Understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Both can cause a weakened immune system, both can cause memory distortions, both can cause a disruption in cognitive processing. While these two experiences affect the body similarly, they are not the same. Fear is defined by psychologists as a present reaction to a present stress or threat. Anxiety is a present reaction to a not-present stress or threat. The meaningful difference is that in fear, as soon as the threat or stress is gone, the fear also is gone. In anxiety, since the stress or threat is not present (either recollection of the past, or worrying about the future), it is possible that the stress or threat never goes away, and the physiological effects last indefinitely.
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 Eric M. Bailey.
Eric is the bestselling author of The Cure for Stupidity: Using Brain Science to Explain Irrational Behavior and president of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, one of the fastest-growing human communication consulting firms in the United States. Eric works with Google Inc, the US Air Force, Los Angeles County, the City of St. Louis, MO, Phoenix Police Department and many more. Eric has a unique set of life experiences that includes earning a Master’s Degree in Leadership and Organizational Development from Saint Louis University, helping NFL Pro-Bowler Larry Fitzgerald pet a rhinoceros, doing barrel rolls in an F-16, and chatting with LL Cool J on the campus of Harvard University. Eric believes that no matter what life throws at you, there’s either a lesson to be learned or a story to be told.
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’?
My backstory is a bit Forrest Gumpian due to unfortunate events in the 1980s — my mom, my brother, and I were homeless in Seattle. I was only 5 years old, so I don’t remember being homeless. I remember an “adventure” of going to the library, playing in parks, and waving to the garbage man. I remember that through my formative years, my mother became the ultimate Phoenix story. She became my personal superhero, rising from the ashes of homelessness to putting me into one of the most academically challenging high schools in the state all while putting herself through dental school (nearly double the age of the average dental student). From my early days, I learned that nothing is more important to my survival than love and perseverance.
As an adult, I learned that municipal employees or “public servants” were the ones that run the libraries, the parks, sanitation, and all of the services that kept me on my “adventure”. That is why I will always dedicate a portion of my business to my mission of Serving Those Who Serve.
Launching the business with zero clients in 2016, Bailey Strategic Innovation Group has now served municipalities serving over 16,000,000 citizens around the United States including 97% of Arizonans. BSIG is one of the fastest-growing communication consulting firms in the US. Growth has been purely through referrals because I humbly (and refreshingly) start by listening and try to understand my clients.
Before launching BSIG, I was an International Change Management Consultant working with bestselling author Dr. John P. Kotter. In 2018, I published my first book, The Cure for Stupidity, which immediately hit #1 on four different bestseller lists!
I also received my Masters from Saint Louis University and was a Student-Athlete at Arizona State University.
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?
The most interesting thing that has ever happened to me in my career was the time that I chatted with LL Cool J on the campus of Harvard University. In my penultimate job, I was an international change management consultant with Kotter International, a firm based on the dozens of books and decades of practical research of Dr. John P. Kotter. Dr. Kotter is a Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus and early on in my tenure with the company, he asked me if I wanted to sit in on an executive workshop he was doing at the Harvard Business School. I obviously jumped at the opportunity. So, I got on a plane and I “went to Harvard.” (to be clear, I went to Harvard… I didn’t GO to Harvard).
As we’re sitting there in the lecture hall, preparing to go on a break, I start to hear a buzz going around the room of executives. As it turns out, in the lecture hall next door, there was another executive workshop, but in addition to a bunch of business leaders, this class had, Pau Gasol, Chris Paul, LL Cool J, and Channing Tatum! Yes, two NBA players, LL Cool J, and Magic Mike were across the hall from us at Harvard Business School (link).
Now, to understand the significance of this, I need you to understand that my Mother-in-law, Karla, is a HUGE LL Cool J fan. In fact, the word “fan” probably doesn’t even describe it fully. She’s basically married to him, he just doesn’t know it.
At the time that I’m there at Harvard, my mother-in-law (who has already beaten cancer multiple times) was under general anesthesia at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ for another surgery. I KNEW that this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment and I had to do something.
Our group goes on a break. Two minutes later, their group goes on a break. I gather my courage and walk up to him, “Mr. Smith?” (His real name is James Smith). He turns around and I start tripping over my tongue. Apparently, the butterflies flying around inside of my stomach disengaged my tongue. Eventually, I explained about Karla, her cancer, and her current surgery, and asked him if he would be willing to send her a message.
He said yes.
He said, “Hey Karla, good luck with your surgery. I wish you the best. Everything is going to be fine. Just feel good, say a little prayer, lay back and relax, and you’ll wake up better. (kisses two fingers and extends them in a peace sign) Much love.”
I’m the BEST SON-IN-LAW EVER!!!
So I post the video to Facebook and tag both my wife and my mother-in-law in it. When Karla woke up from anesthesia my wife couldn’t wait to show her the video. As soon as she saw it… she passed back out! LOL. To this day, all she can remember of that surgery was dreaming about LL Cool J all day!
Now the lesson that I learned from this was the overwhelming feeling I had right before talking to him. While, yes, he’s an icon, a celebrity, but he’s also a human. I was having a difficult time trying to connect with another human. The lesson that I learned is that connecting with people is not as difficult as we pretend it is. There are so many barriers that we put in the way of genuine connection, and we don’t have to.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company stands out because we are less tied to bottom-line numbers and more tied to our mission of service. The only reason that I am living the life I am now is because of the powerful services provided by the librarians and parks staff from the City of Seattle. To that end, I long-ago decided that we will devote a portion of our time, energy, and resources to providing the same quality of services we provide our Fortune 100 partners at a fraction of the cost to our municipal partners. In the last two years, we have discounted over 500,000 dollars of our fees to provide our unique methodology to those who serve. I will never know the names of the librarians who made me feel special when I was five-years-old, but I can make it a point to represent them and their kindness in everything I do. Even with tremendous discounts, our company continues to grow 200% each year. So far, all of our growth has been through organic referrals. We do no advertising. Being true to a mission, tied to a core belief in the goodness of people, continues to drive me and my company forward.
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?
I am absolutely fortunate to have had a string of mentors and guides along my proverbial journey, but if I were to select one person to share a story about, I would select Dr. Randy Currier. When I met Randy, I had a pretty clear idea of where my life was going. I had just earned my bachelor’s degree in graphic design and was starting at a healthcare firm as a digital marketing manager. I knew that I would be a marketing executive in no time.
Since my title was “Digital Marketing Manager,” I was invited to attend the leadership development program put on by the organization. Randy, the VP of Human Resources, ran the meetings and took notice of the way I participated in the sessions. After my third meeting, he pulled me aside afterward and said, “You have a unique way of engaging in leadership development. I think you would benefit from one-on-one leadership coaching.” Little did I know that he was grooming me to be the company’s first Director of Organizational Development. At this point, I didn’t even know what Organizational Development was. Three years later, I had found my life’s calling in Organizational Development, had earned my Master’s Degree in Organizational Development, and had started doing change management and organizational development work with Fortune Global 500 organizations.
Absent the influence of Randy on my career trajectory, I would not have started my business and would not have helped so many millions of people understand the brain science and psychology of debates, arguments, and communication.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. 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 is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to change or adversity. The most important element of resilience is that it is action-focused. It is not a passive thing that happens, but rather it is an adaptation to a changing environment or a recovery from some traumatic adversity. Resilient people tend to rapidly process through disappointment and despair and move into action. Rather than hold on to the misfortune of the current situation, resilience helps us ask, what can be done.
People who are resilient have flexible memories. They have a long memory of the struggles that have been overcome. They say phrases like, “I’ve made it through every struggle in my life to this point… I can make it through this one too.” Interestingly, they have relatively short memories of the trauma of the present. Because recalling trauma is not immediately actionable. They are able to act, based on what is present now, rather than dwelling on the difficulties that have caused the current circumstances.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
When I think of resilience, I think of my superhero mother. After escaping a difficult domestic situation, then living as a homeless single mother of a five-year-old and a 15-year-old, in Seattle, WA, my beautiful mother found the strength to apply to dental school. She needed additional undergraduate science prerequisite courses before she could be admitted. That didn’t stop her. I remember her studying Organic Chemistry while making me a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner. Once she got into dental school, she realized that she was nearly double the age of the other students. That didn’t stop her. She had a 1.5 hour commute to and from the University of Washington Dental School every day. That didn’t stop her.
Now that we’re a couple of decades past her dental school graduation, my superhero mom is preparing to retire, and sell her dental practice so that she can spend more time with her grandchildren. Because no matter what hurdle was placed in front of my mom. It couldn’t stop her.
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?
Unfortunately, if I took the time to listen, people have been trying to tell me that things are impossible my entire life. The good news is that I don’t take the time to listen to that noise. One of my favorite quotes from George Bernard Shaw, “Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those who are doing it.” While I don’t spend much time listening to people saying that things are impossible, I do hear people say what “should” or “shouldn’t be done. For example, when I was in my Master’s degree program at St. Louis University, there was a mistake (likely mine) on my summer class schedule. This mistake would have put me one required class short for December graduation. The problem was that this class was only offered during the summer, AND I already had a full summer load. Now, in this program, summer courses are drastically condensed, squeezing a full 12 weeks of instruction into five weeks. The only solution that made sense to me was to pile an additional condensed course on top of my full load, and manage my weekly international travel for work, and be a dad and a husband for my family. My professors said that I shouldn’t try to do it and that I should just delay graduation for a year, taking that course the following summer. The dean said that he didn’t recommend it because it could jeopardize my grades and put my graduation at risk.
I did it.
Not only was I able to pass all of the courses, AND do my work, AND have dinner with my family most nights, but I earned the best grades I ever scored during the entire 2.5 years of the program. It was that quarter that helped me realize that when I am passionate about something big, I have it within me to make it happen.
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?
Setbacks are a part of ife, there are hills and there are valleys. The most important thing to know is that if you look across your history, you will see that you’ve made it through every single setback to this point. Every. Single One. And sometimes it seems that it is the process of making it through our greatest setbacks, that makes us stronger. I think immediately of my darkest period of life. I was depressed, lost my scholarship, and dropped out of college. But I made it through stronger.
When I was preparing to go to college, my mom asked me if I wanted to be a little fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond. Being the slightly naive and fully optimistic eighteen year old, I responded, “I want to be a big fish in a big pond!” So after winning a State of Washington Track Championship in hurdles, I accepted a Track & Field scholarship at Arizona State University. A college that was on track to be one of the largest ponds in the history of the world. That’s a big pond.
As my first season began, I started making waves, I was one of the top 10 fastest hurdlers in the PAC-10 conference (yes, I know it’s PAC-12 now… I’m old, ok?). I even earned straight As and made the Dean’s List for the first time in my life. I was becoming a big fish.
But I’ll never forget the race in Tucson, Arizona when I was ready to tear apart the competition, but instead I tore apart my left hamstring over the fourth hurdle. I remember having visions of courageous olympians continuing to run the rest of their race even though they were injured and attempted to keep running. As I got to the fifth hurdle I tried to clear it and collapsed to the ground. You see, with a torn hamstring, it is impossible to lift your leg high enough to clear a hurdle. I was devastated.
Over the next year, I focused all of my energy on rehabilitation so that I could get back to work. There was pressure from my track coaches to heal and get back on the track. As an adult, I can see the economics of it. I can imagine them saying, “We’re paying this kid so that he can produce athletic results for us, and he’s not producing anything in the rehab room.” Feeling the pressure, I rehabilitated faster and got back on the track. Only to re-injure myself. Back to rehab.
I went through the injury, rehab, recovery, re-injury cycle at least three times. Each time, the pressure was mounting, and so was the scar-tissue. Each time, it became less and less likely that I would make a full recovery. I was letting my team down, my coaches down, my family down, not to mention, letting myself down. I started to slip into depression. I stopped going to classes. I stopped making excuses to teachers. I just stopped.
Ultimately, I started seeing a counselor on campus who diagnosed my depression and, within a few sessions, identified the root of it. The next day, I quit the track team and gave up my scholarship. Then the true recovery began. I didn’t quit trying to be a big fish in a big pond, I simply realized that Track & Field was not the right pond.
Fast forward a few years, and meet my future wife, I re-enroll in school and get straight As semester after semester, I start a family, I graduate, I enroll in graduate school, I begin working for an international change leadership firm, I earn my master’s degree, I start my own business, I speak on stages in front of thousands of people all over the world. I became the big fish not in spite of my setbacks, but because of my setbacks.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
Due to unfortunate events in the 1980s my mom, my brother, and I were homeless in Seattle. I was only five-years-old, so I don’t remember being homeless. I remember an “adventure” of going to the library, playing in parks, and waving to the garbage man. I remember that through my formative years, my mother became the ultimate Phoenix story. She became my personal superhero, rising from the ashes of homelessness to put me into one of the most academically challenging high schools in the state all while putting herself through dental school (nearly double the age of the average dental student). From my early days, I learned that nothing is more important to my survival than love and perseverance.
I knew that things were bad, even as a kid, but I knew that there wasn’t much I could do, other than be in the moment. Enjoy what can be enjoyed. I learned from an early age that things are not always going to go my way, people will have things that I don’t, I will be disappointed, and have unmet expectations, but none of that is going to stop me or stop time from moving forward.
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.
I study and teach folks about brain science, so I know that researchers have identified that the less we utilize the threat response (or have activity in the amygdala), the more likely we are to show resilience. Knowing how brain connections are strengthened by use or weakened by disuse, we know that the more we can stay calm in the face of stress, the less our brains will trigger the threat response, and the more resilient we will become.
Here are five steps that you can take to become more resilient.
- Understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Both can cause a weakened immune system, both can cause memory distortions, both can cause a disruption in cognitive processing. While these two experiences affect the body similarly, they are not the same. Fear is defined by psychologists as a present reaction to a present stress or threat. Anxiety is a present reaction to a not-present stress or threat. The meaningful difference is that in fear, as soon as the threat or stress is gone, the fear also is gone. In anxiety, since the stress or threat is not present (either recollection of the past, or worrying about the future), it is possible that the stress or threat never goes away, and the physiological effects last indefinitely.
- Improve your calm. Start by staying calm in calm situations, then work your way up to staying calm in tense situations. The less your stress response (fight or flight with jittery hands, perspiration, elevated tone of voice, cottonmouth, forgetting words, etc.) the more resilient you will become.
- Talk with folks outside of your own experience. When we take the time to learn the stories of other people, we tend to widen our worldview. The dramatic benefit of widening our worldview is that our acute problems seem to change in relation of everything else. Take the time to listen to folks that grew up in a different culture than you did. Listen to people that disagree with you on a particular issue, and try to understand what drives them. All of this work will put you in a mindset of curiosity, and will help you understand a more complete picture of the world that we’re all living in.
- Acknowledge Successes. When you have success, celebrate it. We are generally so overloaded with things to do at work and at home, that as soon as we complete one, we move swiftly on to the pile of things that are not yet done. Take some time to celebrate or at least acknowledge that you accomplished something. This will boost your dopamine, and give you more energy, making you feel even more productive when it’s time to do the next thing.
- Be present. Whether you practice meditation, active listening, or some other form of mindfulness, being aware of the present moment is one of the most dramatic practices you can do for your resilience. Harvard Professor Sara Lazar Ph.D. used fMRI scans to measure activity in the brain before, during, and after study participants practiced mindfulness. The results were not surprising, after practicing mindfulness there was less activity in ane amygdala when presented with a stressful or threatening image. What IS surprising, is the data that suggests that the physical size of the amygdala was smaller! The human brain is an amazing thing!
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We are living through an unprecedented, but not unexpected period of political divisiveness. We are all moving farther and farther away from center, and what’s more, is that we are starting to judge the character of people we know or meet, based on how much or how little we agree on political issues. The concept of “unfriending” someone is happening so frequently, that the word “unfriend” is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. If I could start a movement, it would be around listening to folks with the purpose of understanding them. Not necessarily agreeing with their conclusions or their outcomes, but rather, validating their experiences and emotions. I am working to start a movement of folks that will be the first to apologize if they’ve offended someone even without meaning to. We are practicing the technique of stopping a debate in its tracks by recognizing that by us trying to win, we’re trying to make them a loser. So rather than continuing to push, we stop making our point, and start asking questions.
I imagine a movement of people that can be respectful of people we disagree with, I imagine congress restoring productivity, because they care more about the overall outcomes, than they do about scoring political points.
What would the world look like, if we all recognized that every single person we’ve ever argued with, ever debated with, ever fought with, believed to their core that they are a good, rational, and logical person? Imagine how much different our everyday experience of life could be.
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? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I would love to have a private breakfast with Barack Obama. While I know it’s probably cliche at this point, but I have a very specific reason. Barack grew up as a kid with multiple cultures (although you couldn’t tell by looking at him), with a name that didn’t fit what people expected. He has a strong desire to communicate with people in such a way that they feel empowered and supported in improving their world. His story is my story.
President Obama wrote in his book, The Audacity of Hope, that if we could stop debating ideas and ideology, and instead discuss values, we’d realize that we’re not as far divided as it seems. In my work in developing the Principles of Human Understanding, I’ve realized that folks are very quick to negatively judge the character of someone that disagrees with them, when in reality they are, looking at values, on the same page.
I would love to discuss all of this, and how he has remained resilient through all of the negativity that has been thrust his way since entering the public spotlight all those years ago.
Also, I chose breakfast because it is my favorite meal.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on:
LInked In: www.linkedin.com/in/ericmbailey