Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Last week, we learned about how exceptional leaders handle crucibles from our conversation with Triangle leaders Tim McLoughlin and Adriana Cosgriff speaking with Tal Ben-Shahar, their positive psychology professor at Harvard. In the nearly two decades since then, Tal has become a global thought leader in happiness studies and is now my teacher.
The Venn Diagram
Tal had a significant influence on the career path for both Tim and Adriana.
Adriana vividly remembered the class where Tal showed a Venn diagram encouraging his class to determine where their passions, purpose, and strengths overlapped. The day that Tal put up the research that showed above a certain threshold, income doesn’t have an impact on happiness, it was as if an elephant had been lifted off her chest. She didn’t partake in on campus recruiting, choosing instead to listen to what she learned in Tal’s class which allowed her to chart her own path. She admits it was scary to go against the current and join a scrappy non profit consulting company, but it planted the seed for what she is doing today, running her own non profit consulting company.
Permission to be Human
Tal’s mantra of giving yourself the “permission to be human” impacted Tim. Leading up to Harvard, he and his classmates felt the pressure to not allow any mistakes; a slip up on grades or SAT could mess up their chances of getting into Harvard. Tal taught his students to understand you can have flaws and to allow mistakes. It is ok to feel overwhelmed. Humans are not perfect.
Before for Tim, it was “I have to do this work.” Tim then changed his perspective to “I have the privilege to do this work.” He converted his perspective to “I want to.” Including his work now as managing partner of Cofounders Capital, “I get to and want to do this work.” While he was taking Tal’s class, he started to think about where his talent, passion, and purpose intersect and together with a friend, wrote a business plan focusing on what he wanted to do, was good at doing, and could have an impact. The focus? A youth hockey training company in Raleigh. With classmates going into investment banking and consulting, he initially thought “this is not a worthy job of a Harvard graduate.” He thought back to Tal’s class and what he learned, and decided to move forward. It wasn’t about hockey, it was about building self-esteem.
Spiral Theory of Knowledge
Tal introduced the concept of the spiral theory of knowledge, that understanding is not linear, rather years later, we often grasp at a higher level something that we learned years earlier. As our conversation played out, Adriana had revelations as she listened to Tim speaking about his career journey, which she saw in hers also. We understand at a different level something that happened when we were in school. As we reflect on experiences, our thinking on a subject can shift from early adulthood to later as a senior.
In reflecting back on what he took away from studying with Tal, Tim said that over the years, he has learned to meet people where they are. What we thought was a big deal earlier, may not be so now. What we focused on as a child or in college can change once we begin our careers. And certainly what we consider to be important changes as we rise up the ranks. Tal said that the spiral theory of knowledge speaks to where our insights meet us. This can be different as a parent of teenagers versus as an empty nester.
I remember when a product manager I had hired wrote me a thank you note many years later, as a new executive. She now understood the pressures I was under as a member of the company’s leadership team, and appreciated the decisions I had made that she had once questioned.
When parents are asked what they most want for their children, universally, we inevitably respond that we just want our children to be happy. Then why is happiness not taught in schools?
When Tal goes into companies and asks participants to raise their hand if they have taken a course in math or history, inevitably, everyone puts up their hand. When he asks about if they have taken classes in relationships, parenting, or happiness, hardly any hands are raised despite their importance in life.
Now that the science of positive psychology is available, Tal advocates for introducing the science of well-being into K-12. He believes it should be taught alongside the existing subjects and that the content can reinforce each other. This will help our performance at school, the workplace and in life. Beyond making us feel better, it will help improve our health while reducing bullying and violence.
Tim is now teaching hockey to 80 youngsters including his own – he is figuring out the constant balance between being too hard and too easy. He sees that parents often err on too easy to give their children immediate satisfaction. He is striving instead to make it hard, but not impossible. So that the children earn what they achieve. This is similar to what Arthur Brooks and Oprah say in their new book about being happy in your job, you must be able to earn your success.
This is similar to how you want to push yourself at the gym. You won’t get stronger if you put the weights on zero. You want to learn the balance.
“Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.” – Aristotle
When does Good Stress turn into Bad Stress?
The number one reason companies reach out to Tal for consulting services is stress. Stress levels were extremely high in 2018-19, skyrocketed during COVID and remain high today.
In our conversation, he shared these important take-aways:
- Stress in and of itself is not a problem. In strength training, we create physical stress in order to strengthen our muscles.
- The problem begins when you don’t have recovery – when you lift more and more and get injured.
- The same is true psychologically. Stress (e.g. hardships, failure) makes us tougher. It is good for children to struggle, that is how they grow stronger.
- The problem is when there is no recovery. Just as in strength training, not having rest days results in injury. With too much work stress, you also burn out instead of build up.
- We, as a society, do not have enough recovery time.
Are you building in time for your teams to recover between sprints?
Next week: How can we bless stress?
I will discuss how we can change our perception of stress, and share the work of Tal’s former teaching assistant, Alia Crum. Like Tim, Alia played ice hockey at Harvard and a classmate of Adriana with the same major. Now a psychology professor at Stanford, she is the principal investigator of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab.
I will also share research from Harvard Business School Professor Alison Woods Brooks and a strategy to turn stress into a force for good.
About Grace Ueng
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