Child: Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast.
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Katie: Hello and welcome to The Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And please excuse my voice is still a little bit recovering today, but I really, really enjoyed this interview and this conversation. I’m here with Suneel Gupta, and we talked a lot about the meaning of dharma and finding your purpose in an overwhelmed life. And he is certainly the man to talk about this. He talks about how he lost his dharma and then discovered it again. And he’s an author and a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School.
His work is to study the most extraordinary people on the planet and discover and share simple, actionable habits that lift our performance and deepen our daily sense of purpose. And his work has been featured all over for doing just that, but we talk in-depth today about his new book, which is all about uncovering your dharma and nurturing that in your daily life. And I love how he talks about that this is more of a revelation than a transformation, that it’s uncovering and getting things out of the way of what’s already there. And we get a lot more fine-tuned and in-depth with that conversation. He also provides some very practical things you can try in daily life to help find your dharma if you don’t already know what that is. And I really love a lot of his outlook and the steps that he gives in this process. So, I highly recommend checking out his book if you haven’t already and also joining us for this conversation. So, without further ado, let’s join Suneel Gupta. Suneel, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being here.
Suneel: Katie, it’s so great to be here. I love your show.
Katie: Oh, thank you. I’m excited for our chat today, and we’re going to get to go deep on several topics including the topic of your most recent book. But before we jump into that, I have some notes from your bio that I would love to hear some backstory on. One being that through most of your teens, you were clinically obese, and I went through a similar experience with having six kids in nine years and thyroid issues. And also, that your parents started a Bollywood karaoke group, and I would love to hear a little bit of context on both of those.
Suneel: Yeah, absolutely. I guess let’s start with being a child who was overweight. I would say, generally, my family struggled with weight. My father had a triple bypass surgery when he was in his early 40s. We rushed him to the hospital, and we nearly lost him that day. And it was a really scary time for all of us. I was around 11 years old at the time, and I remember sitting by his hospital bed, and I remember that the hospital had given him these sheets of paper. And it was like, “You know, eat broccoli, eat Brussels sprouts.” And I remember thinking to myself, like, you know, we don’t really eat broccoli and Brussels sprouts at home. We’re an Indian family. You know, we do a lot of Indian cooking at home. And I just had this suspicion that my dad was not going to be able to stick to this diet or the exercise program that they had laid out. And that was true. You know, he really struggled with that when he got home. And I did as well as a kid who overate and, but we ended up getting the help of a personal nutritionist. The hospital, the insurance company, luckily, they paid for it, knowing that my dad was going to go back to the condition he was in before. They helped pay for it, and that really changed our life. You know, we cleaned up the way we ate, held my dad accountable to ways of working out and the ways that we exercise. And unsurprisingly, it was all about the little habits. It was the little things. You know, it wasn’t a wholesale change of removing carbs from the diet or anything like that. It was more about, you know, drinking water before every meal, making sure that after having dinner, you were having it at a time that was a few hours before bed and getting a little bit of a, a little bit of movement in between dinner and sleep. There were these cornerstone habits, and they changed our lives. My dad ended up losing weight at that time. This was the 1990s, and doctors had given him maybe 10 years to live. You know, right before I came on with you, Katie, I talked to my dad. He was going out for a three-mile walk. It’s been over 30 years.
And so, that really had a profound impact on me. I ended up choosing, when I became an entrepreneur, I had started a couple of companies that did not work. When I started a company that did, it was really based on my dad’s story. It was the one that I wanted to figure out how to basically bring nutritionist coaching into the hands of everybody. Yeah, because right now, or at that point in time, it was something that you had to be very sick or very rich to afford in your life. And I wanted to figure out, could we actually make this something that everybody could afford? And so, we brought one-on-one health coaching, wellness coaching to your mobile phone. And that was in 2012 when health apps were still relatively new. And that company ended up becoming the one that was successful. We ended up selling that to One Medical, which is now owned by Amazon. And that set me on the journey that I’m on right now. So that’s the childhood obesity one. Do you want to talk about karaoke?
Katie: Yeah, I’m curious about that because I certainly one of my deeper fears is singing in public, and I have made myself karaoke a couple times to face that fear. But I know some people actually do it for actual fun.
Suneel: Yeah, yeah. You know, karaoke for me has, like for my parents, I think, has been a really important part of their story. My parents are both engineers. But in early 2000s, we were living in Michigan, and Michigan was going through a very, very difficult time economically. Lots of manufacturing plants were shutting down. The auto companies were hurting. It was the beginning of, I think, a lot of pain that was coming to Detroit’s way. My parents both ended up getting laid off from their jobs, and they were in their 50s. So, it was one of those ages where it was a little bit hard for them to go out and find something else. So instead, we just hunkered down. We used whatever savings we had. And we were able to make it work financially. But the issue was really more that, I think, when you lose this job that you’ve been going to for decades, what do you do with your life? Where’s your purpose? And for my parents, they ended up finding that through Bollywood karaoke. My dad literally went out and he bought a machine from Costco, brought it home one day, and ended up getting some tracks that he used to listen to as a kid when he was living in India. And my parents both started to sing. But then they started to invite friends over, people who had also been laid off from their jobs. And they started to sing. And all of a sudden, it became this routine where if it was Friday night, it was Bollywood Bash Night at the Gupta’s three-bedroom home in metro Detroit. And it’s something that they began in the early 2000s and something they’ve continued to this day. I mean, literally, if you call my parents on a Friday night, chances are they’re karaoke singing.
But if you think about it, Katie, and I think this gets to a lot of what you just talk about on the show. It’s these cornerstone habits, but it’s also everything that happens in between. Having karaoke on a Friday night might not seem the thing that fills you up with purpose. But at the same time, what you’re doing in between those Friday nights is you’re preparing the music, you’re preparing the songs, you’re thinking about what you want to wear, you’re memorizing things so that you can be off-script a little bit, you’re working on your vocals. It’s something that my parents do together, and that really tightens their bond as husband and wife. And then they have community. They end up connecting with other people, and those relationships live beyond the karaoke floor. And so, it is in a lot of ways, I think, given the missing sense of not only purpose but identity and community that I think we all crave.
Katie: I love that. And I feel like it’s a perfect springboard into our conversation. And it highlights, you’re right, some things I talk about very often on here. The first relating to your first story being that it’s often the small, consistent, and free habits that make the biggest difference in the long run. And they’re often overlooked because they’re so simple. And maybe the fancy biohack seems more shiny and exciting, but it’s those small habits of whether it’s morning sunlight, hydration, stopping eating before bedtime with enough time to digest, those little things really do add up. And then the other one I talk about so much is community.
And so, I love that your parents found a really fun way to nurture community that, as an added bonus, I’ve talked about before when we use our vocal cords, we stimulate things like their optimal production of thyroid hormones, the vagus nerve, like so many great things happen when we sing. And I don’t know if it was causational at all, but I know when I started voice lessons, it was around the time my thyroid issues resolved. So, I always love to give that as like free advice to anyone is at least just sing in the shower, try singing somewhere because using your voice can have a profound benefit.
But I feel like those are a great springboard into what will be the bulk of our conversation today. And I think before we move forward, it’s going to be important to define a term that’s part of the title of your book and also a base term for this whole conversation, which is the word, dharma. And I would guess maybe people have at least heard the word but might not have a really concrete definition of what it means. So, to start there, will you define what you mean by dharma?
Suneel: Sure, sure. So, most people who I talk to who have heard the word dharma sort of equate it with purpose. And generally, that’s true. What is your purpose in life? In the book, really try to go more specific than that. And the equation that I offer is that dharma is equal to essence plus expression, essence plus expression. Essence is who you are, and expression is how you show up in the world. And dharma is really the art of aligning those two, aligning who you are with what you do. And every small alignment really makes a huge difference. So oftentimes, when we think about purpose or calling, we think that we need to make a grand gesture or a big sweeping change in our life. And oftentimes, that’s not the case at all. The book is packed with people who were able to make little changes in their lives. And by making these little changes, they were able to completely transform who they were.
I’ll give you an example if you want. In Chapter 1, there’s a woman named Mila who is a project manager inside a big company. And, like a lot of us, she’s a working mom. She is completely overwhelmed, but she’s also not finding a lot of joy in her work. She’s showing up day-to-day, and it’s a paycheck more than it is a passion. And when she reflects on her life, one of the things that she realizes is that she loves to teach. Like she loves teaching, and she wished that she could go back and become a teacher. But the problem is when she looks at her finances, she looks at where they are as a family, that just doesn’t seem very reasonable for her, right? To quit her job, the family relies on her salary, they rely on her healthcare insurance to go back and get her teaching certificate at night when she has kids at home. All this stuff isn’t really adding up. So, like, I think a lot of us, she feels stuck. But one day, she’s sitting down with a mentor, and she’s confiding in her mentor how unhappy she really is. And her mentor leans back in her chair, and she takes a sip of coffee. And then she asks Mila, like, “What is it specifically about teaching that you love?” And as Mila really takes a hard look at that question, what she was able to do is go beneath the title of teacher and into what she really actually loves about teaching. And when she went down to that level, what she started to realize is that she loves to help people grow. Like that’s her essence. That’s what makes her come alive. And yes, teaching was one way to express that essence, but there are also many other ways to express that essence as well. And what she ends up doing is she makes a little shift, like a little shift inside her same department into a role that gets her involved with learning and development, where she can start training other people. And as soon as she starts making that shift, everything changes. She comes alive in a brand-new way. She goes from dreading her work to getting out of bed with enthusiasm and energy. Her husband notices, her kids notice, she becomes a rising star in the company. And all of this was done without changing her parking spot, without changing her company, right? She didn’t have to abandon everything in order to make this huge, I think this huge, big change in her life.
And I think that’s the myth that, ultimately, we are trying to debunk here in this book is that it seems sometimes that we have already taken a path. And when we’ve taken that path, we feel stuck in that place. And yes, we wish we could rewind the clock and do things differently, but often that’s not a liberty that we have. But the good news is that you don’t have to abandon who you are in order to transform the way you live. Oftentimes your dharma, these little ways of expressing who you are through what you do, is available to you right now, just where you are.
Katie: I love that. And it seems especially relevant to moms because I know many of us, we don’t have the option or would we want to change our path and not have our children anymore. We have our kids, that’s a very big part of our lives. And also, I know moms at times can feel like maybe they lose parts of themselves in motherhood, or at least those things get put on a back burner when kids take the focus. And so, as I was starting to read through this book, I loved that because you really do highlight those little subtle shifts that can give more joy, more energy, more gratitude in your life without having to make a drastic major life change. And it also stood out to me, the term dharma is not a new term. In fact, you talk about it being over a thousand years old, but, and you talk about this in the book as well, but it seems like this is actually especially relevant in today’s world. But can you talk about that?
Suneel: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So, dharma is over a thousand years old. You know, the first time that dharma was really brought into real public domain was through a scripture called the Bhagavad Gita. And you know, the Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu Bible. But it’s been the term that has really made its way from ancient to modern, from east to west. The book is filled with Westerners figures from Martin Luther King to Jimi Hendrix to Toni Morrison to Bob Marley that really brought dharma into their lives and were able to express themselves at a higher level because of that.
I think it is more relevant today than ever before because when we look at where we are in the workforce, and we look even for people who are working from home or their full-time responsibility is raising a family, one of the things we know is that the number one driver for most of us, for our mental health, is what we do each day. And for those of us who are in the workforce, the person who has the biggest effect on our overall well-being, sometimes even more than a doctor or a therapist, is our boss. And so, we want to, I think sometimes we’re under the mistake that work and wellness are these two separate worlds. And oftentimes, when we use the word balance, it conjures up this image of spend enough time in each of those worlds. But I think what we’re missing is that there actually isn’t as much of a wall between those worlds. They affect one another. Our work affects our wellness in a profound level. And our wellness affects our work. If we feel really, really good, we feel lit up, we’re going to be doing better work. And by the way, again, work can be the work you do in your community. It can be the work you do with your family. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work for a company. But these two worlds affect one another. They are both essential for the success that we are after. And so, I think right now we are very much in a crisis of, I think, wellness and work, where people feel more exhausted, more burnt out, more depleted than ever before.
And as a result of that, we’re in a place where, we’re seeing everything that’s happening in the workforce. People are leaving their jobs, like they’re churning like never before. It’s very, very hard for job satisfaction to be found anywhere. We’re quietly quitting. We’re abandoning our work. And I think that there’s this feeling of malaise that we are all, I think most of us are experiencing right now, where a job is literally just becoming a job. And the question might be asked like, well, what’s wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with having a job that’s a paycheck? Of course not, right? I mean, we have priorities in our life. We have paychecks, we have bills, we have all the things that we need, I think to get done in order to take care of ourselves and the people around us. That being said, you’re spending about half of your waking hours in a job, right? And if you don’t like that, if you are truly not able to express who you are, you’re hiding this part of you that we call dharma each day, that has a profound effect on your mental and physical health, right? And so, yes, it is something that we, I think, deserve to, I think, ask questions about. What is it that we can do, even in small ways, I think, to start expressing who we are so that we can feel more joy in what we do?
Katie: Yeah. And I love your focus in the book of making that seem very tangible and doable, again, without the major life shifts. And I would guess some people listening have a lot of clarity on what they feel like their dharma is, and they’re moving toward that. But I would guess there’s also people listening who are thinking, like, “I don’t know what mine is.” Maybe I never figured that out. So, for someone who doesn’t feel like they have understanding or clarity of what their own dharma is, what is the process to start figuring that out?
Suneel: Yeah, so this is the first couple of chapters of the book. It’s really about that. If you don’t know what your dharma is, or even if you have a sense of it but you’re not quite clear on it, how do we start to get more clear? And one of the metaphors that I think is really important here is when Michelangelo would look at a block of marble, he would say the sculpture is already inside. I don’t have to go find the sculpture. I just have to chip away the layers that aren’t necessary. And the same thing is true about your dharma. Your dharma is already inside of you. It’s just been buried under other priorities, other expectations, all the day-to-day responsibilities, kids, drop-offs, aging parents, all the things that we’re consumed by, right? Not to mention other people’s judgments and priorities and expectations. A lot of that can bury who we are from ourselves as well.
So, the act of finding your dharma isn’t about going on this big expedition to go find that. It’s more about chipping away the layers that are hiding it, right? It’s not a transformation as much as it is a revelation. And so, what are the things that we need to do to start chipping away, and in the first couple of chapters of the book, really talk about those chisels that we can use to chip away those layers. And sometimes the easiest chisels that we can use are really in the form of good introspective questions. So, one of the simplest questions that I ask from the people that I coach, the leaders that I work with, that the people who are thinking about re-entering the workforce is, what are the bright spots of your current day right now? So even if you don’t like your job or you don’t like your current situation, what are these tiny moments, even if they’re fleeting, where you start to feel that energetic boost, right? And because if we can start to tune in to those bright spots, what that can allow us are little windows, little portals into what our essence really is, right?
And sometimes in non-obvious ways, like there was a nurse in the book, who I talk about, her name is Karen Struck. And Karen became a lead nurse at a hospital but did not really like her job. Like she was feeling way overwhelmed. She’s feeling burnt out. But what she realized is that every time she filled out patient paperwork, right, patient paperwork, she started to feel that energetic boost, that little thing that inside of her said, “Oh, this is interesting.” And while most people, most nurses, would fill out these forms with like the clinical details of a patient, Karen found herself compelled to start writing about the patient. Who were they? What did they love to do? What do they enjoy doing at home? And each of these patient forms almost turned into like a mini novel. And these mini novels would get passed around the hospital from other doctors and nurses because they like read very, very well. And it reminded them of like what they did for a living and how important their work really was and the humanity of the people they were serving. And Karen started to realize, “Wow, writing is something that I really, really love to do.” So, she started to invest in that craft. It was a bright spot that she started to invest in and do more and more of. Whenever she had free time, she would be writing a little bit more. And eventually she was able to expand her career from full-time nurse into writing. She started to write screenplays, and she started to write television shows. So, it’s one of these things that can happen, and just by like tuning into, what are the things that are actually bringing you energetic joy right now? That’s one of the chisels that we talk about in the book.
Katie: I love that. And I would guess for many people, it brings up ideas that they would never have considered as ways to either integrate into things they’re already doing or, like in her case, a side thing that she could do that eventually built on its own because of her passion for it without her having to just like, we talked about in the beginning, step away from her current career in the first, like in the beginning, until the other one grew. Another thing that stood out to me in the book was that this seems like a beautiful merging of Eastern and Western. And I feel like you connect those dots very well. I noticed this pattern in the last 10 years or so in a lot of areas of health and medicine is modern science seems to be catching up to and confirming what a lot of Eastern traditions has known for a very long time. But I’m curious if any particular part stood out to you in that because I love any time that current science seems to verify what age-old wisdom has always known.
Suneel: Yeah, yeah, that’s such a great, I think, point. And for me, not one that was totally obvious to me, you know, I think my world is an Indian kid growing up in a Western world, I always created walls between those two worlds. I mean, I felt a lot of shame, to be honest with you, like growing up in a pretty much all-white neighborhood. I wanted to hide who I was, you know, I tried to be as American as I possibly could, I would overwear Bruce Springsteen T-shirts to school. There were times when I caked baby powder onto my face to make myself look more white because I wanted to fit in. And I think as I grew up, I started to feel the wall between those two things start to come down. And, you know, there was an integration. And as I integrated myself, I began to realize how integrated these two worlds actually were, you know, outside of me as well.
And Western science and Eastern wisdom do, I think, echo each other in many, many different ways. There’s a chapter in the book called Prana, when prana stands for extraordinary energy. How do we bring extraordinary energy back into our life, right? Because so many of us feel exhausted right now. And, you know, there’s a story that begins with Vivekananda, who was an ancient Swami in the 1920s, meeting Nikola Tesla, and the two of them have this chance encounter where all of a sudden, they start to share ideas around this idea of prana and energy. And they get really animated and excited. And they start this collaboration that lasts for years and years. And it was one of these things that was very unlikely, right? And a lot of Tesla’s friends are like, “Why are you writing about this Eastern philosophy in your Westerners papers?” And he’s like, “Well, because it’s very important. It’s something that actually resembles a lot of what we’re talking about right now.”
And, you know, one of the concepts behind prana is what I call rhythmic renewal, rhythmic renewal. And what that basically means is that when we look at the ways that high performers, people who are extraordinary in their fields, whether that be music or investing or arts, or they do a lot of things for their community, they’re not waiting for long breaks or vacations in order to restore and recover. They are taking frequent, focused breaks every single day. In fact, the average high performer that we study is taking somewhere around eight breaks every single day. Eight breaks, which I know sounds extraordinary, right? Given the world we live in, it seems like very back to back to back. It can feel right now like every time you’re about to start something new, you’re already late for it. You finish one thing, you’re late for the next thing. That’s the world that we live in right now. It almost feels like it’s getting faster and faster and faster. And one of the ways that we can break that up is through what I call the 55-5 model. 55-5, which is that whenever possible, for every 55 minutes of work, you’re taking five minutes of focused, deliberate rest. And that deliberate rest can be doing anything, so long as it’s not working. It’s deliberately non-productive. You could be sipping on a cup of coffee, you could be listening to music, you could be, Katie, you like to sing, maybe it’s singing like a song, right? But whatever you’re doing, you’re focusing on that one thing. You’re not multitasking it. You’re monotasking it. You’re focusing on that one thing. As soon as we start to break up our day with this rhythmic renewal, we start to find our energy begin to lift in a way that it hasn’t before. The people that I coach, the teams that I work with, when I introduce them to the 55-5 model and they put it into practice for a couple of weeks, one of the most common pieces of feedback they come back to me with is that for the first time ever, they feel as much energy at the end of the day as they did at the beginning of the day, just by practicing these rhythmic renewals throughout.
Katie: I love that, and I love that term for it too. And I will say as a mom and a homeschooling mom, this is also a great strategy with kids is anytime we can, and sometimes with little kids, maybe even every 30 minutes, give them, like we’ve done in school, five minute like wiggle breaks, five-minute singing breaks, five minutes running around the house in circles breaks. But anything that’s a good pattern interrupt like that, I feel like for kids, they do come back almost instantly with so much renewed energy. Not that kids often struggle with energy, but the pattern interrupt is also really helpful for kids, I feel like.
Suneel: What’s a wiggle break?
Katie: So, this I learned about when in therapy, I went through a lot of somatic therapy as I was releasing trauma and realizing things can store in our bodies. And so, I did everything from rage therapy and to tantrum therapy, like all these different physical therapies to release those emotions. And one of the ones they encouraged was to like throw a temper tantrum on purpose to help those emotions release. And so, with the kids, it’s not often a temper tantrum, but just like wiggling as much as we possibly can. And that movement, I feel like, helps any stuck or stagnant emotions to process a little bit more easily. And it also just helps the body feel great because you’re getting movement and lymphatic movement and all those things.
Suneel: Oh my gosh, I’m totally taking a wiggle break after this.
Katie: I love it. You also talk in the book about what you call the most overrated skill in the modern world, and I would love for you to explain what you mean by that.
Suneel: Yeah, I think the most overrated skill in the modern world is reactivity, is reaction speed. We are constantly compelled to react faster and faster and faster, right? And I think social media has had a lot to do with this, right? Like the impulse to respond, react, to like, to get a like quickly. I think that if you look at the way that we used to email back in the day when email first came out, if you look at reaction speeds, they were much slower than the reaction speeds today. When somebody sends an email, there’s a lot of pressure, especially if it’s somebody who you feel compelled to respond to. There’s a lot of pressure to respond quickly. And so, reaction speed has become one of these things that has become almost a quality that is like expected. If you don’t respond within a certain period of time, it’s very usual for people to say, I’m so sorry for the delay, right? It’s been like five hours. I’m so sorry for the delay, right? I think that what that does, though, is that it takes away what Viktor Frankl would call your freedom. Right? Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, and also a neurologist, said that in between impulse and response, so in between the thing that causes us to react and our actual reaction, in between those two things is a space. And inside that space lies our freedom. And so, if you don’t have a lot of space between things that are causing you to react and your reaction, then you don’t have a lot of freedom. And what we are, I think, constantly finding ourselves in is a situation where we’re starting to lose that freedom. We’re starting to lose that sense of being able to respond when we want to respond. And it almost feels in some ways like we’re being lived rather than actually living as a result of that.
But there are ways to reclaim that space. And even if you can move it by an inch, you start to feel like you’re breathing again, like you’re coming alive again. You know, in the book, there’s a chapter called Upekkha, which really gets into this. And upekkha is all about finding comfort in the discomfort. So, these moments that cause you, make you want to react, tend to be the moments that are annoying. They tend to be the moments that cause you anger. Those are the moments we feel most impulse to react. And that could be to our kids, that could be to people we work with. But there are little things that we can do, again, to expand that distance.
One of the ways, one of the practices in the book, is what I call finding a home base. Finding some place that you can go to internally when something prompts you to react. And so that home base can literally be a physical gesture. It can be putting your hand over your heart, right? And feeling your heart from the inside, feeling your hand from the inside of your body. It can be visualizing something, right? It could be a stream that you used to visit as a kid, or literally imagining petting your dog, even if your dog is not there in front of you, right? It can be just a little gesture. And what you’re doing is you’re just elongating, you’re elongating that space just a little bit.
But when you do that, what you’re doing is you’re creating choices of how you want to respond to something. Because when we have a knee-jerk reaction, oftentimes what that does is it becomes something that we don’t, it takes away our choice, right? And the problem with that is that you may be somebody who has built incredible skill in your life, right? You may have done a lot of work on yourself. You may have done a lot of work on your interpersonal relationships. But when we have these knee-jerk reactions, those skills go out the door because we’re not giving ourselves enough time to actually put those into practice. And literally, by giving yourself just a couple more seconds sometimes, just a couple more seconds before you respond, opens the door back up to those skills. It gives you choices. And when you have those choices, you can reclaim your freedom.
Katie: Yeah, I think this is such an important point, and especially in America, it seems like this really has become an issue. And I know there are even jokes floating around online that in Europe, you might email someone, and their email response will be like, “I’m sorry, I’ve gone to the beach for two months. I might respond when I get back.” And in the US, they might be like, “Oh, I’m having a kidney transplant, but I’ll respond within 48 hours.” But it really highlights that we have become so quickly reactive and hyper-focused. And I know in my own life, a couple of things I’ve done with that intention of trying to be more present and less rushed, less reactive, and more just present with the actual people I’m with is I don’t even know what my ringtone on my phone sounds like anymore because my phone is always on silent. And I think my voicemail says something along the lines of I’m trying to be present with the people in my life right now, so I will get to this when I get to this sort of thing. And you can email me if it’s time-sensitive, and I’ll also read that when I get to it.
Suneel: When did you start doing that?
Katie: About three years ago, probably when I just felt this increasing stress and urgency around my phone constantly pinging me and people needing things. And then, when I stepped back, I realized none of these things are life or death. None of these are emergency situations. My kids have the ability to call multiple times in a row if there’s an emergency, and my phone will ring. That hasn’t happened in three years. But there are fail-safes in case the kids actually need something. But beyond that, everything else, for the most part, can wait. And I also started making little shifts to your point. Instead of saying things like, sorry for the slow reply, I’ll try to focus on the positive and the virtue within it of like, “Thank you for your patience.” And to like focus, speak to the positive, not the negative. But you’re right, I think we’ve become so stressed about that immediate response that we feel guilty if we don’t immediately respond.
Suneel: Well, so here’s a question I have for you then. Have you noticed over the past three years, since you adopted this new way of life, have you noticed any slips in your productivity at all?
Katie: No, if anything, it’s gotten, I’ve gotten more productive but in less time. And I’m much more present like Mondays are my podcast days. And I’m very present with podcasting, and nothing’s interrupting that. And all of that work happens, and it’s focused. And I feel like my attention is here. And when I’m with my kids, I feel very present with them, which makes them also feel, I think, more connected. And so, they tend, like I feel like with parents, especially when that connection is strong with your kids, because you’re actually present, you’re not just on your phone, they tend to not need as much attention from negative scenarios because they actually feel like their need for connection is being met. So that’s actually reduced stress there. Same thing with all the relationships in my life. I feel so much more present in them that, in a sense, it reduced the seeming need of all of those different things to require my time because I’m already present when I’m with them.
Suneel: I think it’s so important because most people that I work with, my students, even my students at Harvard Medical School, they’re running a mile a minute, right? They’re hyper-ambitious. They’re living a life of purpose, but they’re ultimately, I think, also experiencing a lot of burnout right now. And one of the things when I talk to them about this idea of not being as reactive, not moving as fast, that’s scary for them because they feel like if they adopt that way of life, what’s going to happen as a result is that they’re ultimately going to lose out. They’re going to be left behind, right? And what I think is so important about hearing from people like you who are incredibly high-productive, and look at this amazing podcast you’ve built, plus you have six kids, plus you’re homeschooling, it’s incredible what you’ve been able to pull together that you’ve been able to do that without running a mile a minute or without actually having to respond as quickly as you did.
There’s a one of the stories in the book that I talk about is the story of Carl Lewis, and Carl Lewis is an Olympic sprinter, and you know, he would always start his races in the back of the pack, but you know, was an incredible sprinter. He would win a lot of them, became an Olympic-level legend. And so, people were really confused by that because there was almost a conventional wisdom that if you started out in the back of the pack, you weren’t going to win the race, but he always did.
And so, this coach started to study his behavior and what he realized is that while the other sprinters were exerting maximum pressure right from the get-go, Carl Lewis was always exerting about 85% pressure, right? 85%. But he was continuous with it. It was 85% smooth and steady all the way to the end of the race. And so, while other racers would tend to run out of energy by the end, Carl Lewis would whiz by them one by one and ultimately end up winning a lot of these races.
And this 85% rule started to make its way outside of sprinting and outside of sports, even into business, into other areas, right? With this idea of, like, can we question the idea that maximum pressure equals maximum results? Because I think a lot of us have been conditioned that way. If you want maximum results, you better squeeze as hard as you possibly can. But as it turns out, and this goes well beyond Carl Lewis into lots and lots of peer-reviewed studies now, that if you can reduce the pressure just a little bit, what you may ultimately find is not only a higher quality of life but actually better outcomes.
And I certainly experienced this. You know, one of the things I have to do as a writer is I have to get up in front of audiences and speak. And when I first started public speaking, just like a lot of people, I was really afraid to get up in front of large audiences. And what I would do is I would go, like, before, I would almost, like, psych myself up. And I’d be like, you know, you’ve got to do this. You know, you got to kill this speech. And I would put a lot of pressure on myself. And as a result, I would get up on stage, and I would stutter. I would feel really frantic, and I would feel really nervous. And I know that the people in the audience could feel my anxiety. But as I started to move in the other direction, which is in the moments before, even in the hours before a talk, I’d start to loosen the pressure, like really just relax into this. I started to find myself getting on stage in a much more comfortable way, feeling much more confident about myself, being willing to make mistakes up there. And that was just much more fun for the audience as well. And I started to deliver better and better talks.
So again, I think it comes back to this experiment that we ought to, that we can run with ourselves, sometimes very easily, which is that for these situations that we think are important, whether it be at work or whether it be at home, we sometimes feel that putting maximum effort and intensity are going to give us the best results. Experiment with that. Start to reduce the intensity a little bit. Start to reduce the pressure a little bit. And then pay attention to the result. Did it actually go up, or did it go down, right? And in most cases, what I hear from most people is if you can reduce the pressure just a little bit, right, give yourself just a little bit of that breathing room, in almost every case, the outcome will actually be better and not worse.
Katie: And that’s so wild that you mentioned sprinting because, so, when I was reading through your book for my own dharma, one thing that helped me crystallize was, I actually have a tiny heart and a tiny question mark tattooed on my wrist so that I can see them when I’m typing. And I feel like part of my purpose in life is to help people love better and ask better questions. And those are what I keep coming back to in Wellness Mama. And one of the ways in the last few years I’ve gotten to do that is as a volunteer high school track coach because my daughter’s a pole vaulter. And I noticed that same thing is when you tell kids to run at 100%, they are tense, their form is not as good, and they exhaust really fast. And if instead, they’re running somewhere in that 80 to 90% range, they are a lot more in flow and often faster. But they don’t, but of course getting high schoolers to not try to run all out is its own challenge. But I also took that away as a lesson in life of just realizing, wow, maybe sometimes that pressure we put on ourselves is actually a form of resistance that’s slowing us down versus how do we get out of our own way and take that governor off and let ourselves just flow. So, I love that you brought up sprinting as an example of that. You also use a term in the book called, I hope I pronounced it right, pronoia. I would love for you to define that for us.
Suneel: Yeah, yeah. Pronoia is one of my favorite terms in the book. Pronoia is the opposite of paranoia. So, if paranoia is in some way the belief that the world is conspiring against you, that things are out to get you, pronoia is the belief that even when things are falling apart in the short-term, in the long-term, it is all working out in your favor. The universe is in some ways laying down building blocks that will ultimately be to your benefit. And it’s a really, really hard concept. I think for me, as somebody who has started companies that failed, as somebody who has been let go from jobs, has run for public office and lost, it has been tough for me to really get my head around pronoia. But as I look at things in a much more zoomed-out way, I start to realize how these things were actually working in my favor. And it’s one of those things that we can, I think, often do for ourselves, is to take these painful moments. And it doesn’t happen in every painful moment. But in a lot of the painful moments in our lives, we can start to take a look with some perspective years later and say, “What was the good that happened? What was the path that that ended up taking me down?” Because ultimately, we may find that it ended up taking us to an even better place.
One of the examples of pronoia, or metaphors of paranoia, came out of ancient Japan, it’s called kintsugi. And kintsugi is the art of golden repair. And it all started with a shogun in the 15th century who shattered his favorite bowl. And it was a very lucky, holy bowl for him. And he was really devastated. And so, he sent it to a repair shop. Then when it came back, it came back stapled. Like the parts were stapled together. So functionally it was there, but it was really ugly. And so, he said, like, “This is no good”. So, he sent it to an artist. And, of course, an artist couldn’t necessarily like superglue like everything back together. But what the artist did instead is he, the artist actually made this golden lacquer in all the cracks in the bowl. So, when the shogun received his bowl back, it had this like almost like tracing of like golden lines through the bowl. So, it looked very different than it did before, but it was beautiful, right? And it became known as this art form called kintsugi, but it expanded into a philosophy of life, which is that these cracks in our life can ultimately lead us to the beauty, right? It can ultimately lead us to the things that we are looking for, that we are searching for, right?
And there’s this great Sufi saying that I remind myself of over and over again. I have two kids. I have an, my 11-year-old daughter and a six-year-old daughter. And my 11-year-old daughter, I just shared this quote with her for the first time the other day. And it surprisingly, like, she looked at me and like said, “Oh, like that makes sense.” And here’s the quote. “The world is going to break your heart, break your heart, break your heart. Until one day, if you allow it, your heart will crack open.” And from that openness, from that cracked open heart that we start to find love, it’s where we start to find real joy. It’s where we start to find our real power, right? If we can allow our heart to crack open. And that is really the idea behind pronoia, right? Is that, you know, one of the ways I used to look at the world is through a series of steps. I’m climbing a mountain, right? And I just want to climb step after step after step. And the idea behind pronoia is that it’s really not a set of steps, it’s a cycle. And in this cycle, you win, you lose, you win, you lose, right? And you keep going through the cycle over and over again. Good things happen, bad things happen, good things happen, bad things happen. But every time you go through the cycle, you start to get stronger, you start to grow, right? And you start to realize that. in a lot of ways, while success is wonderful, it is also a lousy teacher. And it’s these moments of setback, it’s these moments of mistakes that really end up making us who we are. That is the idea behind pronoia.
Katie: I love that so much. I also love that you mentioned Viktor Frankl in this conversation because he’s my most re-read book of all time. It’s my yearly read. And also, pronoia to me lines up with a saying I stole from a friend of mine, Tina, which is everything works out perfectly for me. And I say this often, and of course, that doesn’t mean it works out the way I think I want it to, but everything works out perfectly for me. And like you, I can look back and realize with that 10,000-foot view, even the things that at the time I thought were terrible ended up leading to a path that ended up becoming beautiful. And over time, I’ve tried to nurture the skill of not having to wait so long to realize that gratitude and to even, when possible, in that moment of what feels like a bad, “bad situation,” to find gratitude for it in that moment, which also seems to have a side effect of relieving some of the discomfort in the moment itself. To me, it’s just a good reminder. And so, I love that you talk about that in the book as well. I know that there’s obviously so much more in this book than we can cover in one podcast episode, but I would love if you could walk us through maybe a couple of practical rituals people can do or baby steps to begin to nurture and find out what their dharma is.
Suneel: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, we talked about the chisels, right? And I think that one thing that we can often ask ourselves that’ll give us a nice clue in to our own dharma is, what would I do for free? Right? What is that thing that I would do even if I wasn’t compensated or I didn’t have to, I didn’t feel obligated to do, right? But I would still do it. And that’s not to say, by the way, that we need to go like quit our jobs and like not take a salary because we have to pay the bills, we have to do our things, right? We like this is we have the practicalities of life. But just as a thought experiment, if you can separate out compensation from the job itself, just as a thought experiment, what would I do anyway? That can be a really nice way to start to clue yourself in to these things that matter to you at a function that’s much more important than money, right?
And one of the ways that we talk about this in the book, and this is also a helpful prompt to think about is, like, success has both inner success and outer success. We tend to focus on outer success, which is wealth, status, money, achievement. But there’s also inner success, which is meaning, its purpose, its joy. And the idea behind dharma isn’t to shame either of these, right? It’s not to shame outer success. If you want to achieve, if you have ambition, if you have goals, that’s fantastic. Please do that, right? But the idea behind dharma is really that just knowing that you can have all the outer success in the world, and that may not necessarily lead you to inner success. And it happens all the time. We all know people who have achieved incredible status and wealth but are feeling empty inside. But on the other hand, you can flip the equation. You can start with inner success, these things that really do fill you up on the inside, and then let that overflow into outer success.
So, what I do for a living is I go out there and I study leaders, people who have achieved at their highest level across different industries and try to unpack their habits. And I would say that if there’s really one common denominator amongst people who have made a transformation in their life to, I think, achieve at a higher level, it’s that they started to shift from outer success to inner success. They started to figure out what really, really makes them come alive. And because when you do that, you bring a higher level of productivity, creativity, mission-drivenness, service, all of these things that we associate with, I think, tremendous results, that stuff starts to come much more naturally. And when it starts to come more naturally, that just naturally will overflow into outer success. So, I think really starting to differentiate for yourself, where’s the outer success in my life? Which again, there’s nothing wrong with that. And where is the inner success in my life? And how do I start to let inner success overflow into outer success?
Katie: I love that. And it also brings the question to mind for any parents listening. I know many of us might be in the experience of learning these things as an adult or figuring out what our dharma might be as an adult. Are there any things we can do to help our kids at various ages to have maybe a shorter road in that process or to… because it seems like kids are naturally a lot more tapped in in some ways to things that would line up as their natural dharma? Are there any things we can do to help them nurture that?
Suneel: I think that we have been raised, I’m guessing Katie, you were as well, with an occupation mindset. And basically, when we were asked as kids, like, what do you want to be? What people were expecting was, “I want to be a doctor, I want to be a nurse, I want to be an architect,” right? And it was an occupation. What I think we can do for our kids was we can start to encourage them to go one layer beneath that, which is not just what do you want to do, but what do you love, right? And I call this in the book, your essence mindset, right? What are these things that actually make you come alive, even if they’re not the thing that can belong on a LinkedIn profile, right? I love to tell stories. I love to make people feel good about themselves. I love to build things, make things, right? These are essences, right? And if you can start to tap into that essence, what you begin to realize is that there are many, many different ways to express that essence, right?
So as opposed to an occupation mindset, where all of a sudden now it’s like do or die, fixed into one specific job title, when you go to the essence level, when you go beneath that, you start to realize that there’s a world of possibilities out there. And ultimately, like if you look at the way that my kids and your kids are going to end up in the workforce, they’re going to end up doing lots of different things, right? Like my parents were engineers for their entire career, right? And for me, I’ve had a few different jobs myself. But for my kids, I just think that that’s going to end up being just a way of life. Then it may end up being that they’re doing multiple things at once, right? They’re almost like mini little studios. And as long as we stick ourselves in this occupation mindset, I think we’re rubbing against the reality of this new world of work. But I think if we can go down to the level of what is it that actually makes you come alive and starting to help our kids understand how to tune into that for themselves, like giving them the feedback of like, “Wow, I really noticed that when you were doing that thing, like I saw you light up and that was really cool.” But letting them build the skill of tuning into themselves as well, where are bright spots in my day? Where are these energetic moments? That brings them beneath this occupation mindset into an essence mindset. And when they can live from that place, they can express themselves in limitless ways.
Katie: I love that. And a few last questions I love to ask at the end of interviews. The first one being where can people find the book? And I know you have other resources available. You do a lot of other things as well. Where can people find you and keep learning?
Suneel: Yeah, I mean, just search for Everyday Dharma, and you’ll find the book. And it’s an easy read, and I also narrate it as well. So, if you like to listen to your books, it’s available for you there as well. And then my website is suneelgupta.com, or you can check me out on Instagram, send me a DM, and I’ll write you back. It’s just SuneelGupta, S-U-N-E-E-L-G-U-P-T-A on Instagram.
Katie: And speaking of books, I’m curious if there is a book or number of books that have profoundly impacted you personally, and if so, what they are and why.
Suneel: Oh yeah, we talked about Victor Frankl before, Man’s Search for Meaning is definitely on that list. The other one that you probably have gotten before is The Alchemist. The Alchemist is just one of my favorite fiction books of all time. But the idea behind The Alchemist, I think, is profound and important. It’s told in this really mystical way, which is that it is the journey, it is not the destination. It’s really about the story of a boy who’s out there looking for his treasure. And what he realizes in the end is that the treasure was in the path. It was in this journey itself. And it’s told in a really, really beautiful way. One of my favorite books of all time.
Katie: I love it. I will link to your book and to those as well in the show notes for you guys listening on the go. And lastly, any parting advice for the listeners today that could be related to something we’ve covered or unrelated life advice that you find helpful.
Suneel: Oh, gosh. I, you know, my grandfather is the first person that ever taught me about dharma. And one of the things that he said to me is that the world is like a sitar. And the sitar is like an Indian musical instrument with lots of strings. It’s almost like a guitar in some ways. And he said that everybody represents one string. You’re one string. I’m one string. So, there are billions of strings on the sitar. And the thing about that is that your job in life is really to learn how to play your string. It’s to tap into your essence. It’s tapping into who you are and to express that. And the thing that’s beautiful about that is that when you play your string, not only does it have an effect on what’s coming out of you, it has an effect on what’s happening with the collective sound of the universe. You start to, I think, influence in a positive way the way the entire harmony sounds. And so, I think that’s something that’s so important to remember, is that when you begin to make these little alignments to start to live more in your dharma, to express a little bit more of who you are, not only is that affecting your life, it’s giving other people permission as well. They are looking, people are watching, and it gives them the permission that they need to start expressing theirs.
Katie: I love that analogy and that advice, and I’m so grateful for your time today. This has been such a fun conversation. Thank you so much for being here.
Suneel: Thanks, Katie. I love your show, and I love what you’re doing. You’re clearly, clearly living your dharma, and I really appreciate you having me on.
Katie: Thank you. And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us both today. We’re so grateful that you did, and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of The Wellness Mama Podcast.
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