“Why we need to develop our ability to change how we feel” With Dr. Alan Watkins & Fotis Georgiadis

If you can’t blame things for the bad things happening, you might have to accept that you can change your life and the world around you. This might make you more scared initially or even overwhelmed. But if you have truly developed the ability to control fear or panic then these feeling would pass and […]

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If you can’t blame things for the bad things happening, you might have to accept that you can change your life and the world around you. This might make you more scared initially or even overwhelmed. But if you have truly developed the ability to control fear or panic then these feeling would pass and you could switch to a more productive emotion such as determined.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan Watkins.

Alan qualified as a physician in 1986 having also attained a first-class degree in psychology along the way. He spent 12 years working in the National Health Service in the UK and a year in the pharmaceutical industry in the USA as part of his studies for his PhD in immunology. He worked as a GP in Australia but ended up in neuroscience research before leaving academic medicine 24 years ago.

Since 2002 Alan has been running his own company, Complete, which now works with about 100 multi-national companies in all markets and all geographies to accelerate development and reduce human suffering. In addition to being coaches and confidants to some of the world’s best CEOs and leaders he and his team of 15 coaches also work in schools helping teachers and children develop greater levels of emotional literacy. Complete also work with professional athletes and Alan personally coached many athletes and coaches prior to the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, helping the GB Squad to achieve record medal hauls.

In his spare time Alan writes books on a range of leadership issues as well as books on how to solve the world’s toughest problems. He has published seven books so far and is currently writing three more: simultaneously; one on innovation, one on change and one on truth and power. He is a sought-after international keynote speaker and his four TEDx talks have attracted over 5 million views. He has recently been appointed a Visiting Professor in Business at Kingston University, UK.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ispent 12 years as a medical Doctor working on the front line in the NHS but then I gave all that up 24 years ago to work with the global leaders of multi-national organizations. When people ask what is the connection? I tell them it is “human suffering”. As a consultant on the ward I only had 200 lives I could improve. Fifty on the ward and 150 or so in outpatients. As a GP I had 2,000 patients but 1,800 of them were well so I only ever saw the same 200. But when working with multi-national corporations they have up to 400,000 staff. So, if I can improve the quality of leadership so that leaders make better decisions that are more compassionate, more inclusive and more sustainable then I may be able to reduce the suffering of their workforce. If that workforce is a few hundred thousand strong and we include their families, we are immediately talking up to 1 million lives improved. If we take the businesses’ supply chain into account, it could affect the lives of 5 million people, from just one company. So, for me it was always about the reduction of human suffering at scale. The company I run works with over 100 companies now and that gives me a chance to positively impact millions of lives, reducing suffering and experiencing the joy of seeing people develop too.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Many years ago, I was keynoting at an education conference in Kauai. A member of the alternative education movement said we need to completely change the way we think about education. He suggested we must stop trying to pour information into children and start with their innate and insatiable curiosity. He demonstrated this by gathering 10 children in the room (unusually for most education conferences there were children present). He asked them all if they had a question. Some did, some didn’t. Then they voted on who had the most interesting question. The question that won was “do fish fart?”. That is where the lesson started. He asked them what is a fart? They discussed it was gas produced by bacteria in the gut which took us onto an exploration of biology. He then asked how do we know that the fish farted? One child said we saw the bubble appear in the water. So, we started talking about gas and liquid and got into chemistry. Someone asked how big was the fart? So, we explored how to measure the size of that bubble which took us into maths. We eventually covered nearly every subject it was hysterically funny and extremely memorable. I learnt that to help people there is no reason you can’t have fun and be radical at the same time when working to transform outcomes.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Joseph Campbell, a Professor of Comparative Religion, a world expert on mythology and the man widely cited as inspiring George Lucas to make Star Wars is a great hero of mine. He always suggested that human beings should “follow your bliss”. Which means find out what really matters to you and do that. He recognised that following you bliss will enable you to live a fulfilling and meaningful life. It is a principle I have passed onto my four boys. There are many other principles and philosophies but that one really helps.

Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

I have often asked myself if I could only teach one of the many lessons my team teaches people what would that be? My answer is that before we learn anything else we need to develop our ability to change how we feel, on demand, wherever we are and regardless of what is happening. It is entirely possible to develop the ability to control your emotions to such an extent that you NEVER have to feel anything you don’t want to ever again.

Imagine if a child could do that. They would never need to feel anxious or scared or bullied. People who take drugs to feel better could just feel better without the drugs. Crime would drop dramatically. People who feel they are not good enough could feel confident. People who worry could feel content. People who are greedy could feel complete already. People who feel the need to be unkind to make themselves feel better could just feel better. If we take radical ownership of our emotions and develop the ability to control our response in life to any situation we become response-able human beings and the world would change forever.

How do you think this will change the world?

Response-able human beings who don’t blame each other or the government or their customers, kids, spouse or anyone for how they feel. This would change everything. People would feel empowered and in control of their lives, no more victimhood and blame.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

If you can’t blame things for the bad things happening, you might have to accept that you can change your life and the world around you. This might make you more scared initially or even overwhelmed. But if you have truly developed the ability to control fear or panic then these feeling would pass and you could switch to a more productive emotion such as determined.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I have always been a great believer in the importance of extracting value from every single experience in life. The Australians have a word for this — fossicking. It was originally used to describe the ability to find a gem in the dust of the outback.

My own developmental journey is an evolutionary process with hundreds of experiences from which I feel I have extracted value. One such moment, was when I was working with a mining company a few years ago. I visited their copper mines in Africa and Finland. Most copper mines have enormous rock crushes because only 3% of the rock is copper so it is quite an effort to extract the bit that isn’t rock. In Finland the rock was only 0.3% copper. The experience gave me a deep appreciation for the effort that human beings can go to in order to extract value from something.

I think this is a useful metaphor for life. If you are insatiably curious you can extract incredible value out of any experience and reach a ‘tipping point’ or breakthrough much earlier in life.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We are shortly releasing a significant upgrade to our ‘Complete App’ which is designed to change the game on mental health and enable people to understand and control their own emotions as outlined above. If people simply download the App and start using it many lives could change for the better.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

You must first learn to appreciate in order to appreciate what you learn

Most people must hear something seven times, on average, before they remember it. Why are we so poor at learning? I have concluded that we find it difficult to appreciate our life lessons because we are not very open to learning. We are not very good at appreciating what we learn because we have not yet even learnt how to appreciate. If we don’t know how to appreciate how can we appreciate what we learn? Every day of my life I look around me and try to find small things to appreciate. There is beauty all around all of us and if we remain curious we can learn from most experiences.

If you take good care of yourself, it is much easier to take good care of others

The level of burnout in the caring profession is extremely high, and I saw it all around me. The mental health statistics suggest many people, in fact, struggle to take care of themselves. I learnt very quickly as a junior Doctor, particularly when I was working 140 hours per week, that it is vital to self-care. If I didn’t look after myself, I would become exhausted. If I burnt out, I would not be able to look after my patients. This taught me that it is not selfish to take care of yourself it is critical if you want to help others.

Live large and with a passion

I believe people have incredible untapped potential which is why I always encourage people to dream big and play big. To shrink away from the opportunities life presents you is to deny who you really are and the possibility of who you can become. Whatever you decide to do with your life do it with a passion. Develop your curiosity and try to live for the benefit of others.

When I was a junior Doctor, I worked for two consultant gynaecologists. One had taken a traditional approach to his career reached consultant status very early and had then become so bored he was having an affair with one of the nurses on the ward.

The other consultant was already married and had three children by the time he qualified. He decided to apply for a job as a GP in St Lucia. But he missed his connection so by the time he reached the West Indies, after eight days on the high seas in a banana boat out of Cardiff, they had given his job to someone else because they didn’t think he was coming.

Undaunted he became the island anaesthetist, despite having no knowledge of this area. He taught himself and after he sedated his patients, he assisted the surgeon with the operating. When the island surgeon was shot for having an elicit relationship with the governor’s daughter, he became the island surgeon and anaesthetist. His wife and three kids returned to the UK and he married a local girl bought an orange plantation and took up sailing. After ten years he decided to move and ended up running the flying doctor service for Quebec province.

Eventually he made it back to the UK and was my boss early in my career. He certainly lived large and with passion and that is what I have tried to do.

Leadership requires certainty, development requires uncertainty- know the difference

In uncertain times leaders need to reassure people by projecting certainty. “I know where we are, I know what’s happening, I know where we need to go… follow me”. This is a common leadership narrative. However, to develop as a human being you need to be in a very different space. You need to be curious, thoughtful, reflective and humbly recognise what you don’t know. Basically, development requires you to be uncertain. When I am coaching CEOs or school children, I am very aware of when I need to be certain and when I need to be humble and admit I don’t know.

Development requires discernment and differentiation.

As a Doctor we were trained to consider what is the “active ingredient” in any drug or treatment. What is the small thing that makes a big difference? I have taken this principle forward and applied it to many things in life. In business, people talk about ‘critical path analysis’. Which means when you are studying very complicated issues it is vital to identify the critical step that can change the whole system.

To develop as a human being, I am often forensically dissecting everything I experience to discover what is the most powerful thing in this experience that can make the biggest difference. Learning how to differentiate the ‘wheat from the chaff’, the ‘sizzle from the steak’ is crucial. This also applies to people. When building a team discernment is key. Many people say they can deliver to the highest quality standard, but few can. Spotting the difference between the person that can really add value and the person who may intend to but can’t is extremely important.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

  1. Practice feeling positive emotions (not thinking) every day because it improves brain function and health.
  2. Always be curious and open to new ideas and change. Insularity is a predictor of failure.
  3. Realize that there are three dimensions to your life. There is an inner world or ‘being’ an interpersonal world of ‘relating’ and an outer world of ‘doing’. This is what we call the I/WE and IT dimensions of existence. Successful people understand this.
  4. The greatest leaders are always looking to develop in all three areas I/WE and IT, even if they don’t use these labels. They see the untapped potential in themselves, others and the world.
  5. The truly great leaders understand that to care for others ultimately takes care your yourself.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

The world is beset by many super-complicated ‘wicked issues’. These problems seem intractable, but they are not. If you have a deep understanding beyond most observers you can step-change the future. The current narrative on mental health is about to change completely. If you want to know how and why reach out to us for a chat.

How can our readers follow you on social media?




Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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