“Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments” with Nima Novak

Because creating new habits can be difficult at first, I rely on outside community, like coaches and accountability groups. For example, I have a trainer even though I know how to lift weights. When I have an appointment with him though, I know I won’t cancel. Another way I’ve used to make new habits, is […]

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Because creating new habits can be difficult at first, I rely on outside community, like coaches and accountability groups. For example, I have a trainer even though I know how to lift weights. When I have an appointment with him though, I know I won’t cancel. Another way I’ve used to make new habits, is to meet with a group of like-minded people, who are also leveling up. Together you become accountability partners and cheerleaders for each other to keep each other motivated on the difficult days. As the saying goes, “your network is your net worth.

As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nima Novak.

Nima Novak is an Indigenous compassion based, trauma-informed Speech Language Pathologist, with a focus in neurology, from the Mohawk Tribe of the Iroquois Nation. She facilitates anti-racism work groups for her company the Living in Empathy Institute. She is also an artist, storyteller, intuitive healer and basketball coach. To teach resilience and empower her clients to take anti-racism action, she focuses on evidence-based practices and empirical research which serves to bridge the worlds of healing and science, worlds which are often relegated to different categories.

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?

Igrew up in Madison, Wisconsin and I moved around a lot as a young child. With changing schools often, I learned flexibility, resilience and how to make fast friends. In middle school, I started playing music in the school band and fell in love with basketball. Both of those experiences taught me that with practice, I can achieve anything I put my mind to. You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. Combining all these young childhood lessons, has given me a great foundation for who I am today and how I approach my life’s passions and work.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.

After the heinous murder of George Floyd, I teamed up with a dear friend. We felt the urgency to take action to stop racism at its root, within the heart, minds and actions of white people. I am Nima Novak, a compassion-based Indigenous speech language pathologist, artist, storyteller and healer. My business partner and co-founder is Erin Matthews, a brilliant Black licensed clinical social worker and an all-around badass.

Together we realized that the surefire way to fight racism was to go to the source. We knew this meant working directly with white people who were asking themselves how they could be more active in the fight against racism, but also didn’t have a clue what to do. We knew that the accidental harm caused by this well-meaning passivity was completely unknown to the white people we wanted to connect with. We also knew that if we could tap into this resource and help guide them to do the work that needed to be done, we could mobilize an entire community to begin to do their own work and to embrace their power to be part of the change.

We create a safe space emotionally and somatically, for people to show up where they’re at in their anti-racism work and get the guidance they need in an appropriate space. As an Indigenous woman, I know white people will talk about race when there isn’t a room full of people around. I know this because white women do this with me at the water cooler, in my Instagram direct messages, over email, over text, and after a few glasses of Chardonnay when they’re feeling emboldened. We wanted to bring these conversations out into the open where they could have an impact, instead of being one-off moments of subtle validation-seeking that ultimately cause harm.

Essentially we thought, “What if we created a place where people could actually engage emotionally in the work? What if we could call in white people to connect with their empathy in a way that creates a real opening? What if we created a safer space for white and white passing people to open up to the truth about racism and learn about action-based anti-racism work with deep transformations and vulnerable conversations led by experienced BIPOC facilitators?” This is why we created the Living in Empathy Institute.

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?

Erin Matthews (IG @erinmatthewslcsw), my business partner and co-founder has been a great support and mentor to me. She has given me permission to tell my own personal story of being a modern Native woman and stand in my own truth.

I remember the day when I went to her house to brainstorm how to bring Living in Empathy into reality. When I first arrived I remember being so excited for this project and ready to dive into logistics of the launch. After a full day of deep work and laughing outside in the sun, the conversation shifted to me being a speaker for the group. I remember being so surprised at the thought. Who me? What could I say that could create positive change? After a lot of encouragement from Erin and a few days, I decided to take on that role too.

Being the presenter for Indigenous history and correlating to my own personal life, has been one of the most profoundly healing experiences for me. It’s not easy, but I am grateful to give a voice to those who have been ignored and continued to be silenced.

Erin is also a role model to me in the balance of entrepreneur life and balance of self-care boundaries to prevent burn out. From the start she has believed in me, been supportive, she has helped me to be more insightful, looking at future paths and to be lighthearted. She keeps me grounded when I’m dysregulated, always keeps fun front and center and she’s a really good listener. I can’t imagine doing this work with anyone else.

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?

When I’m networking for The Living in Empathy Institute with people or meeting people for the first time, they’re often dysregulated and in fight/flight/freeze mode because talking directly about racism is uncomfortable for them. Sometimes those conversations get really derailed because people tend to go off course and ramble when they’re nervous. The mistake I made at first was not putting a hard time limit on these conversations. So in the beginning I ended up sitting through some really drawn out conversations about how amazing whale vomit smells, conspiracy theories, how meditation cures racism, and how one woman felt it was important for us to know her pet wasn’t racist.

Through this early oversight, I learned that it is important to protect my own time and energy. In these interview meetings, I am also interviewing the potential clients to see if it’s a good fit for us.

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 find it helpful to view my mind, body and spirit as a vehicle to reach success. I need to nourish all of these aspects to feel emotionally balanced and also be proactive to the unpredictable lifestyle of being a business owner. If I don’t have gas in the tank or take care of myself I will crash. Adequate sleep, daily meditation, daily movement, drinking enough water and eating food for nourishment have been big game changers for me. I used to be so focused on the projects themselves, that I would disconnect from my body which ended up in overworking myself and burnout. Daily self-care allows me to stay in the marathon of being a female entrepreneur and also the marathon of anti-racism work.

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?

Most recently during the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic, I have been reading How to Survive Today by Tonya Ingram. This book is a collection of poems and affirmations meets journal. I find the writings to be validating and comforting, while the journal prompts provide a space for self-inquiry. To me, Tonya has written a love letter to us all and a guide of how to cultivate joy while falling back in love with ourselves, which is so crucial during these crises.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“I didn’t come this far to only come this far!” I first heard this from Jesse Itzler, but now I’ve even seen it everywhere, even on protest signs. This is my personal daily mantra because of everything and everyone I am up against in this country. My ancestors have endured so much pain and destruction, I feel indebted to them for making my life possible.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Currently, my main focus is the Living in Empathy Institute. We’re overthrowing the world of old-school ‘diversity training” which really hasn’t done anything notable to actually address racism. What it has created, is this weird false sense of “doing the right thing” for companies and institutions, without having the intended effect. Most of us usually receive diversity training of some kind in school or at work. Most of us also cringe deeply at the thought of attending these studies in discomfort and misdirected well-meaningly.

The Living in Empathy Institute does not provide check-the-box diversity training. We offer small work groups for 10–12 people, where white people learn the truth about whiteness, address unconscious racial bias, uncover blind spots and ask the embarrassing questions BIPOC people are tired of fielding out in the world, but in an environment with no judgment and no shame.

We take the work into a deeply personal place through the sharing of our personal stories. We really ask that people show up vulnerably so we can address the fight, flight, freeze response that often keeps people stuck. We incorporate somatic work to ground them so they can move into a place of openness and acceptance that allows for daily action. The shifts that people experience in our groups allow them to transform without unnecessary discomfort.

We go beyond the surface work that, at best remains intellectual, and we enter and create a space for the reality of whiteness to be addressed and for true transformation to begin. It’s surprisingly much more comfortable to actually go to that level than it is to sit in the strange nebulous ineffectiveness of traditional diversity trainings. Let’s be real, no one is comfortable in those spaces.

In our groups, we are seeing instant moments of deep recognition and paradigm shifts that have the very real potential of having a major ripple effect in white people’s conversations and the actions they take to address racism in their communities. We’re seeing huge growth and quick transformation in participants as evidenced by their report of their weekly actions, testimonials and beta data study (please see our website www.livinginempathy.com). We’re seeing heart-centered, responsibility-taking and action-based change instead of awkward surface conversations that only serve to reinforce the divide.

Our curriculum is backed by research including the content, small group discussion and mind-body exercises. The groups meet weekly for four weeks on Zoom instead of the traditional one-shot meeting. We require weekly micro and macro anti-racism actions but we invite people to start slow and work their way up. It can be as simple as thinking about where your money goes and supporting BIPOC owned businesses. We’re not asking people to lay down their lives, at least not in the first four weeks.

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?

I tell my personal story numerous times per week to prevent and disrupt racism. Due to the high pressure and cost of emotional labor discussing racism trauma, after every presentation I am left feeling drained, experience severe brain fog and I am unproductive for several days afterward.

My number one source of relaxation and rebooting productivity is utilizing the vagus nerve eye release technique. Backed by Polyvagal Theory research, this technique regulates my nervous system reliably and quickly to reduce the stress response and calms my entire being (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859128/).

My other favorite on the go strategy is diaphragm breathing. This is done by breathing in and filling the diaphragm (lower belly) for 2 counts and breathing out for 4 counts. I repeat this 5–10 times or until I feel better. It can even be done on the sly on Zoom during those stressful meetings and no one can even tell. This is another Polyvagal Theory research technique.

I created a video demonstrating the techniques when I started hearing other people in my life reporting overwhelm on a daily basis. I also use the video as a tool for myself on high stress days or when I can’t fall asleep easily. What’s great is that you can do these techniques over and over, until you feel like yourself. Enjoy and be well! https://youtu.be/ADaSOEFOiA8

Body movement is also very important for me to keep myself connected to the present moment and de-stress after high-pressure meetings. I mix this one up on a daily basis so I don’t get bored. Sometimes I lift weights with my trainer virtually. This could also look like me going for a walk on the beach, stretching or dancing to my favorite Drake song.

Something to note, is that everyone is different, so give these a try and see what works best for you.

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?

On the proactive side of stress reduction, I use mindfulness. This can also vary depending how I feel on any given day. I enjoy mediation walks, boxing, guided meditations (on Insight timer), reading, writing or making art/music. I make sure to include at least one of these activities daily to prevent overwhelm. I add it into my routine, just like brushing my teeth.

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.

In my meditation practice, I like to do the Loving Kindness meditation. I first learned about this from my mediation teacher as a way to set the intention for the greater good for myself and the greater good for everyone. As I learn more, this is also a part of the Mindful Self Compassion (MSC) curriculum, an evidence-based mediation program by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer. The purpose of MSC is to increase joy and self-compassion, which in turn leads to better health and life outcomes. I like specific mediation because of the intention and I always love a research-backed intervention.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

Again, I use my go to is the vagus eye nerve release technique to reset my nervous system to increase focus. It’s so quick and effective for me.

I also use the EVO planner to get my day started. It’s a personalized planner that is based upon your brain type to promote flow across your day. When I started using this planner I noticed a significant increase in my productivity in work, which allowed extra time in the day to do fun activities.

In my environment, I also use the Endel app, which prompts you to choose sound environments to help you focus, relax, and sleep depending on what you are doing.

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?

Creating habits and routines have increased my efficiency in day-to-day activities, which then leaves more brain room for creativity, troubleshooting work problems in the moment and fun. Having more time in the day has had a positive impact in lowering my work stress, having time to cultivate deeper interpersonal relationships and more time for fun.

What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Because creating new habits can be difficult at first, I rely on outside community, like coaches and accountability groups. For example, I have a trainer even though I know how to lift weights. When I have an appointment with him though, I know I won’t cancel. Another way I’ve used to make new habits, is to meet with a group of like-minded people, who are also leveling up. Together you become accountability partners and cheerleaders for each other to keep each other motivated on the difficult days. As the saying goes, “your network is your net worth.”

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?

From what I understand, the flow state can be triggered differently for different people because it’s based upon how our individual brains work. I really like the EVO planner for planning my day to be in a flow state. Environmentally, I need to be in an organized and be working in a clean space. Knowing that, I try to pick up every day after work in my home office.

I also need to be grounded, so that’s why my meditation and body movement practice are crucial for me. I think it’s important to experiment to find out what works best for you. So if you don’t like meditation, try something else. After you find your personal recipe that works for you, flow state is something that can be achieved on a daily basis!

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.

My goal with Living in Empathy is to create a community of white people who recognize their immense power and responsibility in fighting racism. I want to connect them to the truth that racism affects BIPOC in every area of our lives. I want to inspire them to commit to a life-long anti-racist mission. If or when they fall off course, Living in Empathy is here to reconnect them to the ultimate truth of why we all need to keep persisting. Our community is here so they can stay connected to each other and ignite each other to move into action consistently. We plan to build and maintain an anti-racism empire to create a better future for the youth and everyone (and you too, reader).

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 🙂

I look to Resmaa Menakem for continued guidance. He does not mince words and he’s the ultimate disrupter who’s not signing up to sugarcoat the issues. Also in his podcasts and training he’s vulnerable and tells his own story, which gives me strength and hope to keep going forward.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

IG: @nima.novak, @livinginempathy


Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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