95 Transcript: How to Build a Happier Brain by Mastering Your Use of Technology (with Ellen Petry Leanse)
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J: This episode is brought to you by The Newsworthy Podcasts, the place for credible, unbiased, fun news that won't leave you depressed and that you can consume in less than 10 minutes a morning. You're listening to the Vibrant Happy Women Podcast, episode number 95.
E: And if anyone has ever played Angry Birds or some other game for hour upon hour or can't put down their Facebook page or keeps liking, liking, liking all the beautiful shiny objects they see on Instagram, voila, that is dopamine at work. And it's been coded into the experience specifically to hook you. Designers are hacking you and they're proud of it.
Intro: Welcome to the Vibrant Happy Women Podcast, stories of vibrant women living happy lives. And now, your host, Jen Riday.
J: Hey, welcome back to Vibrant Happy Women, I'm dr. Jen Riday, host of the Vibrant Happy Women Podcast, mom of 6, and I am here to help you take better care of yourself to find more meaning and purpose, to love yourself, to have boundaries, all of those good things that help us to live a more vibrant and happy life. Welcome to the show. Last week, I spoke with Jaya Rose all about manifesting an amazing and awesome 2018. I love talking about the law of attraction and the energy involved in attracting and even perceiving all the opportunities we have coming our way. So if you want to learn about how to manifest your goals with power and vision and intention, go back and listen to that episode at jenriday.com/94. Today, we're talking about technology.
Now, before you click away and you don't want to feel guilty, stick around and listen because I loved this interview with Ellen Petry Leanse. She talks about the chemicals involved in our use of social media and how social media designers, Instagram designers, all of those online designers, are working hard and going to conferences to learn how to make us addicted to really tap into those dopamine cycles. And then she says, “In, contrast if we start to consciously Reece eek for experiences where we have connection with nature or other human beings,” you know what I'm talking about? Those connections similar to meditation or physical intimacy with your partner or just cuddling with your little girl that leave you feeling blissful; that is activating more of the serotonin brain. Now, I'm oversimplifying how this works, but I want to feel more serotonin. It lasts longer and it's just that deep blissful feeling that you have in a yoga class or after great guided meditation or a nice walk. So stick around and you're going to learn some tips to help your teenagers and your kids to put the phone down and connect with you and with each other and with nature and all of those things that most of us did as kids. So you're going to love this episode. It's full of great info that will leave you thinking for days; it definitely did for me. So let's go ahead and dive in.
Hey friends, I'm talking to Ellen Petry Leanse today and she loves to talk about brains, right? Cool, huh? And she was in tech for 35 years and she's going to talk to us today about, you know, what she's learned about brains and tech and slowing down. With cell phones being so prevalent and I have 6 kids, they're over 16 devices in our home, I'm really anxious to hear what she has to say. So welcome to the show, Ellen.
E: It's so nice to be here, Jen, thank you very much.
J: Well we always start off with a quote that kind of introduces us to what you're thinking about right now. So what do you want to share with us?
E: My quote is simple, it's with me every day. And the quote is two words, “Think different.” And it's a quote that came from Apple at the time that Steve Jobs returned to the company after leaving and starting another company. And he created an advertising campaign that began with the words, “Here's to the crazy ones.” And it was all about thinking different, seeing the world in ways that other people didn't see it and challenging our own assumptions, and using that unconventional approach to seeing life and thinking about life to break through barriers, come up with new ideas, be more creative and innovative. And it's been my motto since then and it’s more and more my motto every day.
J: I love that. So you have worked in tech for 35 years. Tell us more about that and what you've learned and how you're thinking differently.
E: Yeah, thank you. Well, you know, I started in tech by accident really. I… when I was in college, we coded computers with cards in big hot stinky rooms and would take a couple of weeks to solve a simple problem that you could have solved in your head in, you know, 2 seconds, and I could not possibly understand why anyone would use these crazy things called
computers. But when I graduated from college, like any college graduate, long story short, I needed to get a job. And I had interesting moment when I received a rejection letter from Apple, but there was something about that 6 color beautiful logo in the corner, and this was in 198, that made me say, “Uh-uh, this one's different.” I could really tell that there was something different about it then. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, so clearly working for a tech company was one of the obvious choices. But of all of the other tech companies that I'd heard from or interviewed with, something about that Apple logo really flagged that, this was a special opportunity. So I was very lucky.
My first job out of college was working as a communication specialist for Apple, which meant that I wrote newsletters for our international communities on the products of what the products did. So it's a very immersive learning experience that launched me into a 35-year tech career. I spent a little more than 9 years at Apple, worked internationally for Apple for a few years then was involved in the Macintosh launch team. And then in 1985, did something kind of renegade and brought Apple online and started to build out Apple's digital communities, which were we were the first company to do that; so many stories around that. But when in 1985, my first son was born, I made the decision not to work full-time anymore for a period of time and began working as a consultant, helping other tech companies come online. And that led me to a number of entrepreneurs journeys, later to joining Google, later to a couple of other really good adventures with the communications agency and then in venture capital; which I'll talk about as my low point in a few minutes…
E: … and all that I learned from it. But you know over the years, Jen, watching the way tech has pervaded and, even to some extent, invaded our lives, I see so many benefits to this always-on access to everything that tech gives us. But I also see a price we're paying; some unintended consequences. You know, there's a phrase of neuroscience and it says, “Your brain will do more of whatever it's doing right now.” And because we right now rely on tech in so many ways, our brain normalizes that as the standard that we sort of begin with as we navigate life. And we see it in many of the addictive and frustrating and distracted patterns that tech has brought to our everyday existence. And I often say that it's almost as if we were drinking kombucha, you know, that nice little effervescent drink that you can buy… you know, what that is; kombucha?
J: Yeah, yeah.
E: And all of a sudden, someone replaced it with tequila.
J: Oh, yeah!
E: We were… yeah. It's like we didn't know this was coming; it caught us off guard. And what I want to do is dilute that tequila a little bit, it's what I work on in my book is really offer some ways that we can understand why our brains always grab for the shiny object and the thing that really fills our motivation and reward cycles as tech does so we can, quotes here, ‘hack back’ and bring more balance, focus, sense of purpose, and happiness back to our lives.
J: Mmm, love that; ‘hack back’! That feels empowering! I always wanted to be a hacker. (Laughs)
E: Here's the deal, you can be; we all can be. You know, we have this idea that our brains are in charge; and in some ways. They are some things that they really… they don’t need our help with it and they do it better on their own that we could do it for ourselves. But in some of the decision-making, especially around distraction, focus, and time management, we have the potential to really master our brains and to direct our brains with practice in new habits. And it is a way of overriding the brains natural and routine coding, if you will, to literally hack back and direct it in a new way. Remember, a moment ago, I said, “Your brain will do more of whatever it's doing right now.” Retraining your brain by doing something different right now will help your brain create new pathways and connections to behaviors and experiences and even thought that you'd rather have. And that is the art of hacking back.
J: Ooh, that's great. Well, so what's the name of your book, Ellen?
E: My book is called ‘The Happiness Hack’ and it's a brain-aware guide to more focus, purpose, and life satisfaction in everyday life.
J: Okay, so let's get to the nitty-gritty right here; we want more focus and clarity. And I think everyone listening knows about this distracted brain phenomenon and also kind of the video game brain where we're just desperate to check our email or a social media. So what does it look like and why should we care?
E: Mm-hmm. Well, the thing is, we have several…. we have many neuromodulators or brain chemicals in the brain; a mix of neurotransmitters, different types of hormones and so forth. And these chemicals help our brain do the functions that we rely on in order to survive and function in the world that we live in. But there are many sort of happiness related modulators, but the 2 real primary ones that I talked about in the book are dopamine and serotonin. And they have very, very different purposes in human life. And, in fact, even the ancients understood that there were multiple forms of happiness; sort of that ‘in the moment’, sort of craving and grasping and grabbing happiness, which is tends to be more associated with dopamine, and then the other sort of longer-term, slower build form of happiness associated with real connection and life purpose and really creating and working through things, and that tends to be more associated with serotonin. And I'm really simplifying it, but the simplifying actually works pretty darn well.
So if we think about dopamine in our evolutionary biology and the function that it played, distraction was a pretty good thing, as was powering through difficult tasks in order to get a reward. And dopamine is somewhat associated with the distraction function because it is the thing that sort of has to do with our motivation, achievement and reward. And in early human times, we had to be very much scanning and seeking from our environment to look for either opportunistic finds, you know, maybe there's a nice little worm crawling on a tree, it was snack, you know?
E: Because we ate all kinds of things back then. But also that, if there were a rustle in the grass or something like that that we would be able to react to it in a way that favored our survival.
E: So dopamine is really that opportunistic chemical that is getting you to be motivated to look for and try new things. And then once you freeing them, to follow its cycle, sort of the roller coaster ride it takes you on. There’s some really great things about that because we wouldn't be able to do hard things without dopamine. But to be motivated to do something, to reach the achievement of that thing we were motivated to do, and then to enjoy the little surge of reward that it gives us. Here's the deal, people who have known either intuitively or scientifically for a long time (and these days they know scientifically) exactly how that chemical cycle works, and they exploit it in the product experiences that they build. And there's a cycle that's designed specifically to hook your dopamine by giving you a trigger, something you want, then taking you through so you get a reward, but then leaving you wanting a little bit more so you renew the cycle. And if anyone has ever played Angry Birds or some other game for hour upon hour or can't put down their Facebook page or keeps liking, liking, liking all the beautiful shiny objects they see on Instagram, voila, that is dopamine at work. And it's been coded into the experience specifically to hook you. Designers work with these, there are books and lectures and conferences about how to work with these cycles. In fact, there's a company out there that has the name… they call it Dopamine Labs, I'm not advertising them at all, but their motto is, “We design minds.” They are hacking…
J: Oh my gosh! (Laughs)
E: Yes! They are hacking you and they're proud of it. And we… again, it's like that tequila we were sipping on tier kombucha, we didn't know it was coming. So it takes practice and intention, and it is possible to begin to hack back. One thing I do when I… you know, this morning I of course… I confess, I have a little thing going with Twitter given the news these days. But I will find myself after a scroll or 2 down, I've trained my brain to say, “Is this really helping you?” And I think of serotonin, which is the chemical that's really involved with more, you know, sort of self-direction and more intrinsic things that bring us real satisfaction, and then I say to myself… I literally say the words, “Hack back.” And with that, I'm now able to simply click the close window, be off of it in 3 minutes rather than though ‘who knows what?’ I might have been drawn into it. And even when I have the impulse to be distracted and, you know, today… in today's sort of cognitive cycles, people tend to be… to seek a distraction; we've been conditioned to seek a distraction approximately every 11 minutes.
E: And that's down from what some people say is 18 minutes five years ago. I don't have that validated, that is not primary research there, but the 18 minutes is something I've read on a number of different secondary reports. But our attention cycles are being shortened and shortened because your brain will do more of whatever it's doing right now. And for most of it, what it's doing right now often involves using an addictive technology.
J: So… man! I'm feeling sad actually (Laughs)…. from thinking about this.
E: Are you?
J: Yeah. I mean, I don't want to take it too negative, but, you know, I'm thinking about, “How do we motivate ourselves to hack back?” You know, I love that phrase ‘hack back’, but just to think about, maybe if we listed some of the things we're actually missing out on. And while you were talking, it occurred to me, “What we're missing out on is noticing the cues in nature like or faces or…” you know, it looks like we're going to program our brains to be so left brained.
E: Yes, yes, yes.
J: And we’re going to lose out…we're going to lose our EQ, our emotional quotient.
J: You know, because my husband's very left brained and I feel like he often doesn't read facial expression as well as someone with a higher EQ. But it's almost like, I wonder if society in 20, 30, 40 years, we'll all be way more left brained and lacking that emotional quotient, you know? You have any thoughts on that?
E: More than you want to hear; the short answer is yes. And the thing is, we are conditioning our brain to move in a different direction than, A, it has ever moved in before and, B, than really our evolutionary biology really prepared us for. We humans, you know, we need to be motivated, we need to be rewarded by our brain chemicals, but we also we see very different sorts of chemical experiences that are actually much healthier for us than the dopamine cycles when we connect with other people, when we bon. Even simple things like making eye contact with other people, you know, humans have a very different type of eye than any other mammal or any other animal. And I talked about this in the book in a very brief passage, but we really are designed to read so much through eye contact. So even if we think about everyday experiences like running into a shop to get a coffee, and I think all of us can relate to this idea of, we're looking at our phones, not at the person we're interacting with. And we walk away we've heard the person's voice, but we've never been acknowledged that it actually is another human being who is interacting with us or, you know, transacting or interacting with us.
Jen, the comments that you said are so interesting and I do think it's one of the reasons why I wrote my book. And that is that that, you know, as we… because the brain does more whatever it's doing right now, we have a risk as humans to narrow and narrow our experiences based on the unintended consequences of the products, media, experience, and messages would get from the world around us, and a sort of zero in or zoom in only on this sort of reducing subset of experiences that, you know, technology and some of the other things that are sort of hacking us are providing. You mentioned 2 things; you mentioned nature and you mentioned other people. And you are right on the money. Getting out and expanding our view, you know, connecting with things that we remember. What child didn't love, for example, playing in nature when they were small? What child…? We were programmed, if you will, for human connection. In fact, our brain development in the earliest days, months, years, and throughout our life, a healthy brain depends on having a real sense of human connection. So, yes, I think that it is so important to realize that, what some people are calling the biggest unintended consequence in human history, which is the impact that technology is having on our brain, that we have to counteract that deliberately and intentionally or we will be narrowing the realm of human experience in ways that affect our future lives and our future generations.
J: Hmm. Yeah, it reminds me of smoking. Everyone thought it was great and the 50 years down the pipe, they’re like, “Put on the breaks. No; no more smoking.” (Laughs)
J: I imagine that's going to happen; I do.
E: Yes! But then the amazing thing is, to your point, the adoption curves for smoking looked like this; and I made a, you know, nice little arc in the air. And now, with that example, you can imagine what the adoption curves for these technology products we use look like; and I did a flying arrow straight up into the air; you know, a completely different trajectory.
J: So fast, yeah.
E: Yes. And so it's all of us are participating in this great experiment and it's unintended consequences. And look, I built my career in tech. I use tact every single day of my life. The difference is, it is no longer in charge of me, I am in charge of it; and that difference alone lets me navigate life completely differently.
J: So what does a typical day with tech look like for you?
E: Well, thank you for asking. The first thing is, I start my morning with something other than tech. And I don't care what it is, it's anything other than tech. Some days, it might be making tea. Some days, it might be getting a little bit of exercise. Some days, it might be journaling. Some days, it might be meditating. Some days, it might be simply thinking about my day. Generally speaking, I try to plan my day in my head before I pick up any technology. The specific reason I do that is, if tech is the first thing that I pick up in the morning, I am giving my brain a very specific message that says, “This is what your day is about,” and it's going to want to return to that point more frequently during the day. So number one is, I wake up to something other than tech. And I don't care what that something is, it has to simply be other than tech. And I… I do that for 20 to 30 minutes a day. And that, by the way, has been such a huge change. My work is on tech, so generally speaking, the first thing after I do, after I've done my morning thing, you know… (Laughs)… you know, we're all friends here, I'll talk about it; made my bed because I really think that there's something about making your bed that puts your day in order.
E: Really, right, right, right?
E: So after I've done those things, my work is largely based on tech. So generally speaking, if I'm working from home, which I do about 2 days a week, I usually dive in and I start with… I try to write something every morning before I check my email. Some days, I can, some days, I can't, depending on what is on the books for that day. But I do dive into tech and I use it probably for… gosh, depending on the day, 2 or 3 hours in the morning. And I do that in the morning because that's when I'm going to do my deepest work, especially if I'm writing or researching, I try to do that while my brain is fresh and while I'm really pointed at and motivated to accomplish the things that I've prioritized in the day. Sometimes, I get hijacked like everyone else. I get hijacked by email. And by hijacked I mean, I work on the urgent, not the important.
So I kind of categorized behavior into 3 categories; ‘the urgent’, which is probably like email saying, “I need you now! I need you now! I need you now!,” when it really does not, ‘the indulgent’, which would be me checking, you know, my son was on a road trip right now and he's posting some great pictures to Instagram. So going and posting and liking things he's posted to Instagram, you know, that might… that's what I would call indulgent.
E: And then the other one is ‘the important’, and that is really the work that brings me that real serotonin satisfaction, “This is what I'm here to do.” And in fact, I'm doing my new year's commitments right now, I'm sort of designing them, and I am specifically honing in on exactly that; and that is, deferring ‘the urgent’ and ‘the indulgent’. I might do a quick scan of ‘the urgent’ to see if there's something in my email that really does need attention, but really holding off on ‘the indulgent’ until after I've done the important and going into much more of a… you know, of a deeper in work sort of morning as my practice in the new year.
J: Yeah, that deeper work, you’re kind of, you know, blasting your serotonin in that way, you know, doing your…
J: I like that. Hmm.
E: Yeah, the deep work is about that long slow build of serotonin and really creating with time with that, that sort of really grounded feeling of, “I got this,” you know, “I'm doing something that matters.” And I'm lucky, I'm… you know, most of the work that I do is stuff that I've worked a long time to do; it's based on things that I've really cared about and cultivated over the years. You know, I'm at that point of my life where I thank goodness I can bring a few threads together and, you know, cobble enough of practice out of it that it is actually my work; it's awesome. However, I've also been in jobs that didn't bring me that same level of deep serotonin based satisfaction. And I know that that applies to many listeners and many people in the world. And who knows? It may apply to me again; you know, we all are working people. However, even in those jobs, there are ways to bring more serotonin to the experience by taking some control over our schedule and having mastery over that, and also bringing more of the ‘why’ into the work that we do. And this is something that I explore in my book as well.
J: Oh, that's great. And you were a stay-at-home mom for a while or you worked part-time when you had your kids, right?
E: Yes. Yes, I did.
J: As you were talking, I thought, “My goodness, this might be the problem that so many stay-at-home-moms face is, they're lacking that serotonin release where they feel like they're doing something purposeful or having control over their schedule.” Have you ever thought about that?
E: First, I so love that you brought that up because parenting is the most undervalued and under-recognized and most important job in our society. And I know we all live with economics that make, you know, the stay-at-home-mom job a very… you know, it's a big decision to be a stay-at-home mom. But, you know, every stay-at-home mom that I've spoken to said… you know, not every, but nearly one of them has said, “I don't get any of the validation and support an acknowledgement that I received in my career.” And, you know, you mentioned that sort of more left brain dominant… I don't… you know, the hemispheres are a little different than how we normally talk about them, but since everyone understands what we mean when we say left brain or… I'll use it here.
E: The scientists out there in the audience, it's not actually…
J: (Laughs). Right, right.
E: Yes, exactly; a footnote. But the thing is, is that we optimized more and more for the validation of these… like a career, the salary, the house, the evidence that things are working. And one of the things that's really, really hard about being a parent is that, you don't get a lot of evidence that things are working until… (Laughs). And so it's a lot of delayed gratification, you know, much later in the game. And, in fact, you're likely to get a lot of evidence that things aren't working when you're a young child, you know, throw something across the room or has a tantrum, when your middle school child won't do her or his homework, and when your teenager has one of those rebellious moments. And this is something… I don't know directly address parenting in the book, although the next article I'm writing is going to be about parenting in the tech age. But really, for very mom out there, whether they're a working mom, for every parent out there, whether they're working, stay-at-home, part-time or whatever, I see you (and you'll know that phrase when you read the book) and I acknowledge you. And you are doing such important work and connect with you ‘why’ on this, you're making a generous offering to the world by bringing a child into it and raising them with values that you believe in, in a way that they can serve the future. And, yes, I can understand why so many parents sort of feel lost and alone doing this very hard work because they don't receive the validation from the world outside. So I hope that, you know, they will find serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin, even if the dopamine isn't there. And take my word for it, the 3 that I mentioned first are the 3 that you want.
J: Right, right. And… and I love how you said to connect to your ‘why’. “Every day, this is why I'm doing the stay-at-home-mom thing.”
J: I like that phrase, “Get out of the trees so you can see the forest.” I think just taking that quiet time to pull back and see the big picture…
J: … would really help with that process.
E: I love that you brought that up. And, in fact, 2 things that I often say to parents are… because parents, it's a really hard job. I have 3 sons, they're grown; it's very, very different now, but I've been there and I… I loved it and I also acknowledge how hard it was. But I often say to parents first that, “Raising a child is the highest expression of your values. So get really your values, your ‘why’, and raise your child in accord with those values,” and that is hard. And then the other thing is, “Believe in that child more than you believe in the systems around them.” You know, the systems are giving us so many messages right now, some of which don't necessarily serve us. But that child has a potential far beyond that that the system's want her or him to believe. Believe in that part of them; that true spark of their light and life.
J: Yes. And not only connecting with values, but I'm thinking maybe a new question we’ll begin to ask his parents is, “What kind of brain do I want to help my child build?” (Laughs)
E: Wow! Oh my gosh, Jen, that's brilliant! Yeah, and if we're not careful, they're going to build a dopamine brain. And I should mention to you that dopamine, as it breaks down, it's much more associated with stress chemicals such as cortisol and so forth; whereas serotonin, as they break down, they actually are not. So the brain that our child… I love your question! I really think you're for bringing that up because that actually is a really great framework for thinking about, “Well, what kind of brain do I want to have? Well, I know I want a serotonin and oxytocin brain. But if I let my brain follow the triggers that are being handed to me on a moment-to-moment basis in everyday life, I'm going to have a dopamine and cortisol brain.” I love your question.
J: I love it too, I'm glad it came to me. But…
E: Thank you!
J: Well, so if we were to create a list of activities parents could plan and build into their lives so that they're helping their children build that serotonin and oxytocin brain, what would that include?
E: Well, the most important word is ‘presence’; it's more of a quality. And in this time of distraction, really modeling presence with your child, really being there in the moment with them and, you know, not having the phone…. and I know this is really hard, especially for people who are working, you know, they're checking their email late at night and so forth, but really finding time. And even if you put boundaries around the time and say, “Look, this time is different than the rest of the day and this time we're really only going to be together.” And, you know, there's a really beautiful podcast episode about mindful parenting; it's on a… you’re going to promote another podcast this one. But it's a Buddhist podcast and it talks about a father who, every night with his children, (he has 2 children) sits with them and picks up something in their room; their favorite toy or their pillow or something. And they simply talk about all of the different things that have happened to bring that toy to that child or that stuffed animal, “Who sewed it? Who made the fabric? Where do you think the fabric was made? Who grew the cotton that made it?” you know, really looking at the objects of our life rather as these things that sort of become invisible to us, but really seeing them as part of a web of people contributing. That to me is a moment of… that's a way to really drop into presence.
Another one is, in the book, we talked about a couple of practices for really connecting through things like eye contact and through, even an ancient from Southern African tradition which is about seeing people. And really, through talking with a child about what we see in them about their qualities and their own in terms of gifts and their individuality, I'm really… I think another thing that's so important for parents is, because we are relying more and more on external devices and resources to guide our life, as I say in the book, sort of outsourcing our decisions and our worldview to technologies or, you know, other sources, I think really pointing kids in and really saying, “How do you feel about that?” You spoke of emotional intelligence earlier, Jen, so I know, you know, how that sort of thinking aligns with EQ. But really pointing kids in and saying, you know, “How does this feel to you? I'm interested in how you've solved that problem you told me about at school today. What was it like when you wrote that?” and get kids to connect deeply with their internal navigation and you will be giving them both a gift as the develop emotional intelligence, but also more resilience against tech; you know, the temptations that these people who are kind of exploiting our brain cycles are bringing in.
And most people, by the way, Jen, say, “We ain't seen nothing yet. If we think these are addictive and compelling technologies, we are only at the tip of the iceberg.” And what I'm hoping is that the book and conversations like this help people find ways to put up their own healthy boundaries or barriers and say, “Actually, the life I want to lead is not up to them, it's up to me. And this is how I'm going to used to stuff they created to get what I want out of life, not how they will use the stuff they created to get what they want out of me.”
J: Yikes! (Laughs). “I'm not going to be a robot to… to their whims.”
J: Hack back.
E: I love it. And, “I am not going to be a robot to their whims,” exactly. There's a call in ‘The Hero's Journey’ and it says… (Laughs). It's awesome, it says, “You are meant for more than this.” And I want to say to every listener out there who's going like, “Yikes! I've been drawn in,” I want to say, “My friend, you are meant for more than this.” And the good news is, you can change it. So, yes.
J: Oh my gosh! I just want to keep going, but what would be a good rule of thumb for getting a teenager to use less tech somehow? (Laughs).
E: Yeah. It’s… okay, I’ve got to go now, Jen, thank you for the interview.
E: That one’s really, hard isn't it? You know, what I've experienced is people can only do things that are in their self-interest, in their best interest of what they think matters. And I think it's really hard to break through the addictive cycles that have probably begun in, you know, early childhood where, you know, all of us as well intended parents, you know, said, “Oh, you know, Tech is a great way for kids to learn,” and, “Oh, I love my school because it has technology in the classroom.” And by the way, I'm not just counting that, you know, I'm all for that. But what we didn't do is anticipate that we would need different boundaries than we set at that time. I think working with teenagers, it's always good to begin with assuming they know more than we know. And, you know what? On some level, they do. Teenagers are… I kind of a philosophy in a class I teach at Stanford it says, you know, “If you want to learn, talk to someone when half your age and then to someone half again that age.” So I do try to speak with teenagers whenever they're willing to speak with me. And I begin with 2 words, usually, “I'm curious.” When does an adult say to a teenager, “I'm curious,”? Not that often, right?
J: I love that.
E: Right. And the thing is, is that adults have this feeling that we're here to teach and impart our knowledge on teenagers; and there are times when we really should. But the thing is, is that what we forget is that, the world we came up in is already vastly different from the one they're coming up in. So by definition, some of our stuff is obsolete and out-of-date. The deeper stuff, the real human stuff, the wisdom that we acquire in life, you know, that's a richness that hopefully we'll find ways to offer. And I find young adults are usually much more open to quote ‘wisdom’ (at least what I call wisdom) in teenagers… begin with, “I'm curious.” You know, if you had known 5 years ago how much you’d be relying on tech, I wonder, would you have thought differently about it or would you have done anything differently about it?
There's one other theory we can do with teenagers that's really neat. We don't have to… not only teenagers can benefit from this one, we can offer it to anyone. The brain has a couple of different modalities, and I talked about 2 of them specifically in the book; the ‘fast brain’, which makes very reactive, you know, sort of routine driven decisions, and then the ‘slow brain’, which is much more responsive and it’s where we make our more intentional and sort of critical thought long-term planning sort of thinking or decisions. And then there's also another mode that I don't talk about in the book because I didn't really even know about it. The research is rising so fast that I really only started learning about it shortly after I completed the book, and it's called the ‘default network’, and it's the very slow brain; it's the ‘reflective brain’ that brings information together slowly and from different regions of the brain over time. And it's the sort of brain that with a sort of brain modality that kicks in or either kind of daydreaming or sitting quietly or waiting or even doing very routine tasks. And I have to add a side note there that says, “Exactly the sort of things that tech is distracting us from right now.” But this is called the ‘genius modality’ of the brain. It's where the brain really coalesces and integrates thoughts at a very, very high level; it's a reflective brain.
And one thing we can do is ask people not to answer us now. Think of how often we're conditioned in our society to be the first one to raise our hand, to give the fastest answer, you know, to be thirst. So we can also say, “Hey, you know, I'm curious on something I've been thinking about. If I'd known 5 years ago what tech would do, I wonder if I would have done anything different. And I'm interested in what you think too, but I don't want an answer now, I'd really love if you thought about it, got back to me on it in a few days.”
J: Ah, love it!
E: Yeah, you're planting a seed in the brain and the brain will sort of, you know, look at it away; it sort of nurtures and looks at the viability of that seed and maybe connects a few things to it. And it starts to connect deeper thoughts, and these thoughts can span both visual and motor centers, potentially even emotional centers; those might be layered in in… a in a slightly different way, but also the work of the prefrontal cortex, which is where we do our highest human cognition. So I would say very slow and reflective thinking is a great gift to teenagers. They're not offered enough of that in the world and this ‘give it to me now’ sort of society. And simply showing up saying, “I'm curious.”
J: Ooh, I love this. Well, let's take a quick break for our sponsor and we'll come back and talk about your low point and anything else that the conversation brings us.
(Interview resumes) [38:46]
J: Alright, welcome back. And tell us more about your low point, Ellen, and how that led to where you are today.
E: You know, Jen you are such a good question with that low point. And I had to say, I had a hard time deciding.
E: But, you know, it sort of shows how, what we might label failure in the moment is actually a very enriching part of the journey. But I'm going to go with a recent low point; one that happened to me about five years ago, because I think it's relevant to so many people. I joined a company after a 6-month courtship. And when I joined this company, I thought, not only was this the job I had dreamed for my entire life, like really an identity level job, but I also, with my mind’s eye, saw myself retiring from this company with tears in my eyes after, you know, 10 or 15 really, really fabulous years. This was the culmination of my career job and something I'd wanted for a very long time. Now, within only a few weeks, I realized I had ignored some pretty intense warning signals about a major values disconnect with the people I was working with. And I made a very hard decision, and that was to leave. Leaving was painful it was emotionally charged and it was complicated, to say the least, but there were some legal things involved that were pretty difficult.
I could have simply walked away, but I felt I had a moral obligation to take a stand on what had happened so it didn't happen to anyone else, and to bring some consequences to their action. And I did, in a minor and appropriate way; I had 2 paths I could follow and I took the simpler and quieter and shorter term of the paths, which reduced complexity for all of us, but also made a very clear statement but. When I left, I was devastated; in fact, I was beyond devastated. From the low point where I was and, you know, it was… it was during the holiday time that actually made this decision, everything looked bleak and confusing. And during that time, my middle son said to me, “Mom, you should have seen this coming,” and he reminded me of an incident that had happened while we were all getting to know each other. And it was very, very hard to admit it, but he was right; I should have seen it coming.
So from that dark moment, I started thinking deeply about how I'd messed up, how I’d missed or even deliberately ignored some pretty big warning signs. And as I got back to work, and at the time, that work meant, you know, sort of saying yes to any consulting project I could find simply to move forward and be a responsible parent, I also spent time asking myself some hard questions I'd never asked before; things about not trusting my gut, not valuing my own, you know, insight and values enough and maybe trusting others, especially others that I said were successful, more than I trusted my own intuition. So that was a few years ago. And like many who faced dark times, I can only say that that low point was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
One of the things also there was a side note from it is seeing my son's gift for giving me that sort of direct candid feedback that only someone who really loves you would give you. And that has made me more bold in giving people, lovingly, that sort of very direct feedback in ways that are hopefully helpful to them. But it also got me to see that because I hadn't trusted myself, I really did mess up. And so I've dug deep into my own purpose and my own desires and into the roadblocks I would need to clear if I wanted to move forward. And although I would have never believed it in that moment, that moment and even some of the hardships that followed it, are exactly what brought me to this place where I am today; and that is the place that I think I'm supposed to be. And, you know, depending on the way you view life, some people, you know, who have religious practice might say, “God has a plan for me,” or some people who have more of a (who knows?) I guess, spiritual or sort of a metaphysical sort of practice might say, you know, “Trust the universe,” or something. All I can say is, I have really come to believe that there is a purpose we have in life. And that purpose is either going to win or it's going to fight with us; so we might as well let it win. (Laughs). And I…
J: You know, you're totally doing that because the whole time you've been speaking, I thought, “This woman is living her purpose,” I can feel it; I can feel it in your energy.
E: Yeah, thank you.
J: So I’m noticing that. (Laughs)
E: Yeah, it won. I stopped fighting it in at won. And the thing is, is that when that happens, you do drop in; and thanks for saying that, Jen. You do drop in to something that has sort of less friction and less weight than the way we did it before. And I think that is a mindset, I don't think it's… you know, for some people, I mean, I love to garden, right? And so, for some people, that might be that they're in their sense of alignment with purpose when they're caring for nature. For some, it's when they're being a helpful friend. For some, it might be when they're creating work of beauty. And who knows? For some, it might be when they're leading an organization. But that purpose is going to look for you until it finds you, and you're going to know… the book touches on this a little bit. You're going to know that you're getting closer to it when some of the friction that we tend to associate with everyday life sort of fades away. And I want to say really, really specifically here, 5% at a time is awesome. I would say there are years when I did 2% at a time. But with practice, these things do aggregate and lead us more and more to where we’re really… when we know we’re meant to be.
J: Yeah. And so, you know, you've been in tech all these years and it seems like it gave you the foundation you needed for what you're doing. Way back then, did you have that intuitive sense, “Okay, I need to be in tech,” or just…
J: … it kind of all worked out? (Laughs)
E: You know, when we're young… you know, first of all, like everyone, I mean, I needed to work, right? I needed to get a job. And I did because of the location I was in and because of good fortune; I did and I've been a really interesting company. But the short answer is, no, I felt like… I felt a ton of friction in that work, “Am I doing this right? Am I doing this well enough? I want to be as good as this person is,” you know, it's all that work in building. So maybe… you know, maybe it takes that work in building to get to the point where you have aggregated enough life experience that you do start to put things into a different perspective. But I will say right now to all of the young professionals and even younger people who are at home or doing whatever they're doing as they listen to your show, no, I think in the early years, we do feel more friction. And I think the friction has actually gotten harder. I think we live in very challenging times and I would invite everyone who's listening to do the things that you're talking about, Jen, which is sort of to get out and look beyond that and to really try to connect with either, you know, experiences or people communities or, you know, thoughts and mindsets that really bring us closer into the deeper values that we have in life.
I didn't have the understanding of how to do that when I was young. I was moving on to the next thing. I wanted to have this job so that I could do this. I wanted to do this so that I could do that, so that I was pointing on a trajectory that everyone told me would give me a great life. And over a time, I realized that trajectory served a purpose. But actually, the truth is really more in defining that great like on my own values and the things that I've sort of known secretly and deeply inside all along.
J: Mmm. And that sense of purpose feels so good, and I'm sure every single parent out there listening wants that.
J: But backing up to our kids again, if our kids are head down in their tech all the time, they're going to have a struggle to connect to that intuitive…
J: … rounded place where they can discover their talents and gifts. And so just trying to bring in that motivation for detaching from the tech.
J: Just allowing kids to have more experiences in nature and with human beings and connecting and being out there where they can figure out their gifts and settle into that place.
E: (Laughs). I love it, yeah. Well, maybe there's some teachers or some home-schoolers and I'm sure some parents out there listening, but, you know, your… what you said, Jen, gave me a really interesting idea and that is, I wonder what it would be like for kids, and maybe even kids working together… have you heard of something called the paleo diet?
E: You sort of eat like a caveman?
E: I think we should have paleo days, you know, or paleo… like, let's go paleo for a while and let's sort of navigate the world as if we were living at a very different time where we have to walk around and sort of say, “Okay, how often would I be distracted? What would I notice in clouds?” right? “When would I see something, you know, in a shrub or something then go, ‘Oh, look, there's a little animal in there or something,’?” So maybe we can hop on that paleo trend of eating. So it seems to be doing really great things for some people, and we can go back and do a paleo brain day or something like that. (Laughs)
J: Ah, I love that idea! We can, you know…
E: I think it was an article there.
J: Valentine’s day and Christmas and Paleo day. (Laughs)
E: Yeah. And by the way, you know, some people make go, “Oh my gosh!” And so… but even asking the question of a child or a teenager or even a young adult, “If you were living…” like I do some coaching work and I did this with one of my clients, “Well, let's go through your day if you were living 100 years ago. How would you have solved this problem 100 years ago?” and, boy, the inquiry was incredible! So I think that could be a really nice thing for people to bring up at the dinner table. And by the way, parents listening, if you can't… first of all, no tech at the dinner table please because that's where we should be talking.
J: Right, right.
E: And challenge yourself to come up with questions that are even more interesting than tech (Laughs). And see if we can maybe talk… slow down and talk about those and see what comes up.
J:Yes! I'm with you; I love that. Well, let's talk about a few of your favorite things and let's start with your favorite way to connect with your loved ones.
E: Well, I'm a great believer in the manifestation of love through food. So I love to cook; love to cook. And I love when, on Sunday nights, my sons are able to join for dinner; we try to have dinner together on Sunday nights. But what am I very, very favorite things to do is to simply get out in nature. I love to hike, I love to ride my bike. One of… if anyone ever says to me, “Let's meet for a hike,” they get my only answer is, “Yes, when?” And really being out, especially at a point where I can kind of feel the, you know, light coming onto me and sort of get that sense of really being in that… you know, sort of in that different sort of light than when we're inside or something like that; and also, hearing the sounds of nature and the smells of nature, I really love that. That's way, way, way high on the list. One way that I connect with myself that's really important is, every couple of months, I make time to do some art, and it's much more of a meditative practice. I do kind of collages, some I might call them mood boards or something like that, but I save images that I like from magazines that I see or maybe postcards that I see or something like this and I try to bring them together to sort of assemble a story of where I am at that time. And I probably spend 2 or 3 hours doing that every couple of months or so, and it's become a really nice way of almost journaling where I am emotionally. And that gives me… it gives me so much joy and satisfaction and I kind of keep those things around and reflect on them there.
I think life is like a collage or life is like a mood board; we're collecting things from different places and bringing them together to create a story. So I love being able to do it. And by the way, I love being able to talk about this with you and share with your audience, Jen, because I don't talk about that that often. So thank you for that. So, I mean, cooking, I mean, being in nature, you know, every now and then through my work I am able to travel and I really, really enjoy that. My favorite thing to do when I travel is to put on the, you know, frumpiest most comfortable shoes I can find (and they might be nice sneakers or something) and simply walk and walk and walk and sort of try to experience what it's like to be in that place on a very non touristy level. And maybe… you know, maybe not… really not… I'd love to go to museums and things too, but maybe forgo going to a museum, simply to walk around and see what a neighborhood street looks like or to imagine what it was like when the city was built, you know, X hundred years ago or something.
E: Just those are things that really, really leave me feeling refueled and connected. And I love teaching, I teach a couple of courses at Stanford and I find tremendous satisfaction in teaching; I love that very much.
J: Oh, that's great. And all that walking you talked about, you know, you can exercise that daydreaming part of the brain that you talked about.
E: Yes, exactly!
J: Yeah, yeah.
E: I think… I honestly think… and I think that is what collaging does as well is it helps bring threads together in different ways. And this is our highest human potential is to sort of create context and sort of wisdom out of everyday experiences. And this is why I wrote the book is I think we're getting distracted enough from that that we're not having those experiences and thus, we're not feeling as happy. And so the book is really an invitation to bring some of these practices back.
J: Ellen what's your favorite book? I mean, I know your book, ‘The Happiness Hack’, is fantastic, but what's your favorite book to read instead of writing?
E: Oh my goodness. Well, it’s such a nerdy book and so geeky that I'm a little embarrassed sharing it because it's sort of funny. But I have a few favorites, but my one all-time favorite is one called ‘Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance’.
E: And usually when I read…. oh, and tell me about your laugh, have you read it?
J: No, but it sounds amazing.
E: Oh, it's amazing. It's a very unusual book. A lot of people go, “Oh, I read that in college,” and they'll have a pained expression on their face because it's a… it's a very long book and there are passages in the book that you're reading on and on you're going, “Where is this even going?” It took me 20 years to read the book; I resisted it for that long. I started at 4 or 5 times because people told me I should read it, and I would read into the first 100 pages and not have any idea why I would bother power through.
E: And, finally, my son, the same son that gave me that feedback, said, “Mom, it's time for you to read it. Do it.” And so I took him seriously and I read it. And it really, really rewired something in me.
E: And it's a book about artificial divides between kind of art and science, myth and math; it's really a philosophy book told as the narrative of a person driving across country. It's not a musical to read; it will definitely give some challenges along the way. It's like no other book I've ever read. But if people feel embolden to read it, I think that it would be an amazing book to read for a very persistent and deliberate book club that could power through something like that. But also, the book, if anyone is interested, there's an audible version of it that's an abridged version; not the unabridged version but the abridged version is about 10 hours shorter than the unabridged version, and it's excellent. It really gives you all of the beauty of the book without some of the price of admission it comes from.
J: Ah, that sounds nice. Perfect for a mom of 6. (Laughs)
E: Yeah. But it's… even so, like you've been warned. It's not like reading a book where you'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll never forget the story, it's sort of like you'll wonder why you read it and then 3 months later, you'll understand.
J: Ah! Okay, it sounds great; sounds great.
E: It's very interesting, yes.
J: Well, so I'll remind our listeners that their links to everything that Ellen's been talking about at jenriday.com/95; that's the show notes page. So a link to her book, a link to the Zen book with motorcycle maintenance; I cannot wait to read that. And so, Ellen, let's talk about what it means for you to be a vibrant happy woman.
E: Great question. And, you know, I'm glad you're asking that question where listeners here it because I hope they are asking that question of themselves.
E: Much, much earlier than you asked of me, because it's the first time anyone asked me that question; so, what a great question to ask. So, for me, I have a very easy answer. And the only thing that I'm not sure about is the order, but my words would be purpose plus practice plus people. Purpose means, being grounded in doing something I believe in. And when I was a mom, I so loved and believed in that work. So I had a real sense of purpose when I was a mom, and it was wonderful to have it again at this point in my life. Practice means, challenging myself to live with my values a little bit more, a little bit more, day by day; trusting myself more than I trust the messages in the world me and coming in and asking myself the hard questions about why I'm here and what I really want. And then, people because that is really what it's all about. We are part of something bigger. We are connected to others in ways that we do and in ways that we still don't understand. And I think all of us have both an opportunity and really a
responsibility to remember that we are all in this human soup together and to treat each other well and to offer what we can of our own purpose and practice to people so that they can also align with their own real deep values and meaning in life.
J: So, Ellen, let's have a challenge from you to our listeners and then we'll say goodbye.
E: Great. Hmm, well, today or this week, I want to challenge everyone listening to ask themselves when they pick up their phone to do the things we normally do when they pick up their phone, to ask themselves, “Is this really serving me right now?” because it will really help them to practice that thing the brain does which is ‘do more of whatever it's doing right now’ in ways that might guide you more fully back to your true path.
J: Well, this has been amazing and I feel such a desire to really get my kids to do these things like you talked about; figure out their purpose and practice it and connect with people. So, their devices are going to have more limits. (Laughs). But thank you so much for being on the show, Ellen. Everyone, go grab Ellen's fantastic book, ‘The Happiness Hack: How to Take Charge of Your Brain and Program More Happiness into Your Life’. We're going for the serotonin and oxytocin brains.
E: Thank you so much, Jen. And to all of the listeners as well, thank you very much.
J: Thank You, Ellen. I love that you're living your purpose, this is phenomenal.
E: Thank you.
J: Well, I will be back next week talking with Kristen Ivy, all about mom guilt and other kinds of guilt and perfectionism and vulnerability. She says that, “When we're guilty, it doesn't inspire us to be better; in fact, it can make us worse.” So join us as we talk about how to let go of that guilt and be better moms and women because of it. I hope that you a phenomenal day and you choose to make it phenomenal by taking a little better care of yourself, smiling more, breathing more deeply, moving your body, and doing what brings you joy. I will be back tomorrow with a happy bit, I will see you then. Take care.
Outro: Thanks for listening to the Vibrant Happy Women Podcast at www.jenriday.com.