Dr. Rebecca Heiss of icueity: “Bite the lemon”

Bite the lemon. Getting frequent feedback is invaluable and that feedback isn’t always going to be good. Rather than try to make lemonade from lemons, don’t sugar coat the feedback. Just bite that lemon whole. Taste the sour and let it drive you to improve. There’s room to grow but trying to make lemonade from […]

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Bite the lemon. Getting frequent feedback is invaluable and that feedback isn’t always going to be good. Rather than try to make lemonade from lemons, don’t sugar coat the feedback. Just bite that lemon whole. Taste the sour and let it drive you to improve. There’s room to grow but trying to make lemonade from lemons only sends you on a mission to find sugar rather than tackling what’s real. That sour won’t last forever but if you’re willing to bite down, everything after will taste sweeter.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Heiss.

Dr. Rebecca Heiss is an evolutionary biologist and full-time speaker dedicated to crushing limiting beliefs and the ancient fears that hold us back — fears we’re often not even consciously aware we have. She is the author of the newly released book INSTINCT, and CEO/Founder of the awareness mobile app, called icueity (www.icueity.com). She lives with her spoiled rotten dog Guinness and every day tries to live her life motto: “spread happy”.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in a really small town in upstate New York. My father was a minister and my mother a kindergarten teacher. My sister was my hero. Probably the most shocking thing about my childhood was that at age 8, just before Christmas, our house burned to the ground. To this day I count it as one of the best things that ever happened to me. That fire was such a clear teacher of what was and was not important. Stuff was just stuff. But my family was safe, and I’ll never forget the way our community poured out love, support, and shelter. The very night of the fire I had warm food in my belly, a roof over my head, and clothes for school the next day. A local farmer even sacrificed a lamb so we’d have food. It was truly a formative lesson in my life about valuing and caring for people above anything else.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life can either be an adventure or an ordeal. The only difference is your attitude.”

This was something that my sister said to me after coming down from NY to visit me for the first time in Memphis. I had just moved to Memphis to begin my work on my Ph.D. We’d spent all day hiking around a massive city park when we realized that neither of us had the keys to my locked car. New city. No phone. Locked car and missing keys. Not a great start, from most perspectives, but when my sister talked about this moment having the potential to be an adventure, suddenly everything shifted. It’s hard to find a quote that better summarizes the rest of my career and I still use the quote often in my keynote speeches. My sister’s words are actually backed by the science I was studying. Our bodies release an almost identical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters when we are excited and when we are afraid. So often in life, the only difference between excitement and an adventure, or fear and an ordeal, is in how we interpret the story. I’ve been choosing adventure ever since.

How would your best friend describe you?

She calls me “Stick” because of my sense of humor. I can get really goofy at times. I think she’d describe me as being silly, but with a very sensitive and vulnerable side. I love a good cry. She’d also tell you that I’m strong (which I know is sometimes just stubbornness).

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?

I’ve long described myself as a hopeless romantic crossed with a realist. It’s my hopeless romanticism that keeps me dreaming, and optimistic and in pursuit of wild possibilities. My realistic side keeps my grounded and persistent in the face of all the challenges that my hopeless romantic never considered.

So to boil that down:

  1. Insatiable curiosity and energy that comes from working from my true purpose
  2. Willful naivety about the odds stacked against me
  3. The third quality is probably humility (would a humble person even say that?). I think I’ve long recognized that it’s not just me that’s accomplished all I have. I have had luck, a ton of privilege and an incredible team upon whose shoulders I stand.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

I had pursued a safe path in life. I figured out early on what I was good at and played within the lines. I earned a BS and MS in biology with a specialty in ornithology (I was a bird nerd) and a PhD as well, with a specialty in stress physiology. For the first half of my career, I studied corvids (mostly crows, and jays), trying to understand their behaviors and stress levels under different environmental conditions. I was a teacher and a professor, and I remember at one point when I was maybe 28 thinking, “So this is it. I’ll show up here each day to teach, collect a paycheck, maybe do a little research and retire.” It was very comfortable, and I guess at some level that made me very uncomfortable.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

It started small … and then imploded. I had the opportunity to jump ship from my super safe position into one where I’d be working at a brand-new startup as a founding member of an impact-based learning charter school. The idea intrigued me as I could really stretch myself in the entrepreneurial space and design an educational program from the ground up. I struggled with the decision to leave the career I’d built. The security of my professorship felt so safe, but I focused on how smothering it could be as well and made the leap. The new gig gave me confidence in abilities and muscles I hadn’t flexed before. I was saying “yes” a lot more, failing, and flailing and loving every minute of it. One of the “yes’s” was to a TEDx talk in the spring of 2016 that a student had nominated me for. It was my first real public speaking event. It was exhilarating, and it reminded me of my childhood love of the stage, but I still hadn’t begun to consider making a career of it. That’s when life threw me the biggest curveball to date.

My sister-in-law, who had been like a sister to me for nearly 20 years, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That diagnosis forced me to step back from my life and take a good hard long look at what choices I’d been making. Most of them I’d made from fear. I realized that if it had been me who had gotten that diagnosis, I would be terribly disappointed with the life I’d lived. I needed change.

I quit my job, sold my house, divorced my husband and set off into the unknown. It was awful. There was a moment when I had stayed in crappy cheap hotel because I didn’t have anywhere else to be and was covered in bedbug bites from head to toe — I didn’t think I was going to make it. I had never hit rock bottom like that before. I felt displaced and foolish and completely alone. I began writing. I rented a little AirBnB in the middle of nowhere and started exploring all the ways I could more genuinely live my life. I had the number of someone who had connected with me after my TEDx who had been interested in having me come speak to his group — a CEO mastermind. I didn’t know much about business, but I went for it anyway (because honestly when you’re where I was you really don’t have much to lose). I can’t say my first gig was a raving success. But he kindly gave me another opportunity to re-evaluate my presentation and try again. I went home and started consuming all I could about leadership, and awareness and the ways in which my background in biology intersected. I went back and delivered something of real value to an audience I’d never considered I’d be useful to before — CEOs!. This was the beginning of my new career. I’ve now given 1000’s of presentations all over the world, written a book, and launched a mobile application to help leaders become more aware and maximize their potential.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

The trigger was my sister-in-law’s diagnosis. She had always been someone who didn’t take any BS. She helped me see me for exactly who I was (the good, the bad, and the ugly). Everyone needs someone like that in their lives — people who can reflect back to you like a mirror how you present to the world. She is a good part of the reason my company, icueity exists today. If you can’t get honest, open feedback about yourself, you can’t grow.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing?

I started living a life that wasn’t driven solely by fear. I call it “caging the tigers.” Recognizing that a failure or rejection doesn’t define me and isn’t an actual tiger — something that will kill me.

How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

I think I’d always known it was there, but the fear was too loud for most of my life. When I was 8, I knew exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing. I joined 4-H as a way to develop leadership skills and get me on stage for public speaking competitions. I’ll never forget the feeling I had after having won my city and county competitions and making it to the state competition for public speaking. You would think I’d have been elated, but instead all I felt was fear. I played sick the day of the competition in order to avoid failure. I let my worth and identity get tied up in my narrow definition of success and stopped going “all in” in life. I think the only way I came back around to getting past those barriers was giving myself no other choice. I recently had a conversation with a friend who described it like this: If you asked most people if they could jump in a pool and swim 20 miles, only the insane or delusional would answer in the affirmative. But ask that same crowd again about whether or not they’d make it if they were dumped out in the ocean 20 miles away from shore and most everyone believes they could. I like to think that most of us are swimming along the shoreline. At any point, we can look right and see we are only feet off from safety. Heck, we can even stand up if we want! But those of us who are up for the challenge, who continue to look left out toward the deep sea, we are those that can go the distance. We just have to accept we are safe without giving ourselves the other options.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Well, I met the love of my life on an airplane headed out to one of my speaking engagements. I have a book coming out in April, I signed an exclusive contract with an agency who now represents my speaking career, and I officially launched my leadership awareness mobile application, icueity, to illustrious reviews. I’d say things are going well. More importantly, I’m living out my real purpose. I feel tired a lot, but a good kind of tired, rather than the exhaustion that’s associated with being busy without being fulfilled.

I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m not sure I could narrow it down to one person. There are far too many people to thank for where I am today. I think if I’m forced to answer I’d say the reason I am where I am is because of my students. It was a student that nominated me for the original TEDx. When I think about my time with my students it was always their energy and hope and optimism that inspired me. They showed up in my classroom with vision that somehow always focused in on life as an adventure. When I first struck out from safety I thought a lot about how my students always saw their futures as being full of opportunity — why shouldn’t I do the same?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

I think I’d be in trouble if I didn’t tell the story of meeting my partner on a plane. I was flying across country to a gig in California and he was traveling on the same 6am flight to our layover in Dallas. I had given up my seat to let another couple sit together and thought karma had rewarded me with an open seat next to me, but right before the plane doors closed in strides this handsome Irishman. He sits beside me, strikes up a conversation, and an hour into the flight asks me to dinner the following week. We haven’t been apart since.

On a more professional note, there was the time when the speaker immediately following my talk didn’t show up and the organizers asked me at the 5 min break if I had 50 more minutes of content I could fill. It was a bit like speaker karaoke…and it was a blast!

I also had an opportunity to meet John Maxwell. This past fall, I keynoted just before the leadership legend himself. Unfortunately, I had another engagement immediately following my talk. I had to rush off the stage and head back to my hotel, so I literally passed John in the parking lot of the studio. After my engagement at my hotel, I was cursing myself for missing the opportunity to sit and converse with this icon and it occurred to me that I could drive back. It sounded so ridiculous to drive all the way back just for the opportunity to maybe shake his hand and ask a question or two, but I realized that it was only my fear of looking ridiculous that was holding me back. So, I summoned my courage, and marched right back into the studio where I had a chance to spend some time with one of the most respected leaders of our time.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

Every damn day. I still do. Most of us struggle with these ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). I constantly find myself questioning my worth and my talent. It’s easy to focus on the negative because to our brains that’s the thing that can kill us (why we focus on the rustling behind us rather than the berries in front of us)! I’ve had to train my brain to focus equally as much on the positive things. I find using a gratitude journal has helped, as well as smushing ANTs in my head anytime I hear myself telling negative stories and replacing them with what I call PETs (Practice Enlightened Thoughts). For example, rather than call myself a failure I’ll say “you weren’t ready there…what are you going to do or what do you need to learn for next time?” PETs are little mantras that can help me see positive opportunities to learn rather than reinforce self-limiting stories.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

I think that’s really good advice! Unfortunately, I was not one of your clients when I took my leap. I don’t recommend doing what I did. There were days that I didn’t think I’d make it. I distinctly remember lying in bed sobbing for at least 2 hours with a friend on the other end of the phone. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there with me. Friends like that are invaluable when embarking on these adventures. My best advice is to be prepared to ask for help. You’re going to need it, and the more warning you can give your friends and family, the more they can be prepared to hang out with you as you sob, or cook you a meal, or listen and bounce ideas back to you. We all get by with a little help from our friends.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

This is actually something I speak about. I do the same kind of stress inoculation exercises that Navy SEALs engage in during their training. But rather than the physical stressors they endure, I work with mental/emotional stressors like my fear of failure and rejection. I actively seek out ways to train my brain to feel comfortable in discomfort by seeking safe forms of discomfort (think about asking for 10% off your next order of coffee, or singing on the street corner, or asking a stranger for a staring contest). The idea is that we elicit a stress response (heart racing, sweating, dry mouth etc.) and then….nothing bad happens! We don’t die — even if we get rejected! The worst-case scenario is we pay full price for our coffee, or get a few strange looks. The discomfort challenges are a bit magical, because they train the brain that we don’t have to have stress responses for things that actually aren’t life-threatening. The more I’ve worked to actively seek discomfort, the more when discomfort has found me (and I’m not actively seeking it), I can refer back to this training in my brain, stay calm, and not revert into a panicked state. My favorite discomfort exercise? Having a random dance party. ☺ Who cares who is watching!

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Practice WAIT. The acronym “Why Am I Talking?” Am I talking to be right, to prove my point, my worth, or am I talking to get it right by asking questions, being curious and pulling the best information from everyone on my team? And sometimes I have to ask Why Am I Talking at all! Often it’s better if I’m just listening. I learn a ton more.
  2. Bite the lemon. Getting frequent feedback is invaluable and that feedback isn’t always going to be good. Rather than try to make lemonade from lemons, don’t sugarcoat the feedback. Just bite that lemon whole. Taste the sour and let it drive you to improve. There’s room to grow but trying to make lemonade from lemons only sends you on a mission to find sugar rather than tackling what’s real. That sour won’t last forever but if you’re willing to bite down, everything after will taste sweeter.
  3. And while we’re on the topic of recognizing weakness, the number 3 thing I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization is to Flaunt Your Kryptonite. Everyone has weaknesses. Everyone will have their own lemons to bite. But if we try to conceal our weaknesses and run away from kryptonite like Superman did his whole life, we miss out on the opportunity to empower others on our team. Imagine if instead, Superman had flaunted his weakness, “Hey world! Kryptonite is a problem for me!” This empowers someone like Wonder Woman to swoop in and say, “Oh no worries Superman! I’ve got you on this. Kryptonite isn’t an issue for me.” The whole team ends up stronger when we are vulnerable enough to flaunt our own individual kryptonite.
  4. Exercise JOMO. There is a tendency to focus a lot on the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) but when we do this we lose focus on the things that are most important and we end up in this vicious cycle of busy, always trying to do it all for our ego. When we are driven by fear, our lives plan themselves for us while we are busy being busy. But we can reframe this madness into JOMO or the Joy Of Missing Out. When I’m doing things that feed my soul or drive my mission and purpose forward, I’m joyful about missing other opportunities. JOMO keeps me focused on what matters most.
  5. And finally, the fifth thing I wish someone had told me before I stared leading my organization is to be fear(less). Not fearless — jumping into the cage of a hungry tiger has never been good advice, but FEAR(less). Not every fear is actually life-threatening. Those tigers can be caged. Fear is normal and natural but be sure to sort actual tigers from those fears like rejection and failure that won’t kill you. Fear(less) leaders make room for so much more — abundance, love, and productivity.

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?

To live every day as if you only had that week to live. I don’t mean to get flagrant or rash about financial decisions (please don’t go out and buy that Lamborghini you always wanted because Rebecca said “live every day!”), but it can really focus you on the relationships you have, the community that surrounds you, and the legacy you want to leave behind. Would you really be picking that fight, or saying that judgmental thing if you knew it might be your last interaction with that person or group? I think we’d find ways to help and to love that we never considered before. We’d be more kind to ourselves and others and more gentle and generous with those who need help.

What do you want to be remembered for the most?

Spreading happy.

How can our readers further follow your work online?


@drrebeccaheiss. (insta/twitter/FB)



Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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