic Health after every meal. I can celebrate, explicitly, whenever I take Glycemic Health after a meal, but I can also open the bottle of Glycemic Health and celebrate, close the bottle, put it away, then come back mere moments later and repeat this behavior and the celebration. 

Doing this 10 times in a row will give me a lot of practice celebrating this new behavior (I.e. opening my bottle of Glycemic Health), which will then encode the sensation of feeling good with having opened the bottle. As a result, I’m much more likely to reach for the supplement.

Looking back seven years later, I’m proud of all that I accomplished building Robin’s Cafe and Responsive Conference. Mostly, though, what I remember is the good feeling I manufactured through celebrating each evening with my father. Amidst a trying time, I found solace in a nightly routine and felt good about myself, reinforced a sales habit that has served me well ever since, and strengthened my relationship with my father.

Further Reading

Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg – I’m biased because I had the chance to work closely with BJ Fogg and his behavior change lab at Stanford, but he’s written more thoughtfully about the value of celebration in habit formation than anyone else I’ve seen.

Here’s an article BJ wrote for on how to use celebration for habit formation, specifically.

Flourish by Martin Seligman – Marty Seligman is the founder of Positive Psychology, the branch of psychology dedicated to improving wellbeing. Flourish is his seminal work on happiness and wellbeing, summarizing 10 years of research into what actually works to improve the human condition.

Responsive: What It Takes To Create a Thriving OrganizationFrom Navy SEALs in Iraq to technology giants experimenting in Silicon Valley, from the inner workings of a sex cult to how a group of anonymous activists can change politics, I wrote this book to distilled tactics from forward-thinking practitioners about building resilient organizations. And if you get it today, Responsive is free on Amazon!

How Do We Make the Most of the Time We Have?

Early in high school, I discovered what Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book” –  a book that fundamentally alters my world view and how I live. Tuesdays with Morrie is a book about death, and it has changed how I view, and talk about death, ever since.

When my best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer almost a year ago, I re-read Tuesdays with Morrie. I began to have a lot of conversations with my friend and her spouse about death, dying, grief, and love.

Even beyond the breast cancel diagnosis, this year hasn’t been exactly mellow. My little company Zander Media had an epic year, and that growth came, in equal measure, with a lot of challenge. My aunt died in August, and my car was totaled on the freeway driving home from her memorial in October.

I’m returning from a week in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where my best friend has lived for the last few years. As we ever do, we spent the week talking about taboo topics and trading “lessons” – gentle, somatic movement – and swimming in the Caribbean. Six weeks after my car accident, I’m through most of the shock.

I’ve finally begun to slow down after the marathon-sprint that has been the last year.

In “Tuesdays with Morrie” the author, Mitch Albom reconnects with his old teacher and mentor, Morrie, who is slowly wasting away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gifted with a dozen brief visits, these two men resume their friendship and discuss a myriad of facets of life. The book ends, of course, with Morrie’s passing.

My friend and I have talked ever day for 15 years. I’ve always assumed we’d have 30 more years together. Now, I don’t know how much time we’ll have left.

I’ve learned, again and again this year, that we never really know.

With my friend, with myself, and with everyone I love – I intend to make the most of this time. As young as I feel at 36, I’ve realized that these lives we are given are short and fleeting. I intend to live fully, but not go too fast. To love fiercely without holding too tight. I’ll also be back to Vieques to see my friend, very soon.

On the Shortness of Life

I was driving home after my aunt’s memorial on Saturday afternoon when my car was hit by someone pulling onto the freeway.

My car was slammed across two lanes of traffic into the median; airbags deployed, and my Prius totaled. The other driver’s SUV spun nearly 180 degree; airbags deployed, front axel broken, and his car, too, is what’s called an “expedited total loss.” Miraculously, we both walked away. Severely shaken, but for the most part unscathed.

The entire weekend, beginning with the family memorial and ending with drive home from Southern California with my parents, has me reflecting on the shortness of life. On where we choose to spend our energy. On the limited amount of time each of us has remaining.

I’m know to be intense. An ex- calls my “thorough.” I routinely do bonkers things like start businesses with no experience or do handstands on stage. But my energy, my intensity, comes at a cost. I say “yes” to meetings with strangers; I’m constantly pushing myself to do more, to take on additional responsibilities. I’m not great at delegating or asking for help. As a result, throughout this last year, I’ve spent 70 hours a week working, and not enough time prioritizing actually connecting with the people I love.

In 36 years full of intensity – and more than my share of close calls – this is the most intense near-death experience I’ve had.

And while I’m still processing the experience – doubtless will be for quite some time – here are some of the things I’d like to do differently with however much time I have left.

Slow down

I was driving at the speed of traffic, when the collision occurred. But I like moving fast, in many aspects of my life. I eat fast, I talk fast, and I change my mind, sometimes, too quickly. (Sorry, Mom.) That’s all fine, and fun – right up until someone gets hurt.

I’m reminded of the phrase, coined in the SEALS: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” That’s the kind of fast I’d like more of.

Less drama, more love

I put up with, and, if I’m being honest, manufacturer a lot of drama. I like drama! Most of us do. Why else would we rubberneck at a car accident, as everyone did as I limped past them across the freeway.

I used to bike down steep San Francisco streets at 45 miles per hour. On a bicycle. In traffic. One minuscule misstep… And while I don’t do that crazy ride anymore, that thrill-seeking boy remains with me.

At my best, I’m intense, but also intensely kind and gentle. And I don’t like quite that much cortisol. I think better, perform better, and love better, when I’m not living on the edge.

It can wait

I didn’t have a device in my hand in that moment of the accident – but I have done.

I’ve gotten pretty comfortable texting a colleague, changing the music, checking directions while

I’m driving. And while “fault” isn’t much in question in this case… I can’t help but wonder if I might have been able to swerve out of the way. Maybe not, too. Life’s like that.
But I intend to take this near-death experience as a ‘shot across the bow.’ We got lucky, and I’m not going to bank on that, again.

Focus your attention

My time this year has been scattered, fractured, and intense. I’ve been frenetically building my company, Zander Media. I take meetings 8 hours a day, then do actually work for a handful of hours. And I’m still trying to find room for my own creativity, my art. Not to mention things like a relationship, my family, and my dog.

An old teacher used to say: “What you put your attention on, you make bigger.” When I look back on my calendar from the last 6 months, I’ve been putting my attention on every damn thing.

I don’t remember the accident, itself. But I remember walking away from my car, the airbags deployed and smoking, limped across the freeway, stared into the stunned faces of the cars driving slowly by. The other driver was sitting, remorseful, his head in his hands. He was worried about his son, who was just then in the hospital. He was in shock, even more than me. The bystanders who’d stopped, took pictures of the scene at my request. Someone called the California Highway Patrol. We both felt terrible, scared, shattered.

A few days have passed, and I’m better. Achy and shaken up, but walking around. Damned grateful. My digestion, which was all bolloxed up for several days, has slowly begun to improve. But when I think that my parents, who drove me away from the scene, might have seen the mangled body of their son… . I feel a reverence since the accident. A gratitude that I can’t quite put into words.

I’ve been offered Grace.

I’m writing this, and publishing it, so that I can hang on to the experience. So that I don’t take my dog Riley for granted, but keep precious the gratitude that she wasn’t in the car with me. Life is short, precious, and can end – abruptly – at any moment. Tell someone you love that you care for them. Slow down a little bit, and love more.

Thanks for reading,

From Boy To Man: Bullying, Sensitivity, and Growth

I visited my middle school last week, which is the location of the darkest moments in my life. There were times in 6th and 7th grade when I did not think I would survive the experience.

I was a sensitive boy growing up. We didn’t have the word “bullying” back then, but that’s what it was. Basketball to the face, getting called “girl” every day, coming home from school every day in tears.

We all have demons. At least, everyone I know has demons! But while they are so big in our mind, they aren’t actually so big in real life. 

Watch this video for some stories about those times, and how those times have made me the man I am today.

Finding inner peace through 24 years of solitary confinement with Eldra Jackson III of Inside Circl‪e

Eldra is a TED main stage speaker and the co-executive director of Inside Circle, a non-profit which works to end cycles of incarceration and recidivism. Eldra was incarcerated for 24 years, with several years of that time spent in solitary confinement.

Eldra now spends most of his time sitting with people inside and outside the prison system, helping them uncover their own truths to find greater internal peace.

I first met Eldra through a Zander Media client, The Trium Group, where Eldra serves as a strategic advisor. I have since come to call him a friend. 

With their focus that “not all prisons have walls,” Inside Circle does transformative work to address the trauma and other wounds that create cycles of incarceration.

Any time spent with Eldra is time well spent. I’m also pleased to share that Zander Media now produces The Inside Circle Podcast with Eldra Jackson III, with guests including Byron Katie, founder of The Work, Soren Gordhamer, founder of Wisdom 2.0, and many more. I hope you enjoy this wide ranging conversation with my friend, Eldra Jackson III!

Achieving Radical Alignment with Alex Jamieson & Bob Gower

Welcome back to another episode of the Robin Zander Show!

My guests today are Alex Jamieson and Bob Gower, co-authors of the new book, Radical Alignment. This book is designed to help people achieve more joy and less drama – at work and in daily life.

Bob Gower is an organizational design consultant. He supported my curation leading up to the first Responsive Conference, where he gave a talk on “How Not To Join a Cult.”

Alex Jamieson was the co-producer and co-star of the academy award nominated documentary, Super Size Me. She is a leadership coach, radio show host, and nutrition consultant.

Together, Bob and Alex gave a talk at Responsive Conference 2018 on “Getting to Hell Yes.”

In their new book, Radical Alignment, they teach a simple process for individuals and teams to establish clear boundaries with less drama and more joy.

I hope you enjoy this conversation!

We’re All In Different Boats

When the pandemic hit in early March, everyone had to make changes. In addition to observing my own responses, it was interesting to see how other people reacted, as well. Everybody I’ve talked to this year has been impacted, but nobody has been impacted in quite the same way.

I first heard the metaphor that strikes me best to describe this scenario from Katelin Holloway at Responsive Conference 2019: “We are all in the same storm, but we are weathering it in different boats.”

This was true of parenthood and work, which was the theme of Katelin’s talk last year, but it is even more true now across all of our lives.

For me, as the leader of a company, as well as a colleague, friend, brother, and son, recognizing the reality of this metaphor has been an exercise in humility. We never truly know what someone else is going through. And acknowledging this has never been more true than during the current crisis. 

On a day that I might be feeling hopeful, energetic, and ready to get work done, it’s necessary to remember that another member of my team may be in a completely different state. And whereas they might have been able to communicate that clearly to me in the pre-pandemic era, even the expectation that people are able to describe their experience or ask for help, needs to be adjusted in the current times.

The global recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement has increased many people’s awareness that the daily experience of a black person is fundamentally different than that of a white person. So, too, the day-to-day experience of someone who has children at home is completely different than another person without kids. This is true of a wide variety of situations and circumstances: mental health, living situations, physical wellbeing, and more.

There is no simple solution to this challenge. Throughout this year, I’ve had to remind myself that I, too, have never lived through a global pandemic and am figuring things out as I go along. The best that any of us can do is recognize that our experiences do not necessarily echo another person’s, and we must continually update our awareness.

We are all in different boats. We don’t know what someone else is experiencing. The only recourse is to show up with greater empathy.

Love, Guide & Let Go

One of the premises of is that the rate of change is accelerating. Over the six years that I have run events about the Future of Work, we have seen that the ways we work and organize are changing ever faster.

The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited this rate of change and fast-forwarded the Future of Work into “now.” All of the trends that define what we were calling the Future of Work are now abruptly commonplace: distributed work, digital collaboration, rapid adaptability.

But one of the most important, and under-valued, aspects of this sudden shift is the increasing emphasis it places on leadership and our people.

My philosophy on leadership is “love, guide, let go.”

By placing people first, supporting them where they are, and recognizing that we are not ultimately able to control others, we are able to build more successful organizations. 

There are lots of tactics for treating people more kindly. At Zander Media, we begin every meeting with a Check-In Round, which is a chance to connect personally before discussing business. Check-In Rounds consist of a simple question like “what is a book or movie you are enjoying?” to something much more vulnerable like “what is something about the current crisis that you are scared about?” These questions provide an opportunity to get to know your people, while safely developing the habit of vulnerability across a team.

Ultimately, though, tactics are much less important. When we show up as humans first, and only secondarily prioritize business performance, we are able to build companies that can not only keep up with the current times, but flourish.

The Practice of Resilience

A week ago, I conducted a webinar with former Navy SEAL, Chris Fussell, about the Coronavirus Pandemic. Chris was a speaker at the First Annual Responsive Conference, and we have maintained contact ever since.

I started the interview asking about a longtime curiosity – what makes high performers, like the military special forces – calm under duress? Chris described the intense training Navy SEALs are subjected to, including long periods of sleep deprivation, rigorous physical and mental exercise. But then he went on to say that whether resilience is inherent or learned is debated even within the special forces.

We expect a Navy SEAL to be calm amidst crisis, but for the rest of us, who have not spent our lives preparing for catastrophe, what do we do?

Emotional resilience has been a lifelong practice for me, of necessity, because I have always been very sensitive. As a child, I was always deeply impacted by my surroundings, and it has been the work of more than 2 decades to learn to leverage this as a strength. We are all struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, each of us in our own way. In calls over the last two weeks, several people have asked me for help maintaining a positive outlook. 

For me, the key to resilience is not about always staying positive. Throughout my life, I’ve often gotten overwhelmed! The practice has become picking myself back up again and getting back to work. It is okay to feel discouraged, stressed, and afraid. The solution – the practice of emotional resilience – is to take care of yourself sufficiently so that you can come back ready to try again.

In our interview, Chris also provided one key which got him through Navy SEAL training: helping others. We are all struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The practice is one of getting overwhelmed, working through it, and then – when we can – turning to somebody next to us and offering support.

We don’t know what the world is going to look like on the other side, but by taking care of ourselves first, and then supporting those around us, we can keep practicing resilience together.

An Interview about Culture Culture, Talent Development, and the Circus with Greg Russell

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Greg Russell, Head of People and Talent at Snapdocs to talk about talent development.

The conversation ended up covering a great deal more including company culture, special needs, human development, and my own eclectic background.

I hope you enjoy!

How I Conduct A Personal Annual Review – and Highlights from 2017

Every year, for nearly the last decade, I’ve conducted an annual review.

When writing a personal annual review, my process looks like this:


Significant Events & Projects in 2017


I’ve written about cultural lessons learned on my trip to Morocco but less so about the importance of time spent with my parents. Growing up, I traveled with my immediate family several weeks per year but have not done so regularly as an adult. For my 30th birthday present, my parents took me on a 5 week trip to Morocco. What is interesting, in retrospect, is that even more than the cultural experience of traveling, was the importance of that time with my family. Taking time as an adult to get to know each of my parents, see myself in them, and be grateful for the quality of time spent has been, and continues to be, life changing.


Puerto Rico training

I spent 4 years in my early 20’s studying deep somatic practice with Anat Baniel and another 4 years studying at the Option Institute. While I no longer participate in either organization, I achieved a level of mastery with the tool sets that each of these organizations teach and continue to practice them to this day. On my first day of my first training with Anat Baniel, I told her that someday I would like to teach this material, and now 10 years later, I have done so only minimally.

The Puerto Rico training, which I co-taught with a friend in June of 2017, was my first public offering to teach and further refine the tool sets that I was fortunate enough to be exposed to and truly changed my life throughout my 20s. I am excited to further teach these tools through a variety of mediums in 2018.


Responsive Conference

2nd Annual Responsive Conference from Robin Zander on Vimeo.

The 1st annual Responsive Conference was a giant unknown as I had never previously curated and directed an event of that magnitude before. The 2nd Annual Responsive Conference was less of an exploration and more of a refinement. My single biggest goal was to form a cohesive organizing team, and in that I succeeded magnificently. Further, I sought to make intentional the curatorial choices I had begun in 2016 including factors like venue, speakers, and working with speakers to present fresh and relevant content. Across the board, the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference was a triumph. We had 225 people from more than 10 countries and with the help of my production team, the event went off pristinely. I am excited in 2018 to further refine and automate the processes that made the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference a success – aka to do less!

Responsive: What It Takes To Create A Thriving Organization

I have never been able to write as other than a very intentional act, and writing had been one of the primary things I avoided throughout most of 2017. Thus, I am thrilled to have actually publishedResponsive: What it Takes to Create a Thriving Organization which is a compilation of three years of interviews and curation on the future of work.



Finally, and by no means least important, I entered into a new relationship midway through the year. I moved in with my girlfriend in December of 2017. This is far and away, the most significant romantic relationship I have ever had, and it’s no coincidence that we have become collaborators on multiple professional, as well as personal, projects. Relationships of all kinds are perhaps one of the three most important aspects in any of our lives, and I couldn’t be any more pleased with this developing romance.

What were your highlights in 2017? Lowlights? What do you want to build on in the year ahead? Let me know in the comments!

Doug Kirkpatrick on The Morning Star Company and Building Self-Managed Organizations

Doug Kirkpatrick is the author of Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization.

He spent the first season of his business career in the manufacturing sector, principally with The Morning Star Company of Sacramento, California. In addition to being a world leader in the food industry, the Morning Star Company is known for being a completely self-managed organization, which we discuss in the interview.

Doug now engages with the Morning Star Self-Management Institute and other vibrant organizations and leaders to co-create the future of management.

I asked Doug to come on to the podcast because he has more experience than most with non-hierarchical organizations and I appreciate the philosophical underpinnings that shape his thinking.

Connect with Doug Kirkpatrick on LinkedIn

Meredith Haberfeld on Fostering Leadership and Building High Performing Organizations


My guest today, Meredith Haberfeld (@merhaberfeld), is the co-founder of Think Human, a coaching company that has worked with a wide variety of organizations – including, among many others, SoulCycle, Spotify, and Flat Iron Health – to foster leadership and build high performing organizations.

Meredith looks at things from a unique viewpoint bridging a scientific, business savvy, and soulful perspective. Since we first met over coffee half a year ago I have been increasingly impressed with Meredith, and how she carries throughout her professional and person lives.

I had the opportunity to spend time with Meredith’s family on a recent trip to New York, enjoyed late night conversation on human development and organization design, and saw first hand the quality with which Meredith treats everyone: using questions to foster each person towards growth.

Meredith will also be a speaker at the 1st Annual Conference in the Bay Area on September 19-20th.

Show Notes

2:00 Meredith’s personal story
5:45 Think Human
9:00 3 lenses: Science, business, and soulfulness
11:30 Coaching and training
15:00 What differentiates the people that work at Think Human
18:00 Building the right team
21:00 Shifting an organization
25:00 Rewire your brain
34:00 Meredith’s experience with SoulCycle
37:00 Having a clear vision
41:00 Building wins for everyone
44:00 Meredith’s vision as a parent
47:00 Meredith’s purpose
Reach out to Meredith:

Are You Afraid of the Happy Idiot?

Happiness is an overused term, and rarely well defined.

The Happy Idiot

Usually, when we think of a “happy” person, what comes to mind? A kind-hearted, somewhat bumbling buffoon. Charlie from Flowers for Algernon in the earliest and latest stages of his development. And yet we spend most of our lives, in innumerable ways, trying to achieve fulfillment and satisfaction.

What I Strive For

When I was eight years old I wanted to own a drum set and to be a drummer. Why? Because I thought that becoming a musician would make me happy.

When I was eighteen and had never been kissed, I wanted a girlfriend. Why? Same answer.

I’m twenty-nine years old and I’d like to think that my aspirations are a bit loftier. Certainly, I strive for a fulfilling personal and professional life, which includes financial success, satisfying relationships—all the usual. But I can want those things and still celebrate the moment. In short, I strive for happiness.

How Will You Define Happiness?

Define happiness however you like: fulfillment, gratitude, gratification, achievement, joy, or something more personal. But inevitably, we find that everyone is seeking the same thing. The toddler and the jihadist, though they seem to have nothing in common in their pursuit of specific goals, are actually both doing what they’re doing because that’s what they want to be doing. Because they believe it will lead them to more happiness, now or in the afterlife.

These are personal questions, without clearly defined answers. Consider them.

I suggest reading Stumbling on Happiness and Flowers for Algernon for two incredible perspectives on these questions.

When Everything You Have Learned Is Sufficient

I’ve never considered myself a sophisticated business person. Several years ago (albeit, after interviewing more than a dozen MBAs) I decided against going to graduate school in business, focusing instead on a less tradition career of which business is more the necessity than the focus.

That said, I enjoy learning. And “business” – encompassing everything from tax law through client sales – have increasingly become a part of my daily life. And still I’ve carried around the idea that compared to those who make the study of business their life’s work, I’m an amateur.

What better way to pass the flight than by chatting about business? (Photo: Dizzy)

So it was that after 4 cups of coffee on a recent flight from New York City to San Francisco, as I was stretching in the back of the airplane that I got to talking with the flight attendant. He had a menu displayed on his computer and we started talking. It turned out that he and his partner run a Soul Food Truck in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I began to ask questions about his food, employees, marketing efforts, revenue and more.

The Best of Robin’s Reading List from 2014

In 2014 I’ve read more books than in any previous year of my life. That includes the Reed College humanities curriculum, which is just ridiculous. I chalk up the depth and breadth of my reading to the combination of my  infra-red sauna, Amazon Prime, and the fact that I’ve been writing. These are some of my favorite books, and miscellaneous media, from 2014.

2014-11-30 13.42.16

A Fighter’s Heart – A must read for anyone who has tried a martial art and everyone on the other end of the spectrum who has asked the question “why fight.”

Apollo’s Angels – Your primer in the history of ballet. Also, a national bestseller..

Average Is Over – Read this book! Think of it as an investment in your future. The best future-thinking and economics book I’ve read in many years.

Daily Rituals: How Artist Work – A series of short epitaphs looking at the daily habits of artists, writers, and scientists.

Flow – The book that popularized the term. Now its time to understand what flow really is and where to find it.

Fluent in 3 Months – Fascinating tools, applicable for learning a language and for learning anything else with great rapidity

How To Do A Handstand – I wrote my first book this year, which has since become a Japanese National Bestseller.

The Moment with Brian Koppelman – A podcast explore creativity, presence, the arts, and more.

The Monkey Wrench Gang – A classic which is responsible for my love affair with the desert. Also useful if you’re feeling a bit rebellious.

The Morning Pages – This workbook is the most useful tool I’ve discovered for unearthing obstacles. I think of it as a tool for getting my crazy out on a page, so I can spend more time doing productive work.

The Number of the Beast – Heinlein is responsible for coining the term “grok” and the “Heinlein” crater on the moon. This book is a wild romp through time, space, and mathematics.

The Obstacle Is the Way – No nonsense Stoic advise from throughout history on getting through the rough spots.

Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit – Dance choreographer Twyla Tharp tackles the question how to be more creative, more regular, more diligent and more productive. Hard work, clear thinking, and a lot of sweat. The specific tools in this book are invaluable.

Well Fed – Whether you’ve considered the Paleo diet, read cookbooks for pleasure (inconceivable to me), or just want to talk about food this is among the best.

I hope you enjoy whichever of these books catch your eye. Each has served me well in 2014, and I’m looking forward to many more discoveries in 2015. On a related note, if you’re interested in a similar exploration into a diverse array of topics, try my Learning List emails.

Getting Back Up Does Get Easier

Fair Warning: This post is more personal than many of my solution-oriented articles. If you are more interested in specific tools for cultivating successful habits, the blog is full of them. I think it is only fair to share stories of challenge, too.

I have fallen over more times that I can possibly say. Literally, in my variety of movement disciplines, and figuratively, into wells of recrimination and despair – I am no stranger to feeling like shit.

One particular evening a few weeks ago I rushed out of ballet class early to see the dance company Batsheva. The performance was simultaneously inspiring and deepened the gulf between where I am and what is possible.

That performance was the capstone on a challenging couple of weeks. I had been trying and failing bring all of my attention to ballet, and learn as quickly as possible. Instead, I was floundering through four hours of ballet technique every evening in a self-referential cycle of feeling awkward, making a mistake, and then feeling worse. To compound matters, though my professional life and dance life are mostly not directly overlapping, some of that despondency did seep into my workdays.

I’m on the mend from a whirlwind of activity, action and misery, and I’m excited to report that there’s bright sunlight at the end of this tunnel. Every tunnel I’ve ever been in the midst of seems to eventually reveal sunshine.

In reflecting about my experience of that period of a few weeks that culminated in the Batsheva performance I notice that this fall into a descending cycle, like the last and all the others, wasn’t any easier. I’m quite as capable of making myself unhappy as I was as an angst-ridden teenager just beginning to date, or a hormone-heady early-twenties scared of my place in the world. If anything, these days my unhappiness is more nuanced and more complicated. I’m more aware, and feel like I have more to lose. It turns out that falling down doesn’t get any easier.

There is an upside to this story. From the middle of my ballet upset or in watching Batsheva and wondering how I could fall so far short of what is possible, my assent to joy seemed impossible. And yet through my writing practice and asking myself a few loving questions, I realize that no matter how inadequate I feel, I will keep on trying.

It is probably a combination of the passage of time and application of specific tools I have cultivated, but I am pleasantly surprised at my rapid return to normalcy. While the fall was no less arduous than any I’ve experienced, the return to comfortable action was. Through practice, we can get better at picking ourselves back up and trying again.

Why Habits Are The Future

Habits are the future of our health and livelihood.  While you might not think in terms of the word “habit” you probably recognize that you are pulled between nearly infinite information and how you chose to spend your time. Current educational systems are unable to change to teach to 21st century challenges quickly enough. The solution to modern problems are up to us, and the individual choices we make. Even more simply, the habits that each of us build into our daily lives are going to shape the future.

These are habits I’m cultivating. What’re yours? (Photo: Eren)

Consider the number of ways that you might receive communications each day: instant messages, text messages, Google+ messages, Facebook messenger, Snapchat. And we haven’t even begun to consider email or phone calls. The amount of information is enormous and we have very few tools for handling the influx. For those of us who decide that we aren’t 1. Going to completely cut ourselves off from the modern world or 2. Approach these problems with a lack of attention and let the industries that create these products and services dictate how we use them, there is only one option. We have to be the ultimate arbiters of how we consume information, what kinds of information we decide to process, and when we say enough.

Self Motivators Win

The future is going to be determined by those best at self-motivating, at moving themselves in the directions they want to go instead of letting their fates be decided by the tools they use, the world they grew up in, their current socio-economic status, or their health. In Average Is Over economist Tyler Cowen paints a stark vision of a future where people are divided into three categories: self-driven, those with money who can afford expensive personal coaches and boot-camp like schools, and the rest. Habits and learning are learnable skills, that we can all use to self-direct and self-regulate our educations, relationships with people and technology, and futures. Short of epiphanies, which I, for one, don’t know how to trigger, or magic pills, which I don’t believe in, simple interventions in our daily lives that have lasting impact are the quickest, easiest way to foster change and growth.

Simple Changes Have Substantial Impact

It has been repeatedly demonstrated in scientific studies that small adjustments can create life-long changes. A famous example is a study for which families of severely underprivileged toddlers in Kingston, Jamaica were educated in simple nutrition, social and motivational skills. Twenty years later those individuals were found to be indistinguishable from more wealthy populations (Gertler, Heckman, et al., 2014). Those simple interventions were able to effectively erase the fact that those children came from impoverished backgrounds.

Marshmallows and Delayed Gratification

Another example is the oft-cited marshmallow study, in which a child’s early-life ability to delay gratification has been shown to be predictive of life-long measures of success (Mischel, Ayduk, et al., 2010).

However, interventions, when poorly designed, can have contrary effects. In a lesser-known variant of the marshmallow study, prior to being given their first marshmallow the children were promised crayons or similar enticement by an adult who did not deliver on the promise. In all of the cases of this reneging on a promise, children ate their first marshmallow right way (Kidd, Palmeri, and Aslin, 2013). Children were trained to take what was available because they could not rely on a future promise, which has implications for the long-term future of those children.


Characteristics like the ability to delay gratification in the marshmallow study are a part of a broader theme, namely meta-learning and the ability to learn how to learn. Meta-learning encompasses learnable skills include creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. Education often fails to teach to these goals, instead focusing on training domain-specific knowledge under the assumptions that these more complex skills will come about naturally. Specific knowledge is valuable, but in the modern era information is abundant and relevant knowledge changes very quickly. What actually matters most is the ability to learn whatever new information may be important, and to use it productively.

Habits and Meta-Learning

Habits can be learned, practiced, and improved. Wether you are starting from a very basic perspective of looking for simple solutions to improve your health, or have already read Getting Things Done, mastered “Inbox Zero” and want to further optimize your efficiently systems, the skill of habit building is worth developing. You can never get too good at building better systems. Just like neural connections can be improved and myelinated in the brain through increased use, habits can be trained, strengthened, and improved. The end goal is empowered people, capable of making their own informed decisions and acting with clarity of purpose. This comes of an understanding of yourself and the learning process. All of which starts with small habits.

If this sort of post is interesting to you, please let me know in the comments!

I’m spending all of my waking hours working on these topics. My next book “Unstuck” will be coming out this November. I’m project managing, putting out fires, and studying meta-learning at the educational start-up Socos. I’m organizing Design for Dance, exploring the impact on learning, creativity, and health through dance in the workplace. Oh, and I’m training classical ballet 30 hours a week, which is about as on-the-ground as learning can get.

Fixation, Addiction and Pursuit of Perfection

When I find something I like – a new sport, person, company or restaurant – I fixate. Culturally we usually discuss fixation only in terms of “addiction.” I’ve discussed before the benefits of enthusiasm for special needs children and non-attachment for overcoming hurdles. There is utility to the boundless (perhaps incessant) enthusiasm that accompanies discovering a new passion.

Learn From Your Enthusiasm

Children fixate beautifully. When a child discovers her fingers for the first time, her delight in her own experience is all consuming. In adults, this behavior would be called self-centered and selfish, but we’d never challenge a child in her explorations. Enthusiasm can be all consuming, and some of the richest learning experiences are to be had when 100% of the learner’s attention is fixated on the object of study.

Forming Habits – The Good and Bad

Many are the times that I have discovered a new fixation. Sometimes this just looks like somewhat obsessive behavior. For example, I have eaten the same type of burrito for lunch for several years. In other situations, fixation can become a problem. I think of myself in a specific college relationship with exasperation – refusing to admit that it was time to move on. The word “fixate” tends towards negative connotations because of situations like this last: times when we completely shape our behavior around a non-healthy focus or endeavor. Ignore the potential outcomes of fixation at your peril; go in eyes open, knowing that there are downsides to forming new habits.

Build the Habit of Pursuing Perfection

Perfection is an unachievable state. There is no “there” there because as soon as you have accomplished your goal, the objective has shifted and become even higher. Dancing ballet for me is a constant struggle between seeking perfection, and the impossibility of achieving that state. There is no achievable “perfect” ballet technique. Unlike my burrito habit – which hasn’t changed much in years – dance is always new and challenging. And while I fixate like a child discovering her fingers, dance is an outlet in which I can continue my pursuit without negative side effects. Dance has provided a point of fixation where the focus is not a succeed/fail endeavor. As a result I can relentlessly strive for perfection that can never be fully attained.

Find a fixation, and constantly strive to improve in that domain. Forming habits has a downside, but fixation can also serve you well.  Get curious and discover a new depth of learning.

Always Be Cross-Training – How Multiple Disciplines Will Help You Succeed

I am always cross-training. I’ve just returned taking letters to the post-office, meaning that I ran there and ran back. I could have used Shyp or driven to the Post Office but it took less time to run, and besides, I was cross-training.

I don’t mean cross-training in just the traditional sense. While I do find it valuable to run in addition to studying ballet, I was actually doing a lot more. If we could have fMRIs while I was running we would have seen a lot more activity than from just my running circuits. I was training. Specifically, I was training  jeté en tournant.

I cannot actually do jetés nearly to that degree, but I was mentally rehearsing even while running. A little like the scene in Billy Eliot where he is leaping down the street, whatever it is I am doing, I am always practicing.

There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill. Get used to it and train accordingly.

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

There is always going to be someone more talented than me. So I practice getting used to it, and train accordingly. I didn’t start dancing ballet at 8 years old like most professional dancers, or drop out of college to work for entrepreneurial titans like marketer Ryan Holiday. Consequently, to make up the time, I think critically and hustle.

Think Critically

Cross-training doesn’t just mean doing an activity that complements a primary purpose, like running might complement ballet. It also means thinking hard about specific directions you’d like to go. Though I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a new company, I haven’t done so because I’m not convinced that doing so is the best use of my time, talent and resources. Instead, I’ve begun to advise several other companies, simultaneously learning, cross-training a skill-set applicable for my own business, and helping out. All for a few hours a week.

As a result of a talk I gave at Design For Dance, I’ve begun to explore Design Thinking. Instead of spending $40,000 and two years in school, I’ve begun to get acquainted with the domain by readings – a lot! I might found another company company in the future and I might go back to school in design. Right now, I’m thinking about what I’m interested in and looking for the connections across disciplines. In other words, cross-training.

Attached to the Outcome? Doomed to Fail. Try These Shortcuts!

Anytime someone is completely fixated on a specific outcome, they are doomed to fail. I recently found this to be true when a broken toe severely limited my ability to turn in ballet, but we see examples across the board – from special needs to athletic performance to business successes. When someone is fixated on things going a certain way they are much more likely to go in the opposite direction. This post picks up where we left off last week: on some solutions for being attached to the outcome.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein

Fail Better

Though we use the word failure, what we mean is more complicated. We have a stigma around failure. We believe that failure is bad, never mind how many times a child falls down before he learns to walk. Actually, failure is a fundamental part of learning. We are built to try and fail many times for each success. This didn’t help on the day I was determined to ride a “broken” motorcycle but embracing the concept of failure as part of any growth is the simplest pathway to overcome the limiting belief that failure is bad.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckett

Think Different

The most common situation I see is someone wanting a specific outcome, and thus getting committed to that outcome regardless of the path necessary to get there. One of my favorite shortcuts entails circumventing the attachment by reorienting the outcome. If I still want to train my ballet turns while recovering from a broken toe, I can strengthen my non-dominate side and visualize turns on my dominant side. Trying to force myself to turn on my broken/dominate foot doesn’t work. What happens if we come up with several more variations? Greater flexibility.

5 New Routes Challenge

I have a challenge which I call the “5 New Routes” challenge. When I drive I usually have a systematic route that I take to my destination. To add some variety I visualize 4 other entirely new routes to the same destination. These might be routes that I will never actually drive (like from San Francisco to Mexico on my way to visit family in LA). The point isn’t the routes themselves, but to expand the current realm of possible options. When I began this exercise years ago I would map out routes on paper. These days, I just visualize the trajectories beforehand. Build the skill of flexible thinking before circumstances demand it.

Cultivate Presence

The last 5 months have a been a whirl-wind. Since January 1, 2014 I’ve founded a corporation, attempted to launch a 500+ person workshop in the Bay Area, failed to publish a book, begun ballet and achieved triple pirouettes, spoken at Stanford University, UCSF, and Ignite SF, and more.

Today I’m going to look at something I’ve been exploring as a part of all of these projects, and probably the single biggest factor that keeps me sane. I have been cultivating presence. First, though, let’s look at this presentation which I gave to a group of professional runners.

So much of our day-to-day is spent in a state of judgement. As an example, just one time bend down and touch your toes. About 98% of the population has self-judgements about not being flexible enough. When I ask almost anyone to bend down and touch their toes, they immediately begin to judge themselves for not being flexible enough.

Every one of the runners I was working with in the video noticed differences after doing the second series of exercises. Why? Simple: they were much more present during the exercise. They were curious about what they were doing. Without former knowledge of the activity they didn’t have as many pre-held judgements. I gave the instructions slowly and carefully. And I gave very different instructions the second time. I had participants notice themselves and pay attention to their environment. We did a lot of variations. But most of all I didn’t put the runners in a situation that triggered all of those self-judgements they had about their flexibility. I had them put their hands on your knees and round and arch. This isn’t a series of movements that most people have ever trained, and it certainly isn’t one that most people have judgements around.

Being present is a seemingly simple concept with vast implications. People who practice being present have more (to quote Martin Seligman) self-reported well-being. Athletes who take presence to an extreme in flow states are exponentially more effective. I write better.

What Worked?

In the movement sequence above, here are some of the aspects I employed to help people notice a difference:

Why do these elements impact the runners’ flexibility? Simple. They are some of the simple building blocks that allow for increased presence. By slowing down the nervous system, reducing fear and stress, and allowing time for learning, change happens much more quickly. But what are specific ways that we can use being present in our daily lives?

The Attitude That Works to Learn Anything

The Attitude that Works is how I describe an attitude I bring to my coaching with special needs children, and try to apply everywhere, in any learning environment. The attitude consists of three parts:

For background, I’ve been developing an attitude that works for years. When I talked a guy down from jumping off a bridge in college, this is what I was using. This philosophy is what makes me effective in coaching children, and also throughout my physical studies. I am by no means perfect – far from it – but formulating guiding principals has been extremely useful as a reminder of what creates an effective environment for learning.


When I began working with children with autism I discovered that they often lack the social standards that we take for granted. I found that the only way to work with these special children was through being completely compassionate to their experience, even if I didn’t know what that experience was. These children rely on their sense of those around them – their intuitive feel for the attitudes held by others – instead of just the social niceties. It turns out that we all sense the attitudes held by those around us, whether we recognize them or not, and that these attitudes profoundly shape how we behave. When we are compassionate or loving with someone else we are much more inviting to that person, and more likely to foster a connection. The rule holds true for ourselves, as well: when we are compassionate with ourselves our brains are literally more available to process new information and form novel connections.

How to Learn From Entrepreneurial Manic Depression (And How To Avoid It)

I chose the header of this blog for a very specific reason. The up and down arrows are a reminder to me that learning anything has ups and downs. Last week I wanted to punch things and felt like sleeping all day to avoid reality, but had to get out of bed, answer emails, issue refunds, and make sure I wasn’t sued. Within the course of 3 days, the project that I have put 80 hour weeks into for the last 4 months folded, I and two friends lost $60,000 in business, and I was threatened with a lawsuit over the publication of an e-book. Rough and cause for a step-back.

So, what do you do when life knocks you down? For a start, watch this video…

A couple of things I’ve learned already from last week’s dip:

Build the Habit of Self-Care

I cannot emphasize self-care too much. For the last four months I’ve exercised 6 days each week. I always eat (at least) 3 meals every day. These two components made getting through the more difficult moments last week possible. I build habits that reinforce taking care of myself because they feel good on a day-to-day basis, but I am really, really grateful for them when the going gets rough. Last week there was never a doubt when I would exercise or what I would eat for breakfast. Similarly, I find mediation (or my preference: gratitude training) works best though daily practice.

Closing the Creative Gap

Learning anything worth learning is tough. And especially for those of us who want to not just learn a skill but excel, there are a lot of ups and downs. It seems that the more exciting a venture is, the more I’m liable to turn manic-depressive. This is actually the reason I created the header of the Learning Curve Experiments blog- to remind myself that learning is full of ups and downs, victories and setbacks, along the way.

So when I saw this video recreation of Ira Glass’ talk on “Closing the Gap” it struck a cord. It is hard to fathom Ira Glass as other than the calm and loving voice we know him to be. (Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve heard his voice.) But apparently even Iran Glass was once a beginner.

THE GAP by Ira Glass from frohlocke on Vimeo.

Ira gave a talk at Reed College in 2010 during which he insisted that when he started out in radio he sucked. Ira Glass not good on the radio? Inconceivable! But in watching this video I’m reminded that in any endeavor we can only start from where we are and move forward from there. The more we try, the more our skills catch up to our taste.

So here’s to taking steps forward! And maybe – just maybe – celebrating some of the pit-falls along the way.

Ask Questions with an Attitude That Works

I have spent most of the month of January refreshing my study of the Option Process Dialogue, a form of socratic questioning which I have found invaluable in my practice, personal life, and physical training.  If you haven’t heard me discuss questions before then by way of introduction, I suggest reading my post Ask More Loving Questions.

Ask Questions

In a world full of people willing to give advice, there is a scarcity of good questions asked without a directive intent. Thus the Option Process Dialogue, an incredible way of being present with another person and asking them questions. I completed a recent course alongside these five fabulous certified Option Process Mentors, each of whom have put in their 10,000 hours refining their practice and understanding of this process.

2013 1 25 Ask Questions

I have read Socrates’ thoughts on the purpose of questions and seen many fine examples of well-honed questions used to extract information, assist someone in hard times, or convince of a particular viewpoint. (For an amusing recent example of two world-class questioners take a look at this interview of Neal Strauss by Tim Ferriss.) While I don’t generally conduct playfully combative interviews, I recently practiced asking questions on a live stage…

Stretching for a Couples Dialogue

One scene from these last weeks stands out. I am in front of a room full of people, facing two friends – a couple. I am the “mentor,” responsible for asking these two questions and aiming for a non-directive, following attitude. Years ago, when I began my study of this dialogue process, it was a struggle to just be present with one person for 5 minutes at a time. Last January I acquired the requisite skills to maintain this presence for 50 or more minutes at a stretch, with few or no momentary lapses.

In the room with my friends this last week I stretched even further. I was asking both of them questions and switching back and forth between them based on my momentary decisions, best judgement, and trained instinct. The system for asking questions is straightforward. While there are many sub-components, it is loosely designed to help the “explorer” uncover beliefs, following an ABC for Adversity -> Belief -> Consequence model for understanding human behavior. We call it Stimulus -> Belief -> Response.

While I find the technique of questions equally fascinating, what actually makes ours unique and useful is the attitude with which we ask questions.