Develop a resilient mindset — Our brain by design is a conflicted organ. When you look at a donuts, a part of you wants the donuts, while another part reminds you of its calories. No other part of our body is conflicted like this. The brain thus needs a construct it can trust. I have found five principles that help me here — gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Amit Sood.
Dr. Amit Sood, M.D., M.Sc., F.A.C.P., is former chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative, Professor of Medicine (Retired) with Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, and former enterprise director of Student Life and Wellness. Dr. Sood is the Executive Director and CEO of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and The GRIT Institute. Dr. Sood is internationally recognized for his work on resilience, wellbeing, burnout, happiness, and mindfulness.
Dr. Sood is the author of the books, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness, Immerse: A 52-week Course in Resilient Living, Mindfulness Redesigned for the Twenty-First Century, Stronger: The Science and Art of Stress Resilience, and SMART with Dr. Sood. The resiliency programs created by Dr. Sood (Stress Management and Resilience Training — SMART, and Transform) have been tested in over thirty clinical trials and have reached hundreds of thousands of people. Dr. Sood’s work has been profiled in most major media outlets.
Dr. Sood received the 2010 Distinguished Service Award, the 2010 Innovator of the Year Award, the 2013 Outstanding Physician Scientist Award, and the 2016 Faculty of the Year Award from Mayo Clinic. He was honored as the Robert Wood Johnson Health Care Pioneer in 2015. The Intelligent Optimist (formerly Ode Magazine) selected Dr. Sood as one among top 20 intelligent optimists helping the world to be a better place. In 2016, Dr. Sood was selected as the top impact maker in healthcare in Rochester, MN. Dr. Sood is a member of Advisory Board for Wellness for Everyday Health and member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Delos, Inc.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in a 400-square-feet home, the youngest of four siblings in a loving family focused on values and education. My teenage years were marked by a struggle with epilepsy and the side effect of medications. Nevertheless, at age 17, I entered medical school.
Within a few months, I saw thousands perish in my hometown to one of the worst industrial disasters of all time (Bhopal gas tragedy).A few years later, I got an opportunity to come to the U.S. for advanced training. Colored by my earlier experience, I thought I would find the U.S. to be a place of perpetual bliss. I thought children here grow up in Disneyland, adults tour the world and play slots in Las Vegas, and in senior years people retire in Florida playing Bingo. I wasn’t prepared for the suffering, particularly emotional suffering I was going to see.
Seeing the struggles of so many led me to research for the cause of the disconnect between emotional and material wellbeing. After a decade of work, I realized that this disconnect is related to the design of the human brain. Further, I realized that many of these design quirks are part of our evolutionary baggage since they had survival benefits in the distant past.
My life’s work is to share this science along with approaches to overcome these vulnerabilities. I strongly that believe if we can share this science more broadly, we have within reach the solution for the global mental health crisis.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
This is the story of Tim’s transformation, a professional colleague of mine.
Tim was a rebellious teenager; he didn’t get along with his father. Tim ran away from home at age 16. Times became tough; he started living on the streets. Despondent, he considered taking his life.
Amidst all this, as he was searching for answers, on a stormy day, he fell into a ditch. A lot of leaves and loose paper were around him. As he lay there, he wondered about his existence, what will carry him. Suddenly a gust of wind came that cleared the ditch. At the bottom was a piece of paper.
Tim picked up the paper on which was written, “I am here, Tim.”
That moment transformed his life. He took that as a sign, re-engaged with education, and is now a very successful professional at a prestigious university.
I call myself a scientist. But I do believe that there is something subtler and more profound than the reach of MRI scans. Hearing this story from a fellow scientist was refreshing, filled me with hope, and continues to remind me that we aren’t alone.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company has several billion board of directors — all the children of the world. Everything we do, we keep our North Star in mind — we are here to collectively build a kinder, happier, and more hopeful world for our planet’s children.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
That person would be His Holiness Dalai Lama.
In April 2012, I had the privilege of dialoguing with HHDL in front of an audience of about 500 of the world’s pre-eminent meditation researchers and practitioners. I posed this question to the group — “How many here meditate?” Most raised their hands.
My next question was — “How many find it easy to meditate?”
Almost no hand went up.
At this point, His Holiness took the microphone and shared about his own struggles with meditation. He shared that he isn’t able to get into deep meditation.
His humility and sincerity helped firm my beliefs that we need more innovative approaches to engage the twenty-first-century brains.
We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience has many definitions. The one I use often is: “Resilience is doing well when you shouldn’t be doing well.”
Perhaps, one of the best ways to capture resilience is through stories. Think of someone you know whose spirit and love of life can’t be doused despite all the rough and tumble around him or her. This is a person who lives with values and embodies courage and a can-do attitude. That person is resilient.
Three characteristics come to my mind:
Other centric — Most resilient people have a strong sense of purpose focused on serving others. I believe we draw strength from the principles and the people we are serving. The more we think about serving a purpose higher than ourselves, the stronger we get.
Hope — Most resilient people have a hopeful, uplifting view of the future. Despite all the uncertainty, they believe that their efforts and intentions matter.
A different lens — Resilient people find humility in success and inspiration in failure. They don’t give in to envy or blame. Instead, they are quick to reframe their situation; even if they experience negative emotions, they are quick to rebound. Further, failures, instead of depleting, offer them the opportunity for growth.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I can think of many, but here four special people.
Marie Curie — I have forever been inspired by her brilliance, hard work, humility, and selflessness. She didn’t patent her work so others could use it and donated large part of her earnings for helping others.
Mother Teresa — I admire her courage and compassion. Without worrying about her physical health and despite struggling with faith, she embraced serving the most vulnerable, choosing to find the sacred in them.
Mahatma Gandhi — His firm anchor in truth and nonviolence, created a movement and inspired many others to follow that path.
Abraham Lincoln — His courage, perseverance, integrity, and compassion inspire me. He chose to “do the right thing” despite many disagreeing with him, and at a great personal sacrifice, created a timeless legacy, uniting a nation.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When I was researching and developing the resilience program, one of my professors insulted me in a meeting and said something to the effect of, “This is all BS. Don’t waste your and our time.”
At tremendous risk to my career, I continued, and looking back, am grateful for that. I am also grateful to the professor because they challenged me to work harder and “prove” my mettle.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Before coming to Mayo Clinic for a residency interview, I informed everyone that I was joining Mayo. Irrational as it sounds, I had assumed I would be training here. So, I was shocked when I wasn’t accepted. It took me some time to recover, but my resolve got even stronger.
I reapplied a few years later, this time for a more senior position, and joined the staff where I proudly served for 15+ years.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I grew up in a relatively impoverished neighborhood. Water was in short supply; we would often have to bathe with cold water in the winters and endure lack of electricity in 120 degrees heat. There was fierce competition for admission to professional colleges, about ten times more than in the U.S. My personal medical situation compounded all of this.
Nevertheless, with the help and support from a loving family, caring teachers, friends, and others, I was able to bounce back from each adversity and entered medical school.
My experiences growing up prepared me to be content with little, cultivated compassion, and provided meaning to make things better — for myself and others.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Resilience has many paths. Here are the five suggested steps:
- Answer why — From a scientific and spiritual standpoint, think of good reasons why you want to be stronger. I find great inspiration from the quote, “Carry many with you as you cross the river. Be a ship, not a lone swimmer.” I see tremendous struggles in the world around me, many of which are optional. I surround myself with thoughts and images of suffering to remain inspired to make a difference. Once your why is answered, the how becomes much easier.
- Cultivate awareness — The next step is to become aware of why I am not as resilient as I could be. It converges to the design and operation of the human brain. Our brains struggle with focus and spend more time running away from fear rather than chasing meaning. The more we become aware of our neural traps, the more we are empowered to make a difference for ourselves and others.
Every time I give a talk and share the related neuroscience, I hear people say, “I wish I knew this when I was in college.”
- Take back control of attention — This is step 3. At any moment, billions of bytes of data are striking your sensory system. You can experience a tiny fragment of it. It is your attention that controls what you experience. Presently, most of us have weak attention that is wandering all the time. Taking back control of the attention will empower you to influence every aspect of your life — emotional, cognitive, physical, social, occupational, and spiritual. That’s the reason helping people take back control of their attention is an essential part of our approach to resilience training.
- Develop a resilient mindset — Our brain by design is a conflicted organ. When you look at a donut, a part of you wants the donut, while another part reminds you of its calories. No other part of our body is conflicted like this. The brain thus needs a construct it can trust. I have found five principles that help me here — gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness.
Feeling grateful for a deep breath, recognizing that someone upset is actually seeking help, knowing that with two thirds of the earth covered with clouds it will rain on my backyard some day, keeping your North Star in focus through your life’s journey, and recognizing that by forgiveness you are taking back control of your narrative and giving the person who doesn’t belong an eviction notice from your brain — these are all a resilient way of responding and living.
- Find good role models — Our world desperately needs good role models! Keep inspiring people who were/are firm in principles in your thoughts. They will help you remain anchored in higher values, particularly during the tempting moments.
I also follow the “lottery test” for personal connections — Let’s say you win a large sum of money. How many people you can call knowing they will be very happy for you but not want a dime. These are the people you want to be part of your inner circle.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If we all behave like we want our children to behave, the world will be a much better place.
Let’s create a world where everyone will love your children and grandchildren as much as you love them today. The onus for creating such a world is on us — the grownups.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
That would be a long list! I admire Bill Gates for his generosity; Barack Obama for his visionary leadership; Oprah Winfrey for her grit and spirituality, Warren Buffet for his humility; Jacinda Ardern for her thoughtfulness and compassion.
I would also love to meet Justin Trudeau who I admire for his openness and accessibility; I met his mother a few years ago and will love to cross check some of the stories!
I know that all of these people care a lot about improving the world. I would love to learn from them and feel that the scientific insights we have uncovered can help their efforts in building a kinder and happier world.
Amit Sood, MD (@amitsoodmd)