Do you struggle to reach your full potential in life?
If so, I have to tell you, right after I recorded today’s interview with high-performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais, I immediately texted my boyfriend to say that I just did one of my most favorite interviews for my podcast – ever.
Dr. Michael Gervais has over 20 years of experience working in really intense, high stakes environments. He’s worked with some of the top athletes, musicians, artists, and executives all around the world. He also appeared on Tim Ferriss’ Fearless and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and many other outlets. Michael also has a podcast called Finding Mastery, where he’s interviewed top guests like best selling author Ryan Holiday and the LA Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton.
Michael’s mission is to discover the mindset skills of the world’s best, in order to change our perspective of what’s possible in our own lives. In this interview he definitely delivers on that promise.
I got so much out of this interview on a personal level, and I know that you are going to as well. 🙂
Let’s dive in!
Check out the episode below:
In this episode, you’ll hear about things like…
- How to create your own personal philosophy (in 25 words or less).
- The difference between “deep work” and “skill work” – and why it should matter to all of us.
- How “What If?” styles of thinking is dangerously holding us back (and what Michael says is an even better strategy to try instead).
- The 3 key things we need to train in order to succeed and become our best selves.
- The strategies Michael has fearlessly taken to achieve a level of high performance in himself.
Some Questions I ask Michael…
- You’ve coached some of the most elite athletes and business executives. Have you noticed any commonalities among these people? What do you think sets high performers apart from everyone else?
- Why do you think people struggle so much to unlock their full potential in life?
- How do you think the distraction of technology (like smart phones, social media, etc) affects high performance?
Links from the interview:
What do you think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this episode. What are some steps you can take this week to work towards unlocking your full potential?
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Thank you for listening!
TranscriptRead the Interview Transcription Here
Welcome back Pursuit with Purpose family. So I have to tell you, right after I recorded today’s interview with Dr. Michael Gervais, I immediately texted my boyfriend to say that I just did one of my absolute favorite interviews for my podcast ever, because this conversation that you’re about to listen to is seriously that good. That’s because Dr. Michael Gervais a is a high performance psychologist with over 20 years experience working in really high stakes environments with some of the top athletes, musicians, artists, and executives in the world. Now he’s known for his work with the Super Bowl winning, Seattle Seahawks, Microsoft executives, Olympic beach volleyball star, Kerri Walsh Jennings, and more. Now Dr. Gervais has also appeared on Tim Ferriss’ Fearless, and has been featured in places like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, among tons of other outlets. He also has a podcast called Finding Mastery, where he’s interviewed top guests like New York Times bestselling author, Ryan Holiday, and Lakers head coach, Luke Walton.
Now ultimately, Dr. Gervais’ mission is to discover the mindset skills of the world’s best athletes, business minds and musicians, to change our perspective of what’s possible in our own lives. In this interview, he definitely delivers on that promise. Now you’ll learn things like the common challenges that all high performers face, and why most people struggle to utilize their full potential in life, and how to really change that for your life, and how technology is impact our performance in our lives too. Now I absolutely loved this interview. I got so much out of it personally too, and I know that you’re going to as well. Let’s dive in.
Melyssa Griffin: Hey, Michael. Welcome to the show.
Michael Gervais: Thank you for having me.
Melyssa Griffin: Very excited to learn more about you today. So I want to just get started. I love knowing where people, who are successful like you, grew up, what your life was like in those early years. So what was that like for you? Where did you grow up?
Michael Gervais: Yeah, good. Well thanks for considering me successful because that’s a very nuanced term. It goes a long way. So growing up, I was born on the East Coast and I spent my early years on a farm in Virginia with my parents. After about third grade, we moved to California. And so I spent most of my formative years like the early, early ones on a farm trying to figure out how Mother Nature worked, how to have running water during the winter. And then when we moved to California, it was a whole different deal. It was like in the city and figuring out how city life worked. And so, I’ve got this balance between the two, where the run and the gun of the city life and then the roots from farm life.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. It’s funny because I know one other high performance coach who works which athletes and business executives, and he grew up on a farm too and then moved to the city. Maybe there is something about it, I don’t know.
Michael Gervais: There is something about it. Not that it’s like there’s any one path that leads anybody anywhere, but the thing you learn on the farm is like how do things really work in a way where you don’t have a lot of access to tools. So there’s a self-reliance that is learned and earned. There’s some hard work that happens on farms. They’re just flat out hard work. You see people around you that you respect and that are caretakers, and they’re working hard. So there is something that you learn. What I’ve found is that Mother Nature is one of the great coaches. There is infallibility with human coaches. They’re inconsistent. There’s ego involved. There’s lots of things that are challenging about taking direction from other humans. Mother Nature is consistent. It’s swift. It’s harsh. It’s real. In many ways, what I’ve learned from action sport athletes that have been doing things in the back country that other athletes and other people wouldn’t even dare to think about doing, that it’s man and woman with and sometimes against Mother Nature. And so there is incredible lessons to learn from how nature works.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I love that you brought that up. That’s one of my personal philosophies too, of just nature always has the answers, I feel like. And like you said, it’s always very consistent which is a really cool point. Seems like growing up on a farm would make you very resourceful too, like you are dependent on the earth and on your own independence.
Michael Gervais: That reliance is a real deal. For entrepreneurs—and I know I’m skipping ahead in some ways, but for entrepreneurs, figuring out that figured-out-ness is a real—it’s a skill to learn and to know, and to stick with something long enough to figure it out, and be in the trenches, and have it look ugly. That’s just part of it. And so if you’re not willing to roll up your sleeves, it gets really hard. Formative years actually can help that. It doesn’t mean that you need it, but it can help that. That’s all.
Melyssa Griffin: Right. Yeah. No, I love that. So looking back on those early years, which experiences do you feel contributed most to the path that you’re on now?
Michael Gervais: Well, there was a couple in particular. So let’s fast forward to high school. When I moved to California, I did not enjoy traditional stick and ball sports. I didn’t understand how to get better in those ecosystems. So I was more attracted to action sports, which are again, Mother Nature is the primary teacher. If you hesitate or get something wrong, you fall, you get bruised, you get bangs, you’re bleeding. Sometimes you can even suffer more serious consequences. So my sport of choice was surfing. There’s two types of surfing. There’s free surfing and there is competitive surfing. In free surfing, it was exactly what you would imagine it could be, where there’s a connection that you’re working on with yourself, with Mother Nature. There’s a harnessing of new, because every wave is new. So there’s a harnessing of new. It really forces our minds and brains to be really on point. But then there is a layer that’s different between free surfing and competitive surfing. In competitive surfing, there’s judges. So in free surfing, it’s you and the waves. That’s it. In competitive surfing, you got that other layer where people are critiquing and judging. What that did is it triggered something in me that was very difficult for me to be free, for me to be able to compete properly and to access the stuff I had inside me. It was that critical nature that was amplified by judges and that just wasn’t working for me.
So I didn’t realize it, but I was out in the heat and a guy paddles by me. There’s only three guys out. I mean I can see it like it was here today. It was beautiful conditions, really glassy. The waves are about a head high. There’s only three people out. One of the guys paddles by me that I’m competing against. He sees me compete every day. He was older than I was. He says, “Hey, Gervais, you got to stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong.” And he just paddled off. I thought to myself, like how does he know. How did he know that that’s what’s in my head? That all I’m thinking about is what if this, what if that, what if this goes wrong, what if that goes wrong. At some level, that’s okay to do what if scenario planning. That is an okay thing to do, but when it becomes such a pervasive part of thinking, it becomes very noisy. And so he paddled off like a good competitor. He didn’t give me the answers, but it just let me know that there’s another way. So literally, I sat in the water and I said, “Okay, well if thinking about what could go wrong isn’t the right strategy, what is the right strategy?” I started thinking about what could go well. It just took me out of that negative spiral, critical spiral. From that moment forward, I said okay, it’s not physical, it’s not technical. There’s something about the mental part of the game that is significant. That was a revelation for me that I did not understand to that point. It fundamentally altered the way I organize my life to try to figure out how does the mind work and then how does it work in more rugged and hostile environments.
Melyssa Griffin: That’s so interesting. I feel like there’s always those people where they say one—they say one sentence to you and it changes the course of our lives. It’s an interesting thing. I’m reading a book right now called “Moments” that talks about kind of the science and why that happens, and how to create those moments more in your life of that guy who just told you this one little tip and then you’re like wow this is—actually that’s a great idea. I’m going to make a career out of this.
Michael Gervais: Like John Kennedy said, we all breathe the same air. We’re all trying to figure out the same stuff, like how does the human experience work. Pulling on that thread of moments, if we don’t understand how to reproduce being able to be in the present moment, we miss a lot of moments. The natural state of our mind is, as we’ve come to understand from 25 years of traditions, this phrase: the natural state of our mind is like a drunk monkey. It’s sloppy. It’s curious. It’s all over the place. It’s easily distracted. It’s not disciplined. A disciplined mind is rare. It can be trained just like anything that can be trained. There’s skills involved with it. There’s practices that support those skills. To condition one’s mind to be strong, to be flexible, to be nimble, all of that so that you can increase the frequency of being in the present moment, that’s where really good stuff happens. That’s where the really amazing things happen in life, is in the present moment. It’s fully trainable. It’s a very exciting time right now for anyone that’s wanting to pursue more. I don’t mean doing more, but being more, and let the doing flow from there. It’s a very exciting time because we’ve got ancient tradition. We’ve got world class athletes and performers that have taught us how they perform. We’ve got great science that is backing that up. There’s a really exciting time right now for people investing in how their mind works. I couldn’t be more excited to be in this industry.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. It’s very interesting to see how mindfulness has really taken off and being present in the moment has become this thing that more and more people are talking about. That…
Michael Gervais: It makes sense though, doesn’t it? For like the climate that we’re in and how we’re ripping and running. It’s such a fast paced, digitally transforming world that people are saying, “Hey, I need something more. I need to be more present. I need to relax more.” But mindfulness is not a relaxation training. It’s meant to be a focus training.
Melyssa Griffin: It seems like the best things happen when you’re in that present now headspace. What are some of the other commonalities that you’ve seen amongst high performers?
Michael Gervais: Okay. So there is no one path to becoming world class. And so when we talk about commonalities, it’s really—I want to talk about it just for a minute because the tip of the arrow performers, the half percenters, they are more alike across disciplines than you would imagine. So the best in the world at sport A, business B, art three, whatever, like they are more similar than dissimilar. What their commonalities are is that there is a deep commitment, and I mean a ridiculous commitment to exploring the adventure of growth. I think about that word “adventure”, how much it means to people and to myself as well, because life is not easy. It’s not a journey that feels like I’m along for a ride. I mean I get that phrase: life’s a journey or whatever, but it really is an adventure because you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s challenges that are common. It’s some real difficult stuff to pursue one’s potential. And so there’s a commitment to that adventure. There’s a commitment to be in the present moment. There is a bit of a narcissistic approach that takes place. There’s a bit of an obsessiveness that’s part of the world stage. There is some self-aggrandizing that takes place. Those are some of the uglier dark sides that we don’t want to talk about on a regular basis, but that is part of that ecosystem. That neurotic drive to want to work this hard, to want to work so fricking hard more than anyone else that you know, it usually doesn’t come from this amazingly healthy place, it usually comes from maybe to show somebody or to prove to somebody or prove to yourself, as what people will say that you’re okay.
And so there’s an unhealthy side and a healthy side. I think that it’s a mistake for us to put these amazing athletes on a pedestal or amazing performers and entrepreneurs on pedestals, for the fact of what they do because what they do is beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, like it’s amazing to see what some of these athletes can do because it is complicated and layered and complex. I think that what we ought to be able to take away is how they organize their life. That’s the takeaway. It’s not what they do, it’s how they become. The way that they become is that they fundamentally organize their lives to get better. That means that they are hungry for figuring out where they break, figuring out where the skills that they’ve invested in, break or start to fray. That means they’re running to the edge of instability on a regular basis, emotional instability and physical instability, because it’s at the place of instability is where we really learn our capacity. And so they’re running to the edge of instability. They are designing their life for great feedback loops. So they invite people or place people or get around people in their life. They’re extraordinary at what they do and they’re being vulnerable enough to ask for feedback. There’s a commitment. I’ll go back. There’s a structuring of one’s life and there is a desire for feedback to get better so that they can practice hard again the next day to run to the edge of instability.
The last thing that’s pretty common for folks is that they believe in the future. They believe that there’s something amazing right around the corner. It’s hard to be on the world stage as a cynic. It’s not possible, but like to walk into—let’s call it like a Super Bowl, and to think to yourself, things don’t really work out for me. I’ll just do my best. We’ll see how it goes. That’s not a conversation that happens. It doesn’t happen that way. I’m prepared. I’m locked in. Let’s go, looking left and right. You too, here we go. Let’s go do this thing that we put our time and energy towards. And so the optimism is a fundamental characteristic and attribute for people that are leading the tip of the arrow.
And then the last piece here, there’s just an understanding about recovery. And so early days for most people, it’s like I’m going to work harder than you and I’m going to outwork you. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having grit, which by definition is passion and perseverance for long term visions or goals, having that relentless resiliency and stick to it, is important. But if you’re going to work at that clip and that hard every day, at some point things break. Physically or emotionally, they begin to break down. To stay on the world stage, getting there is one thing, but to stay there is an incredible investment and recovery*; to wake up and do it over and over and over again.
A big thought here is that there’s only three things that we can train. We can train our body. We can train our craft, the thing that we do. And then we can train our mind. And so world class performers are investing in a world class way on those three variables; their body, their craft and their mind. I’m not talking about just thinking about having great thoughts, like actually training their mind and training their thoughts. Most people that are training to do something, like they’re spending 90% of the time training their craft. They’re spending not enough time conditioning their body. I’m not talking about for physical fitness, like athletes of a different level. I’m talking about to be oxygenated properly, to be strong enough to sit and be focused long enough, to be flexible enough to not be thinking about a backache or hip ache or whatever, like to have a strong carriage so the you can use your mind for creativity and critical thinking, and to find solutions where other people couldn’t. We need our body, our craft and our mind. Most people are spending all their time training their craft and that’s why they’re tired. We have invested, it’s hard to keep going on this, but like…
Melyssa Griffin: No, it’s interesting.
Michael Gervais: Yeah. This is so clear to me that we’ve invested so much energy in training to craft that in corporate whatever (fill in the blank), people are spending so much time thinking about meetings and strategies and develop—and that’s the craft development. They spend 90% of the time thinking about their industry. But it’s not front loading the mind to be nimble and creative and to be able to be confident. You can train confidence. It’s easy to do. It’s mechanically pretty simple. You can train being calm. You can train being focused. If you take calm, confidence and focus as trainable skills with optimism, optimism is trainable—we’re not born that way. You start to train those four ingredients, what you do, your craft becomes significantly enhanced because you think good about the future, you’re confident about yourself, you have a way to regulate your arousal levels. You can focus and be in the present moment more often. Just those four. It’s a significant output.
But here here’s what I wanted to say, is that our grandparents and some great-grandparents, they came from the industrial revolution. They came home one day and they said to their kids, “Hey, things are changing in the factory. Things are changing now. They’ve got these machines that are coming in. They’re replacing people. So I’m just letting you guys know things are changing and I want you guys to become very skilled at what you do.” Because no computer, no machine can outdo this mind, this body. So you’ve got to be good or great at what we do. What that’s done is it’s created a subtle philosophy that for at least three generations has been a play in families. That subtle philosophy is you need to do more to be more, and it’s broken. That philosophy is fundamentally broken. I’ve seen it break on the world stage. I feel it when I work with entrepreneurs and executives, is that a model that I need to do more to be more, it’s just created a deep fatigue in people’s lives. So it’s time to flip that model on its head for us to be more and let the doing flow from there. That be more is what, be more present, be more grounded, be more authentic, be more calm, confidence, focus, like be human more, the best version of yourself and let whatever doing that you’re going to do, flow from there. Once that pivot begins to change for people, I’m telling you, it is literally incredible what happens. And so the output is better, the relationships are better with themselves, with Mother Nature, with other people, with God if that’s part of the factor for people. Literally, life is different for people. The doing becomes exponentially better.
Melyssa Griffin: I love everything you just said. I have so many questions to follow up with you on there. You hit on something that’s really important to me, that your mind is so important in addition to how you master your craft. Just mastering your craft is not going to bring you to your full potential or even necessarily to a happy life. I used to teach solely like how to start a business, marketing, social media, and it was going well. What I realized was that I was helping people with their craft and understand how to do this thing, but then were ending up miserable because they were overworked, or because they didn’t know how to find balance, or they still have these negative thought patterns from their childhood that they’re working through. So I realized that it was like I’m helping people make money and do this thing they love, but then this other half of their life is in shambles. That was a huge reason why I started this podcast for kind of a different conversation there. So I’m curious for you, I feel like this kind of conversation is still relatively new among most people, where people think like I work hard, master my craft, I make good money, live a good life, become really good at my job. But they don’t think as much about the mindset aspect or they don’t put as much value or weight there. One thing… yeah, and you agree. So one thing I’m curious about is, do you think therapy is a valuable tool for people? Do you think everyone should go to therapy to help master their mind or are there some resources or tools that people should use?
Michael Gervais: Great question. I want to be really thoughtful how I answer that because I want to give some context and then I’ll answer the last part, is that if we use—so the beginnings of high performance or sports psychology from a science perspective was, we’re coming out of this time of traditional psychology where we studied the medical model of what’s broken about the human mind. And so it was schizophrenia. It was bipolar disorder. Narcissism was heavy, heavy stuff that people were struggling with. The early psychologists were trying to understand those disorders. And then there was William James, was the first psychologist to have this question, says what about the extraordinary minds, what about the extraordinary people, what do they do. That’s where the field of sports psychology came from. It’s like how do the extraordinary organize their thinking and their lives. And so that’s not therapy. I’m not saying therapy is not good. I’m a trained clinical psychologist licensed in California. I’m not saying therapy is not good. I’m saying that if somebody is relatively healthy let’s say, and they’ve got garden variety mood kind of challenges like we all do, like investing in skills is totally different than having a couch to go talk, to lay on and talk to somebody. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m saying that there is deep work and then there’s skill work. I would suggest to people that deep work is part of the process. Without that depth, that real depth towards being able to articulate one’s own authentic self and to be able to express that through a craft, that’s the merging between, that’s the coupling between mastery of self and mastery of craft.
Mastery of craft is designed to have a sense of mastery of self, but if we never get to mastery of self, it’s like what are we really doing. We’re making money, more money—that’s not going to ever be enough. A bigger house, a bigger car, more bank accounts, like that’s never going to be enough for the human experience. It might provide some ease, but I haven’t met somebody that—and I’m talking about people that are earning hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of their life. It’s not enough. And so deep work I’d say is an amazing experience for people. It’s worth its weight* in gold. Skill based, where training your mind is also worth its weight, and that’s not therapy. That is real skill based work that requires some doing, and some training, and some accountability, and some systems in place to actually recognize when you’re getting better at being focused, calm, confidence, optimism.
Melyssa Griffin: Right. That’s a really interesting distinction. I don’t think—I think I always lump them together, like the therapy…
Michael Gervais: Yeah. I would separate those two out. Yeah.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I like that a lot because not everyone necessarily needs the deep work, or some people jump to skills before they do the deep work and then they don’t get as good of results. So it’s kind of figuring out what do you need in your life and then doing that path of maybe deep work, maybe not, and then doing the skills of building confidence, charisma, all these things.
Michael Gervais: Yeah, and I am—like I want to be really thoughtful when I say this because there’s a place for therapeutic work and there’s a place for deep work that is not trying to solve early pain. Deep work develop insight on the narrative and the biology that has led you to now. The narrative is what we tell ourselves about the experiences we’ve had, and the biology, that we’re either born with or co-created based on our thinking patterns and experiences. But those two together, that’s deep work, like deep, deep work. Mindfulness is part of that process. Mindfulness is a skill. To be mindful, there’s a skill involved and it’s also a state. So being mindful is a way of being and it’s also a skill you can get better at, which starts to get your head a little bit crazy. I would say that a mindfulness practice allows for deep work. It also allows people to be more present so that they can experience what is true. There’s no hiding from the truth. Once you feel it, know it, and see it, and experience it, you can only live in denial so long. That pattern wears out over time. So mindfulness is for the brave, but it’s for all of us. It’s something that’s for all of us.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I feel like mindfulness is very soothing, sounds like a simple term, but just a soothing life experience. Take me out of this.
Michael Gervais: No, I don’t think so.
Melyssa Griffin: You don’t think so?
Michael Gervais: No, I think it—like there’s times—so I’ve been practicing for almost 20 years. I think that there’s a razor’s edge to it. That razor’s edge of learning what’s true about yourself is not always pleasant. There are wonderful, glossy, amazing parts to you and to me, and there’s also parts that are troubling. To be honest, with those troubling parts is the accelerant through it, and so that we can change the narrative and the behaviors to work through that, towards our very best. I think there is a deep razor’s edge. Sometimes, like a 15 minute mindfulness training, and some people call it meditation, I can’t wait to get out of it. It’s so freaking hard, but there’s times when it zips right by and it is transformative in other ways.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I want to go back to our other conversation we’re having about high performers. Some of the things that you were describing that high performers have were like narcissism, they live on the edge of instability, and obviously other positive things too. Those are positives in their own way. But do you think that—like why does somebody want to become a high performer? It sounds very challenging and stressful. What’s the point?
Michael Gervais: So that’s a great—it’s a great question. I think we each need to figure that out for ourselves, like why. Is it more money? There’s more to it. Is it attention? Is it the way it feels to master something? Is it to finally get approval from somebody? Like what is it? I think that that journey of that—inward journey to figure out what’s true is really important, because it does set up many blind spots. It does become a massive accelerant once you really know what it is that you’re doing and why you’re doing it. So I don’t—there’s not one. We can try to break it into two basic camps. There’s people that are internally motivated and people that are externally motivated. Internal motivation is exactly what it sounds. I love the way it feels to get better. I love the way it feels when things make sense. I love the way it feels when I can master something and work towards that level of competency that is amazing. And then external motivation is like yeah I want to do all of that, but I really—what I really want, is I want relief, I want acceptance, I want more money. And so figuring that out I think is really important. There’s two basic camps: internal or external.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I like that, that it’s more about what’s motivating to you rather than just like here’s the thing. I appreciate that. So I’m curious for what you’ve seen coaching and working with a lot of different high performers. Are there any—and this might also be a similar answer, but are there any specific challenges or setbacks that keep them from that level of high performance?
Michael Gervais: Yeah, that’s a good question. Again, I hesitate because you’re asking great questions and they’re multi-layered. It’s like the texture of that question is important because there are many things that get in people’s ways. I think one of the things that gets in the way for most young performers, and this is true for older performers as well—and this is also not just athletes, this is all of us, is you’ve heard of FOMO (fear of missing out). Well, that’s not really it. You’ve heard of YOLO (you only live once). But there’s a new phrase that I’d like to introduce, which is FOPO (fear of other people’s opinions). I’ve seen that to be a massive deterioration for people, is holding back, or holding in, or hesitating, or having an internal constriction if you will, a tightness, because of what somebody else might think about what you do or what you say. We are so self-critical of ourselves that we think that the rest of the world is that critical towards us as well.
And so it’s a fear of other people’s opinions that is at the center of why public speaking is so terrifying for so many of us. So public speaking is said to be one of the top fears for people. Why? When you get off stage and you have a terrible speech or presentation or whatever you’re doing, nobody’s—well not nobody, but likely you’re not going to get shot, you’re not going to get mugged because you had a bad performance. What is happening though is that when another person thinks badly of me, it could mean that I’m kicked out of the tribe. That getting kicked out of the tribe long ago surely did mean a survival issue, because if I had to hunt and gather with just my wife and three kids under the age of four, like how would I really survive in the wild? We need a tribe. We need people in communities for us to become our very best. And so fear of other people’s opinions is a massive issue for many people. Once we can decouple, literally decouple who we are from what we do and hold those two things apart, there’s incredible freedom, because what happens is, for most of us, if we don’t do the deep work, like we have this intimate link that I am what I do.
So if I were to ask you, Melyssa, like—or if you were to ask one of your friends who are you, and let’s say the person—I don’t know, they say I’m a chef, or I’m a mom, or I’m a dad, or I’m an executive. We’re so much more than that. If we link who we are to what we do every time we go do the thing that we say we are—I know that’s a mouthful in there—our identity becomes at stake. What’s amazing about the brain is there are no redundancies. The same part of the brain that is responsible for running or attacking or freezing from a Saber-toothed tiger, is the same part of the brain that gets switched on as soon as we fear something really important, which is another person’s opinion. And so I think that that’s a long way of me setting up that phrase of fear of other people’s opinions, is something that is problematic for many, but not to narcissist. So the narcissists, you just got to turn on the lights and they become alive. They’re like, “Look!” So they’re not afraid. They actually are craving it in a different way of other people’s opinions.
Melyssa Griffin: Interesting, that is very interesting. So I’m very curious. I love that you brought up the FOPO (fear of other people’s opinions). I feel like that’s something that isn’t talked about a lot, but seems to be something that holds a lot of people back, just needing that approval from their community. Like you said, it’s this ancient thing that’s ingrained in us that we don’t even realize it’s happening most of the time. When you’re working with a client, what are some of the steps you take or anything that you do to help them remove that FOPO?
Michael Gervais: Yeah. Well, the first is like facing it down. People rarely come in and say I’m terrified of what other people think of me. They don’t say that because it’s not cool. It’s hard to say that. And because it’s embedded, like I crumble because I’m afraid of what someone might think of me. No one says that. So the first order of business is to say who are you, like really doing that deep work. We challenge people to write a philosophy. What is your personal philosophy? Start there. We say of all the words in your native tongue, can you get it to 25 words or less. What do you stand for? What are your guiding principles in your life? And then could you get that out under knifepoint in a dark alley? You probably can’t get 25 words out. You might get one, two, three, four. So could you get it down to one or two or three or four or five words? What are the principles and the words that guide your thoughts, your words and your actions? Once you’re clear about that, that this is really what I’m doing here, this is the person I’m becoming, this is the principles that are guiding my life, my thoughts, my words and my actions, then we have to make a decision. Am I going to fundamentally change my thinking, my actions and my words because you’re watching me? That’s how you inoculate the fear of other people—that’s one way to inoculate the fear of other people’s opinions.
We also need to help* people have better control of the systems in their brain that switch on during duress, that fight, flight, freeze, submission and flow state responses. As soon as there’s something really important, like a Saber-toothed tiger, or walking on stage, or putting your hand up in a boardroom, or doubling down on your mortgage because of an idea that you have, is that there is a system in our brain that’s designed to help us through those periods, but it’s only meant to last for seconds, momentarily intense environments. What happens for people that have scary thoughts on a regular basis is that systems are on. So we need to teach people how to down regulate that system. It’s not complicated, but that’s part of it. Breathing is one of those great mechanisms that can help reinstate more of a homeostasis or balance in how our brain is working.
Melyssa Griffin: So breathing exercises. Would you say meditation too helps with that?
Michael Gervais: Yeah.
Melyssa Griffin: Kind of in there with breathing.
Michael Gervais: Yeah, for sure. But that early work of like who are you—here’s an example for folks that are listening. I think this is a powerful takeaway, at least I’ve seen it to be in my life and others, is that if you do the lonely work and you write down the 25 words that you stand for, it’s not easy to do. Let’s think about world leaders or religious leaders or people that have really shaped the world. Religion has shaped the world almost as much as any other force that we know, same as big time political and humanistic thinkers. So what did—let’s start with Martin Luther King Jr. What did he stand for? What was his philosophy? It’s very simple. Equality. Malcolm X, what did he stand for? Equality. Okay, but they had completely different ways of going about it. Their thoughts, their words and their actions were consistent in every room they were in, about the thing that mattered most. What was Jesus’ philosophy? Well, without trying to butcher a 2000 year old tradition, is probably about love, treating people well and love. What was Buddha about? Again, without butchering a 2500 year tradition, it was probably about all people are suffering so let’s act with love and kindness. What was Nelson Mandela about? Mother Teresa, what does she stand for? Eleanor Roosevelt, what does she stand for? Helen Keller, what did she stand for? These are extraordinary men and women that their philosophies were very clear to all of us, because they lined up their thoughts and words and actions in every environment. That becomes a very powerful human being to have that level of clarity to get to conviction. It’s that space between clarity to conviction where we become our very best. There is no shortcut to doing that hard, hard, deep work. There is no shortcut to it.
Melyssa Griffin: I love that you brought that up. I’m glad you said that. That is very inspiring. I’m curious too. I want to do this philosophy activity later and work on this for myself. I’m curious, when someone is creating their philosophy about who they want to be, what they stand for, what their life is about, it seems like it would be hard—it seems like it would be just as hard to figure out what to include as what to not include. How do we get over that feeling of like coming to terms with this is not who I am anymore or I’m not this person?
Michael Gervais: I think that that is a great question. There’s going to be some anxiety that comes with this alone work, to make a commitment like what do I really stand for. You said something that tripped a thought that I wasn’t clear enough on. There’s two different bookends to this process if you will. One is a philosophy and the other is a vision. You could call it goal setting. You could call it lots of things or being mission minded. The vision is like who am I becoming or what am I doing in life. The philosophy is what are the principles that are guiding me. So those are separate. The philosophy is meant to be principle based. It’s meant to be a deep commitment to how to line up thoughts, words and actions. And then the vision is more about like the actions; what does it look like when it’s working really well. And then from that you would build a plan and back into a plan to help you. During that plan, what I’m suggesting, what I found is lining up thoughts, words and actions is an incredible accelerant. That’s what the philosophy really is about.
Melyssa Griffin: Right. It makes sense. It’s kind of similar to start with why, just knowing your why, like what do you stand for—principle and…
Michael Gervais: That’s really good.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah, everything goes from there. So the podcast is obviously called Pursuit with Purpose. I know some people listening don’t feel like they’ve found that purpose in their life yet. What would you say to any of the listeners who want, they crave this purpose or something to be a high performer in, but they just don’t know what it is or they’re unsure of how to find it?
Michael Gervais: I would recognize that it’s hard. It’s not easy. Other people can shape your purpose for you if you’re not careful, which would be a trap. That would be a mistake. And so I think the greatest way to figure out your purpose is to listen and to listen deeply to your inner experience, to really listen, to gate out the noise. We live in a very noisy world. We live in a very noisy internal environment with lots of thoughts that are old, lots of thoughts that don’t work for us, lots of thoughts. So I would say gate out the noise to get to the signal and listen deeply. When you can gate—and it takes time to gate out noise. That’s what mindfulness is really about, to get to the signal. Once you get to the signal, it becomes neurotically apparent. You know. The Dalai Lama, he’s got this phrase that he shared in a small speech that he gave. It was enlightenment takes lifetimes to achieve, that’s their model, or can happen in the next instance. So keep paying attention. So enlightenment is like I know my purpose, I know my passion, I know how the world works. I’m not talking about enlightenment when I’m talking about purpose, but they do map onto each other in some kind of way. And so getting to the signal, and that requires a deep listening, gating out the noise.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. Would you say that journaling is a tool to help you listen better?
Michael Gervais: Yeah, I think there’s three ways to listen well. And so one is writing. One is mindfulness, a second one is mindfulness. A third is being in conversations with people that are wise. Wise men and women tend to ask more questions than they do say things. When they say things, they’re pretty articulate. And so those three ways: inspire conversations, mindfulness and writing.
Melyssa Griffin: I like that. So get around people who are smart, who are wise.
Michael Gervais: Yeah. I mean they’re rare, so if you can find them, I’d say it’s worth it. It’s worth looking* to those people, including them in your life and hopefully offering them something important.
Melyssa Griffin: Right. Yeah, I agree. I like that. Okay, so we’ve talked a lot about different facets of high performance, different tactics. I’m curious, for yourself, you seem like a high performer to me. What are some of the things that you’ve personally had to work through to reach your own level of high performance?
Michael Gervais: Oh, everything we’ve talked about. Everything we’ve talked about is a skill. Being present is a skill. Confidence is a skill. Being calm under duress in a hostile environment is a skill. Being clear about my philosophy is a skill. Everything we’ve mentioned. There is good research around everything we’ve talked about, but research—reading the information and just knowing the research is one thing, but applying it is totally different. So walking the walk and talking the walk are really important. Both of those are really important. And so I’d say all of those. The thing that keeps me up if you will, is this thought that at the end of my life—and I think about this many years from now, it won’t be have I done enough, it won’t be that. It will be, the question will be: have I become the man that I could become? And so each day for me as a living—an opportunity for a living masterpiece. And so that is not easy. It’s a high standard. It’s a high thought for me. And so am I capturing the 1440 minutes a day properly? That’s all we get. That’s all we get, 1440. And so out of those 1440, 8 of those hours were sleeping if we’re doing it right. And so that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time. I feel the intensity of not knowing when life will end and honoring that because this might just be the last time that you and I ever speak, and so the only way I know how to honor this time that we’re in together is that to bring my very best, to be prepared, and the right way to be present, and to speak authentically, to line up my thoughts, words and actions. And so I just take the fragility of time as best as I possibly can. So that’s it.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I’ve always found mortality to be one of the biggest motivator too. I forget it a lot of the time until we have conversations like this and I’m reminded of we really don’t have that much time, and anything can be taken at any moment.
Michael Gervais: Yeah, it happens. Sorry to interrupt. I wanted to share I think what’s two really cool practices that you and your audience might be able to use. One is when you look at people and you look in their eyes, is to notice that there’s a white in the color of their eyes. That white is a reminder that there’s really good in people. It helps to remind me that there’s good in others and that they’re wanting to come out. Part of what I want to do is celebrate the good of others and honor them. We need to honor the other side, but like really celebrate the good. That’s one practice. The second practice is that each time you say goodbye to somebody, to really just take a beat*, and not to do it awkwardly or in a weird way, but really take a beat that when you say goodbye that this might be the last time you see them. It’s a wonderful way to remind yourself of how fragile time is, not be depressed about it, but be connected to the reality that our time is fragile and we don’t know how it’s going to unfold in the future. So that goodbye is like a nice, little preparation for the honoring the relationship that we have.
Melyssa Griffin: I like those ideas. I like those a lot. This is an easy one. Are you afraid of dying because you have this philosophy?
Michael Gervais: Yeah, cool question. No, I think there’s far worse things than dying. I don’t know what happens after death. I’m trying to figure it out just like all the mystics and thinkers and the rest of us in the world. We’re just trying to figure that out. I don’t know. So I’m not afraid of dying. I’m far more afraid of living a life that is miserable, subpar, and like not deeply connected, not being authentic and true, and being able to express those on a consistent basis. And so living small is far worse I think than dying. That’s how I answer that.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. One thing that you said earlier about looking at the whites in someone’s eyes, I thought that was a really cool and interesting practice. It reminded me of this kind—I guess philosophy or just thought that I’ve had of everyone is a good person even if they don’t convey themselves as a kind of genuine person, maybe there’s things about them you really dislike. I’m sure we can think of certain famous people that we really dislike. What always brings me back is remembering that there was something in their life that brought them to that point or that led them to having those traits. It was probably someone else’s pain, or someone else’s learning of those negative traits, or having past experiences that were difficult that kind of, were pushed on to them. So it just seems like this cycle of people who are in pain in some way and that comes out maybe in negative ways, but when I can see that that’s the case, it allows me to just come at them with so much more love.
Michael Gervais: Yeah. There’s three philosophies on how people become and how they’re born basically. Evil, born evil, little, selfish beings. Born good, inherently good, or born a blank slate, tabula rasa. I think that’s worth a question for people to take a look at, like are people born evil. Many religions believe that. They will teach that. They’ll say that you need the religious structure to be able to be saved and whatever. It sounds like I’m making a knock on religion. I’m not. I’m just saying that we are informed about human behavior, in many ways through our religious philosophies. So tabula rasa means that we’re just kind of born blank and we’re formed from our parents, our experiences, our thinking or other people’s thinking. And then, or we’re inherently born good, like these perfect little beings. I think it’s a good endeavor to try to sort out what is the nature of a child.
Melyssa Griffin: Where do you fall in those three categories? What do you think?
Michael Gervais: Tabula rasa. Blank state. We are co-created. There’s forces we don’t understand. There’s things that we definitely don’t understand from—or can’t explain. We do have a good sense of like how people start to shape ideas and that comes from lots of different ways. I’m just squarely down the middle of tabula rasa.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah, I’m with you. I’m with you. I almost feel like people are born good. A baby is good inherently when it’s born, but then it’s also a blank slate and it absorbs these certain experiences that maybe make it a different way when it’s an adult or something like that. So I’m curious about the clients that you’ve worked with. Can you share any stories or experiences of what it’s been like to be a high performance psychologist?
Michael Gervais: Yes and no, is that part of the nature of being a licensed psychologist is that there’s a privilege and a confidentiality that’s implied there. There are some performers that have been public about our work, and so obviously, I wouldn’t share anything without them talking about it. The Seattle Seahawks have been an incredible organization to work with and learn from and add to. Kerri Walsh Jennings, one of four time Olympian, three time gold medalist, sometimes bronze, like incredible to be able to work with people like that on a regular basis. Felix Baumgartner, who, you might remember him from the Red Bull Stratos program, to work on the Red Bull Stratos program where Felix jumped from 130,000 feet. Even the brightest minds in aerospace were not clear what would happen if he entered a double sonic boom when he traveled the speed of sound. They weren’t sure if his arms and legs were going to rip off. They weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen to him during that moment. So I mean, talk about like learning and being part of the high stakes and rugged environments. I learned so much. I’m so honored to be part of those types of projects and experiences. So there’s lots of them. I can go on and on about extraordinary things that I’ve learned and been part. I’m just super grateful for so many people in my life that have helped me learn about the human condition.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. You seem like a very curious person. Do you know what your Myers-Briggs personality type is?
Michael Gervais: Oh yeah, for sure.
Melyssa Griffin: What is it?
Michael Gervais: Yeah. Sounds like you’ve taken it often.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I think it’s kind of an interesting thing to learn about people.
Michael Gervais: Yeah. I’m in a ENTP. I’d say as I’m getting older, the E is softening quite a bit. And so there might just be an INTP.
Melyssa Griffin: Interesting. I feel like as people get older, they go one direction or the other with the E or the I, it seems like.
Michael Gervais: Well remember that like, just in context is that in American society, we value extroversion. We value that. We herald it. We celebrate gregariousness. And so it’s easy to think that you’re an E when you might not be. You might just be on the fringe. So I think I’m getting more attuned to the introverted side.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah, I see that. Interesting. So you also, in addition to your clients that you work with, you also have a podcast called Finding Mastery. You interview some very interesting people like Sharon Salzberg, Arianna Huffington, and the Lakers head coach, Luke Walton. So I’m curious, of those interviews, are there any that stand out to you, any that really like shifted something for you or taught you something important?
Michael Gervais: Yeah, every one of them. Literally, there’s something inside everyone. One of the early ones that I was on, I was like I don’t know, I’m not sure. It was highly recommended by a friend. It was interview maybe number three. I asked the gentleman, I said, “So when did your path to mastery begin?” He said, “When I was six and my dad died.” I said oh ok, so it got heavy right away. He said, “Yeah, and then three years later, my mom died. I was raising at age nine, pretty much my five brothers and sisters.” And so I mean—just the last podcast was Vito Belfort, one of the legends in MMA. He talks about how his whole ecosystem of how he’s designed his life to be one of the best cage fighters in the world, it really comes from love. He describes his first fight when he was backstage getting ready—he’s from Brazil. He was just in America for a handful of months, becoming one—his dream was to be an American citizen, or one of his dreams. He’s back stage for one of his first fights and the referee comes over—and this is early days in the UFC—and walks in and says, “Hey, listen, the man that you’re fighting wants to go no rules.” That means that you could hook, you could pop eyeballs out, you could hurt them in the groin. No rules; break bones, whatever. No rules. Tapping out is not an option really. So that was his first introduction. Can you imagine that moment being a young kid in a new country, you’re training the best you can to be as skilled as you possibly can. You’re going to walk into a cage, close the cage door behind you, have thousands of people screaming for you and there’s another large human being that can pop out your eyeball. It just goes on and on about—yeah, so thank you for bringing that up. It’s a for sure passion project. It helps me progressively learn from extraordinary people and it’s been a joy.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. It’s a great podcast. You have some amazing…
Michael Gervais: Oh, thank you.
Melyssa Griffin: … and you’re a great interviewer as well. We’ve talked a little bit about how high performance includes things like mindfulness and listening to yourself and commitment to yourself and your craft. How do you think technology plays into high performance or lack of high performance?
Michael Gervais: Both. I think you’re right on the money there by that subtlety, is that—so AGI and ASI (artificial general intelligence and artificial specific intelligence), it’s coming, it’s real. One of our enterprise companies—so Coach Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks head coach and I formed a joint venture together. And so we’re just a handful of years into the project. We just recently hired a CEO and building out proper staff here. So we took his IP which is how to create a culture and then a high performing culture, and then my intellectual property on how to switch on the minds of people that want to be great. We went to Microsoft and spoke to Satya Nadella and said, “Hey, what do you think?” He said, “Oh yeah, this is really good. This is exactly what I want to do for 100,000 employees. Can you help?” We looked at each other like 100,000 employees? That’s at scale. So we’re fortunate enough for three years later to be working with Microsoft. We trained over 30,000 people at a clip of 240,000 human hours of training. That’s eight hours a person, on how to train the mind. It’s been an extraordinary business venture and building this venture with Coach Carroll, and also work with Microsoft, which leads me to technology, is that AGI and ASI is coming. It’s going to be a game changer, and it’s real, and it’s here. What’s going to happen? Here is my fundamental question. For those that might not know AGI and ASI, is ASI is like your car, like a Tesla automated driver or a smart fan* that can do something. It’s intelligent, or Alexa. There’s some specific intelligence that it can do, but it can’t solve all problems. It’s not doing general intelligence, but AGI is coming. That’s the thing that has some people very scared from a moral, from a social, from a human perspective. What is going to happen when computers start writing their own code, speaking in a language we don’t understand, and their Prime Directive is something that they’ve changed? Because right now we control those things. We say in this language, I’m going to solve this problem. It’s changing. So AGI is coming. Technology is happening.
I want to be really concrete with that, is what would you do? What are you going to do when you have more free time? I’ll tell you what most people do now, is they worry or they check social media or they get busy. So business, doing is no longer a badge of honor. How are you doing today? Oh, I’m so busy. That’s not cool. That’s like the way of the dodo, about being healthy and fresh and being vibrant and being present. That’s the new high commodity for the human experience. And so if you have more free time because computers are automating the mundane, what will you do with that free time? Will your mind be conditioned enough to be still, to be creative, to express authentically, to go explore internal places that have never been explored before so that you can reveal things that are extraordinary about what’s deep inside you? So I’m bullish on technology. I know it’s coming, but I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to handle free time.
Melyssa Griffin: Interesting. It almost reminds me of Wall-E. Have you seen Wall-E where technology takes over and people are just in these wheelchairs watching our iPads, eating candy. I’m going to say that’s what we’re heading towards. It’s kind of scary in certain ways.
Michael Gervais: But look at what we’re doing, 15 years ago, we would never have the opportunity to do this. So technology has made—I don’t know where you are in the world. Where are you in the world?
Melyssa Griffin: I’m in Los Angeles.
Michael Gervais: Okay, well me too, and we chose to do this. So technology is coming and it’s going to free up the mundane. And so that means there’s a greater capacity for creativity, but that’s going to require a discipline mind to be present enough, to access that good stuff. There’s a reason why about 15% report being having a mental disorder called anxiety. Think about it, it’s a disordered way of using your mind, about chronically worry about what could go wrong. So 15% report that. I think the number is more about 30% actually have a disorder of the mind that they can stop worrying about things going wrong. I’ve great compassion for that I will say that callously, but that is something that we can do better than that. We can do much better than that, but we’re not training our young children to be in command of their mind. We’re leaving that up to chance. Less than 15% of the 30,000 people that I’ve recently worked with at Microsoft, and my team I should say have worked at Microsoft, less than 15% have formally trained their mind. They’re one of the greatest tech companies in the world. They’re that smart. They’re that hardworking. Imagine the return that they’re going to get when their people now have formally trained their mind to be more present, more calm, more connected, more grounded, and to think more creatively.
Melyssa Griffin: Yeah. I think that’s a great place to end. I have actually one more question for you that I ask this to all of my guests. I’m curious your thoughts, but what do you feel like people could do to live a more meaningful and fulfilled life?
Michael Gervais: Beautiful question. It’s going to sound trite when I say it and it might sound pedantic, but I don’t know a better answer. It just comes down to love, like really having deep care, deep, deep regard and care for everything. I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that, and now conditioning yourself though to be available and to express that more often, because love is a verb. It’s not just an idea. To condition your mind to be able to experience and express it is a journey worth taking.
Melyssa Griffin: I love that. Beautiful. Michael Gervais, you’re amazing. I loved having this conversation with you. I appreciate you.
Michael Gervais: Thank you very much.
Melyssa Griffin: Thank you. Where can people go to learn more about you? I know that they’re definitely going to want to learn more?
Michael Gervais: Well, cool. So the joint venture with Coach Carroll and I, if you’re an entrepreneur or enterprise, growing enterprise, is called competetocreate.net. If you’re interested in Finding Mastery podcast, that’s very simple, findingmastery.net. And then social media is @michaelgervais, and that’s Twitter. Instagram is @findingmastery. LinkedIn is Gervais PhD.
Melyssa Griffin: Beautiful. We will link all of that below or pursuitwithpurpose.com if you guys are listening on iTunes. Thank you again, Michael.
Michael Gervais: Good work. Thanks for the conversation. It was fun.
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