Dr Nate Zinsser on how to develop the confidence to survive crisis
June 3, 2022. Series 6. Episode 45
In this episode I’m joined by the world-renowned performance psychologist, Dr Nate Zinsser. Dr Zinsser (or Dr Z as he’s known) – is the Director of the Performance Psychology Programme at West Point, the US Army’s famous officer training facility. In that role he prepares new and experienced soldiers for the mental stresses of battle. He also works for the FBI and is a top US sports psychologist, helping to guide a number of NFL and Olympic athletes to glory.
Dr Z’s new book, The Confident Mind – a Battle Tested Guide for Unshakable Performance – is packed with useful, practical tips on how to discover and maintain your confidence. Dr Z’s approach is far from the world of positive thinking fluff, that publishers seem to love these days. His formula is brutally frank, down to earth, and doable. In this chat Dr Z talks us through his confidence framework. And along the way he explains how the recently jailed Boris Becker can turn his downfall into a positive. He also delivers a compelling message to the men and women fighting the war in Ukraine.
There really are some gems to remember here. Like – “There’s a big difference between positive thinking and effective thinking” and “Crisis is an opportunity to get to a better life, not to just get back the life you had” and my personal favourite “Bitterness is not a clean burning fuel … it will always leave a residue.” Some great stuff here. My thanks to Dr Z and I hope you find it as useful as I did!
Dr Z’s Crisis Cures:
1 – Start by not categorising your situation as a crisis in the first place! I try to be as rational and as careful about how I think about the problem. My response is always to stop. Breathe. Hold back the emotion – be as objective as possible. Ramp down the alarm bells and see this as a situation that’s going to require a considerable input of a particular type of energy. I don’t want to be telling myself that I’m in a crisis.
2 – Define the situation appropriately – are you in a situation that means the world is going to end or one that you just wouldn’t choose to be in? Remember you have agency and capability.
3 – Decide to act. Remember, you are the leader, and you make the decisions when it counts.
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last seven years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:00:48.22 Andy Coulson:
So, on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. But you’ll also hear form renowned crisis managers, mental health and performance experts and advisors who were in the room when major crises have hit, all of them offering useful, practical coping techniques and tips. And all with a straightforward aim of guiding you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you.
00:01:17.19 Andy Coulson:
Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. And if you enjoy what you hear today please subscribe and give us a rating and a review, you can also follow us on Instagram, our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast.
00:01:40.11 Andy Coulson:
In this episode I’m joined by Dr Nate Zinsser, the world renowned performance psychologist. Dr Zinsser or Dr Z as he is known, is the director of the Performance Psychology Programme at West Point, the US Army’s famous officer training facility. In that role he prepares new and experienced soldiers for the mental stresses of battle. He also works for the FBI and is also a top sports psychologist, helping to guide a number of NFL and Olympic athletes to glory.
00:02:10.20 Andy Coulson:
Dr Z’s new book, The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance, is packed with those useful, practical tips that we love so much on this podcast. Essentially tips on how to discover and maintain your confidence. Dr Z’s approach is far from the world of positive thinking fluff though that publishers seem to love these days. No, his formula is brutally frank, down to earth and do-able.
00:02:41.10 Andy Coulson:
In this chat Dr Z talks us through his confidence framework and along the way he explains how the recently jailed Boris Becker can turn his downfall into a positive and delivers a compelling message to the men and women fighting the war in Ukraine. There really are some gems to remember here. There’s a big difference between positive thinking and effective thinking, crisis is an opportunity to get to a better life, not just back to the life that you had. And my personal favourite bitterness is not a clean burning fuel, it will always leave a residue. Some great stuff here. My thanks to Dr Z and I hope you find it as useful as I did.
00:03:27.04 Andy Coulson:
Dr Nate Zinsser, welcome to Crisis What Crisis? How are you, sir?
00:03:31.14 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I am well this morning, Andy, thanks for the invite I’m looking forward to this conversation.
00:03:35.22 Andy Coulson:
Well thank you for joining us. Dr Zinsser, I’m going to call you Dr Z, that’s the name you go by I think, by some of those that you work with.
00:03:45.18 Dr Nate Zinsser:
By many, indeed.
00:03:49.02 Andy Coulson:
You wear many hats in your professional life but the day job is at West Point, the United States renowned military academy where, since 1992, you’ve been the director of what is a cutting edge psychology programme focused on enhanced performance for cadets and I think also more experienced military. As someone who has worked so closely with professional soldiers, I wondered what you would say to those young men and women, of course, in Ukraine who’ve suddenly found themselves with a gun in their hand. We’ve seen remarkable stories, haven’t we, of doctors, teachers, IT workers, who one day were doing their jobs, the next day they’re on the frontline. How would you look, I suppose is the question, to inspire confidence in those people whose lives have changed so quickly and so dramatically?
00:04:49.13 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I would be telling them that they will be remembered by their younger sisters, younger brothers, generations of Ukrainians yet to be born, and they will be remembered by the rest of the world as the people who did the right thing in that moment. And it’s finding solace, courage, I’m not going to say contentment because nobody’s content in those kinds of situations, but it’s taking that kind of pride, taking that kind of strength in knowing that you are doing something that’s really on the right side of history. I like to think that when all of this is over, there will be numerous memorials all over Ukraine to the people who resisted during a pretty dark moment.
00:05:51.11 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, President Zelenskyy behaves like a man who maybe has read your book. He understands the importance…
00:05:59.12 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I would be distinctly honoured to know if President Zelenskyy had read my book.
00:06:04.18 Andy Coulson:
I’m sure that’s right. But he understands the importance of being confident, even if it’s just from a kind of optics point of view, from an inspiration point of view. But actually he strikes me as someone who is very confident in his own skin.
00:06:24.08 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I would have to say yes to your assertion and I would further qualify by really President Zelenskyy has no other choice but to be certain in that sense. If he is going to do the best job he possibly can, rallying his own people, rallying support from NATO, the EU and beyond, he has to be certain. I make the point early in the book, that a footballer playing on the international stage really has no choice but to be certain about his or her various capabilities if he or she is indeed committed to playing and performing as well as possible. I think the same very much holds true for President Zelenskyy. He has no choice but to display certainty that his people and his cause will prevail. I really see a whole lot of parallels between Zelenskyy’s certainty in the face of this invasion, with Churchill’s certainty in the face of the invasion that Londoners were going through in 1940 and 1941.
00:07:43.22 Andy Coulson:
Indeed, indeed. Which is something which President Zelenskyy himself has understood and has sort of channelled if you like certainly when he was talking to our parliament.
00:07:50.12 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Absolutely, right, never was so much owed by so many to so few, I believe was… I may be getting that wrong. You know, Churchill’s statement congratulating the pilots and personnel of the RAF back in those days.
00:08:14.16 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, how would you define confidence? You do it in the book but please do it for us here.
00:08:21.19 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Sure, my operating definition for someone about to perform whether it’s on an athletic field, in a boardroom and certainly on the battlefield, is a sense of certainty about your capabilities which allows you to execute, perform those various skills and processes, without having to think your way, talk your way through each step. You have to practice what’s important and you allow that competency to come out more or less unconsciously. To me that’s what confidence really is. That sense of certainty that allows you to execute more or less unconsciously.
00:09:08.24 Andy Coulson:
Got it. Your book, The Confident Mind is brilliant, I really got a lot from it. A lot of what you write, understandably, comes from the world of sport. You’re a very successful and sought after psychologist aside from your military work. I’m interested in how those lessons, though, apply to people who are in the midst of, or who are looking to recover from crisis. So my first question really is, you clearly see a link, if we were to use the word recovery, you would see a link to the word performance in the recovery context. Am I right?
00:09:45.11 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I would say that the act of recovering is itself a performance.
00:09:52.07 Andy Coulson:
Yes. So let’s talk then, about how your model applies in that crisis context. One of the key tenets of your approach is that confidence doesn’t come from what happens to you but instead it comes from the conclusions that you draw about yourself from those experiences. How does that apply then, if those experiences are overwhelmingly negative?
00:10:22.19 Dr Nate Zinsser:
You suffer an injury, you suffer a significant setback, can you conclude from those events the fact that hey, I made it through, I’m still here, I prevented a very bad situation from becoming actually worse. I did the best I could with the limited resources I had in the context of that crisis. So you have to be very, very careful and indeed rather self-serving in order to distil, from a crisis, a couple of points about yourself that create just even the littlest bit of optimism and enthusiasm for your future.
00:11:18.08 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Of course, depending on the nature of the crisis, this can be very difficult. A serious injury, a battlefield wound, how do you recover from that? Your recovery is a function of how you think about your past and your present and your future. If I’m recovering from a battlefield wound perhaps I can go back to the times when I recovered from more minor injuries. I can think about the people in my life right now who still care about me and who are still there for me.
00:12:04.15 Dr Nate Zinsser:
And as one severely injured American officer said to me, ‘I’m never going to feel sorry for myself, I’m going to have a great life. I’m going to look forward to a great life even though I am lying in a hospital bed and I’ve just had both my legs blown off’. By a friendly fire incident by the way, not enemy fire. Incompetence or negligence, call it what you like, from people wearing my same uniform. ‘I’m going to have a great life’.
00:12:43.03 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I mean that’s the kind of forward thinking in a crisis that we are all capable of, we all have free will to do that. And there are enough remarkable examples out there for all of us to take a little inspiration from and decide that no matter what I get into I will never be completely swallowed by despair or discouragement. It’s not an easy thing to do, Andrew, I can’t sugar-coat it, I can just say that it is possible.
00:13:17.03 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, the filtering of memories is also another key element of your confidence approach. This idea that you sort of self-edit your memories and focus on the positives, on the achievements and the successes. Again, in the aftermath of crisis or in the midst of crisis, perhaps more pertinently, that challenge is so much more difficult isn’t it? Give us a little bit of a feel for how, if you’ve got someone in those circumstances sat in front of you which you have had time and time again, how do you get them to start to self-edit their memory bank?
00:13:59.08 Dr Nate Zinsser:
The first thing I tell people when I’m instructing them in this process, is to understand that that self-editing is always going to give you the best possible chance of success. And you have to begin with that premise. If I am looking throughout my past for evidence of competence on my part, evidence for the ability to overcome a situation, if I’m in the habit of doing that I will always put myself in a better chance for success.
00:14:38.04 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I always say it, that’s not a guarantee, but this will always give you the better chance. Let’s cultivate the habit of looking for the best in yourself, let’s cultivate that habit long before a crisis occurs so that once we get there we at least have some experience dealing with setback, imperfection and a huge crisis perhaps that’s occurred in our training, before we have to actually confront with a crisis in the world of performance, be it a military operation or a world class athletic competition or what have you.
00:15:24.24 Andy Coulson:
You’ll have read about Boris Becker, the tennis player. Someone who had, at the age of seventeen, displayed frankly incredible levels of confidence when he won Wimbledon. As we speak he is in Wandsworth prison, here in the UK, still I imagine, coming to terms with his surroundings. He’s not been there long. Were you to talk to him, what would you say? How would you approach that crisis for that individual?
00:16:05.13 Dr Nate Zinsser:
If I were sitting in a room with Mr Becker now, I would hope his English is better than my German, first and foremost. I would be encouraging him to look at this as a temporary, not exactly quick, but a temporary phase of his life through which he’s going to learn a lot about himself and he’s going to emerge from this a more mature, more intelligent, actually, a better individual. I would urge him to think of this as an experience through which he will grow. There will be post traumatic growth and the ability to have a broader view of the world, a broader sense of his own capabilities, once he’s released.
00:17:09.05 Andy Coulson:
Okay, well I agree with every, as someone who’s been in reasonably similar circumstances, I agree with every single word of that. And as I’m listening to you it sort of occurs to me, this is an obvious point, but this is exactly what we should be telling people who are finding themselves in prison. I mean, perhaps not everyone, because that is a harder conversation with some inmates than it is with others, but that’s exactly what we should be saying to people who find themselves behind a cell door.
00:17:40.24 Andy Coulson:
And yet that sort of idea it doesn’t really, I don’t know how you feel about it from a US perspective and I know much less about the American prison system than I do about the UK, but that isn’t that kind of attitude that you just described, doesn’t really form part of the kind of criminal justice approach to rehabilitation. Or would you disagree with that? I don’t know if you’ve worked with people who’ve been through the prison system.
00:18:18.17 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I have actually had very little experience with the criminal justice system. I like to think, and perhaps this is just my naive idealism speaking, that there are resources in a lot of our prisons to help people make sense of their incarceration, learn from it and emerge from it a wiser human being. There are perhaps chaplains, teachers, I know there are opportunities for inmates in many American prisons to earn their high school diploma, earn a college degree, even earn a graduate degree.
00:19:12.06 Andy Coulson:
No, there’s plenty of that Dr Z but the point I’m really focusing on, and there’s plenty of you know, this is time to reflect, this is time to take account, all of that. The bit thought that is really interesting is the post-traumatic growth. The idea that you’re not just going to get back to where you were, you’re going to go somewhere better. That is really interesting. And that, I don’t think, and I have limited experience, so I don’t claim that this is necessarily the case, and there are, by the way, prison is full of good people doing good work, underfunded and struggling against a difficult system of course, but those people do exist. But that idea of post-traumatic growth is a really interesting one, that you can put those awful experiences in your life to work for you and help steer you towards, as I say not just getting back, but towards something that was better than you and before.
00:20:10.13 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Indeed, developing a whole new understanding of oneself, a whole new understanding of the world, a whole new understanding of how to relate to people. I tell a brief story in my book about a former Olympic athlete who was an orthopaedic surgeon for the RE, who spent six months at a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. And this remarkable lady, you know she had to put together a lot of people who had been shot up, blown up, etc. etc. etc. and she found that kind of new understanding for herself through that experience.
00:20:56.01 Dr Nate Zinsser:
And instead of coming back diminished, shell-shocked, she came back enhanced from that experience. And I think it’s possible, certainly difficult, but it’s certainly possible for people to go through those kinds of crises, we’re talking day after day after day after day, exactly what’s going on in Ukraine. They’re coming, they can come out of that with a broader understanding of their own capabilities, broader understanding of what’s really important in the world for them.
00:21:37.12 Andy Coulson:
What does bitterness do to confidence? Or it’s cousin revenge or even at the lowest, you know, score settling, what does that do to confidence?
00:21:50.07 Dr Nate Zinsser:
It just takes you out of the present and back into the past, you know? If you’re constantly nursing an old grudge, if you’re constantly replaying an offence. You may feel a certain surge of energy as you do so but that surge of energy, it carries a little pollution with it, it’s not a clean burning fuel. It creates tension, it creates an emotional residue. And hanging onto that is not going to make you more certain of your next accomplishment in any way, shape or form. Unfortunately there’s plenty of socialisation pressures encouraging people to hang on to the memory of a bitter defeat because that’s how you will avoid the same thing happening in the future. There’s a rather strange acceptance of that and it goes against everything we know about how people actually learn and improve.
00:23:05.11 Andy Coulson:
Yes, I suppose our politicians, not just politicians actually, more broadly in public life, that idea of score settling at its lowest, revenge at its highest, I suppose is part of public life, isn’t it? And I think that applies equally in the States as it does here in the UK.
00:23:36.24 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Unfortunately you’re correct. There’s finger pointing, blaming, ‘oh you did this but you did that and I did this’ and there’s very little, there’s remarkably little civility in that kind of political discourse.
00:23:54.11 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, and technology of course, means it’s not just political discourse, it’s public discourse, more broadly now, because it’s so much easier now to point the finger, albeit virtually.
00:24:06.03 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Yeah, it’s so much easier to point the finger and edit the comments by a politician so that only three or four words out of twenty are presented in a soundbite, a little video clip. And it’s completely misleading.
00:24:31.00 Andy Coulson:
I agree with that but there are also politicians, and others in public life, who put that technical ability to full use, don’t they? Anyway we digress, can we talk a little about the science behind confidence? As I understand it, your approach is based on the idea that our human nervous system is, in many kind of very important ways, that it doesn’t distinguish between something that we actually experience versus something that we vividly imagine we’re experiencing. That if you think negatively it may well impact you physically. You hold to that view very strongly, don’t you?
00:25:20.09 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I hold to that view rather strongly. All we have to do is recall an emotionally powerful dream that we had, a nightmare, and realise that here we were presumably safely asleep, yet our body underwent a significant arousal or stress response, the heart rate pumping the muscles tightening, sweat, etc. etc. all of these physical changes that are consistent with an actual physical and an actual threat to our person. Those physical changes took place despite the fact that we were not, in any way, being threatened, it was just the image, it was just what was going on. Between our ears in various sections of our brain and our autonomic nervous system responded to those images as if they were the real thing. We were indeed caught in the burning building or approaching the edge of a cliff or whatever the heck it was.
00:26:35.05 Dr Nate Zinsser:
And so if parts of our nervous system don’t distinguish between fantasy, vivid fantasy and actual reality, well maybe we have to start creating for ourselves the vivid fantasises of the realities that we wish to experience so that we can condition ourselves, change our nervous system, to have more of those capabilities and have more of those experiences. If I want to improve my serve, well, I can get very high quality mental repetitions of my serve and I can change many of the neural connections that underly the execution of that motion.
00:27:23.16 Dr Nate Zinsser:
The same holds true for how I would care to be emotionally, in a given situation. I have to vividly imagine entering into a crisis if you will, and we teach our soldiers to do this. You have to really imagine what it’s going to be like if you’re approaching that geological feature and this contingency happens and you have these resources, now get into your imagination and decide how you want to be in that situation. How you want to feel. The degree of composure and clarity that you wish to communicate because you will be called upon to communicate. That’s what officers do, they solve problems and they communicate solutions down the chain of command. So you have to practice doing that. And everybody does this to a certain degree but I think we can take advantage of this connection between our imagination and our bodies. We can take a greater advantage of that connection so as to become more mentally and emotionally prepared to handle difficult situations.
00:28:51.01 Andy Coulson:
That’s fascinating, so you use the word visualisation but you do not use the words positive thinking, very deliberately, I think.
00:29:01.24 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Yes, this is true.
00:29:02.01 Andy Coulson:
And positive thinking has its critics, as you know, just explain why you choose the words you use. Because I think you use effective thinking don’t you?
00:29:16.16 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Yeah, I use the terms selective, constructive, effective. You have to sort through, distil through, your memories, your present self-talk and indeed, the pictures you create of your future. You have to select out certain ones. You have to select out ones that are constructive to you, okay? I use the word constructive in lieu of positive.
00:29:48.11 Andy Coulson:
And you avoid positive because…?
00:29:53.09 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Because it tends to connote perhaps an overly rosy view of the world. Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
00:30:04.19 Andy Coulson:
Think it and it will happen?
00:30:07.05 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Yeah, I’m not a big fan of that. I’m a big fan of think about what you want and get your ass in gear working toward it, as opposed to sitting back and hoping and wishing that it will fall into your lap, which I see in some of that kind of new-agey writing. So you’ve got to be selective, you’ve got to be constructive and that’s how you become more effective in the way you use your thoughts.
00:30:42.10 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I’m also very careful, while I use the word visualisation, often I sometimes ask people to think of it in broader terms envisioning. The term visualisation sometimes makes people, just limits them to the visual aspect of their imagination. I can see something, Okay, I would like you to see it, I would like you to hear what it sounds like. I’d like you to feel the temperature of the room you’re in. Or the temperature of the air when you’re in a certain situation. I want you to feel the wind, I want you to feel the humidity. I want you to feel your own emotional state that you want to have.
00:31:29.24 Dr Nate Zinsser:
So let’s not limit it to the visual sense but let’s broaden it, let’s bring in sound, let’s bring in taste, let’s bring in smell. Let’s bring in feeling, feeling of your body in space, feeling of your body in motion. And feeling in terms of your emotional state. How do you want to be? Let’s incorporate all of those senses, to me that is really quality envisioning and indeed that is what tends to create the big changes. The nightmare that accelerates your heart rate isn’t just a set of pictures, its pictures plus powerful feelings. And getting that genuine emotion built into the way you envision your next performance.
00:32:24.24 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Envisioning how you’re going to live as you emerge from a crisis, again, this is what I would be asking Boris Becker to do. Can we envision the life that you want to have? As you go through your incarceration, can we envision the life that you want to have once you’re released? If that’s a life you have once you’re released what kind of life are you going to have over these next weeks and months, where you are severely limited? How are you going to behave? How are you going to be? Let’s envisions all of that.
00:33:04.08 Andy Coulson:
I think because I’m a journalist by trade so a story teller of sorts, when I was in some difficulty, I saw it very much in those terms of a story and how do I want my story to end.
00:33:21.05 Dr Nate Zinsser:
00:33:21.22 Andy Coulson:
That was the kind of key thought for me, was how do I want this to end? And I knew that that could only be in my gift. It wasn’t going to get the answer to that from anyone else at all. How could I? Do you think that the story framework for… certainly worked for me, does that fit, I think, with your construct?
00:33:52.03 Dr Nate Zinsser:
That fits beautifully. We are all living a series of stories. We can feel that we are just pawns or bit characters in the story and the story is basically dictating to us or we are the central character in the story, we are the architect of this narrative. We are the star, the director, the producer, the special effects coordinator, etc. etc. for the movie that is us. And we get to write the ending, we get to act that ending. That’s within our capabilities and it’s so important to acknowledge that. And when life punches you int he gut it’s easy to forget that you still have agency. You still have capability to determine how your day is going to be, how your week is going to be, how so much of your life is going to be. I like to think that that’s an encouraging message.
00:35:03.01 Andy Coulson:
We’ll be right back after this.
00:35:06.04 Andy Coulson:
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00:35:51.11 Andy Coulson:
Getting your mindset right is the absolute key when you’re navigating a crisis or if you’re just struggling with day to day pressures. You’ll find them at myndstream.com that’s mind with a Y, they’re also on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, wherever you download your music from. So take back some control and consider making a Myndstream playlist one of your crisis cures, I don’t think you’ll regret it.
00:36:17.01 Andy Coulson:
And now back to Dr Z.
00:36:19.22 Andy Coulson:
Another word that is used a lot now, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all because I think it’s an excellent word that provokes a lot of interesting conversation, but it’s resilience.
00:36:29.18 Dr Nate Zinsser:
00:36:30.09 Andy Coulson:
So very fashionable word at the moment. A word I suspect you have been using for a lot longer than most.
00:36:37.08 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I think that’s true. But the term resilience has a great deal of cachet in a lot of military doctrine and a lot of conversation. The idea that we will not be diminished by setbacks difficulties, etc. etc. We will bounce back like the rubber ball that you drop and it comes right back up to your hand. We will retain, we will maintain our capabilities, very, very quickly even though we are subject to injury, etc. etc. etc. I’m fine with that term resilience up to a point.
00:37:31.09 Dr Nate Zinsser:
But when you think about it the term resilience is great in terms of getting you back to where you were. But do you want to get back to where you were or do you want to go forward and beyond that? We don’t have a really good word in the English language for the process of really growing beyond where you were in response to a setback. You know we talk about post-traumatic growth. You know in experiencing difficulty but actually growing from it.
00:38:11.10 Dr Nate Zinsser:
The closest word that I’ve come across is the title of a very interesting book, Anti-fragile. The idea of things that actually gain, improve, from disorder. The idea that you drop a rubber ball and it doesn’t come back to your hand, it actually absorbs the energy when it hits the ground and goes higher. And so when you experience a setback you don’t just come back to where you were but you actually gain and go beyond that. And I really like that idea. In a way you want to be this little flame that welcomes the wind and the wind builds the flame higher and higher. I like that phrase I like the term anti-fragile, it’s not the most graceful word in the language but it’s the closest one I’ve come across to this concept that I think is very valuable. Maybe you can come up with a better one, Andy.
00:39:21.08 Andy Coulson:
I doubt it, I like that. I like that phrase a lot. Dr Z how do we cultivate confidence? Because quite often these conversations kind of occur as a result of getting older. You know, we become more interested in these ideas the more experience we absorb, good and bad and the older we get. These conversations obviously should be starting much earlier in our lives and I know that you’ve worked towards that aim. I know that you wrote a book, an award winning book, that was aimed at young people and starting to sow the seed of this idea of confidence in young people. How do we cultivate it then? And first of all, actually, when do you think we should start cultivating it, I suppose? Because it’s a complicated conversation to be having with a child in some ways. But what’s your view on when it starts and what that conversation should be? How can we start to cultivate more confidence?
00:40:25.09 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I think that conversation can start no later than the middle school years, when young, when boys and girls are in that stage where they become very, very self-conscious of themselves in terms of social groups. I think we can start that conversation in youth sport at an even earlier age. As soon as they’re old enough to actually pay attention for a minute or two minutes or five minutes, we can start having the conversation about ‘let’s remember how much fun it is to play, let’s remember the moments where you had the right touch on the ball. You had the right stride here, let’s just cultivate the habit of taking away from your daily sport experience a couple of memories that feel kind of satisfactory,’ you know.
00:41:40.20 Andy Coulson:
And that applies because sport does provide the framework for that kind of conversation, I suppose, more easily perhaps than for kids who are not sporty. Who have other talents or other interests.
00:41:54.02 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I would say the same for you know a young person who is interested in the violin or the piano or drawing. You know any kind of artistic passion, that same conversation. ‘Oh look at how far you’ve come, look at your development, this is really great.’ ‘Oh but somebody else is doing it so much better.’ ‘Well, yeah, but you don’t have to compare yourself to that. You can look at how good you’re getting, that’s really neat. Can you learn anything from that other person that you can incorporate into your set of skills without any kind of jealousy or envy?’
00:42:42.21 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I mean, this is the kind of artistic coaching that good parents do. It’s the kind of coaching that really good youth sport coaches do. Capitalising on the sense of fun just to play the sport, and then keeping that sense of fun as we teach people how to improve their skill level and keeping that sense of fun, putting your improved skill levels to the test in some kind of competitive environment. Without losing that joy of play, without losing that sense of fun as we become better at our sport, as we become engaged in competition, rather than allowing the competitive environment to become too serious and we lose that sense of joy and exploration, which is why we started playing the sport in the first place.
00:43:43.07 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. So if you were able to pull a lever today that the result of which would be an attempt to increase the confidence of our young people, what would that be? What’s the one thing that we should be doing and aren’t doing?
00:44:07.10 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Do I have relatively unlimited power to do this?
00:44:12.00 Andy Coulson:
You do, you have unlimited power, you have not just relative, you have unlimited power.
00:44:17.08 Dr Nate Zinsser:
That is a wonderful question and of all the podcasts that I’ve done in the last three or four months, you are the first interviewer to pose that question to me.
00:44:27.13 Andy Coulson:
That either makes it a brilliant question, Dr Z, or it possibly makes it a stupid one, we will see.
00:44:32.22 Dr Nate Zinsser:
No it’s an absolutely brilliant question. If I could pull a lever and change one thing about the way we’re socialised, I would probably say let’s get away from the tendency to think, to retain the memories of our failures and setbacks as a springboard to success. For some reason we have a red pencil mentality as we grow up through our elementary and middle school years. And we are encouraged to hang onto those disappointing memories under the mistaken impression that that creates the energy and the motivation to improve.
00:45:28.16 Dr Nate Zinsser:
If I could change one thing it would be how we communicate to young kids about their successes and their failures. I realise that’s a very broad, I just articulated that in the broadest possible terms and the devil, of course, is in the details. But that’s what I’m getting at. And I say that because I have so many people who come to my office expressing an utter lack of confidence and yet, when you talk to them, the successes that they had indeed had over the course of their lives, are rather impressive. And once you write them out on a whiteboard they’re like, ‘wow I actually accomplished all that. Why do I feel so weak and hollow and empty inside?’ ‘Well, because you were never encouraged to look at those things and feel powerful about yourself.’ So that’s what I’d like to change.
00:46:35.06 Andy Coulson:
Great, I love it. Well what do you think, we touched on it earlier, but in this context, what do you think that technology, social media more specifically, is doing to this? What impact is it having on the confidence of our young people?
00:46:54.15 Dr Nate Zinsser:
I think it’s having a rather pernicious effect in that social media allows everybody to, in a way, paradoxically, brag about themselves, show off their happy moments. And when we’re looking at other people’s happy moments and we’re honest enough to say ‘well my life isn’t all that sunshine, lollipop and rainbows, what’s the matter with me? It almost makes me feel worse about myself in reflection.’ And unfortunately this contributes to depression and this has indeed been a substantial factor in some suicides.
00:47:47.12 Dr Nate Zinsser:
There’s a remarkable book, What Made Maddie Run. I highly recommend it, it’s a very modern tale about a young lady, great high school student, went to a prestigious college, had everything going for herself but always felt inadequate relative to so many other people. And social media had a big role in sustaining that sense of inadequacy because everything that you see on social media’s ‘oh look at us we’re at this wonderful place, we’re having this wonderful meal, I’m meeting this wonderful person’. Those sort of snippets put together, hundreds and hundreds…
00:48:34.04 Andy Coulson:
Comparison has always been a dangerous exercise hasn’t it? But technology has just…
00:48:43.20 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Exactly, it exacerbates that tremendously.
00:48:46.21 Andy Coulson:
Yes, exactly. Dr Z, I’m going to ask you, rather shamelessly, for some advice. So, I am, in about a month or so going to ride, which for some people would be a stroll in the park, particularly some of the people that you’ve coached in the past I suspect, but it’s about 1,000 miles on a bike, one end of the UK to the other. What should I do, Dr Z, between now and then? I have a month, I have not done enough training, I’ve done a bit but not enough, so what should I do between now and then? And what should I focus on when I’m riding up a wet A-road on the Scottish Borders? Utterly exhausted as I fully expect to be?
00:49:34.07 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Okay, well first of all you have a month?
00:49:37.16 Andy Coulson:
About a month, yeah.
00:49:40.04 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Train intelligently, okay. Make the most of the opportunity that you have to prepare yourself physically. I would also urge you to prepare yourself mentally with a whole lot of pictures and videos of the terrain of the country that you will be travelling through, so that you have a familiarity, at least some kind of familiarity, with your expected experience, okay? You know, the footballer should know exactly what the various stadiums that she’s going to play in should look like. Where’s the scoreboard, where’s the bench, where’s the water? Let’s know, let’s get comfortable with all of that.
00:50:22.17 Dr Nate Zinsser:
So I urge you to do a lot of that sort of envisioning, if you will, with the help of photographs, with the help of video clips, with the help of all the things that we have via technology today. And then I would be urging you to journal the highlights of your training. I set a new record here, I was consistent here. I managed to drag my butt onto the bike and train four days this week. If that’s a personal triumph then let’s reinforce that by all means, okay?
00:51:09.02 Andy Coulson:
So you’re a believer in writing it down?
00:51:11.13 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Absolutely. Write it down, record it. And then you have to prepare yourself to be your own best friend and be your own biggest fan and be a great big cheerleader for yourself when you are, indeed, huffing up that road in Scotland and the wind is blowing and it’s not exactly a sunny, balmy day, there’s some spit in the air and you’re telling yourself ‘this is what I came for’.
00:51:47.18 Andy Coulson:
Rather than why am I here?
00:51:50.06 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Yeah, rather than what the heck? What the heck am I doing here?
00:51:53.19 Andy Coulson:
Which it’s likely to feel.
00:51:55.08 Dr Nate Zinsser:
This is what I came for, I came for the experience. I came to experience the tiredness. I came to experience the difficulty. This is how I grow. You have to prepare yourself for that and you have to prepare yourself with a whole litany of encouraging self-talk. So that you can have it in your back pocket when you need it. Hold this pace, here’s my opportunity for a breakthrough. My legs are indeed pistons, I handle the difficulty. You get that you have to practice thinking about how you want to be as if you actually are because you’re going to need to think that way in some of those moments.
00:52:46.08 Andy Coulson:
Fantastic, I’d like to apologise first of all, for turning this podcast into a personal coaching session, but I’m very grateful.
00:52:54.02 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Well I’ll send you the bill forthright.
00:52:56.23 Andy Coulson:
And I’d like to say thank you for this conversation, it’s been absolutely fantastic. And it’s been wonderful to hear you bring to life some of what I’ve read in the book. But there’s so much more on top of all that as well. And I would urge anyone who’s listening to this podcast to go and get the book, it is an absolute cracker. Before we go though, Dr Z, I’d like to ask you for your crisis cures. These are three very specific things that maybe you’ve leant on yourself in difficult times, I don’t know, but please share them with us.
00:53:35.17 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Certainly, I’ve given this question a bit of thought all throughout the correspondence leading up to the interview. And the thing that I have kept coming back to is in order to cure a crisis maybe the first thing, the first thing that I always encourage people to do, the first thing that I have been doing in my life, is let’s see if we can refrain from categorising it as a crisis in the first place, okay? Let’s see if we can be as rational and as sort of careful and helpful about how we are thinking of the problem, okay?
00:54:27.20 Dr Nate Zinsser:
And you know I’ve thought about the day my father died, the day my wife got sick. Problems with my kids, etc. etc. My response to that was always, okay, stop, breathe. Let’s hold back a whole lot of emotion right now. Let’s be as objective as possible. Can we ramp down the alarm bells that are going off and just see this as a situation that’s going to require a considerable input of a considerable kind of energy? But I don’t want to be telling myself I’m in a crisis, I’m in a crisis, I’m in a crisis, I’m in a crisis. I don’t know how rational or how useful that is, you know.
00:55:37.15 Andy Coulson:
I think it’s incredibly useful and it’s something that we touch in in these conversations from time to time. And it goes to so many different points, doesn’t it? It goes to, actually, the words you use.
00:55:50.05 Dr Nate Zinsser:
00:55:51.10 Andy Coulson:
When you’re in a crisis because that…
00:55:51.12 Dr Nate Zinsser:
How are you indeed defining this situation you’re in? Are you defining it as a crisis as in the life and death situation, the world is about to end? Or are you defining it as a situation that you’re in that you probably wouldn’t choose to be in but you’re in it and hello, you have agency and capability. I start the introduction of my book with a story about a West Point graduate in a very, very nasty combat situation. Bullets flying, his soldiers are under attack and yes, at one point his thought is this is how I’m going to die.
00:56:40.24 Dr Nate Zinsser:
And then he recognised the inappropriateness of that thought, he got control of his breathing and he remembered his affirmations. I am the leader I make the decisions when it counts. And then he envisioned exactly where he was going to position his particular fire power assets and as he said, ‘within just a couple of minutes I was relaxed and in my zone,’ and this is it. This is in a fire fight. Bullets are flying, people are dying. I can’t put it in any less graphic terms. But even in those situations I have agency. I am the leader. I do things. I can control my breath, I can be effective in this moment. We all have that.
00:57:40.15 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful. Are there others in your crisis cure list?
00:57:46.05 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Actually, Andy, those are the only tools that I’ve got, you know. You’ve got to make sure that you’re defining the situation appropriately, so that you’re getting a chance to act in it and then you have to decide to act in it. I scratched my head for a couple more but those are really the only two that I’ve got.
00:58:13.01 Andy Coulson:
I think they’re more than enough. Dr Z, thank you so much for your time today it’s enormously appreciated and a very valuable episode of Crisis What Crisis? thanks to you.
00:58:29.10 Dr Nate Zinsser:
Thank you Andy, for the opportunity to participate and my best wishes to one and all of your listeners as we go forward into 2022 Thank you.
00:58:39.19 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful, thank you.
00:59:03.20 End of transcription