Don’t just face it, frame it. If you’re nervous, there’s nothing wrong with telling others, “I’m a bit nervous about this, but it’s good to be able to share it with you.” This reframe of the situation can make everyone involved more aware of the camaraderie and give the meeting, the presentation, or the decision-making process a real and honest vibe.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewingThalia Toha.
Thalia Toha is a CEO and business strategist who helps people who feel small get big wins, get ahead in their careers, earn more, & grow a business, even if, like her, they’re an immigrant, an introvert, or a busy working parent. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies and she is a Princeton grad. Her Good Grow Great podcast has listeners from 40+ countries, some of whom have graced Google Talk & TEDx stages. When she’s not busy helping people live and work on their own terms, you can find her outdoors pushing herself outside her comfort zone in New Mexico, Colorado, or Arizona.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Definitely. My childhood was really fun. Growing up halfway around the world in the gorgeous tropics of Indonesia, it’s really hard to complain. My family had an eclectic interest that is part academic and part artistic. They were personal friends of the late first Vice President and many of my relatives are leaders in the stage and film industry there. I remember going to theaters to watch my family members perform after finishing up my math homework. I was very lucky to have been raised this way.
This is probably why my students know that I love to draw lessons from a rich range of topics, from architecture, psychology, survival skills, literature, to the sciences — which is not very common.
Even now as an immigrant to the US, an introverted business leader, and adventurer, the habit of staying intellectually curious about things that I have yet to master, won’t go away — which is great.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
It was a combination of multiple things actually.
Someone I know is an extremely talented creative. And even though this person was really great at their craft, earning a handsome living that lives up to their talent was — difficult. For years and years, I would watch this person have a love and hate relationship with the thing that they know they actually really just … LOVE.
But because they weren’t able to earn a living and have a thriving income stream from it, they always felt — small and inadequate, even though they’re not. I’d see them get so close to a milestone, only to back away, and then they’d try again, then get defeated — over and over again.
It was extremely hard to watch.
During that time, when I was already years into advising multi-million dollar Fortune 500 and S&P companies, people I know would start to ask me questions about how they can earn more and start a business without feeling like their life is going nowhere. At that time, I just didn’t have much time to help these solopreneurs, given my demanding schedule.
So I would tell most of them that I can’t help them, even though I knew I could have.
Then, I had to watch them give up on their dreams because they just didn’t have the connective tissues, the resources, or the right road map.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I just can’t stand around and watch forever.
At the end of the day, I just want people to be able to get home, sit down for dinner, and be able to tell themselves or the people they love, “I LOVE what I do”.
I want people who ever felt small for whatever reason, to get big, massive wins in their life.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
It’s funny how they probably don’t even know that they’ve given me the biggest gift of success.
For a long time, I was too afraid to do my own thing and start my own business. I think I was using the excuses of my success as a reason to NOT do it, which is weird to even think about now.
But I remember the months and weeks that lead up to the decision very clearly.
There were some really unpleasant turn of events with some of the companies that I had worked with — that made me ask myself … Why on earth am I doing this?
One night, I came home late from work and saw my kids sleeping peacefully in their beds. Just the sight of them made me realize that whatever time I am not spending with them, better be time really well spent.
And my work just got to a point where I felt like the reasons why I’m leaving them every day, was simply not good enough. I just couldn’t justify spending that much time away from them and still be able to defend what I’m doing.
And it all became so clear.
That was the moment when I decided that I have to make the difficult decision, if not for me, then for them.
My kids gave me the courage to make decisions that I’ve always known are good for me, and to finally make decisions that I’ve been too preoccupied to make for myself.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I remember once, I was talking to a big company who wanted to work with me. We were close to agreeing on how much they would compensate me. After some market research, I threw in a number that I thought was decent, even though I knew I offered much more than a lot of people in my space.
When they heard what the number was, they wanted to seal the deal. Fast. Too fast.
After everything was said and done, they told me that they would’ve paid me double.
I nearly lost my jaw on the floor when I realized what just happened.
I learned a very important lesson then and there: never compare yourself to others. Always compare yourself to the best version of yourself that you can possibly be.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
I think one of the hardest parts about wanting something so badly is that you just want everything right away. Nothing feels like it is moving fast enough.
I felt like that, too, for a while. And as a result, I just did not pay enough attention to my health. I started having problems that I never used to have. Growing up, I was fairly athletic and was MVP of a lot of my school’s sports teams, even though I was a short Asian girl.
When I started having health problems, it took me years to realize that I just wasn’t living a healthy lifestyle. My personal life was OK. But it could be better, too.
I remember going to see the doctor four times in three months. They couldn’t figure out what’s wrong with me. When one of the doctors suggested it might be lifestyle related, I knew that she was right.
So I had to ask myself, “How can I keep going towards success without sacrificing everything that I’ve worked for?”
For me, I found that spending a ton of time on the things that you love, then spending a timed amount on the things you don’t (but still need to get done) gave me the balanced perspective that I needed.
You can’t give when you don’t already have.
This means that you need to be coming from a place of ownership before you go full throttle into your business.
If you’re low on meaning and fulfillment, your work and your business can really suffer. If you make time for yourself and for the people you love, you can then give time generously to others and grow your business. If you have peace of mind in your business, your customers, clients, and buyers will see it, too, and will feel great working with you.
It’s that simple (and that difficult).
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of my favorite books of all time is Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way. I read this book back when I was still considering whether I should start a new business. I already had a full schedule and it was difficult for me to accept that I could possibly take on more. My kids were quite young at the time and I literally felt like there was just not enough time in the day.
But just before I nearly gave up on the idea, I picked up this book and read how obstacles shouldn’t stop you and should instead be an opportunity to improve.
It sounded so simple, yet it’s so counterintuitive.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
When I was just starting out, I didn’t want to tell anyone about what I plan on doing. I think part of me felt like everyone would be waiting for the opportunity to say, “I told you so” and tell me to go back to my career at corporate. I was afraid of growing up in the public eye in some sense, which made me keep waiting for things to be ‘perfect’.
But Anne Frank’s quote, “How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world” — reminded me that I didn’t have to have all the pieces together.
Once I reframed my thinking, everything took off.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Right now, my Good Grow Great podcast is interviewing an eclectic mix of non-mainstream business models so that the audience can learn from experiences outside of their own.
We’re putting together a series of special episodes around niche industries, like outdoor adventure, aviation, boutique hospitality, ocean sports, furniture business, product design, and many more.
This is a big production undertaking and takes up a LOT of time.
But I’m a huge believer in learning from different types of business, not just your own vertical. It’s really a high-level way to spark creativity. A lot of times, thinking outside of the box means actually experiencing things beyond your own immediate circles.
But if you don’t have time to do that, listening to people’s stories, their successes, and failures, while you’re getting things done, is the next best alternative.
I can’t wait to share our interviews with everyone.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
Yes, of course.
Here’s what I’ve shared with my students that I will also share with you.
Talk to the people around you and get the edge off.
There’s nothing like engaging in a normal conversation before walking into a high-stake meeting. It brings perspective back and introduces the much-needed aspect of humanity often missing in boardrooms.
Even if it’s just catching up on your business partner’s well-being just before the meeting — that’s great! If it’s genuinely asking someone you’ve never met, like the front desk staff, how their day has been, even better.
Get out of your head, and get interested in other people’s lives, and you may find that the stress you’re facing might not be so bad after all.
Think more about giving, and take the pressure off.
The weird thing about these high-pressure situations, is that the more you think of you and your own performance, the more nervous you get. I’ve been guilty of this as well. If you look at them from the perspective of giving, though, all the weight of having to perform goes away.
Instead of saying useless things to yourself like, “It’s show time”, try saying “It’s time to give.”
Slow down before speeding up.
Whether it takes a couple of minutes or 20 minutes, building the right momentum takes time. If you want the meeting, talk, presentation, or decision-making process to be clear, thoughtful, meaningful, and most of all, enjoyable — don’t burn yourself out with a needless sprint in the beginning.
Slow down your pace first.
Then, you can speed things up once everyone is engaged and you feel more relaxed.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
To get your mind ready for peak performance, here are three mindset shifts that you can do:
- Don’t just face it, frame it. If you’re nervous, there’s nothing wrong with telling others, “I’m a bit nervous about this, but it’s good to be able to share it with you.” This reframe of the situation can make everyone involved more aware of the camaraderie and give the meeting, the presentation, or the decision-making process a real and honest vibe.
- Mind your big vision and how this is just a small part of it. If you’ve ever been inspired or energized by someone’s talk, book, or words, it’s often useful to revisit it before your high-pressure situation to give perspective on what really matters: the big picture. And it helps to realize that whatever you’re facing is just one of the many steps you can take towards that big picture.
- Look at dark difficulties as opportunities to shine. When light and darkness meet, light always wins. The more high-pressured the situation, usually the more likely you’re able to rise to the challenge (and shine).
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
Yes, these are the 3 things that I always do:
- I often read a quick 5–10 minute excerpt from a book that I love. It keeps me grounded on what’s important for me and puts perspective on all high-pressure situations.
- I listen or watch talks of people that I admire before jumping into the lion’s den. This helps me raise my own bar and stay focused on lifting up the people around me to that bar as well.
- I don’t go through preparation material less than one-hour before go-time. I think people who go through and practice everything up to the minute will run the risk of not being present — which can sometimes be worse than being unprepared.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
If you’re walking into a high-pressured meeting, by then, everything that you need to know, you should already know. The only thing left to do is to try to be present.
If you’re trying to get things done and you have little time, it helps to:
- Set an automatic reply for your emails or your voicemails, then turning off your phone.
- I’d even go as far as turning off the WiFi on my computer to get things done. And,
- If time is of the essence, you can even set a timer for non-essential tasks that need to get done but often eat up your time.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I have three big habit rules that kept momentum going for my business, that my students have also loved.
The first one is to spend a ton of time on the things that give you happiness and meaning, and a timed amount on the things that don’t.
The odd thing about working on your own terms, is that no one ever talks about treating your day like there’s an external time-table that runs the whole show (even though life DOES keep moving on)!
Of course, there are things that are not always fun to do but need to get done (like brushing your teeth and looking at how you did in your business).
This does mean that if you find that exercising and spending time with your loved ones are important, you should make sure that you do this first, that you do lots of it, and that it’s non-negotiable.
Secondly, you should celebrate small wins on your way to big wins.
One of the biggest problems people have in trying to achieve something is to stay motivated before you reach your goal. This is when a lot of entrepreneurs give up. Because their dream feels too far away.
To stay motivated, create ways to celebrate small wins daily. I’d tell myself that I can eat some ice cream once I’m done with a certain activity, but not until then. And I’d do something else for another task. One by one, they get done. And before you know it, the big achievement I was looking to accomplish gets done, too.
Thirdly, try to make decisions long before you need it.
If you look at a lot of people’s life lessons, you’ll see that there seems to be a pattern of regret. They wish that they had spent more time with their kids, their family, etc. The reason why it’s difficult to stay disciplined in doing this is because we often get caught in the thick of our business. And the most important people in our life often get sidelined as a result.
To make sure you make the right decisions, create criteria and parameters of what’s important for you, long before you need it. It helps you get rid of decision fatigue as well.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Think substitution, NOT subtraction.
Whenever I see a health, fitness, or even productivity regime that forces you to cut cold turkey, I say, “No, thanks!” I think the subtraction method can work if you have time to track everything. But this type of strategy usually relies on a great amount of will power and constant decision-making — which business owners don’t usually have time and energy for.
Instead, if I’m looking to do less scrolling on the internet, for example, I’d start with gradually easing my way into it. I’d have tabs and links to favorite work music that keeps me going. Then once I’ve kept up this habit, getting rid of the bad habit altogether feels easier.
Substitute things you want to get rid of with things that can help you improve, and your result will start to improve.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
I think getting one to three straight hours of focus and momentum has more to do with your physical surrounding than anything else. Yes, mindset matters. But to keep you going in that state of flow, I do three things:
- Stand. I invested in a standing desk a long time ago. Mostly because sitting down made me feel sluggish and more distracted. Standing up reminds me that I’m here to work.
- Give the other senses you’re not using a break. What I mean by this is, if you’re easily distracted by noise, find music that helps you zone in. If you find that you have trouble focusing in warm rooms, get space coolers or heaters.
- Find and protect your non-negotiables. For me, that’s a 30-minute morning power bike ride and protein-filled breakfast. I just find that whenever I skip these, my flow tanks. I learned that they’re simply non-negotiable.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
For me, it will have to be for all of us to live in a world where people can go home at the end of the day, sit down to have dinner, look at the people that they love in the eye and be able to say, “I LOVE what I do”.
As I’ve shared earlier, I’ve seen too many people throw in the towel and give up on their dream business or their dream career too early, because they just didn’t have the pieces to get them from point A to point Z.
I always say that this is almost like watching the main character of your favorite story die an unnecessary death. You’re left confused and frustrated.
To stop this, I want everyone to take the smallest, yet most meaningful step that can make the biggest leap and difference at work and in their own business. Even if this means learning from businesses that are quite different from yours.
This is why I encourage all my students to be adventurous. I call this the adventurer’s advantage. You simply learn survival skills — in both business and personal life — that you wouldn’t have otherwise known when you try different things.
If everyone embraces the adventurer’s advantage, we can move mountains!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Adam Grant. It’s not every day that you find high-level ideas so simply laid out in ways that you can absorb AND remember. I was reading his book Originals one day, and realized just what a gift it was for people to be able to finally understand things like the relationship between creativity and procrastination.
For the first time probably in the life of a lot of leaders, employers, parents, or even teachers — we are encouraged to give breathing room for different ways to work that were traditionally frowned upon.
In our work and our business, it’s really our privilege to be able to lift up the people around you to places and concepts that they wouldn’t have otherwise discovered on their own. Adam Grant did this beautifully.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
Any time. Thanks for having me!