Mike: Hello, friend, I’m Mike Matthews and this is Muscle for Life. Thank you for joining me today for a new episode, and before I tell you about the episode, a quick comment on episode frequency. If you are a regular here at the podcast, you probably noticed that I didn’t post my normal three episodes per week last week, and I’m not posting three episodes this week.
What’s going on? I’m simply switching to a frequency of one episode per week to free up some time to work on some other projects, and so I will be posting one episode per week at least for a little while, alternating between interviews and monologues, the same type stuff. I’ve been producing just one episode per week instead of three per week.
Alright, so what is today’s episode? Well, it is an interview I did with Brad Olberg, who just released a new book, master of Change, which explores the essence of change and how our mindset toward it can be our biggest asset or detriment in any area of our life that we want to improve in. And in this interview, Brad is going to talk about a concept he calls rugged flexibility and why he thinks it’s very important to cultivate this characteristic and why it can help us overcome challenges and achieve aspirations.
Brad is going to talk about how our expectations of change can influence our perception of change, our experience of change, and our outcomes. And how simply changing our expectations can cause a number of downstream effects that produce better outcomes. Brad is going to offer some very practical advice on how we can turn friction and resistance in our life into momentum.
I. And more. And in case you are not familiar with Brad, he is a researcher, writer, and coach on wellbeing and performance and success. His work has been featured all over the place, New York Times, wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times New Yorker, sports Illustrated Outside Magazine, Forbes and more.
And Brad also helps executives, entrepreneurs, and athletes work on their mental game, improve their overall wellbeing and achieve. Excellence. And lastly, Brad is the co-author of a book that I really enjoyed and did a book club episode on back in 2017 called Peak Performance. And so if you like this interview, you will probably like Brad’s newest book, master of Change, as well as Peak Performance.
Hey Brad, it’s good to see you again.
Brad: Great to see you. Good to be back on the show.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for taking the time to come and talk about your newest book, which is Master of Change. When I, when I have somebody on the show who has written a book and especially who has written stuff that I like, I like to ask, what was your inspiration for this book?
Because I mean, I’m sure I’ve focused mostly on just fitness, but if you look at self-development there, there are so many books and, and so many good books and so many good ideas. I find even in my own. Travels as a reader, it, it’s challenging to find something that I feel is, is new and adding something to the overall kind of meta conversation, you know?
So I’m curious what inspired you to write this book and what you felt was kind of like, okay, here’s an idea that I think that I can express in a unique way that adds to that conversation.
Brad: For sure. There are a lot of books out there about change, and many of them are good. Many of them are well intentioned, and many of them are based on this very faulty underlying premise.
For what change is and how living systems respond to it. I realized that and I saw an opportunity to try to introduce, you know, what can feel like a pretty radical new way of thinking about change and what change means for us as individuals, our communities, societies. I think this really came to a head for me.
Quite early on in the pandemic reading various publications, it doesn’t matter, left, right, straight down the middle, they’re all running stories with some version of a headline. When are things gonna get back to normal? And I didn’t know why it was the case at the time, but those just viscerally really rubbed me the wrong way.
And I started researching the origins of this back to normal thinking as it relates to change. And all roads lead back to a scientific concept called homeostasis. Which many of your listeners have probably heard of, it basically describes change as a cycle of, uh, order or stability disorder, and then back to order.
It says that living systems, they don’t like change. They don’t like chaos or disorder, and they do everything they can to avoid it, to resist it, and then to get back to where they were. Hence, when are things gonna get back to normal? And homeostasis has been the prevailing model of change for over the last 150 years.
So really since the advent of modern science, we’ve thought about change through a homeostatic lens. More recently in the scientific community, researchers have decided that homeostasis is actually not really a very accurate way to think about change. When we explore what it takes for living systems to thrive, they don’t get back to where they were following disruption.
If anything, they don’t even want to get back to where they were. They, they use periods of disorder to get to stability somewhere new. So instead of going back to order, they go to reorder. This whole conventional wisdom and mindset around change of order disorder order proves to be not really accurate.
And it’s much more helpful to think about change as a cycle of order disorder reorder. So yes, it is true that living creatures, humans of course, as well, we are living creatures. We do like stability. We crave stability and we thrive with stability. But the way that we achieve stability is by continuously making progress and reordering ourselves.
So there’s no going back. It took me about a month to really wrap my head around the implications of the differences in these models. And, uh, out of that was born this book, I.
Mike: And out of that was born this concept in the book of rugged flexibility. I think that’s a good segue to, I wanted to hear your thoughts on what you mean by that and how does it apply to this process of producing change?
Brad: That’s right. Well, the words rugged ruggedness, and flexibility, when most people hear them, they tend to think of these two concepts as being diametrically opposed. So to be rugged is to be really strong, robust, tough. Perhaps even a little rigid. And then to be flexible is the opposite. It’s to bend easily without breaking to go with the flow.
And when it comes to change, we tend to, you know, segue ourselves into these two extreme camps where it’s either we need to be really rugged or we need to be really flexible. And it turns out the way to most skillfully navigate these cycles of change is to be both rugged and flexible. Instead of viewing these concepts as diametrically opposed opposites or either ORs, it’s really helpful to view it as both and.
We wanna be really rugged, we wanna be strong. We wanna know what we stand for. We wanna know the hills that we’re gonna die on, but we also wanna be able to adapt and evolve and to be really flexible in how we apply our core values and beliefs. And you see this at all levels, whether it’s an individual thriving over time organization or our company thriving over time, and you even see it at the most majestic level of all, which is evolution.
When you look at species that have had a really good run that are. Gritty and anti-fragile and enduring. They tend to have a mix of central features or like really rugged characteristics that if those change, the species would no longer be recognizable. So those don’t really change, but then everything else about that species can change and evolve.
And even how the central features are applied changes over time. And I like to think of us humans as the same way. It’s good to have guiding principles, core values, core beliefs, whatever you wanna call them. That are pretty rugged and pretty robust, pretty unlikely to change. But then how we apply those core values and beliefs, that is constantly something that we should be working to update is the environment around us and within us changes.
Mike: And how might we apply that concept to, and I’ll let you share whatever examples. I’m sure you have plenty of examples of this in the book, but how might we apply that concept to. Goals that we want to achieve. So you have people listening who are trying to achieve health goals and fitness goals, and many people are also trying to achieve relationship goals, career goals, and so forth.
Brad: Well, I think that the first place to start is asking yourself, what are the rugged values behind why you wanna achieve that goal? Is it health? Is it meaning, is it joy? Is it fun? Is it reputation? Is it creativity, identifying with those values more than the goal itself? Because the goal itself, as you know better than anyone, it is going to need to change and adapt and evolve as your life and your pursuit of it changes, adapts and evolves.
So having a specific number on a scale or a specific number of kilograms or on the barbell. That can be really motivating. But the, the challenge is if you get injured or if life gets in the way, or if you just like happen to have a bad day, or you’re carrying a lot of water weight on your weigh in day, whatever the heck it is, and you don’t hit that number, that makes you really fragile and it makes that goal fragile, you become more likely to quit or to judge yourself.
Whereas if you can. Identify a level deeper, which is, Hey, I really value mastery and that’s why I wanna deadlift 400 pounds, or I really value my health or my family, and that’s why I wanna lose weight. Then that value is much less fragile to the ebbs and flows of life, and it sets you up for much more sustainable success because then the number on the scale, or the number of pounds on the barbell, that just becomes like a data point along this greater path that is going to have all kinds of ups and downs.
Because any meaningful change, any meaningful path includes all kinds of ups and downs.
Mike: I think that that is, um, a much more useful lens rather than the kind of cliche of well just learn to enjoy the process or, or love the process. That just never resonated with me. I get the, the concept, but I, I always found that a little bit shallow because.
Sometimes the process of using your example, if the goal is just, Hey, I want to deadlift a certain amount of weight because, um, it’ll look cool, or because I just wanna say that I’ve done it, or I want to get attention on social media. Let’s say that there really hasn’t been that much thought put into it.
That’s all that is there. That process of getting to a big deadlift is not very enjoyable. As somebody who has deadlifted a moderate amount of weight, I’ve gotten relatively strong. Sometimes it’s enjoyable, but it’s just as. I would say unenjoyable as it is enjoyable. So to tell people to just enjoy it.
Just, just what are you doing? Just enjoy the process. I feel like that’s kind of telling somebody who, let’s say they’re in a, in a funk, they’re in a bit of a depression, they’re not doing well, and you tell them, Hey, come on, just cheer up. It’ll be okay. It just doesn’t, it doesn’t do anything.
Brad: Yeah, and I think it, it gets back to like, what’s the underlying value or what’s the underlying thing you wanna explore and to you and your life.
And if that underlying value is like looking cool on social media, I think that’s makes you pretty fragile and like that’s really worth like evaluating. And I, I shouldn’t say that judgmentally, I should say that. Like, you know, having been there, because I think in this modern day and age, we’ve all been there.
I. I think it’s just a chance to kind of pull up and pause and be like, wait a minute, if I’m doing this for a reason, like looking good on social media, I think this is going to set me up for poor, physical and mental health, so I should probably reevaluate the goal. Whereas if you’re doing it because you’re really curious about mastery or you’re curious about how you perform under pressure, or you just wanna do something that’s really hard because otherwise the rest of your life is, um, knowledge or white collar work.
So you don’t really do anything physical. You’re gonna be a lot more anti-fragile, a lot more rugged and flexible on the path to a big deadlift than if you’re just doing it for this like very superficial thing. That is an arbitrary target that you’ll either hit or miss and it doesn’t really matter.
Mike: I feel like even competition is a little bit more meaningful.
Then just trying to acquire status, for example. I’m sure you, you’ve experienced a lot of that in your work, in your training yourself personally, and then just the people you’ve worked with who are very motivated by just competing.
Brad: I think competing is a great motivator. I. I completely agree, and I think that the thing with competing is anybody that really does it at a high level, yes, you wanna beat someone and you wanna be the best in your class or in your region or in that competition, but what tends to happen is a whole lot of comradery with the people that you’re competing against because.
Everyone’s got skin in the game and y’all are like trying to do the hard thing. And I find it fascinating that the word compete comes from the the Latin Root Co, which means with, and Petri, I’m gonna mispronounce this, but Petri, which means to raise up. So compete literally means like to raise up with or to raise up together.
And I think like that’s the beauty of competing is that you raise up together. So yeah, like a big, a big deadlift or a certain kind of body. For a post on social media, just feels inherently fragile and very rigid. Whereas trying to compete, trying to do it for health because you wanna be around for your family or your friends, or you wanna be functional for a long time, again, like it’s just a much more rugged and flexible and and enduring way to go about.
Any kind of behavior change, and I bring up the deadlift thing we could do a whole conversation about this is, is someone that has been training really hard over the last two years in like starting to explore like when is it gonna be a time for me to shift in my training and do it less for mastery?
More for enjoyment. And my training’s gonna look very different when that happens. Uh, so I wrestle with this all the time in my own fitness pursuits.
Mike: I, I’ve made that shift myself recently. So for a two and a half year period, it was more about performance, I suppose. So that was, that, that required. I was in the gym, let’s see, probably about seven hours of strength training per week.
And uh, which is not an excessive amount, but it’s, it’s a bit, I mean, it’s five days a week and 60 to 90 minutes per training session. Pretty intense training and what felt like train at about my maximum recoverable capacity. That that’s what it.
Brad: Dude, you’re just, I’m so excited to hear where you go. So this is where I’m at right now, like to a tee.
I train five days a week. My bigger sessions are 90 minutes. My smaller ones are an hour, and I feel like any more would be getting too close to a line that I don’t wanna get close to and my ability to recover.
Mike: Yep. I was noticing that here and there. My sleep would be off a bit if I was, uh, not deloading as frequently as I should.
My joints were. We’re doing well, but the, you know, achy, like I could feel that there just wasn’t that much more that I could try to squeeze outta my body and, and I enjoyed that. So I did it for two and a half years, pushing hard and, and before that I was still training five days a week and I was training fairly intensely, but not as intensely.
Not saying, okay, I want to commit to prs and let’s see if I can just gain that. Maybe two pounds of muscle per year. That is genetically available to me. Although with an asterisk, I suppose if I wanted to focus heavily on, probably I could, let’s say my legs, uh, if I wanted bodybuilder legs, I probably could gain a little bit more there, but that’s not really the look I.
I wanted. So, um, anyway, so I’m doing that and, and I’m pushing, I’m pushing and it’s enjoyable because it’s maybe a little competition with myself and seeing can I beat previous prs at a lower body weight, blah, blah, blah, which I did. And after two and a half years though, I’m still doing it. So now I’m kind of just going through the motions because that’s what felt at that point, it was just kind of a habit of this is my programming and this is what I’m doing, but my why had kind of withered away at that point.
And so to the point of enjoyment, I just looked at, am I enjoying? My training on the whole, not really. I’m just going and doing it. I’m not particularly looking forward to these workouts, and I, I do like training, so there is, once I’m into it, there’s some enjoyment, but a lot of times I’m just kind of going there and putting my head down and getting through it one set at a time and getting out and then just, just had to wonder why, why not do something else?
And especially when my potential. For improvement in any dimension at this point is, it’s almost negligible and it requires a tremendous amount of work. Not that I’m opposed to, to working hard, but it requires a tremendous amount of, well, a lot of time relative to other obligations, A lot of effort and a lot of energy.
And for what? So. I switched my, my training routine. So now I’m at three days per week and I’m at about 60 minutes a workout, and I’m doing exercises that I enjoy. I’m doing different types of training techniques that I enjoy that maybe are not, they wouldn’t be optimal if I were trying to do what I was doing previously.
But I’m not. So that has reinvigorated my, my interest in strength training a little bit because it’s more in alignment with my current goals, which are to enjoy my workouts, to not spend seven or eight hours a week in the gym. I wanna spend half of that time in the gym. That also allows me to do a little bit more cardio.
Uh, hop on the bike back here, which is good for health, which doesn’t take as much time. So at first it was felt like I was committing like a transgression or something. It, it felt like I, I really, it’s Tuesday, I’m just gonna do a cardio workout instead of get getting in there. Or should I just, should I just go and deadlift today?
Like I nor like I should be doing, you know what I mean? And even certain exercises. So my hip started to bother me a little bit on the deadlifts and the past. I. Would, I wouldn’t push it beyond the point of acute pain, but if it’s uncomfortable, I’m like, you know, whatever, I’m just gonna keep going Now I’m, I’m trap bar deadlifting instead until my hip feels better.
So just making adjustments that I think are the smart, that it’s the, the smart moves, but not necessarily the emotionally satisfying moves initially. There is that period of discomfort. I guess there’s a theme here, which is it comes back to change. Change is uncomfortable.
Brad: Well change in rugged flexibility.
And rugged flexibility because I also think that like you are to a core, uh, whether you know it or not, and you’re a pro’s pro, so I’m not surprised, but your relationship with fitness over time is very rugged and flexible. So let’s look at you like, let’s, let’s make this book and some of the concepts really practical.
So let’s look at Mike Matthews and fitness over time, and you are going to change a lot. You’re going to age, you are gonna have different family commitments, you’re gonna have different business commitments, and your psychological state’s gonna change. Your hormones are gonna change. All this stuff is gonna happen over the course of your life.
Right? The ruggedness is that you love health and fitness and training. I mean, in your little monologue, which I loved, you said like four times, like, I like to train, like that’s rugged. That’s not going away. I, I think you’re gonna be 80 and you’re gonna like to train, but. You’re really flexible is how you apply that underlying value in realizing that, hey, how I was training for the last three years.
And it was a good thing, but now maybe it’s not. Maybe I need to shift that. And I think that if you were to have gotten too rigid and said, no, I can’t. I need to stick to this program. I need to keep being performance oriented, you’d probably have already burnt out by now, or at least be on the path to burning out.
I think it’s like, I know you didn’t intended, at least I don’t think you’ve, I think it’s a profound example of rugged flexibility, and as a result you become more robust and anti-fragile to change. So a hundred percent. And then the second thing you were saying is, yeah, like. You went through a period of order disorder, reorder.
That’s what I’m hearing. Right. So the order, the stability was you’re training for two and a half years for performance driven goals, which is a very specific kind of mindset and approach. And even just feeling like you wake up and like you got a good workout in, there’s a confidence that comes with it.
There’s something beautiful about measurable progress, especially if you’re, you know, doing what you do where so much of your work is more creative and it’s not nearly as objective as like either. You know, put weight on the bar more than last week or not like, like it’s so addictive. So like you were in that flow and that was your order and stability.
Then things changed and it didn’t feel good. So you had the maturity to step away from it, but you went through a period of disorder where you felt like, I think the word you used is like a transgression, like it felt really icky and disorder doesn’t feel good. Now what I’m hearing is like you’re getting to reorder, which is a new stability, which is this new kind of training and this new relationship with it.
And I can promise you that your current routine won’t be the same five years from now, but I’m equally as confident that you’ll still be training in some way. So I think this is it for the things that are important to our life. If we wanna be stable through change and we wanna have good sustainable habits, we’ve gotta be really rugged on what we actually care about.
But then be willing to go through these cycles of order disorder, reorder, and be flexible about how we apply it.
Mike: And I think that we have to be willing to try things as well. And there is a point, and I, I’m speaking personally here, and this is one example, but I could give many others. There is a point when we have to stop thinking and.
Planning and ruminating and start doing things, and start trying things, it’s, I, I do think it makes sense to, to generate plausible hypotheses to test out in the world. But then there is a point when we have to test them and we have to see how it actually goes and how do we respond to it. I mean, one other, I don’t want to take much of our time just talking about myself, but, uh, one other example, I, I think you as a writer will be able to relate to this, so, My original interest in writing, if I go all the way back before I had any fitness books and before I was Mike Matthews, the fitness guy, my, uh, original interest in writing was fiction actually.
And I’ve always enjoyed storytelling. I like the kinda the art and the science of it as well. I like the process of crafting well told stories, and I appreciate it when other people do it well, and I, I did some of it in the past and then got away from it because I got into the fitness racket and then I.
That did well, and it was kind of just from strength to strength and here I am. And so recently I was thinking that I would like to get, I would like to try that out again and see if that, if that spark is still there. And how I went about it though is, is thinking about okay, that, what’s the goal here?
The goal is not to make money. It’s not to. Get status as, uh, another writing in another genre or anything other than to find if it’s something that I really enjoy. That’s the goal is just seeing if that enjoyment is still there. And so in that process, I don’t have too much time to give it. It’s kind of a hobby Right now.
I have it a little bit lower on my list of priorities, but. It has helped me. Again, having that, what is that? What is that rugged core, so to speak, helped me navigate, alright, what’s my plan now to see if I like this enough to wanna pursue it? Seriously, I, I’ve had to. Try and fail at a few different things just to see, okay, well what about like, let’s talk even about genres, right?
So you wanna write stuff that you wanna read. That’s a kind of a non-negotiable. If it’s not just a commercial activity, if it’s something that you really enjoy, you better like to read it. So finding what are those genres for me and which of them do I feel like I could possibly even write well in? And then there is going back over the, even the theory of it and how can I practice this and get, start getting a.
Just a, a feel for it again. Okay. Anyway, so it’s, it’s, I think that cut and try approach is important to, to find the, this is more on the flexibility, on the flexibility side of things to find, all right, how do I express this core value? Or how do I experience this in, in a way that is going to be sustainable in a way that is going to be worth the effort.
Brad: Yeah, that’s right. And I think another thing that you’re doing there is, uh, potentially like diversifying your sense of self or your sense of identity. And this is another key theme and and concept in the book is, um, this notion of if we wanna be really resilient in the face of change, we have to have multiple dimensions to how we think about ourselves.
Because if we only think about ourselves in one way, Well, when that one domain of life changes and goes into disorder, it’s gonna feel like the ground underneath us has been swept up from under us, and we’re just gonna feel completely chaotic. Whereas if we can have multiple areas of our identity and multiple parts of our life that we derive meaning from, then when change happens in one of those areas, we can lean in the others.
So the metaphor I like to use is, it’s really helpful to think about your identity like a house, and you wanna have at least a couple of rooms in that house. So maybe you have like the dad room or the partner spouse room. You have the athlete room, you have the entrepreneur, executive business person room, and then you have like the creative room and um, you don’t have to spend equal time in all those rooms.
It’s okay to wanna spend a lot of time in one room. Maybe it’s the room you’re most passionate about. Maybe it’s a season of life where you gotta go all in on this thing, but you never wanna completely shut those other doors because by diversifying your sense of self, you become more resilient to change.
So there’s all kinds of metaphors keeping up with the house. If there’s like a massive leak or flooding in that one room, if you don’t have any other rooms to go in, you’re kind of screwed. Whereas if you have other areas of your identity that you can seek refuge in, while the chaos shakes itself out in that one domain.
Then you feel a lot more stable and strong throughout the change. And this isn’t groundbreaking theory, we diversify our investments. It’s like the number one rule of investing is diversify your portfolio. Yet we’re told that we need to go all in and be obsessed with the one thing that we do. And that makes no sense.
Like the reason we diversify our portfolio is so when things change in the market, we don’t get on a rollercoaster ride with the market. We have some stability and it’s so important to do the same thing with how we derive meaning in our sense of identity and self.
Mike: Do you wanna transform your body, but you just can’t seem to break out of the rutt?
Have you read books and articles, watched videos, listened to podcasts, but still just aren’t sure exactly how to put all the pieces together for you? Or maybe you know what to do, but you’re still struggling to stay motivated? And on track and do the things that you know you should do well if you are nodding your head, I understand getting into great shape is pretty straightforward when you know what to do, but it’s not easy.
It takes time, it takes effort, it takes grit. And that’s why I created my v i P one-on-one coaching service. We take people by the hand and we give them everything they need to build their best body ever. We give them a custom diet plan, training plan, supplementation plan. If they want supplements, you don’t have to take supplements.
We coach them on how to do every exercise correctly. We give them emotional encouragement and support, accountability, and the rest of it. And we are pretty good at it too. We have worked with thousands of men and women of all ages and abilities and lifestyles and help them build a body they can be proud of.
And guess what I. We can probably do the same for you. Our service is not for everyone. But if you want to find out if it’s for you, if there’s a fit, head over to buy legion.com/vip. That’s b y legion.com/vip and book your free consultation call now. I, I totally agree. Well said. Can you talk to us about expectations and how expectations shape our experience of change and how we can set them in a way that makes us more resilient, more anti-fragile?
Brad: So, expectations, the brain is a prediction machine. What we experience is consciousness is, uh, reality, filtered by our expectations for what’s gonna happen and when our expectations are out of alignment with reality. It can feel really uncomfortable. And if you think about what change means, one way to define change is expectations are not meeting reality.
So what you thought was gonna happen is no longer happening. There’s been a change. And the longer it takes us to update our expectations for the new reality, the worse we feel in the worse we’re equipped to handle what’s in front of us. If we have this expectation that things aren’t gonna change or that things shouldn’t change or that change is bad, we should resist change, we should get back to where we were.
Then when change happens, we’re gonna feel really crappy and we’re not gonna be in a position to do anything productive about it. Whereas if we. Shift our expectations and align them more with reality and realize that like change is the nature of life. Every single ancient wisdom, tradition points to impermanence.
The first rule of physics is like heat dissipates entropy. It’s a fancy scientific way of saying things change. So science, wisdom, it doesn’t matter. Change is real. We ought to embrace it. At the very least, we ought to expect it. So then when it happens, we can meet it with skillful action. And I think this is probably.
If rugged flexibility is the first key mindset shift in the book. I think the second most important one is the old way of thinking about change. Homeostasis very clearly says that change is something that happens to you. Allostasis the new way, the more accurate way of thinking about change says change is something that you’re in conversation with, that you participate in, and that is such a game changer ’cause change happening to you.
The expectation is things are gonna be normal and then change is gonna happen and it’s gonna be bad. Being in conversation with change, the expectation is of course, change is gonna happen. I’m a living creature in a living world. And when it does happen, I can be in conversation with it. I remain, I retain, excuse me, I retain some agency.
And it’s not to say that we can control everything ’cause we can’t. But it is to say that as much as change shapes us, we also can shape change. But we’ve gotta expect it. ’cause otherwise when it happens, we’re gonna be so discombobulated, we won’t be able to do anything about it.
Mike: And, and practically speaking, how might that look in in life with the many, let’s say, difficult or complicating or maybe even unwelcome changes that can occur?
Because if the only changes that were occurring. We’re the ones that we wanted. Well then ev everything would be great. People wouldn’t even find this conversation interesting if they wouldn’t even understand what you’re talking about.
Brad: But everyone understands because, uh, a lot of times the changes aren’t great.
So there’s this term, uh, coins by Viktor Frankl, who is 20th century psychologist philosopher, Holocaust survivor. He’s very well known for his book. Man’s Search for Meaning. He’s less known for an essay that he wrote after that book that was called The Case for Tragic Optimism, and I just love this term, tragic optimism.
What Frankl says is that life is inherently full of tragedy, and it’s full of tragedy for three reasons. The first is because we’re made of flesh and bone, and flesh and bone deteriorates, so we are going to experience physical pain and the loss of capabilities, and that is a tragedy. There’s no reason to sugarcoat it.
That sucks. The second tragedy is that we humans have the ability to make plans and all of our plans never work out the way we thought. So we’re gonna feel disappointment and frustration, and that sucks. And then the third tragedy is that everything that we love and hold onto dearly is going to change.
That’s a very, um, that’s a very like, uh, nice way of putting it. ’cause everything that we love is going to die, including us. And what Frankl said is that anyone saying like, just be positive, kind of like you were saying earlier, practice gratitude all the time. He’s like, y’all are insane. Like, being a human is hard.
Life is hard. These tragedies are inevitable and they’re inherent. And yet we must do the hard work of maintaining optimism, not in spite of those tragedies, but with those tragedies. So the whole work is to accept and to not push away, not repress, not bury our head in the sands, those tragedies, but to realize, and maybe even because of those things, say, Hey, like this is our shot, this is it.
So we might as well be optimistic. We might as well trudge forward the best that we can. And I think tragic optimism is, The most needed quality for our current moment because what’s happening right now, and you see it all the time, especially on the internet, is there’s these two camps with any big negative change.
So like take climate change as an example, one camp is completely Pollyanna. I’m just gonna bury my head in the sand, pretend it’s not happening. Be super positive about everything. Doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t affect me yet, so what do I care? I think it’s all overdone. The other camp is like completely nihilistic and despairing.
The system is so broken, we’re all doomed. There’s no point to even try because we’re all doomed. And even though these seem like extreme opposites, I actually think that they have a lot in common. The main thing being that they’re cop outs, they’re super lazy because they absolve you of needing to do anything about it.
So if things are great, Why do anything if things are so terrible that nothing you do will help? Why do anything? But we know from across history, across human history that progress is possible and the people that make progress be it in themselves or in the broader structures in their lives, are the people that can exist in the middle of delusional optimism and despair.
To realize that, yeah, like things are hard, things might even be broken. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t work to improve them and in order to have any chance at fixing a broken world, we can’t become broken people. And I think I’ve been talking in the frame of societal change, but the same thing is true as us in individuals.
I. How often do people say, I don’t need to improve? Everything’s great. Like, I’m great. There’s certain people like that, they tend to be really insufferable, but I think more common is the opposite. It’s like the despair, but the despair, especially in health. Like, I’m never gonna get healthy, I’m never gonna be able to quit smoking.
You know, I’m morbidly obese and like nothing’s gonna work for me. And, um, I get that like, despair is really enticing, but it is. Really just like the least productive emotion because there’s no reason to take action if you’re in despair. So the more that we can practice tragic optimism and realize that life is hard and hard things are gonna happen, and we can trudge forward by taking hopeful wise, optimistic actions, the better off we’ll be.
And again, I think especially in today’s world where there’s these extreme camps of everything’s great and everything sucks, there’s a huge chasm in between and that’s where we need the most action to take place.
Mike: A perspective that I’ve always liked that is right in line with this is I. Looking at how we can take things that happen to us that are difficult, unwanted, uh, complicating and how we can use them in a positive way or a constructive way, even if it’s just learning a lesson or if it is looking at maybe how our actions contributed to this seemingly random thing, but maybe it wasn’t as random as we wanna believe.
And for whatever that’s worth, I’ve found that it has. And lean more. Optimism. Even if it’s only because it gives the semblance of control. And if even if that’s all it is, I’m okay with that.
Brad: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think for 98% of unforeseen changes, the approach that you’re describing is the right one, and it makes the most sense.
Which is view it as a challenge or look for the silver lining. Even if the silver lining is just a lesson learned, go into it with a growth mindset that, Hey, I’m gonna grow from this. This might be hard, 98%, maybe even 99% of changes. I do think that there’s like 2% where that actually becomes really counterproductive.
And these are for the hard to imagine capital T traumas. So the death of a loved one, the loss of a child, a horrific car accident that leaves you paralyzed here. I think trying to immediately find growth or gratitude or learnings, it’s like telling a depressed person to come up with all the things they’re grateful for when they’re in the acute of suicidal ideation.
It’s a terrible fucking idea. So there are certain times when. The most skillful thing to do is release from any notion to improve or get better, and just to be kind to yourself and get through. And what the research shows is that for these Capital T traumas, the people that are able to experience post-traumatic growth to get to the other side with some meaning.
The way that they do it is by releasing for the need from any meaning when they’re in the thick of the struggle. So it’s this huge paradox when you’re in the struggle. Your only job is to get through whatever it takes. But then six months later, a year later, sometimes a decade later, once you’re on the other side, looking back, we tend to make meaning out of those capital T struggles, those capital T traumas.
Um, not all the time. I need to be careful. There are some things that are just senselessly, painful rape falls into that category. But, um, again, for. Everything but the most extreme edge cases we do tend to make meaning and grow through even the most negative, challenging changes. But oftentimes that growth doesn’t happen until we get to the other side of them.
Mike: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s, um, every rule has exceptions, right? For, for somebody who’s looking to make a positive change and something that is going to be difficult for them, something that maybe they’ve tried before or, uh, there’s, there’s just a lot of friction there. And instinctively they feel like they, they need to fight against, or as a part of them fighting against that change.
What advice would you have in, in the way of first steps to make the process more palatable and effective?
Brad: Hmm. So, um, start small. I. Because, um, the number one mistake that people make is too much, too soon. Uh, they get really excited and motivated about this big change, and then they flame out. I mean, we see this all the time in data of New Year’s resolutions, and the ones that fail tend to be the big, grandiose ones, and the ones that work out tends to be the small ones that allow you to stay consistent.
Now knowing that change is a cycle of order disorder, reorder in updating your expectations to realize that the first couple steps are often the hardest because you’re entering into a period of disorder and instability and living systems don’t like that. So when we’re trying to make a change, the body often does immediately try to get back to where it was, and we kind of have to push through that initial period of disorder before we get to reorder.
So I think a lot of it just comes down to expectations. You know, someone that is starting a new workout program, the worst thing to tell them is, oh, you know, believe everything that you hear about how great exercise is gonna make you feel and expect that immediately. Much better thing to tell them is believe everything that you hear and give it three months before you start expecting that.
And I think it would save a lot of flame ads. And this is true for any kind of productive change we’re trying to make. I think we need to really expect that the disorder period is gonna feel like disorder. There is going to be some resistance, it’s gonna be hard, but we just need to accept that, expect it, keep trudging through.
And then once we get towards reorder, we’ll start to reap the benefits of those changes. And this is true for any habit change. There’s some research that shows that. On average, a new habit takes between 18 and 219 days. Some people are gonna say, that’s such a wide range, it’s meaningless. And the point of me sharing it is that there’s so much differentiation depending on the person, what they’re trying to start, what they’re trying to stop.
And um, I think that we need to expect that, yes, sometimes it happens fast, but sometimes it takes the better part of a year.
Mike: And also in your book, you share five questions for embracing change that I wanted to ask about because I think it’s related to what you were just.
Brad: Yeah, I do. And that comes at the end of the book.
And so much of what I try to do as a, as a writer is give people language and words and questions for experiences that they have and they kind of like have a sense of what’s going on. And by a sense, I mean like a visceral sense. They feel it, maybe they kind of even already know it, but they don’t yet have words for it.
And I’m a firm believer. That once we have words for something, it makes it more concrete. It makes it more tangible. We can wrestle with it. We have a better chance at practicing it. So these five questions that come at the end of the book, they’re really not meant to be the prescriptive, Hey, do this and expect that.
It’s more like now you have these concepts, wrestle with them. So what areas of one’s life do you feel like you could benefit from? Rugged flexibility. And where are you Maybe a little too rugged. Not flexible enough. Where are you Maybe too flexible and not rugged enough. What parts of your identity do you over-index on?
Where if a change happened in that domain of your life, it would leave you really fragile? I think this is a really important one for three groups of people that I know are your core audience, so I’m just gonna name ’em, right? Athletes, if you over identify. Really only identify with fitness is your pursuit.
When change comes, be it aging and performance declines, acute injury or chronic injury, it is going to be much harder to work through that change and get to the other side than if you have other areas of your identity that you can lean into.
Mike: That can be hard too for athletes. I mean, you know this better than I do probably.
Considering all the athletes you’ve worked with, high level athletes, they necessarily, yeah, they necessarily have to spend so much time being an athlete, they don’t even have that much time to do anything else.
Brad: It’s a challenge, and I think here though, it’s important. Again, you don’t have to spend equal time across equal things.
You just have to have other components of your identity that give you meaning. And I think that can be hard to find if you’re not having the time. For sure. But we’ve seen this in elite athletes in the book, I tell this story of Neils Vanderpool, the um, speed skater, world record holder, world champion, double Olympic medalist in 2022, whose performance basically skyrocketed once he realized that he was underperforming.
’cause his only identity was as a speed skater and he was terrified of losing. So of course he lost. You know, when you enter the ring, terrified of losing good things tend not to happen. In the lead up to the 2022 games, he intentionally decided to take a normal weekend, like a normal person and go out for beers and pizza and go bowling and go hiking and read books.
And he realized that he was so much more than just a speed skater. And then he got to the games, and even though he took two complete days off a week, He had the best performance in the history of speed skating, and he attributes that not to anything special about his training, but to the fact that he was no longer scared because there was more to him than just himself as a speed skater.
So I do think even at the elite level, it’s beneficial to diversify your identity. The two other groups I promised, I’d get to people that are really career focused. What happens when you retire? I mean, we see post-retirement depression all the time because again, if your whole identity was your career and then when that career ends, what’s gonna happen?
And then the third bucket is parents. And when kids leave the house, marriages fall apart. Really rough things tend to happen if your whole identity was as a parent of kids that live in your home. So I think, you know, what I try to practice is, let’s say that you’re all three of those things. Then really be all three of those things.
Have a big room in your house for parenting. Have a big room in your house for your fitness and your athletic pursuits, and have a big room in your house for your career. And odds are all three of those things won’t negatively change at the same time.
Mike: And you’ll have one to lean on when, when the other one is withering.
Brad: Yeah, I mean that’s, and it’s not to say that you ever have to fully leave a room, but when one room is flooding, i e in, in my language enters disorder, well hang out in the other rooms. During the disorder phase a little bit more, and then when the flood’s patched up, you can go back into that room. I mean, the best way to get through an injury and to use the sporting example, I mean this is the most graceful way that an elite athlete, whether it’s a professional or someone that’s really caress about training navigates injury.
So they get injured and it sucks. And it’s part of the tragedy of being an athlete, lifelong athlete. Even with the best training, you’re gonna probably at some point succumb to some sort of injury, and ideally, you don’t completely freak out because there are other components of your life that give you meaning, but you still go in that room into your chores, i e, your rehab.
You’re not spending nine hours a day on message boards catastrophizing about your injury. You’re doing your rehab, and then you’re going and you’re focusing on reading or woodworking or devoting extra time to your marriage or trying to get the promotion at work that you’ve been putting off because you’re trying to run a three hour marathon and then eight weeks, eight months, maybe a year if it’s a torn a c l.
Later. If you’ve done your chores, you go back in that room and you spend a lot more time there. And you just avoid so much suffering and so many false starts and so much trying to overshoot the target in Rush Rehab. So I think that this is one of those Goldilocks things where it’s not just mental health that improves, but I genuinely believe even at elite levels, performance improves when you diversify your identity because you just shed that enormous weight that comes when you are so fragile to change because there’s only this one thing that makes you who you are.
Mike: I can, I can see how that could build up major psychological and emotional barriers to performance.
Brad: It’s part of the reason that I still train for performance right now is because I’m in a, a, a stage of my writing career where my writing performance is like, I have high expectations for myself and my publisher does too, and it’s a fair amount of pressure that I don’t really control.
I mean, you know, book publishing, sometimes a book hits, sometimes it doesn’t. Based on factors completely outside of your control. But then for me to be able to go in the gym and have this other thing that I can chase a performance goal that is totally separate from my writing, it just feels so healthy.
And if both of those go to shit, you know, I, I tweak my back in the same day. Uh, a big story flops. Well then I get to double down on being a dad and a husband. And I’m just so grateful that I have these various sources of identity. And I, I encourage people in the book to think about change and to think about becoming.
Robust to change by diversifying your sense of self. I sound like a broken record, but it’s really important. Well, with that, I know we’re coming up on
Mike: time, so I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna keep you any longer, but, um, great discussion as always. I, I really enjoyed it. So the book is Master of Change, and is there anything else that you want people to know where, where they can find you on social media, any other neat things that you have coming that you want people to know about?
Brad: Thanks. Really the main thing is if you found the conversation interesting, you wanna learn more about change, definitely check out the book. It’s available wherever you get books, hardback, audible ebook, and then on social media, I’m most active on Instagram, where my handle is. My name brad stalberg.com, and then that is also my website and you can learn more there.
Mike: Awesome. Well, thanks again, Brad and I look forward to the next discussion.
Brad: Thank you, Mike.
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