The Thrive Questionnaire With Natalia Brzezinski

The Brilliant Minds Foundation CEO says she's paved her path to success by cultivating positive energy, learning from others, and putting herself first.

Image courtesy of Natalia Brzezinski
Image courtesy of Natalia Brzezinski

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Natalia Brzezinski is the CEO of Brilliant Minds Foundation, an initiative focused on bringing together traditional, long-term business families and major tech founders to debate the convergence of humanity and technology. She is an experienced moderator, journalist, and communications strategist focused on building dynamic dialogue across numerous sectors and cultures. Natalia is also the host of the podcast series, The Brilliant Minds Podcast, where she holds open and honest conversations with leading entrepreneurs, politicians, artists and activists that share a passion for leveraging creativity for impact. Read on for her best tips for how to put sleep first, prioritize time for herself, and cultivate positive energy in your life.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

NB: Six months ago, the answer would be open my iPhone. Today, when I get out of bed I sit down on the ground and pet my dog. He sleeps next to my bed, and expects a tummy rub the moment I open my eyes.  We got a German Shephard puppy one year ago, and I’ve been amazed at how a pet can bring you a sense of the moment. I’ve never had a pet in my life and I’m experiencing a new set of emotions that are very healthy for me. I think it’s important to have a morning practice that engages sensory emotions and allows you to begin the day with a slow, thoughtful pace such as smell (carefully crafting a home-made cappuccino or perfectly poached egg), engaging with a pet using touch, reading the newspaper, or a15-minute yoga stretch. Your morning sets the tone for the entire day, if it’s rushed and frenetic, usually the rest of the day is too. 

TG: What gives you energy?

NB: Unconventional people, crazy ideas, children’s laughter, women who don’t judge other women, a powerwalk before the sun rises, anything physical like dancing, roller blading, or ice skating. 

A quick “energy infusion” we practice in our family is “the sandwich”. When one of us is tired or down we immediately yell out “SANDWICH!!!!” and wrap each other up in a bear hug with our daughter in the middle as the “cheese”. It makes us smile and remember what matters.  Human touch is so important to strong and open energy. Unfortunately, we’re in a complicated period when it comes to expressing appropriate human touch and admiration. I want to help be a part of building new workplace cultures rooted in openness and compassion that enable people to express feelings in a gender appropriate and sensitive manner. 

TG: What’s your secret life hack?

NB: I don’t believe there’s such a thing. We need to get up each day and keep trying. Maybe my secret hack is not believing in a secret hack. It’s a mosaic of ideas and best practices that carries us through life. 

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

NB: For years, my husband has called my phone the “other man” in our marriage. It was a toxic threesome. This year I began placing my phone on a desk across from my bed so I can’t grab it next to me the moment my eyes open. The fact that I actually need to get up from bed and walk across the room to get my phone has really helped me get an extra few minutes of sleep in the morning and not get bombarded with stress the moment my brain opens for the day.  Arianna gave me a bed for my phone which remains in an opened box in my office. At least the box has been opened and my iphone has been placed on the bed one time. Baby steps. 

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?

NB: I get outside and go for a power walk. I was a competitive figure skater for 15 years, and I started on the ice at two-years-old. I also ran track, sprinting, hurdles, ballet and cheerleading. I gain clarity, self-confidence and joy from movement and physicality.  My best ideas or best pieces of writing always come to me when I am out walking.  I was once interviewed one of the youngest Nobel Prize winners, Adam Reiss, and he validated my thesis that the best come when you’re away from a desk and computer and doing something completely unrelated to work. It’s scientifically proven that movement, fresh air and open spaces drive creativity and focus. 

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

NB: I felt burned out this past summer, about four months ago. I’ve spent the last ten years striving and achieving at a very high level in the public eye, while balancing family. The first five years, I navigated the U.S. State Department and engagement in diplomatic life as an active Ambassadorial spouse, a new and undefined space.   The next five years, I took a startup idea and helped build it into an established global platform and brand rooted in values and creativity (Brilliant Minds and the Brilliant Minds Foundation). Both chapters were successful, exhilarating and draining. I’m currently retraining myself to be equally driven by self-care and restoration as by achievement and “winning”. 

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

NB: I’m my greatest critic. I can’t remember the last time I “gave myself a pat on the back for a job well done.” My parents always expected 1000% from me and imbued a sense in me that I can always be better and do better. This mindset is a blessing and a curse; I am extremely hard-working and humble, but also never content.  I fail and fall short of my own expectations often, however, I’ve become well-trained at pivoting and not wallowing in it. Self-pity is not something I value or practice.  I have a very strong long-term view of my career, and I see small failures as part of the longer journey. The greatest lesson I have taken lately around failures is that I almost always have them when I take on too much and try to do everything on my own. I’m learning to delegate and also just say no to things that are not directly in line with my personal passion or mission with Brilliant Minds.  

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

NB: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself”.- Andy Warhol.  Every job I’ve ever had, I’ve created myself. Every personal challenge I’ve had, I dug myself out of single-handedly. I believe in self-agency and practicing fearless entrepreneurship in every aspect of life. I love this Warhol quote because it critiques the complacency and lack of agency we can get used to and socialized into in daily life. 

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

NB: My mind can spin with anxiety and panic when I am overburdened. In the past, I’ve made mistakes by acting too quickly and rashly out of a place of distress and weakness. I’ve learned to step back when the panic sets in, go for a walk, ask an opinion, or help and just literally breathe. 

Most importantly, I’m learning to prioritize myself in these moments. Since I am the CEO and head of creative content, when I can’t perform and be at my most creative self, there is a snowball effect of bad energy in my team and also in my home. When I put me first, I’m actually putting my family and team first. 

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?

NB: On an almost daily basis, I tell the little girl inside me that she is not just ‘good enough’, she is strong, amazing and one in a million. Sometimes she listens, sometimes she doesn’t. But you can’t do anything bold or entrepreneurial unless you have self-confidence. When I’m confident my team is confident. If you don’t believe in your own ideas or vision, no one else will either, certainly not investors or team members. Entrepreneurship is 99.9% determination, confidence and strength, the product emanates from that. 

TG: Do you have any role models for living a thriving life?

NB: I don’t believe in role models. I believe in openness and community. Everyone is struggling. But if we are real and open with our struggles, we can all take a bit of inspiration and best practices from each other and build our individual and joint capacities together. 

I’ve built a strong network of women of many different ages, sectors, cultures and ethnicities, who I observe, confide in and learn from. They are my teachers. I don’t do things exactly like they do nor do we always agree on everything, but we all come together around our shared struggle and our shared determination to not be put in a gender box or defined by others because we are women. We are trailblazers, big and small, loud and soft, and we support each other forge our own paths. 

TG: What’s your personal warning sign that you’re depleted?

NB: I know I’m depleted when I begin to feel defeatist and doubtful of my capacity to accomplish something. Pessimism and hopelessness is not part of my character. I’m defined by a steely determination, positive energy and passionate work ethic. If I feel like I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning or want to give up on a task, I know there’s a serious problem. I’ve only felt like that once in my life. 

TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?

NB: I have a hard time practicing traditional meditation or breathing. I’ve realized that my “meditation” is spending unadulterated time with my child. 

I had a breakthrough a year ago when I volunteered to be a chaperone for a 3-day camping trip with my daughter and her 4th grade class in the mountains of West Virginia. There were no cell phones, no wifi, and we were frozen bodies sleeping outside in sleeping bags in 25 degree temperatures. It was a very intense and immersive experience. I rose to a new level of presence and life laughing with the kids, coming down to their level to see how they perceive life and authority, and being in the silence of nature with no external distractions.

TG: What brings you optimism?

NB: Children bring my hope and optimism. It’s a cliché answer, but if you really listen to them, they have so much light and wisdom inside. My daughter has been my greatest teacher; she helps me work on my worst parts but also accepts them and loves them. C

TG: Fill in the blanks: People think I/I’m _______, but really I/I’m ______.

NB: People think I’m extremely extroverted and outgoing, but really I enjoy my alone time and need a lot of it to restore and be creative. I hate late evenings and big dinner parties, and prefer intimate, substantive gatherings and to be in bed by 8.30pm and wake up at 4.30am which is my usual sleep schedule. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your sleep. 

NB: Sleep is a lifelong challenge for me. I’ve experienced fear and anxiety around the process of falling asleep since I was a very young child.  My parents are immigrants from Eastern Europe, and we were very poor when I was growing up. There was always a parent working late nights, or on bad days, there were fights over money or lack thereof once I was put to bed. I also had to be up some mornings before 4am to make it to ice skating practice before school, and I was constantly anxious that I wouldn’t sleep well and thus perform badly at practice.  Nowadays, my lights are turned off by 8.30pm. Whatever timezone, country, hotel room or bed you may find yourself in as a traveling entrepreneur, you need a personalized routine that makes you feel safe and comfortable. Your body will automatically step into the pattern and habit of resting once the routine is detected, no matter what timezone you’re in. Muscle memory is an incredible thing. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others. What did you do, how long did it take until it became effective, and how you sustain this habit?

NB: I work internationally and have my core team based in Europe. On a daily basis, I’m communicated with people all over the world across nine time-zones. It becomes easier to just do everything via text message, Whatsapp, Telegram, and Signal. But texting is the worst form of communicating! I’ve begun to limit the communications I do over text because the written word across cultures can be severely lost in translation, and each culture has a very different writing style. 

For example, I work a lot in Sweden where people are very curt and direct in writing, versus the more emotive and personalized American style. Hurt feelings, misunderstandings and incomplete concepts emerge. I also think men and women communicate differently in writing. Complex issues cannot be dealt with this way. I have a new ‘ban’ on using text for anything beyond logistics, schedule or simple ‘yes or no’ questions. My telephone and Skype/Google Chat is now having a much-needed renaissance and my professional relationships have never been stronger. 

TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?

NB: Getting married at age 23. My husband and I are a classic yin and yang; he’s very cautious, disciplined and measured, and I’m very creative, spontaneous and enjoy taking risks. It took us years to appreciate our differences and learn from one another, but today we’re an unassailable team and we’ve helped each other grow and flower in remarkable ways. I push him outside of the box, and he gives me a box of stability.  We bring each other creativity inside and outside the home. 

Since my work has a lot to do with understanding very different people and bringing them together around shared values, I take lessons in communication and empathy from the home to my work. I try to act as a bridge between established leadership and modern disruptors, and a lot of my ideas come from my interactions at home and with family since we are a multi-generational and multi-cultural extended family. 

TG: What’s your secret time-saver in the morning?

NB: I set my coffeemaker and soak my oatmeal the night before, I need to wake up to an immediate coffee and hearty breakfast.  Since I travel so often, I also have six or seven different toiletry cases and extra phone and computer chargers ready to go at any time. I have two or three bags at a time prepared with necessities (socks, workout clothes, umbrellas, hair straighteners) so I’m always almost packed and ready to go. I hate packing so this removes the stress of forgetting things. 

TG: What’s your evening routine that helps you unwind and go to sleep?

NB: I stop checking email at dinnertime, which has taken away a lot of the anxiety I used to get staying awake in bed and thinking about a troublesome email I got at 9pm.  Also, a cup of fennel, anise and peppermint tea with manuka honey is works magic. 

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