Why Running Away From Your Problems May be the Key to Solving Them

“When people step away from the problem, all of a sudden the solution becomes clear.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How humming your favorite song can lead to professional success
  • Why a behavioral scientist liked her first job as a grocery store bagger better than her work as a professional economist
  • What to do when stressful situations become overwhelming

Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day, specializes in the application of behavioral science to the workplace and beyond. Caroline is CEO of Sevenshift and a Senior Advisor to McKinsey and Company, where she was previously a partner. She recently joined rocket scientist turned award-winning law professor Ozan Varol, author of The Democratic Coup D’État, for a conversation about working as a whole person and why that’s so much better than stretching yourself thin for a job.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Caroline and Ozan’s full conversation, click here.

Ozan: A passage in the opening chapter of your book really stood out to me. You wrote, “I’ve been a hotel maid, receptionist, and waitress. I’ve had demanding careers as an economist, management consultant, and an executive coach. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector. I’ve been part of a huge global company and I’ve launched my own tiny startup. And through it all, I noticed the same thing over and over again—that the quality of my day to day experience wasn’t necessarily defined by my title.”

That’s a pretty contrarian message. Most of us assume that the quality of life improves as we move up the ladder. Why was your experience different?

Caroline: My first job, at [age] 14, was in a supermarket and it was definitely not a fancy job, by any means. The uniform that I was issued still had the stains on it from the previous employee. But, I was really struck by how much I enjoyed the fact that there was a clear sense of what “good” looked like and that you had the immediate feedback of the customers [on] whether you were doing a good job.

I thought, “This is great. If this is how the working world is, then bring it on.” Of course, throughout my life, I experienced the opposite. I experienced being in a job that didn’t quite fit or where the culture wasn’t very supportive. I noticed that you can be in a job that had a very fancy title, you could be in a company that had a very fancy brand, and still not feel that sense of purpose, and direction, and usefulness.

By the age of 22, I had those two polar experiences. And I got very interested in what made it possible for people to be happy in jobs that were not necessarily the peak of their career [and] how to make the most of the situation, whatever the constraints were.

“You can be in a job that had a very fancy title, you could be in a company that had a very fancy brand, and still not feel that sense of purpose, and direction, and usefulness.”

Ozan: We often fall in love with the outcome—we dream about the title, but not the process of getting there. And we don’t think about the process of actually what the day-to-day is going to look like once we arrive.

It’s really easy to fall in love with an ideal future and then just get stuck in the rut of going through the day-to-day process and not actually enjoying it. I think that’s an important wake up call.

After you left your work as a professional economist, is that when you started at McKinsey?

Caroline: That’s right. At McKinsey, I found it possible to build an idiosyncratic practice in behavioral change. I was truly interested in what it took for a group of people to be successful—and less about working at the macro scale of a country or a region. It was surprising and delightful just how much space I had to build and grow something that was quite odd and new for them.

Ozan: You [often] ask your clients, “If you had no constraints, what would you do?”

Caroline: I learned that question when I was getting certified as a coach. If people are feeling really stuck, you can only take them so far by saying, “Okay, what should you do next?”
It helps to get them to inhabit a different time and place [too]. When we’re very stressed by a situation, the state of alert in our brains is somewhat dampened by adopting a position of some distance, whether it’s saying, “In a year’s time, how will I feel about this?” or, “What would I advise someone else about this?”

There’s something about taking yourself away from the immediate stressful situation that tells your brain the danger is further away and therefore is less of an inhibition to good thinking. That’s partly what allows people to think more clearly when they project themselves into an ideal future. Sometimes, I [have] them get up and sit in a different place or we go for a walk. That helps, as well, to say, “Okay, now we’re shifting our thinking. We’re going to be a little bit playful with this.”

Sometimes, I get people to fully visualize what’s going on. What are people saying? How does it feel? And then even better if you can pair it with, “Okay, and then what’s your very first step towards that ideal future?”

“There’s something about taking yourself away from the immediate stressful situation that tells your brain the danger is further away and therefore is less of an inhibition to good thinking.”

Ozan: It’s really amazing the list of people from all walks of life, from scientists to authors, to entrepreneurs, who have had incredible breakthroughs where they literally walk into a solution. Nikola Tesla famously thought of the AC motor on a walk through a park in Budapest. There [are] so many examples like that where, when people step away from the problem, all of a sudden the solution becomes clear.

Caroline: This is a really interesting and fairly new area of research to understand what the brain does when it’s supposedly in resting mode, when we’re not actually engaged in an active task. Your brain does not stop thinking about the thing that you’ve been wrestling with. It does more encoding and consolidation of the information you’ve been playing with before, below the level of our consciousness.

Insight is connecting the dots in a different way from the way you were thinking about things before. It is not our imagination; it really is a different type of thinking.

“When people step away from the problem, all of a sudden the solution becomes clear.”

Ozan: My physical well-being has always taken a backseat to professional success. It’s only when I started to realize the link between physical and mental well-being and professional success, that I began to take it more seriously. I experienced this with my writing and creativity on days that I’m not feeling particularly happy, my writing suffers because you just feel in this rut and that the creative juices are not flowing.

Now, I take the time to put myself in a good mood. I allow myself to do silly things that are going to put me in a happy mood so that I can do the best work that I can.

Caroline: That’s very wise. We are an integrated system in terms of our mental well-being, our physical well-being, [and] our emotional well-being. One of the things that has been fascinating to me over the years is to understand that those links are not just long-term lengths. If we do a tiny bit of aerobic exercise, go for a 10 minute brisk walk, the impact on our cognitive and emotional function is immediate. We actually get a boost to our mood and our ability to focus.

“We are an integrated system in terms of our mental well-being, our physical well-being, [and] our emotional well-being.”

When I was writing the book, I really used that. I got this really crappy elliptical trainer that was so rickety, it moved from side to side as I used it. I had it next to me and I would jump on it if I had a blockage when I was trying to write. I would say, “Okay, fine, I’ll get on it for 10 minutes.” And then I would have the insight and I’d feel better. And then I’d come back and it just became such a tool.

Likewise, never, ever skimping on sleep and canceling meetings if need be. It did get to a point where I was working on average, about two hours a day less than my McKinsey colleagues. There was a part of me that thought this is not going to be sustainable, maybe they’re going to find out. But, I didn’t get fired. I made partner and it turned out that actually being conscious of your boundaries was a helpful thing because it meant that the teams that we formed around the work that I was doing were pretty happy. And as you say, we do better work when we’re happy.

Why Running Away From Your Problems May be the Key to Solving Them

Ozan: This next question is not going to make sense to those who haven’t read your book, but perhaps you can give it some context. Why do you hum Donna Summers ‘I Feel Love’ before client workshops?

Caroline: It turns out that the whole idea of wearing your lucky pants or a lucky tie to an interview is not completely bonkers. Our brains are highly associative machines and when we think about any activity, any thought, it’s a bunch of neurons firing together. When we retrieve that memory, those neurons are firing together, perhaps a bit imperfectly because our memory’s imperfect.

What happens then is a bit of a domino effect. If you remember a song that was playing on a particularly happy night out with friends, then that song can trigger the mental state that you had that evening. It happens even if you’re not conscious of the connection. It just becomes your happy song.

So, I went to this Blue Man Group show and I loved it. The finale had Donna Summer belting out “I Feel Love” and there were balloons, streamers, and I was so happy and felt so energized by this incredible performance. It became a deliberate trigger for me before I go into a big event. I would sit in the bathroom and listen to it. Eventually, it became so habitual I would just hum it to myself. And then I wouldn’t even have to hum it, I just had to think about it as a way of giving myself a jolt of energy and jolt of performative energy. It evolves every time. I have other songs, too.

Why Running Away From Your Problems May be the Key to Solving Them

Ozan: Changing gear, let’s talk about failure. I think it’s a useful thing for all of us to experience. I’m seeing this particularly with the students that I’m teaching in the law school classroom—many of them are not well prepared to deal with even minor setbacks like getting rejected from a job or getting anything less than an A minus on a paper. There’s something, I think, to be said about almost inoculating yourself with failure, as opposed to secluding ourselves from failure.

Caroline: Absolutely. There is so much to learn from each the failures and the bumps in the road. When you are going through a difficult situation, asking “Okay, well what is it I’m learning from this?” is one of the most powerful things you can [do]. That is a useful question because learning is inherently rewarding for the average brain.

Refocusing your energies [with that question] gives you a chance to salvage something from the situation. We grow from these experiences if they’re not so terrible that they take us down. Of course, there are terrible things that happen to people that are very hard to bounce back from. Research suggests that in the world of people who support those who have PTSD, this sense of being able to find agency and control helps to restore mental health.

“Refocusing your energies gives you a chance to salvage something from the situation. We grow from these experiences if they’re not so terrible that they take us down.”[/pullquote

Ozan: How do you get the organizations that you work with to learn from failure? My experience is that large organizations [have a] tendency to hide failures or to overreact to failure by punishing the people who might be supposedly responsible for it, even though they’re usually the symptom and not the cause of the problem. Amidst all of these responses, very little learning actually happens. How do you get your clients to actually learn to learn from failure?

Caroline: A lot of organizations say, “We’re a learning organization. We want to be a learning organization.” Often that’s a bit nebulous for people to get their heads around, because as you say, [when] something actually goes wrong, people have an instinct to smooth it over or not to talk about it because it feels very frightening or very scary.

I teach routines and organizational habits—little safe routines that people can use to talk through difficult situations. Of all the workshops that I run, and of all the techniques that I teach, the ones that probably come up most are the ones around raising a difficult topic, talking about something that’s gone wrong or that’s been problematic. What are the steps to take to make sure that you’re not taking it personally, you’re not assigning blame, you’re seeking to understand?

Some of that is about learning certain words to use and having that go-to routine to pull on when you’re in the heat of the moment. When you’re stressed, you need specifics. You need a clear little routine that is a shared language.

More broadly, if you think about cognitive biases and how difficult it is to help people figure out how to get around groupthink, the answer that I’ve seen to work again and again is to teach groups of people little routines so that they have a shared language for talking about difficult things. Then you’ve got half a chance at being able to have a good conversation.

[pullquote]“When you’re stressed, you need specifics. You need a clear little routine that is a shared language.”

Ozan: You’ve consulted hundreds of businesses at this point, if not more. If you were the CEO of a large company, what’s one practice that you would institute and one practice that you would kill?

Caroline: One thing that I see in organizations is insufficient reflection on what is working and why. What’s often missing is really intelligent excavation of why something is working and how you might spread it, and what you would learn from that.

What does that mean in practice? That means managers getting into the habit of not just patting people on the back, but saying, “Why do you think that worked? And what do you think we could learn from that? And what do you think we could spread from that?” I’ve seen managers who do adopt those techniques, just build them into their weekly meetings with their teams, see massive increases in their team’s motivation. We’ve been talking about learning from failure, I’d like to see a bit more learning from success, too.

Teams waste a lot of time doing round the table updates rather than doing real work together. Make meetings something that you can only do with everybody in the room together. And then everything else can be updates that you circulate in other ways. That would free up so much time and energy and it would make it so much more fun when you’re actually together with your colleagues.

“We’ve been talking about learning from failure, I’d like to see a bit more learning from success, too.”

Ozan: Do you have any parting words on failure?

Caroline: I joke these days that when something goes wrong, it’s something that I can use in a speech or in a story. That mentality of “I can use this” is something which I could have adopted even earlier in my life and I think everybody can. There’s always a good story to tell. There’s such power in showing some vulnerability and telling the story about how something goes wrong.

And my favorite quote on failure is from Edward Albee, the playwright. He says, “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you will tend to succeed in an interesting way.”