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In a world that changes every day, how do we stay flexible? I’m thrilled to have author and expert Brad Stulberg on the show to discuss his latest book “Master of Change,” including concepts like rugged flexibility, order/disorder/reorder, identity, and much more.

The Power of Curiosity

As a regular contributor to The New York Times, a contributing editor to Outside Magazine, and the creator of The Growth Equation blog, Brad offers a unique perspective on motivation, values-driven excellence, and maximizing one’s potential.

The the question that I like to ask is: are you doing something because you’re genuinely curious about it, and interested to see what’s going to happen next? Or are you doing something because you know, you’re prolonging the inevitable? And if the answer is the former, keep doing it. If the answer is the latter, it’s time to let go.

Brad Stulberg

We dive into the complexities of identity, discussing how our various roles, from parent to athlete, come together to form an integrated whole. We talk about how making changes from a place of strength versus weakness urges us to assess the bigger picture before embarking on transformative journeys.

Science-Backed Excellence

Plus, Brad shares some profound insights into the philosophical and psychological foundations of excellence. It doesn’t matter if you’re pursuing Olympic qualifications, starting a business, creating a masterpiece, or raising a family – the practices for fulfillment, sustainable success, and well-being remain the same for everyone, and they’re all backed by scientific evidence. How amazing is that?

This conversation came at a perfect time for me, and I hope it helps you, too. These practical insights will help you build resilience and master change in all aspects of life. Don’t miss this opportunity to explore the art, science, and practice of achieving a more fulfilling and sustainable kind of success.

Here are our key takeaways:

  • What is rugged flexibility? How we can be willing to bend and adapt when navigating change over the long term.
  • Aligning expectations with reality: The importance and impact of understanding true outcomes
  • Analyzing identity: Recognizing that we are made up of differentiated parts (like parent, athlete) that are integrated to form a cohesive whole.
  • Making changes from a place of strength: Why it’s better to assess the bigger picture before making a change
  • Authenticity: Why podcasts have the potential to portray our most clear, free-formed ideas

Listen to Brad’s episode

If you found today’s episode enlightening and want to hear more, make sure to subscribe and leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. Be sure to share this episode with athletes and goal-setters alike!


Episode Chapters

  • Parenthood, change, and personal growth. (0:02)
  • Parenting, expectations, and psychological immunity. (3:46)
  • The role of luck and expectations in success. (10:14)
  • Navigating Change and Sustaining Excellence. (15:15)
  • Personal growth, identity, and values. (20:45)
  • Identity, self-complexity, and change management. (24:43)
  • Identity, self, and change with a focus on integration and differentiation. (29:32)
  • Change, self-awareness, and decision-making. (36:20)
  • Curiosity, language, and changing one’s mind. (40:36)
  • Shifting perspectives and embracing nuance. (45:39)
  • Podcasting and writing. (49:55)



Sonya Looney 0:02
Brad, welcome back to the show.

Brad Stulberg 0:04
Hey, it’s really, really good to be back. Thanks.

Sonya Looney 0:07
I think I think this might be your third, third time on the show or maybe fourth. I don’t know. But I’m excited that you’re back.

Brad Stulberg 0:15
Yeah, me too. It’s always a pleasure to get to talk to you about the things that we both we both care about and think about. Yeah.

Sonya Looney 0:22
And this time, it’s kind of fun, because I’ve actually met you in person. Now I got to go to your house and Asheville and hang out. And that was really fun. Yeah,

Brad Stulberg 0:28
we played basketball. We had kids, we had kids eating falling out of cars, all the normal stuff that happens when you get for young people together. Lila had just Lila was like three months then. So she was really teeny, right. Yeah, yeah, super little. Yeah, it was so great to meet your family.

Sonya Looney 0:46
So let’s launch right in. We’re talking about parenthood and kids, your book is about change. And you know, a lot of the things that you talk about are about navigating the self, the process of becoming. So when it comes to becoming a parent, how did you navigate this whole landscape of change, because there’s a lot of change that happens.

Brad Stulberg 1:06
There is. And I don’t think there’s one one right or wrong way to go about it. I think it’s just helpful to have some frameworks and some words to make sense of your experience. I didn’t have them the first time around with my my first kid, and I wish I would have it was really hard for me, when I first had a kid I don’t like babies. And I knew this in advance. And it felt like it was a lot of me giving and getting just nothing back. Which is essentially like would it be B is for for both parents, and you could argue with the mom gives a lot more because she’s giving her entire body. But you could also say that the mom has certain hormones that the dad doesn’t. So like, it’s just hard for everyone involved to having a kid and by no means am I equating like being a dad with giving birth, it’s not that hard. It’s it’s one is harder than the other. And it’s not being the dad. But it was challenging for me. Um, I’d say that I really started like loving my kid to death when he was two the first time around, which isn’t surprising, because like he could interact more, he started to have a personality. And from there, it’s just gotten better every day, I think with our second child, having been through it the first time, and kind of knowing what to expect a little bit more. And also having a good way of talking about these things with my wife, who very much does like babies, and like just not judging myself and kind of doing like a divide and conquer, like I’ve got the older one who at the time was was what, almost five, when we had our second mini a lot easier. And then you know, this framework of order disorder reorder and realizing that like having a kid is like a real disorder event. And it can be lovely, it can be hard it can and often is both of those things for new parents. And just knowing that disorder is temporary. And then there’s reorder, but that reorder is very different from where you started. And just kind of understanding that you’re in that cycle and being able to label it and being able to sell right like we’ve left stability, we’ve left order, we’re entering a phase of disorder. And that’s okay, this is completely normal. Eventually, we’ll reorder and we’ll find stability, that’s just going to look different than it did before. And if I would have just had that the first time around, I think it would have made it a lot easier. But I didn’t, which is why I wrote this book.

Sonya Looney 3:35
I have a couple of comments. I’m smiling, because I’m thinking about the writing process, the order disorder reorder, like that’s like the writing process to a tee. But you know, you mentioned two kids, right? So the first kid you didn’t really know what to expect, you knew that you didn’t really like babies, but you didn’t know what to expect. And that was a hard change. The second time you knew more what to expect. So the change was easier. So it sounds like you know, navigating change, when you know what to expect might be a little bit different than navigating change when you don’t know what to expect. Yeah, that’s

Brad Stulberg 4:05
right. So expectations have a really important role in our response to any kind of uncertainty or change. And if our expectations are in alignment with our reality, then we tend to be able to meet reality and take productive action and we feel pretty good. We have agency we feel self efficacy in those situations. Whereas if our expectations are different than our reality, we tend not to feel so good. So the extreme example is imagine if you expected mile 20 of a marathon to feel easy. When you get to mile 20 You would freak out and probably quit the race you think something’s horribly wrong. Whereas when you get to mile 20 of a marathon and you expect it to feel hard because you’ve had a good coach or you’ve been there before, then it’s still hard but it’s not as hard like you don’t have that freakout moment you don’t have that oh my god, what am I doing wrong moment. It’s more like oh, this is is what it’s supposed to be like. And if you’re having an especially good day, you might even be pleasantly surprised at mile 20 of the marathon. And you’re right, I think with the first kid, everyone says it’s hard. But it’s very easy to tell yourself, well, we’ve got this figured out, like, you know, we got our stuff together, it can’t possibly be that hard. And then it really is, or to tell yourself, I’m going to love this child, it’s going to change my life, the minute that I have this kid, I’m going to look into his eyes, and then I’m going to be complete, and then not have that happen, that can be heartbreaking. And that’s an experience that a lot of parents go through. And just knowing that, like, all of that’s okay, it doesn’t mean you’re never gonna love your kid, it doesn’t mean you’re not a good parent doesn’t mean something’s broken about you, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have your stuff together, it just means that it’s a massive disorder event. And the best expectation to have is really just like, it’s gonna be really hard. And I think that’s right, I think that that is exactly the shift that happened going into the second one, which has paradoxically made it much easier and more enjoyable. The other way to think about expectations that I found really fascinating in researching for the book is that much like we have a physical immune system, we also have a psychological immune system. And much like a physical immune system, the first time that it is exposed to something novel, it like has this big immune response, and you often feel really sick. This is why the Coronavirus made so many people so sick because it was very novel, our immune system had never had experience with it. But once you have that experience, you gain some immunity. And then the second time you get whatever it is, it’s generally not as bad because you’ve built up immunity. This is the whole premise of vaccination, it helps fast track this process. And I think the first child while you have your psychological immune system has no immunity, like you have no idea what it’s like. And it takes a long time to reorder and to make sense of it. And to feel like you’re healthy and in a good groove again, for a lot of people. Whereas once you’ve been through that the second time, like it’s a little bit easier. And this is true. Obviously with parenting that is true with anything the first time you lose a big race, you’re heartbroken. And then you have a career and you start losing and winning big races. And like it just it doesn’t disrupt you as much because your psychological immune system has seen that before. So then the question is like, Well, can you vaccinate yourself against these things? Like do the equivalent like, can you you know, have an orchid or adopted dog? And is that going to prepare you for having a kid? or anything? It helps. But I don’t I don’t, I don’t think it’s the same. Um, and I think that just the expectation for it to really be hard. And then and then realizing that yeah, you have to give your psychological immune system time to make sense of something that is completely novel and new.

Sonya Looney 7:44
I was excited when you mentioned psychological immune system, because I was reading a bunch of papers last night about it. And it’s just so cool. Around expectations. You know, I’ve done a lot of time, I spent a lot of time thinking about this and writing about this. And there’s, there’s two parts to this. Number one, if you have the expectation that it should be hard, which I think we should have, you can also be pessimistic about it. And hard and thinking something’s hard versus thinking something is bad and hard are two different things. And then secondly, for performance, there’s the whole Pygmalion effect, where if you expect people to perform well, they will perform better, but they might not be happy. So like there’s this paradox of performance and then feeling good about the performance. So I guess that’s two separate questions.

Brad Stulberg 8:28
So the first one, tragic optimism, this term that was first coined by Viktor Frankl, I think is just like the most beautiful, elegant paradox of true meaning and happiness in life, which is to accept that life is full of tragedy that we are going to experience physical and psychological pain. We are going to want to hold on to things that are impermanent, we’re going to be frustrated and fail at times and all that is going to hurt. There’s no sugarcoating that no amount of toxic positivity is going to make that go away or burying your head in the sand. And yet, despite all of that, or in some ways, because all of that we can also trudge forward with an optimistic, hopeful attitude nonetheless, and tragedy and optimism, they don’t have to be opposites, they can actually be complimentary. And I really think more and more like that’s the key to a good, happy, meaningful life is accepting both tragedy and optimism need not be opposites, that they can go together. I believe the formal definition of tragic optimism, at least how I wrote about it is an acknowledgement and an acceptance of the inevitable suffering and hardship in life while at the same time, a hopeful, optimistic attitude and holding holding enough space for all of it. So that’s the mindset that I have because you’re right, you can have hard expectations and be a pessimist because of it. Or you could expect it to be hard and be an optimist and it’s going to be a very different outcome and texture to how you live day to day. And then your second point, could you remind me? Yeah,

Sonya Looney 10:03
so Well, first of all, I’ll make a quick comment about that is, this is actually something I’m writing a paper on right now is that we need negative emotions for meaning and accomplishment. It’s not just about having positive emotion all the time. And a lot of things that are the most meaningful to us are often things that cause suffering. And there’s even a paper that was written about called the parenthood paradox actually about happiness in meeting. The SEC, that makes

Brad Stulberg 10:28
sense, because if you if you care deeply about something, like, of course, there’s going to be suffering because things that you can’t control, things can control yourself, like aging and illness, can’t control your kids can’t control who’s going to show up on the racecourse can’t control if you’re gonna get the promotion. So like, by definition, if you care deeply about something, at times, it will cause frustration, pain and suffering. And I think that’s just like part of the trade off of like, you can coast through life and not care and be like the the kids in middle school that were too cool to try in gym class, because they were so scared they were going to lose. Or you can care deeply and have all the benefits and richness and texture that comes with that. But also, it’s gonna come with some pain and suffering. And that’s why it’s so important to enjoy the highs because they bolster you on your low and they have a good social support system for when things are low. So tragic optimism for the win. And then now I am remembering your second point, which was a really good one about like, this kind of paradoxical notion of when you expect more out of someone or yourself, you tend to perform better, but it doesn’t make you happier. In here, I’d say, just like internal versus external expectations. So you can hold yourself to excellence in your process to excellence and have very high expectations of what you put in and how you show up. If you live in accordance to your values, and then still have relatively low expectations of are you going to win the race? Are you going to hit the bestseller list is everything going to go to plan. And I think it’s just separating that internal locus of control where high expectations are good and helpful, versus the external locus of control, where high expectations are not. So this is the difference in saying, I know you are going to have a great race, and I expect you to have a great race. And I expect you to put out all your fitness, and perform at your best and recover from missteps during the race, versus saying I know you’re going to win the race. Because the first one it counts for a flat tire, or a competitor showing up and performing out of their mind. Whereas the second one, you’re your latch to the outcome. So I think it’s different. So

Sonya Looney 12:39
it sounds like you can classify internal expectations is more process oriented and external expectations is outcome oriented. Yeah.

Brad Stulberg 12:48
And just always been doing the behavioral work of getting back into the process, because intellectually everyone knows this. But then like, when the external thing doesn’t go as you wish, you’re a human, you’re gonna get caught up in that, and giving yourself some grace. And saying, oh, yeah, like, I care, like back to tragic optimism, like this does suck because I cared and because being a human is hard and caring is hard. And I know that wallowing in this feeling isn’t going to help. So I just need to get back to doing the actual thing itself.

Sonya Looney 13:15
So what happens when the F word comes up? It’s not fair. It’s not fair that I didn’t get the thing that I worked so hard for.

Brad Stulberg 13:23
I mean, I don’t really buy that. Because I also don’t understand like, even what fairness is. So let me let me step back in a sporting context. Like if someone doped and cheated and beat you, that’s not fair. Like they’re breaking a rule. But if you had a flat tire, or the weather changed in a way that goes against how you want to perform, or someone else shows up and is not cheating and performs out of their mind, that is fair, like, you can’t control everything, and you can’t will the world to be on your terms. There’s this great quote in the book from Bruce Springsteen, that like being a mature adult means meeting the world on its terms, not your terms on the world’s terms and like not giving up hope.

Sonya Looney 14:10
So yeah, this this makes me think a little bit though about something I’ve heard you and Steve say on your podcast, and it’s something that actually made me think a little bit like you said that and I might be misquoting So correct me if I’m wrong. There’s there’s like luck involved with certain things, though. And a ton of luck. And that’s I think that’s where that EF f of fairness comes in is like well, it’s not fair that I’m not lucky like so and so and that I didn’t have the same opportunity. I know I’m off in the weeds here but I think this is an important point. So like, how do you so so service again, okay, so luck right? There’s there’s luck involved like well, it’s it well, there’s luck involved in everything. Yeah, like making making a list or getting a promotion. Like, there’s luck involved there. There’s, there’s your effort and there’s your luck, but you might feel like it’s not fair because you weren’t lucky.

Brad Stulberg 14:56
Got it. I love it. So such an interesting question. I just think that then like fair is the wrong word. Like you didn’t get lucky. And that’s it still can be fair, and you might just not have gotten lucky. You had bad luck. And that’s like really hard to swallow. Right? Because we don’t want to. We don’t want to acknowledge that. I mean, I think the ultimate example of this is cancer. Right? Random cell division. lifestyle behaviors absolutely have an impact, but often, not all the time. But often you can do everything right. Whatever that even means. Eat right don’t smoke don’t engage in too much like partying and drinking in one cell doesn’t divide right in mutates and you still have cancer. That is the definition of shitty luck. And a lot of people would say it’s unfair. But then without sounding trite, then by definition, like life is unfair, because this happens in life.

Sonya Looney 15:56
Yeah, and I think this is where that tragic optimism piece is kind of helpful, like bringing that in.

Brad Stulberg 16:01
Yes. And in. And that’s the challenge is like, knowing that life is unfair, if we’re going to use these words in that shitty things happen. How can we try to be optimistic, nonetheless, without falling into like Pollyanna thinking or delusional positivity, but surrounding ourselves with people that we love trying to focus our attention and energy on meaningful pursuits that bring us joy, that then gives us the power to hopefully maintain that attitude of optimism. Certainly, when our book doesn’t hit the list, or we lose the race, it’s a lot harder when there’s a cancer diagnosis. Again, easy intellectually very hard to do. But I think it’s a good Northstar to aspire toward.

Sonya Looney 16:45
So something that you talk about a lot is having brigade flexibility. I think we’re kind of knocking on the door here. Before you are so first, like, tell us what it is. And then I want to hear how you chose these specific words, because I’m sure that a lot of thought went into these two specific words. Hmm. So

Brad Stulberg 17:00
rugged flexibility is one of the central premises of the book. And in the years of researching and reporting I did for this on how do people in to some extent organizations navigate uncertainty and sustain excellence over the long haul. So not just day to day or year to year, but like over a lifetime over a career throughout all sorts of changes, because research shows the average adult experiences over 35 major life changes. So how do you work through all of that, and come out with good performance, and then also good fulfillment, happiness and meaning, so like winning the inside game, and if you do all externally, too, that’s great. And what I found is that, in order to do that, you have to be really rugged, you have to be really determined and strong and gritty and have stick to itiveness. And control, the things you control have a lot of agency and self efficacy. And you also have to be really flexible. You have to be soft, supple, willing to bend, go with the flow. And so often we think of these terms as polar opposites, right? Even just the way that I describe them, like if you’re rugged, you’re not flexible, and vice versa. Yeah, it’s very clear that the essential quality to navigating change over the course of a decade or two decades or a lifetime, is to marry these things to be both rugged and flexible. So what does this actually mean? Like how are you rugged and flexible? I think at the highest level, it means knowing your core values, knowing the qualities and attributes that really make you who you are, that you care about, that you aspire towards. Those are your sources of ruggedness, that’s like those are your essential core features. And then being super flexible and adaptable, on how you apply those over time. And how you change the application of those over time. I think that’s one way to do it. And then I think the other main way, well, there’s, there’s all sorts of ways but the one that comes to my mind right now in this conversation is like having a rugged and flexible identity. Which again, is like knowing enough about yourself to have these core values, your sources of ruggedness, like that you know who you are, but then being real flexible, and what they mean and how they change and how their application shifts as you live your life.

Sonya Looney 19:25
And the two words like those are two words that are very kind of specific, and choosing words as a writer can be a bit of a challenge. How did you decide on those two words? Or what were some other words that you were playing around with for this? Yeah,

Brad Stulberg 19:39
it was it was really, really hard to figure out what to call this. And I called all of my writer friends and said help. This is like the thing I’m pointing toward and I described it, and the closest we got was my friend. Eve told me that I should call this the supple noose. And I should just call the book The supple noose and like we should all try to be a supple noose. And I don’t know what it was about that I knew that I couldn’t actually call this the supple mousse. But the next morning I woke up in rugged flexibility popped into my mind. That’s awesome. So somehow this supple noose led to rugged flexibility. But it wasn’t like I had rugged then I had flexibility it was a month, maybe even six weeks or two months of circling around like the right words for this paradox. Dave saying just call it the supple noose me saying that sounds cool, but I don’t think it’s gonna work. And then the next morning rugged flexibility popped into my mind.

Sonya Looney 20:44
Oh, that story. Thanks for sharing that.

Brad Stulberg 20:47
So, yeah, you’re talking about values or how the brain

Speaker 1 20:51
works. It is where it and I’m wondering if like humor, like it kind of makes it lighter and adds a little bit of humor and kind of a mental picture. And I wonder if that kind of created more creativity in the moment?

Brad Stulberg 21:01
Yeah, I think so. Um, I do, I think like, you know, you are becoming an expert in this. And I hadn’t thought of that. But I think you’re right, I think like, if probably, like, loosen the reins on my brain a little bit to shift into more of that, like out there humor mode.

Sonya Looney 21:20
I love it. I’ll be thinking about every time I see a moose, now I’m going to smile. Okay, so flexibility. We talked about values, we talked about values a lot on this podcast. But a big challenge with change is that you often have competing values. So we’ll keep going pulling on the thread of parenting. For me, you know, relationships, family, that wasn’t near the top of the list for a really long time. Admittedly, and you know, it sounds it’s like a little bit embarrassing to say that, but that was just was my reality. And now, you know, family is important to me. And that competes with some of the other things that are really important to me, like I love hard work. And I love applying that in many different domains. So what do you do when you have competing values and some dissatisfaction because of those values? And that that comes because of change?

Brad Stulberg 22:08
Yeah, you make trade offs. And it’s so hard, and it’s part of being a mature adult is like making those trade offs. The way that I write about this in the book is, we want to have a high degree of what researchers call self complexity. So this means different parts of our identities that come together to form a cohesive whole. And how do you diversify your sense of self? Like, what does it mean to have these different parts of you, when you don’t necessarily always carry the same about each part. And I like to think of it like a house. So you have like your identity house. And if your house only has one room in it, and that one room floods, you’re screwed, like there’s nowhere to go. It’s completely discombobulating. If you have a house with multiple rooms, and one room floods, you can go spend time in other rooms. And I think when it comes to developing what I call a rugged and flexible identity, we want to make sure that we have multiple rooms in our identity house. Now, that doesn’t mean that you need to spend the same amount of time in every room, it doesn’t mean that each room needs to be the same size doesn’t mean that you can’t renovate rooms, you can make additions, you can knock down rooms, it just means that you never want to just have one room in your identity house. And I think it’s really helpful to put some constraints when you are someone that is driven and is a deeply caring person to say, hey, during this season of my life, I’m going to spend a lot of time in the bike racing room, or I’m gonna spend a lot of time in the parenting room, I’m gonna spend a lot of time in the creativity room. And then I’m gonna do a check in at the end of this season. And I’m gonna say, hey, is this still like really where I want to be spending all that time or now is a just inertia. And throughout that whole process, you want to make sure that you never let the other rooms get moldy. So you got to spend just enough time in there like to keep them in good enough shape. And then it’s just a constant evaluating like, are these the right rooms in my house? And am I spending the right proportional amount of time in each room. And what I love about this is in like an actual physical house, this plays out. You know, like, when you have like a full thriving family, like you spend a lot of time in the kitchen in the living room, and then eventually, like your kids might move out and then like you’re spending more time in the library. Or maybe you have a stage where you’re really into fitness. So you convert your basement in the gym, and you’re spending a lot of time in the gym, but like no one spends the same amount of time in each room of their actual house. Different life phases pull you to different rooms. And I think the same is true for identity. Yeah,

Sonya Looney 24:45
that was such a great metaphor. Like when I read that I thought this is such a great way to explain this. Because it’s hard for people to conceptually think of identity and so turning it into something we’re really familiar with is super helpful. But you know with these rooms, this is something I struggle with Is I don’t actually have a problem staying in one room, I have a problem, renovating my house and building too many rooms, and then wanting to spend time at all of the rooms. So, you know, when it comes to diversifying your identity, what do you have to say about making sure you don’t add too many rooms into your house? I

Brad Stulberg 25:18
think that, um, first off, I think that there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of rooms. And again, there’s trade offs, like, no one can judge, I don’t think the person that just has one or two rooms, I think one room is dangerous from a mental health standpoint. But like, the person is just obsessed with their craft, and that’s all that they do their whole life. Um, you can’t judge that person, I can’t as being like bad or making a poor choice. Actually, there’s a lot of honor in that choice. I think the same is true for the dabbler that spends their life doing 180 things and is never great at any one, but just has a full life of experiences. I think that’s a great way to live a life too. I think most people fall in between those two extremes. So first, I’d say like, non judgement, I think an individual level can become problematic, if like, you start feeling frantic, or frenetic, or like, as a result of having all these rooms, you’re shortchanging them or like you’re being mediocre at all of them when you actually want to be great at a few. And then to keep up with the metaphor. I think like you have to adopt the mindset of an architect, and essentially say, hey, if I like have these four rooms on the top story, my house is going to collapse. So I can’t like it’s just too many rooms up there. So now I have to choose like, which one do I want right now. And it’s going to be painful not to be able to have all four, but I just know the house will not stay it will not be proportionate, if I have all four rooms up there. And then you just have to ask two rooms for now, knowing that at another point in your life, maybe you redo and you renovate, and you add those two rooms back in and another way.

Sonya Looney 26:51
Yeah, I think when it comes to change, we talked about adding the rooms, which can be hard for people, but also closing the doors to those rooms or cutting them out of your house. And I almost think that cutting it out might be harder than adding because there’s like a novelty, there’s a richness involved and an excitement of adding something but cutting something out. There’s this fear this opportunity cost of like what am I what am I going to miss out on if I close this door?

Brad Stulberg 27:16
Yeah, and I think that cutting out is pretty stark, I think there’s also just like shrinking remodeling changing the relationship to that room. You know, it’s like, the room that you used to have your trainer in. And you used to spend all this time training in to try to make the Olympics or win a world championship, whatever the goal was. And then that room becomes the trophy room. And you put a leather chair in there. And now that’s the room where you watch cycling, and you rejoice and reminisce with your teammates as you age about the good old days, and your kids mess around and play with the trophies, you’re probably not spending 30 hours a week in that room anymore. But like it’s still a room in your identity house, your relationship with it is just different.

Sonya Looney 28:00
So you mentioned self complexity earlier as almost like a construct. Can you tell me more about that?

Brad Stulberg 28:05
Yeah, so self complexity. It’s not my term. This is the the formal academic term. And it’s hinged on these, these these two factors. So the first is differentiation, which is the different distinct parts that you have to yourself. Parent, athlete, creative neighbor, coffee lover, musician, friend, lover, however you think about them. And then the second component is integration. So the degree to which those parts even though they’re distinct, they don’t feel like you’re 100 different pieces, like they fit together in a puzzle that makes you you you have a narrative around them or a harmony to them. In the higher degree of differentiation and integration someone has, the more they are quote unquote, self complex. And the more self complex you are, the better able you are to weather changes, because you’re just more robust. Like, if you’re not a one trick pony, then you can take shots to one part of your system and still get through because you have all these other parts. This theory initially came out of evolutionary biology, where you’d look at species that would survive and persist for a very long period of time. And they had like high degrees of differentiation and integration. And then psychologist said, Well, this can also apply on the timescale or the horizon of just one person’s life. So I think to the extent that we can differentiate, but then also integrate, and you know, back to this metaphor that is never gonna end here like what makes a beautiful house beautiful, is like it does it has these different rooms, and they do feel different and unique and like they’re interesting, but then like there’s also like this elegance in these hallways that like connect them and make them into a cohesive whole. And I think that’s like what we’re trying to build with our identities. At least that’s what I argue in this book. Yeah,

Sonya Looney 30:08
and in terms of differentiation and integration, just being differentiated is kind of, it’s being focused on your ego, maybe you’re just trying to differentiate, and then the integration piece is like the part that brings it harmony is that is that right?

Brad Stulberg 30:23
That is right. And I wouldn’t necessarily say just focused on your ego, I think of your to differentiated, it can feel like you’re disjointed. Or like your life is like so compartmentalized that like, there’s no like solid there there. Whereas I think like if, if you have that harmony between the different pieces, it feels better. And I think we all go through this, right? Like, if we feel like, oh, I show up in this room, and I’m just a mom or dad, I show up in this room, and I’m just an athlete, I show up in this room, and I’m just a writer, it can feel like you’re leaving parts of you behind. And that can be pretty fragmenting and feel kind of icky. Whereas if you can like take those pieces of you everywhere you go and just kind of like, wear different hats or talk about them in different ways. Like in this conversation, I’m very much right now, in the role of a creative or a writer, right? Like we’re having a conversation about my book. But I’m also like speaking with some parent here, some athlete here, some friend to you here. And it’s all very integrated. Whereas if I felt like I had to leave all that behind and like just show up to do talking points for my book, it would not be the same experience, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun and probably wouldn’t be as entertaining.

Sonya Looney 31:34
Yeah, no, actually, I’ll say as a podcast host like, you don’t want to just go through somebody’s book, chapter by chapter as you’re interviewing them, because that’s pretty boring.

Brad Stulberg 31:43
Yeah, and again, like it’s that disjointed feeling. So I think that that’s, that’s where the integration comes in. At least that’s how I think of it. Like when I sit down to write, I am going into writing mode, and I’m in that distinct room. But I’m also bringing being a parent being an athlete, being someone that loves music, being a neighbor, like with me, too, right? It’s just kind of like that set the focus when I’m sitting down to write, but all that stuff’s still there.

Sonya Looney 32:11
So I have another kind of question about identity. And I have these kind of random notes that I’ve jotted down to, like, Oh, does this one make sense here. So sense of self, you know, our sense of self comes from our identity and our values. We also have a self that’s reflected by others. So those kind of can be different things. So you know, how do we think about that when it comes to identity and this discussion around change and an agency?

Brad Stulberg 32:39
Ooh, this is such a good, good, good, good, good, good, good question. effect. Good? Say, Good, good, good. Good. Good, good, good, fast enough. All right. So first, I’m going to give you like the sciency answer. And then we can wax like spiritual and philosophical. So the science the answer is, anthropologists would call this the difference between an independent self and an interdependent self. So your independent self is influencing it’s separate from other people around you in your environment. It has a will, it gets things done and control situations a problem solves. That’s your independent self. And your interdependent self is the self that is shaped by everything around you by how you were parented by what you ate that morning, by your friends, by your community, it views itself is relational and in conversation with everything around it. And it relies on its environment, essentially, for everything. And the truth is that we are always some degree of both those things at the same time. Like it is empirically incontestably true that I Brad, I’m here talking to you, Sonya, and we are having this conversation. And it’s also empirically true that I am, like, the result of a million things around me, that converge to bring us here in this moment. And both of those things are true at the same time. So I think that we are constantly being shaped by our environment, and by people around us. And we’re constantly shaping our environment and people around us, and people want this or that. But like there is no physics or science or math that will possibly do it. It’s this and that. So now to wax spiritual philosophical on this. You go all the way back to the beginning of Buddhism in the Pali canon in the teaching that is like the thorniest for Buddhist scholars is around the South. And there’s this one passage in in the Pali canon, which is the oldest Buddhist script that we have. In the Buddha is asked by vetted goccia the wonder whether or not there’s a self in the Buddha says essentially like, yes, there’s a self. And then Veta goccia says, Well, I thought you taught no self and then the Buddha says, That’s right. There’s no self. And then he says, Well, is there a self or is there not a self And then the Buddha just remains silent. And in these parables in these, this these texts when the Buddha is silent, it means like there is no answer. So if this whole spiritual foundation that is built upon, like enlightenment and releasing the ego, if the founding father of this can’t answer that question, I think that like, it’s just a beautiful example of like, we’re old wisdom and spirituality meets modern science. So what I would say is, both of those things can be true at the same time. And I wrote about this in the book, like bringing it back to current times, is a sense of identity, that is completely interdependent, that has no bounds and boundaries. Like in a very specific setting, like if you’re on a spiritual meditation retreat, like you could call it enlightenment. But otherwise, like, it kind of looks like psychosis, like it is a disorder. You need some agency, in some bounds, like to go to a grocery store to hit the gas, when the light turns from red to green, like we need our independent selves. But to overly latch on to an independent self, and to forget about our relational selves and how important our environments are to us, leads to neuroticism and anxiety. So like, we really have to live in the middle of that unanswerable question.

Sonya Looney 36:20
Yeah, I’m worried I’m gonna get too deep in the weeds. But this makes me think a little bit about like metacognition and then meta awareness as kind of almost almost this sort of construct between the your independent self and interdependent self, because like cognition, you need cognition to be for there to be like, the self, like the self that has agency to do stuff. Then there’s like, the awareness piece, and the awareness of the awareness, which is almost like the non self. I don’t know. Yeah, I

Brad Stulberg 36:48
mean, that I know that. Listen, if we’re losing listeners, that’s fine. Because that makes total sense to me. And I think like, that’s the goal of spiritual practice is to spend more time in the non self. And I think like, that’s, that’s why when people meditate, and they have those moments of self melting away, and they just like, there’s not even any more thinking or metacognition, there just is being those are such beautiful moments. But anyone that’s ever had those in meditation, knows that they only last for a little. And if you chase them, you’re gonna be miserable. I’m so like, I’m fortunate to have had a moment like that. And meditation, and my very wise meditation teacher said, like, good, like, don’t try to have it again, you probably won’t. And what he was saying is like, like, you know, that that’s there. And that’s true. But like, you also are like this thinking self. So go, like live your life is this thinking self? So that’s right. I think that I think that that’s a really astute observation.

Sonya Looney 37:45
Thanks. Okay. So another thing I wanted to ask you about, because this is something my husband and I have talked about a lot, is sometimes we make changes in our life, we feel driven to make a change, from a point of weakness, like things are not going well. So therefore, I need to change my situation, versus making changes from a point of strength. So an example is, should I retire as an athlete because I’m not getting the results that I want? Or that I don’t, I’m not having fun anymore. And maybe you’re not getting the results you want, or you’re not having fun anymore because of other circumstances that are impacting you, not necessarily that you aren’t enjoying the mastery process. So I think sometimes people make changes in their life, because they’re in this place of weakness without assessing the bigger picture. And then there’s people that, you know, you see them go out on top like, Well, where are they going out on top, and everything’s going so well, and they’re making change? And decisions are from a place of strength? So from from the research you’ve done on change? What are your thoughts on this?

Brad Stulberg 38:40
The the question that I like to ask is, are you doing something? Because you’re genuinely curious about it, and interested to see what’s going to happen next? Where are you doing something because you know, you’re prolonging the inevitable? And if the answer is the former, keep doing it. If the answer is the latter, it’s time to let go. And this is the hardest question to face is like a an athlete that’s considering retirement, but it’s also the most clarifying question. And I really think when people quit on top or when they retire on top, they ask themselves that question, and they say, like, I’m no longer curious, like, I’ve done it. And now like, I’m just prolonging the inevitable, which is eventually my performance starts to suffer. I age and I declined, so I might as well just do it now. And I think people sometimes put off retirement because they’re scared, but once you feel like you are now prolonging the inevitable versus you’re curious, that’s like a really good sign that it’s probably time to let go. Um, and I think there’s also just selection bias, right? So like the people that go out on top, if they wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl, or the National Championship or the World Championship, then maybe they would have retired, not happy. So I think it’s like just it’s interesting to consider that Add to that

Sonya Looney 40:01
makes me think a little bit about Joe burgers work like I know that I think he’s one of your friends. He talks about using curiosity. And then if you want to break a bad habit using curiosity about the about that habit, so if you want to smoke, he tells people to smoke and then be curious about the experience. And then there’s a disenchantment that happens from that curiosity. So you’re almost using curiosity about why you’re doing something. And then when you realize I’m prolonging the inevitable that’s the disenchantment that’s coming from that curiosity that now you can no longer unsee and that helps you make that change?

Brad Stulberg 40:36
Yeah, I think that’s right. Johnston is brilliant. And his his work on Curiosity is, I think, just dynamite. Um, I think that it’s like, Curiosity is a positive emotion. And maybe that’s even to putting too much judgment on it. All right, let me let me get back to what I know. And in the research from the book, because I don’t know if I’d call it a positive emotion, it’s maybe it’s neutral. But curiosity activates the seeking pathway in the brain, like neuroscientists have identified these different pathways, and a seeking pathway is one where we are goal driven, and we have agency in a seeking pathway is often associated with positive effects. That’s probably why I said curiosity is positive. And the rage pathway is when we feel despair, overwhelm anger, sadness, rage is exactly what it sounds like. And it’s a zero sum game, like the seeking pathway, and the rage pathway cannot be activated at the same time. So I think that if we’re curious, then we’re like in this seeking curious positive mode, and it doesn’t let like that despair pathway get activated. So I think that’s the power in in curiosity, because otherwise, when you’re engaging in a habit like that, it’s very easy to get into self judgment and guilt and shame, which we know does not help people change behavior, it actually makes the behavior more entrenched. So if anything like curiosity gets you out of that despair, overwhelm self judgment in into more of like a problem solving going toward positive mode.

Sonya Looney 42:08
I think the positive emotion associated with curiosity is interest. Like that’s kind of that’s one of the top 10 positive emotions. And then curiosity itself can be considered a strength, I think, so learning about this stuff. But yeah, if

Brad Stulberg 42:22
you don’t already, you’re gonna know more than me about this soon. But I do think you’re right, I think interest is classified as a positive emotion. And I think curiosity and interest are close cousins.

Sonya Looney 42:32
So we’ve been talking about the importance of words. And this is sort of an observation that I’ve had about some of the ways that you speak. You rarely say should but you often say ought to, we ought to do XYZ instead of we should do. Is that intentional? Way I do say should? Or do you say? Will you say we ought to, like you rarely say should you usually say ought to, and I’m wondering if that’s intentional, not intentional? Because ought to sounds better than should and I’ve been, I’ve just been starting to notice other people when they use that instead of should.

Brad Stulberg 43:03
Yeah, it’s interesting. I, I don’t like to use should, and I once had a therapist, tell me don’t shoot all over yourself. And clearly, like, that’s penet I guess that’s penetrated my psyche. Um, I still think ought to is like, judgmental. More than I’d want it to be like, maybe I should work on see I just said, shut. So now I’m shitting all over myself. Like it comes full circle. But I think like, I wish or I want, or it would be interesting to consider. But you’re right, or is better than should like it’s less judgmental. It’s like, ah, like, yeah, whereas they should like it’s just so judgment laden, but no, that’s, that’s happening without conscious thought, um, but a lot of like, work. I’m not shitting all over myself.

Sonya Looney 43:52
All right, that was kind of an aside that I had. So change also includes changing your mind about things and being flexible in changing your mind. And we’re just talking about judgment. The world is very, very polarized right now, sometimes changing your mind can be really hard. What are some things that you’ve changed your mind over in the last couple of years?

Brad Stulberg 44:13
Oh, what a good question. Um, where to start? A couple. I think the first one that I’ll mention is diet and nutrition. I went from being very critical of anyone that said, like, keto, this low carb that like intermittent fasting. And now, I just think like humans are so diverse, and if you find something that works for you, that avoids highly processed foods. That’s great. So I’m no longer going to be like oh, like a Keto bro. Like this is a religion. It’s like Alright, listen, if someone was really Struggling with obesity and a ketogenic diet, like help them overcome that and get a healthier level of body fatness. And that’s what works for them. And like they found what has worked for them. I’m so less, less critical on like the different diet cults, I still don’t like when people sell something. But I think in general, like no one really knows about nutrition, and there is a lot of personal experimentation. And if you find something that works for you, that’s great. I still might find it insufferable. If that’s all that you talk about, and you tell other people, they ought to do it too. But that’s okay. I think fitness trackers I’ve softened up on, I still think they can do a lot of harm. But I think that they’re, they’re helpful. And I used to think like, they’re, they weren’t very helpful, they would just get in the way. But now I think they’re helpful until they get in the way. And like the job of a good coach is to help someone identify when they’re, they’re useful versus when they’re not. Um, I think that’s a bigger topic that I’ve changed my mind on, or I’m in the process of changing my mind on is, I think, just like the limits of labels for our identity. And maybe it’s not even changing my mind, maybe it’s just like a more nuanced thinking, and how labels work until they get in the way, and how so much of our polarization is identity based. But how it’s true that we are all essentially humans and like you get on like the sporting field and like race, like the stuff just doesn’t matter ethnicity, like your brothers, your sisters, you’re in it together. But on the other hand, saying like we’re all just human Can’t we all just get along? Like it’s such a cop out, because there are very real differences based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, other things. And I think just holding both those things at the same time, that like there are differences, and we’re all essentially human. And I think there’s so much in the culture of like clashing, over people just completely wetting themselves in one of those two camps instead of realizing that they’re both true. So those are, those are a couple of examples of things where my thinking has, has shifted.

Sonya Looney 47:15
Yeah, it sounds like, you know, you encourage dual thinking a lot. And maybe you notice that in some places, you weren’t applying dual thinking some of those examples you just gave. So applying dual thinking can help you be less critical. Yes,

Brad Stulberg 47:29
non dual thinking non dual thinking sorry, it’s, it’s confusing. Like you could argue it’s dualistic thinking, but yes, non dual thinking. But I think that that’s a really good astute in the moment. Observation because the other one I was gonna say, which is just another example of psychedelics. So I used to think like, psychedelics was just like hype, and kind of people looking for a shortcut. And like, I found it pretty outrageous that people would call, like, taking psychedelics doing the work, you know, like, you’re literally tripping on mushrooms. But, um, I think I was too judgmental. And now I think that psychedelics can be really powerful for certain people in certain situations. And that’s great. And they’re really important to them, and toolkit, and if they help people, then it’s about finding those people that can be helped and using them in the right context. So it’s another area where I think I was kind of like this or that or this doesn’t work. And now I’m like, huh, like it actually it depends. I’ve become a lot softer. Flexibility piece. Softer on that. Yeah. I’m, I’m trying to think of other things. I take a statin. Now, like, this is like very in the weeds. But there’s a particular longevity, Dr. Peter Atea. He’s written a very popular book. And I used to think like, a lot of his stuff was just hype, and I still, like vehemently disagree with him on a lot. Um, but he, in his work has convinced me to take a statin for my cholesterol, that’s something that I changed my mind. And I picked up his book, and I’m like, I’m gonna hate this. And I actually really enjoyed it. And there are parts of it that I’m like, I don’t know, but you know, started taking a medication because of it. Like, that’s pretty powerful. And maybe I’ll change my mind again, and be like, I shouldn’t be on a statin. Um, so I think it is, it’s like trying to bring more nuance, because there’s very rarely so as much as we crave and I, I should know this, I ought to know this because I literally wrote a book called Master of change as much as we crave certainty, like, it’s very hard to find. And maybe all of these areas are areas where I was leaning towards this or that certainty, and now I’ve accepted uncertainty,

Sonya Looney 49:28
flying rugged flexibility to change your mind and it’s okay to change your mind. I think a lot of people think, well, you know, I’ve stood on this mountain and I’ve died on this mountain so many times that I’m not allowed to go explore another mountain,

Brad Stulberg 49:40
right? You’re just being rugged though. You’re not being flexible. And I think the flipside is also true, though, right? Like you look at someone that just like adopts the beliefs of the people around them are like a chameleon. And that’s not very like attractive when we don’t think that’s a great quality. So you don’t want to be rigid or flexible. You want to be rugged and flexible. The supplements

Sonya Looney 50:03
just titled title, this podcast be a supple mousse.

Brad Stulberg 50:06
Yeah, it would test it would test if it was a better title, the initial title of the book was going to be rugged flexibility. Because it is like I think it’s just the most important construct and term. And if readers walk with anything, I want it to just be like this term and how to apply it is seared in their mind. But ultimately decided that master of change was more commercial. Because everyone knows what changes and rugged flexibility at first can be like it is it’s contradictory. But then I realized, and it made me more comfortable with it, like Master of change is a paradox in and of itself, because like you can’t master change, because everything’s always changing. And that got me really comfortable with the title. Yeah,

Sonya Looney 50:49
and the title is sort of descriptive as to what you’re going to get, versus people might regard flexibility might be misinterpreted, where people know kind of what change means everybody’s experienced that. Yeah.

Brad Stulberg 51:01
And everyone does want to be a master of change. But then you realize that like, by definition, like there is no mastering change, because it’s change. So So I ended up really liking it.

Sonya Looney 51:10
So I have a last question for you. And it’s actually about your podcast. So you and Steve have How long has it been? Has it been a couple years now?

Brad Stulberg 51:17
We’ve been doing the podcast, it was a COVID started podcast, like so many others. So we started it very early in the pandemic, which would have been 2020. So it’s been almost four years. Wow,

Sonya Looney 51:31
yeah, to learn your podcast. So as a podcaster. And you know, you and Steve get to dissect a lot of ideas together. What’s something that you’ve learned from being a podcaster versus being an author? Hmm.

Brad Stulberg 51:47
I can’t believe you love my podcast, I learned that I am so much better when I have a chance to edit what I want to say versus when I do it in real time. Like I think my writing is so much better than my speaking because the way I write is like, very brick by brick, craftsperson, like, and I’m not a good first draft writer, I’m a good editor. In a podcast, it’s just all a first draft. Unless like you’re doing a ton of editing, which we’re not on our show. And I think it’s taught me that I can be more comfortable with the first draft. And there’s value in sharing the first draft, just like there’s value in sharing the the finished draft. So that’s one thing. And then the other thing is just massive respect for the amount of like, just for other podcasters. And how hard it is to come up with interesting things to talk about week in and week out. And in yeah, like I, I really am. I’m thrilled that you say that. And maybe I’m being too hard on myself, but like, I don’t think I’m as good as a podcaster as I am a writer. And I think that’s part of the reason why it’s good for me to do it is because like it’s not buttoned up. It’s not edited. I will say if you’re listening to this, you should probably keep listening to sanyas podcast and read my books, you’ll be a better off person for it. But yeah, I don’t know, I’m a little insecure about it.

Sonya Looney 53:16
Well, I really enjoy it. And I don’t think it’s a fair comparison to say I should be as good of a first draft speaker off the cuff as I should be a writer like they’re not even the same thing, because you get to massage words in when you’re writing, but you don’t get to massage what you’re saying what comes right out of your mouth? And also, how long have you been writing versus how long have you been doing the practice of podcasting?

Brad Stulberg 53:41
Yeah, in time and attention paid to each I mean, it’s much more in the, in the the writing camp, whereas the growth equation podcast is just very, like, compared to writing young and then also just raw and uncut. We we generally won’t know the topic we’re going to talk about until like 15 minutes before. So it really was born out of the idea that like we have these long conversations on the phone, my collaborative partner and I, so let’s just record them. And then every once in a while we bring on guests, and those are better episodes.

Sonya Looney 54:15
Well, the thing that comes out, actually, I disagree. I prefer the ones with just you and Steve. And authenticity is what comes out of that first draft. Because when you’re writing there is authenticity in there, but it’s edited versus when you’re just speaking, there’s like parts of you that are actually coming out.

Brad Stulberg 54:33
Yeah, I would push back a little because in my own writing, the authenticity never gets edited out. What I would say is I just like I tried to get it clear and clear. The author George Saunders, who’s like one of my favorite writers there is in more so for his fiction than his nonfiction, but he talks about how back to like your metacognition like writing is almost like a meditation practice, because you’re seeing all yourselves like your first draft is like oneself. And there’s another part of you that like comes back and works on it in like, you’re kind of like constructing this work of art that is reflective of different selves. Um, so what I do it like, I’m actually trying to get more authentic, which is with each version, like closer to the truth that I actually want to say. And maybe that’s part of why podcast I feel insecure about is because like, I’ll say something like, oh, like, it’s not actually like, not actually what I meant. And I think writing helps me do that.

Sonya Looney 55:32
I guess authenticity is the wrong word. But maybe like, the part that makes somebody more human like you like you curse on your podcast, you don’t curse in your book, you make, like, there’s laughing there’s commentary, like those things don’t come out in a book. So maybe that’s what I meant by that.

Brad Stulberg 55:48
Yeah, for sure. And I’m thrilled that you enjoy that. I’ll keep swearing.

Sonya Looney 55:56
Okay, Brad, well, I guess we have to wrap this up. Thanks so much for coming on the show. And I always am so excited when you have a new book come out, because your work has really impacted me personally in my life. And it’s also influenced the type of work that I do in the world. So thank you. Thanks. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. And where can people find I know everybody knows the answer to this, but you’ll have to ask where can people find your book?

Brad Stulberg 56:18
Anywhere? It’s on the internet, Amazon, Barnes and Noble. It’s available internationally in Canada in the UK. So if you just Google and master of change in my name, you’ll you’ll find it. Do

Sonya Looney 56:31
you think I should cut that question out at the end? Like, just generally when I talk to authors, is it just like a silly question? No,

Brad Stulberg 56:37
I mean, I think as an author, you like it, because it’s a reminder to people that like hey, I’ve got this book, um, and maybe if you’re self published, the answer to that is going to be different. So no, I’m glad that I’m glad that you asked. I’m glad that listeners are getting one more nudge to get the book. You ought you ought to get it to get

Sonya Looney 56:59
to get the ball you should get the book.

Brad Stulberg 57:01
Thank you so much, and thanks, listeners for coming along for this uncut ride. I hope that you all enjoyed it. Thanks again for having me.

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