Shawn Achor Podcast Transcript

Brian Lord: I'm Brian Lord. Your host of the Beyond Speaking podcast and today we have on Shawn Achor, who is the author of the new book, Big Potential. Also, The Happiness Advantage, one of the most viewed TEDTalk speakers of all time. Shawn, thank you so much for coming on. Absolutely. Looking forward to it. Now, I love stories and I love this story that you use to open up big potential. And it is fascinating for me, just as somebody who loves history, nature, everything else. Can you share that story that you use to kind of lead off your point for Big Potential?


Shawn Achor: Sure. So the whole book- the whole point of Big Potential is this idea of exploring the science of interconnected success. So there are not just individuals that are succeeding, but how do you get entire communities to flourish? And how do you do that? By connecting to the ecosystem around you. So I start the book with a story about a biologist who in 1935 was going down a river in southeast Indonesia, and he was supposed to make it back to his camp before nightfall. And he didn't make it back in time, which is a problem because he's floating down a river in the dark, just panicked and he looks up at one of the mangrove trees lining the river, expecting a predator to jump out of the dark. And all of a sudden the tree got struck by lightning. And then, as lightning never does in nature, the lightning struck the exact same place again, lighting up that tree. And then in this reality-bending moment, every single mangrove tree on one side of the river got struck by lightning for 100 yards on one side. And when his faculties and his vision recovered, he realized that the lightning wasn't coming down. It was coming out from the trees. And turns out that the trees were covered with millions of bioluminescent lightning bugs that for some reason- First of all, they'll be amazing to see millions of these lighting bugs- but they were covering all of these trees, every inch of them. But for some reason, the lightning bugs were lighting up and going dark at the exact same time simulating almost a lightning strike. So he went back to the United States, wrote up this scientific paper called The Miracle and the Mangroves: The Case of the Synchronous Lightning Bugs of Southeast Indonesia. And no one believed him and he lost his job because the whole point of being a lightning bug is to light up in the dark to increase your chances of sexual reproduction. So why in the world would you light up when the rest of your competition is lit up? And mathematicians knew that this was impossible because, for order to come out of chaos, someone has to lead it. So who is the leader amongst these lightning bugs getting everyone to light-up all at one time? It was impossible. So eight decades later, two researchers at M.I.T. found something amazing. This is years after this man passed away. This happened just a few years ago. These researchers at M.I.T. found that when lightning bugs light up individually like they do across the globe. That's just how we assume lightning bugs act. There are chances of their success rate at reproduction per night is 3 percent, but still pretty good. But it turns out that if they time their pulses as a community, if they light up altogether, which they only have figured out how to do in one small portion of southeastern India and one small portion the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, when the lightning bugs time their pulses together, turns out the success rate goes from 3 percent to 82 percent per bug, which is incredible. And it's not like one bugs doing really well in the system. This one guy's like "Best night of my life." No. What was happening with the entire system was doing orders of magnitude better than we thought was possible because we assumed a survival of the fittest mentality for the world. That's what we thought Nature was teaching us. And what we're actually finding now that we have big data where we can look not just at individuals but entire systems, what we're finding is that it's not survival of the fittest. It's survival of the best fit with the ecosystem around us. And what we're finding is that if you're able to enhance those around you, if you're able to expand power out to them, if you're able to time your pulses to light up as an interconnected community instead of just hyper-comparing and hyper-competing, turns out the success rate rise not just for a few of the individuals in the system, but the entire system does orders of magnitude better than we thought was possible, which is why I titled the book Big Potential. It's looking at not what we can do in terms of self-help, which is small potential. What we're looking at as how by connecting to that ecosystem of potential around us, do we see more of our potential as well? 


Brian Lord: Now it's pretty fascinating- you use a lot of different examples in this, you know, whether it's this or even, you know, the battles in chicken coops and that sort of thing. But how does it kind of translate over into the human role? Like we've been brought up so much on competition, like how do you make that transition?


Shawn Achor: So I went into two of the most highly competitive places. So I started my research actually at Harvard. I spent 12 years there trying to understand what creates happiness for people and what the connection is with success. And one of the things we found is that in this hyper-competitive environment, 80 percent of the students were going through depression. That happiness was actually hard despite being in such a successful place because of the competition that they were experiencing. So I went up to test to see if I could predict who amongst the college students there at Harvard would rise to the top, who would be the most successful based upon certain traits that they had as individuals. So I tested them on everything. I looked at, how much they were sleeping, what their grades were, what their familial income was, or S.A.T. scores. And I did this huge this huge dataset back at the time. And my computer kept crashing because the dataset was so huge because I was looking at all these different variables and I was so frustrated. I spent a year doing this and there was nothing in the data. There was no pattern connecting their individual traits to their success rates in terms of their happiness, their graduation rates and their grades at graduation and their income when they graduate, except at the very end. I found one thing that was highly predictive and it was their social connection score the breadth, the depth and the meaning and their social relationships while they were there and if they had a social connection, all three of those success outcomes rose dramatically. If they lost it, all three of those suffered dramatically. So while I was doing this and finding that the only thing that was predictive of the individual success wasn't the individual traits of the people in a hyper-competitive world like Harvard, it was their ability to connect to the people around. Them the same time, Google, another highly competitive, highly, you know, successful organization, was testing almost the exact same thing. They were going out. They went out to 110,000 employees looking to see if they could detect what were the individual traits that would cause somebody to be a superstar and then how do you put those superstars into the perfect teams so that you could just replicate that hiring practice across the globe? It's a very Google thing to do. And at the end of the project, the head researcher said, we're Google. We're amazing at finding patterns. There is no pattern in the data. There is no pattern connecting to individual traits to the success rates that those teams were having. What was predictive was the social cohesion on the teams. It was the psychological safety to have a voice within that environment. Were you able to express your strengths within the team and did you feel connected to the people you were working with? If you had those, the team flourish. If you don't, it doesn't. It's the same thing we see on sports teams as well. You can have incredible superstars, but without chemistry, they can collapse. And so as we've been looking at this more or more, if we really want to see our success rates rise and our happiness levels rise, we need to look at it not just from an individual perspective, but we need to be including others in our pursuit of happiness and success. For example, if I want to improve my health, if I stop smoking, my health improves. But if everyone around me is still smoking, I'm still not going to see the full potential of my health. So we need to actually find a way of being able to connect to everyone around us in a very special and unique way so that we could actually achieve that big potential.


Brian Lord: So it's almost less of a self-improvement thing, what you're saying. But you have to figure out ways to help others improve at the same time?


Shawn Achor: That's right. Because what we're finding is that these virtuous cycles, when that occurs, instead of a vicious cycle or one bad thing leads to another one making the next, you know, failure even more likely to happen. These virtuous cycle we've been studying within these systems occur when one person has a success that it garnered, that person garners more resources, making the next success more likely and more likely. What we saw with the lightning bugs, for example, is a beautiful example of it, because when they time their pulses together, their light became stronger. So all of the fireflies from the jungle had an increased likelihood of coming and seeing this brighter light. So more and more, the potential mates would come there. And then the other fireflies, the male fireflies would come and add their light as well, trying to figure out what was working so well for this group because they're like got brighter and brighter. Supposedly you can see parts of those jungle's light up from a mile away from the sky because the light becomes so strong. What they're creating was a virtuous cycle. And what we're finding is that if you as an individual want to see more of your potential, we can't just be doing it thinking about how I'm going to overcome this hill by myself. We need to be looking at the entire ecosystem around us, which led to my favorite study right now, which is two researchers out in Virginia, found if you're looking at a hill, you need to climb in front of you. If you look at that hill by yourself, your brain actually shows you a picture of a hill that is 10 to 20 percent steeper than a hill of the exact same height you perceive or standing next to a friend who's going to climb it with you. So the inclusion- isn't that amazing? Inclusion of another person changes your picture of reality and those challenges in front of us look, 10 to 20 percent steeper if we think we're alone in the pursuit of happiness and success or we're doing it with other people.


Brian Lord: So I'm in a position here at work, in a leadership position, I'm also a softball coach. I coach at 12u softball girls softball team. What advice would you have for me as a leader to get this going in either both of those places?


Shawn Achor: So, in Big Potential, I kind of outline these five umbrella traits that people who achieve big potential are able to attain or that they possess. They surround themselves with positive people, so they create an entire star system around them. They enhance other people praising in the right way, which I'll come right back to. They expand power out to people, deputizing them to be able to make positive change as well. They defend the system against the negative and then they help sustain those gains. So in short form, if I was going through that list, like one of the things that we've been finding a lot is- You know, I'm a positive psychologist. So when I look at how do you improve a team when the very first things we look at is praise and recognition. But there's incredible research on how impactful that is. But some of the research we're seeing on it was had a sinister side to it as well. And the reason for that was that a lot of the praise that was being done wasn't praise. It was actually a comparison. "Wow, you threw faster than anyone else, today you're the fastest runner we have on this team. You're the smartest person we have in this classroom. You're the best-looking person on our team here. You know, you had more talk-" You know, I'll get it sometimes at talks. Like occasionally someone will come up to me and be like, "You're the best speaker we ever had here or that we had today." And then one time that happened, one of my friends who is another speaker was standing right next to me. And, you know, hearing this and, you know, it didn't actually enhance me because, on the one hand, they just diminished the person who is standing next to me. But also, I know I'm not always the best speaker for sure. So what that means is now I'm imbalanced in the future trying to decide my worth based upon whether or not I'm the best within that space, which isn't how we should actually be doing it. So what we did is we and what I would suggest, you know, within the sports- I'm working actually somewhat with some NFL teams right now and we've been doing this with some professional athletes and Olympic athletes- is moving away from comparison-based praise. So you could still praise somebody for you know, "I love your comedic timing in your talk" or "I love that you have research in your talk." That doesn't diminish anyone else. As soon as you add in the comparison in there- "You're the fastest, the best, the smartest-" within the space immediately, you're actually diminishing the rest of the ecosystem while trying to raise up that person. So increasing the amount of praise, but actually finding a way of praising the base as one of the ways that we look out for big potential. What we've been looking at are things like prison-based praise. So instead of like coming in and praising one person, the person who just scored a, you know, got an RBI or got a homerun. Right? You could cheer on that person, but that person also just got the reward. They scored. They also have everyone cheering for them at that moment. That's a great opportunity to praise the people that you know- "It's so great that we even had this opportunity because somebody was already on first base." You know, or it's you know, it's so great that you know, "You were able to do so well in practice today because I didn't even want to come out to practice in the rain. But, you know, some the people on the team decided we should do this." Or "This is thanks to the fans who are cheering for us right now." So what you're doing is you're expanding that praise out to the base that supports those gains in the first place. But also, you know, celebrating the wins as much as possible as a collective group. That's how people sustain those gains, defending against the negative that comes into the system. You know, expanding power out, letting people help you coach instead of feeling like all the burden comes on you. Those are all kinds of things we look at when we look at teams about how we can get people to pursue a big potential idea instead of feeling like they're trying to be successful alone on a team.


Brian Lord: So you are an amazingly successful researcher, speaker, and author. So just so our audience isn't too star-struck, can you tell us about the first 10 or 15 seconds of you meeting Oprah?


Shawn Achor: I had never met a celebrity at that point and I thought I'd be normal. Wasn't at all. So I saw her and my brain- She invited me to her home in Montecito, California. So I was already nervous and I saw her and my brain just shut off. And they had these three cameras filming this beautiful and organic first meeting with Oprah. And my brain just turned off and she was like, "Shawn, Shawn, Shawn!" And I didn't know the protocol like, "Oprah, Oprah, Oprah!" So I said nothing. Just stared at her. But she had her hands up. So I gave her a high five slash hug, slash, you know, hand-holding, and we couldn't let go. And we start rotating in a circle dancing with my panicked eyes staring at her. They literally had to shut off the camera for the first time in a thousand interviews, they said. So if anyone ever sees that Super Soul Sunday episode where I see her for the first time, that was the second time because we had to re-film the whole thing. But a few minutes later, she makes you feel so comfortable you'll tell her anything. And the interview is really talking about how do we actually achieve happiness even when it doesn't feel like it's a choice anymore, given changes that are occurring in our world or stresses that we have at work or at home, how do we find that type of happiness?


Brian Lord: And what are kind of those steps that you take [Inaudible]?


Shawn Achor: Sure. Well, I think the most important learning I had was- Well, actually, so when they finished the first hour of the interview, which was all we were supposed to have, I turned to her while they were breaking down the cameras. I said, "I'm so disappointed we didn't get to talk about how I went through depression because it's so easy to hear all this research to be like, 'Yeah, of course, he's happy. He's a happiness researcher.' His wife's a happiness researcher." You know, if somebody seen my TEDTalk, my sister's a unicorn. So like, clearly all these positive things and of course, of course, I'd be happy. Right? And then if someone hears Oprah, they'd be like, well, you know, take your life right now, take all your concerns and worries and challenges and then add and all of her wealth and celebrity friends and a private jet to get everywhere. It's got to be easy to be happy in this world if you're Oprah. And she turned to me, she said. Shawn, I went through two years of depression at the height of my career when Beloved didn't do as well as I wanted to and I shattered. And I told her I went through two years of depression while I was at Harvard, teaching the students how not to become depressed themselves. And we turned back on the cameras. She turned it back on. And we did a whole second hour that was so much deeper than the first. And what I told her, the turning point for me was up to that point, I was really good at checking off individual metrics in my life. So when I got depressed, I thought, I can solve this myself. I don't need to burden anyone else. I'll be there for other people. But I can solve this on my own. And I went deeper and deeper into depression. And the turning point was where I had to turn to my eight closest friends and family. The people that were in my ecosystem of potential. And I had to tell them I've been depressed for two years. I had no idea how to get out of this and I really need your help. And the groundswell of support was amazing. They were calling me, meeting up with me to make sure I was OK, that I was surrounded by people that loved me. But as soon as I let them in, suddenly that hill in front of me dropped by 10 to 20 percent in my brain. Because what we're finding is that that challenge drop, because now it was an overcoming depression by myself. I was doing it with other people. And more important than that was now I was allowing for reciprocal friendship so I could hear things that they were dealing with. And then what got me out of bed in the morning wasn't just am I depressed or not? It was I need to make get out of bed to meet up with my friend because I know how lonely she is right now. And so instead of trying to light up individually at Harvard, trying to be the best and the smartest and do everything on her own, which wasn't working and created 80 percent depression at Harvard, [Inaudible]. So you're even not even you're not able to achieve your academic potential in the midst of that. Instead, we tried to light up as an interconnected community, helping one another come out. And not only was that what got me out of depression, but that's what pulled me into positive psychology. Learning about how this happiness research can't just be a self-help idea, but that we must pursue happiness and success in an interconnected way.


Brian Lord: I think like in trying to measure this- So you as a researcher have to measure things. I think as people like it's so easy to measure money like this person's got $10 more than this other person or this person's grade point average is point one higher than the other. What measurables should someone use instead of those?


Shawn Achor: It's so hard because- I believe that comparison- This is not my quote. I love it. "Comparison is the thief of joy." As soon as you get into the idea of comparing yourself to other people and then determining your worth based upon that comparison- And that's the key point- then we've already lost out because then the only person who can be happy is the richest person in the world. And that richest person in the world, you know, might have problems with their relationship. So they might actually have other things to envy with other people or they might, you know, not be the best athlete when they go out to play basketball and they feel bad about themselves every time they go play basketball. Right? If a comparison is the way that we're judging our happiness, it will never work out for us. I would say instead of trying to find value in things that are not comparison-based. So, yes, I can feel like I am proud of myself because I can speak a little French or I'm proud of myself because I wrote a book or I'm proud of myself because I ran a mile and a half. Now, soon as I compare that to my friends who are running five miles a day. I should feel really bad about myself. But why would I do that? A mile and a half are so much better than what I was doing two weeks ago. So for me, being able to run a mile and a half is a success. And so I'm finding that as soon as I start to hyper-compare when I go on social media. Like, if I get five likes for a post that I have or a photo, you know, I should feel good about maybe those five likes for myself or not even judged myself based upon those. But as soon as I start comparing myself to other people who have a thousand likes or 15 million followers, then, of course, it just creates greater levels of unhappiness. So instead of trying to judge my value that way, I flip it around. So one example of that is social media, which is where I was feeling a lot of that hyper-comparison. And we know a lot of adolescents are feeling that as well. Actually, all of us are feeling it. And so every time I'd go on there, it was backfiring and I'd leave social media feeling less about myself because of those comparisons. So now what I do, is I spent the same amount of time on social media, but when I go on, I'm just hearting other people's posts and commenting about how great their ideas are, how great their vacation looked, or congratulations on that promotion. And then I leave. But I feel rejuvenated because I've just meaningfully activated many of the people there in my space. And sometimes they're motivated oftentimes to be able to connect back to me as well. But I feel leaving like I've actually had agency. I've been able to love them instead of going and trying to feel loved, which every time was backfiring.


Brian Lord: Well, I love that kind of raising others up. One of my favorite stories in your book is, is the Kaiser medical story about how they've been so [Inaudible], so sort of top-focused and then they flipped that around by providing training to receptionists. So tell me about how you came across that and then what your thoughts are on that process.


Shawn Achor: So Kaiser Permanente, is this, first of all, incredible, but also a giant medical group in California. So they're dealing with literally life or death decisions on a daily basis. They have very highly specialized doctors, physicians who work with them. And what happens oftentimes in organizations like that is you get hierarchical and you think, well, only certain people can perform certain actions, especially because you don't want lawsuits. So at the top will be the decision-makers, you know, who will be the doctors. And then below that will be the nurses and nurse practitioners. And then you've got, you know, staff and administrators that, you know, keep getting pushed lower and lower in the pyramid of power that's there. What they did at Kaiser was fantastic. They had a firm called I Saved the Life program. And what they did was they trained their receptionists who are hired without any medical training at all. They're hired to be a receptionist, but they train them to actually have the opportunity to when somebody calls in for, you know, an earache that they're having. They would also have their files in front of them. So they could be like, "Actually, I've noticed you haven't had a mammogram screening" or "I noticed you haven't had a prostate cancer screening. Would you like to set one up right now? I can actually set one up for you in the system, even though you've been calling about something different coming in." So what was happening in those moments is they were expanding power out beyond the current system. So the doctors who are feeling exhausted in the system where they can only see patients for like 10 or five minutes a day because there's so much demand that was actually going on instead of just saying "Nope, these are the only people that can actually be able to help improve somebody's well-being," they actually deputized the secretaries, the receptionist, to actually be medical providers themselves. So what they were doing was they were checking in to make sure that they were getting the screenings. And then importantly, they quantified what was actually happening on the backside of it. And what they found is that several now, several thousand lives have actually been saved. And they consider a life saved to be a screening that was set up through this program by the receptionist that was caught by the receptionist and then scheduled and where they found cancer that was life-threatening. And thousands of people have already been saved by these receptionists. And you could hear the pride in their voice, not only from the receptionist but from the whole system, that they felt like that they were allowing more and more people to be part of caring for the patients are coming in, not just certain specialized people with inside the organization. And that's all about expanding power out in the same way that when I got depressed, I expanded power out to my friends, deputizing them to actually have the power to improve my levels of happiness as well instead of trying to carry that burden alone. The same thing that a professional athlete will do. So instead of trying to take all the shots themselves, actually being out and enhancing the other people on the floor, getting them involved so that when that athlete is exhausted and needs to go the bench, that their bench is strong enough to keep the game going until he or she can get back in.


Brian Lord: I'm curious. Did they do any follow up about how this affected the receptionist, like kids and family at home? Did they save those any of those lives, too?


Shawn Achor: That is a great idea. They haven't tested that. They did test their engagement levels. Like how engaged the receptionist felt in the work and their likelihood to stay. Those both rose dramatically. But what we're seeing from these big datasets when we actually get them is that these changes have cascading and contagious impacts upon our families and communities as well. So I wouldn't be surprised. And that's why we're actually spending I'm spending a lot of my time right now working out in the communities and the schools, not just with the companies anymore. We're working with all the schools in Flint, Michigan, right now, trying to bring in the positive psychology interventions we were doing at companies that bring that end to students who are living in the midst of a water crisis. And students are living in the midst of cyclical poverty, trying to find a way if you can get their levels of optimism to rise or finding as their test scores improve, the resilience improves, their grit improves, and it creates cascading benefits back out to the community as well. We're getting some really- we're having some really amazing results. Both Good Morning America and The Today Show- the annual News World Report actually did an article on what we were doing out at the schools and what we found- Good Morning America came out for one the school, as we did with Illinois. And we're working with the entire school district up there. There was this 73rd percentile of academic achievement, which is pretty good in Illinois. But we came in and created these positive interventions, gratitude exercises, expanding power out to fourth graders so they could have a positive effect upon the sixth graders and doing random acts of kindness and teaching meditation. And over the four year period of time we've worked with them, they've gone from the 73rd academic achievement level percentage-wise to the 95th percentile in Illinois and now top 2 percent nationwide. So we're seeing stunning impacts. So it's not just let's find greater levels of happiness and well-being. This is the key to improving our schools as well. If we're not just trying to do this alone, but we're doing this as a community that's lighting up together in the dark.


Brian Lord: So with community being so important. One thing you mentioned in there is, you know, people have this sort of isolation fantasy sometimes only in a negative way where there's, you know, no kids, no boss, no job, no responsibilities. They're just out on an island somewhere. Why do you think people have that?


Shawn Achor: I think it's because we're overwhelmed. So it's one of the things I discuss later in the book, in a chapter about defending the system, because if we're going to be highly interconnected, we need to find a way of inoculating ourselves against the negative that surrounds us. Right? So the whole book is about how we need an interconnected pursuit. The sooner you're connected, you're also connected to people who are negative, who are sick or exhausted themselves or who have demands upon us. Right. And every time we're in a community, there are demands. The more people you put the house, the more demands you have within the systems. There might be an opportunity for meaning and love in a household with 16 kids, but there's also a lot of demands. I have two kids and this is a lot of demands. And then you have their friends over and it just gets amplified. So I think we have this fantasy that if I could just eliminate all of these things, then maybe I'd really see my happy happiness rise, my success rates rise. A friend, a very successful author who felt like he wasn't able to write his book at home with his kids and with all his friends calling and or calling all the time. So he rented a house for the summer and he- up in Northern California- and he was just going to isolate himself out there and write his book as fast as he could so we can be home with his family. And for the first three days, he was out there with no distractions he just wrote so much, all the ones for the first three days. And then the fourth day he hit the biggest writer's block he said he's ever had. And he stayed there for another two weeks, didn't write another page and finally came home. And the reason for it was when I told him was he divorced himself from the very reason why he's writing a book in the first place. We're writing a book because we want to share it with other people or we want our kids to be proud of us or we want schools to be able to read it. And if you're completely isolated from that, you lose the meaning behind that as well. So we can fantasize about being on a beach completely by ourselves. Right? And I've had that I remember being on a beach one time and for some reason, no one was there like later at night. And I was like, ah, this is heaven. And I was like, "Wait, my vision of heaven doesn't have any other people? So sad." Right? That what really provides longterm happiness and meaning in our life. The greatest predictor of our happiness is social connection. So we might want to decrease some of that connection for a little bit quiet the noise in our lives. But long term, what really creates meaning and value is that social connection community in the first place.


Brian Lord: So one last question here. What did one Maasai warrior say to the other Maasai warrior?


Shawn Achor: So this is their greeting. Oh, wow, you made it all the way to the conclusion. I didn't know where to put this in the book. I kind of wanted it right up at the beginning. But Maasai warriors who are supposed to be some of the fiercest warriors in the world, they're greeting for one another- And they don't say, "Hey, how are you doing?" Right? Their greeting- which we would say here in the West- Their greeting is "how are the children" and the proper answer back, you know, if everything is good, is "all the children are well." And when I heard that, I was like, "I love this." And this is such a surprise for such a fierce community that instead of asking, "How are you doing?" Which is such an individual question. The question assumes I can know how you're doing, partly by how are all the children doing and not just your children. Right? This is the same question. You ask somebody who's single, who doesn't have kids of their own. Right? Because what it's saying is that we can't be well unless all the children are well. And I think that what that gets back to is this idea of can't actually sustain happiness for a long time if everyone around us is miserable. We can't sustain continued success in our life if everyone around us is being diminished or feel like less than because of being around us, that if we really want to see our highest levels of happiness and success, we need to be making sure that all the children are well. And that we need to find a way to being able to lift up people around us so that we can all shine brighter together.

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