In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by keynote speaker and thought leader Eduardo Briceño.
Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I’m Mari Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Eduardo Briceño.
Eduardo is the most booked keynote speaker on the topics of growth, mindset and learning zone, which he began working on in 2007 when he partnered with Stanford professor Carol Dweck. Each of his two TED talks have been viewed by millions. He is also a Pahara-Aspen Fellow, a member of the Aspen Institute’s Global Leadership network, and he is an inductee in the Happiness Hall of Fame. Yes, there is such a thing. He has bachelors and master’s degrees from UPenn and Stanford in chemical engineering, economics, education, and management, but most importantly, he continues to enjoy lifelong learning every day.
Eduardo, welcome. I’m so excited to spend time with you today.
Eduardo Briceño: Thank you, Mari, it’s great to be here.
Mari Ryan: Today we are going to explore the topics of growth, mindset and cultivating learning-oriented cultures and how these link to wellbeing in the workplace. Why don’t we start by helping our audience get grounded on this and to understand the concept of growth mindset. Can you define that for us?
Eduardo Briceño: Absolutely and first I’ll start with growth mindset is a term that is very easy to distort, so mentioning for those who haven’t heard of the term before. Growth mindset is not working hard, it’s not persevering, it is not experimenting. It is perspective about the nature of human beings, is when we see ourselves able to change rather than fix the way we are. The reason that definition is important is that view of ourselves and of other people, whether we see people as naturals at something, whether they have something in them or not versus as anybody being able to continue to improve that impacts how we perceive things, how we react to things, how we behave, and especially, most importantly, whether we actually behave like learners to continue to develop ourselves and support others in developing themselves.
Mari Ryan: Perfect. I love that. I’m curious, how did you come to pursue this area of work? It sounds like from your education you had lots of different areas. So, why this?
Eduardo Briceño: It actually ties to wellbeing. In undergrad I studied chemical engineering and finance, and then I went to work in investment banking and then I was working in venture capital. One day I was in Silicon Valley working on my computer in the evening and I was upset about something – I don’t remember what it was – and I’ve never done this before or since, but I started taking it out on the keyboard because I was angry and hitting the keyboard harder than usual. I was just typing and doing my work, but just typing a little harder than usual. I started feeling some pain in my thumb, right here, and so I stopped working and the next day I woke up and the pain had transferred to my forearm and it was kind of burning. I kept working and figured it would go away.
Over the next couple of years it got worse and worse and I figured I would just go to the doctor. The way that I thought about doctors up to that point is that I thought of them as mechanics. I can abuse my body and then I’ll go to the doctor and they will fix me. That had always worked. They would give me a medicine or they would give me something to do and then I would go back to full health.
I went to an orthopedist and he prescribed physical therapy twice a week, which I started doing religiously. A few months in I thought I was doing a little bit better, but the therapist said, you know, you’re not getting substantially better. So go back to the orthopedist and talk to them. So I spoke with the orthopedist and he said, no, you should be getting substantially better. So this treatment is not working for you, but I don’t know what you have. I’m going to refer you to a surgeon, an orthopedic surgeon. So, I went to the surgeon and she diagnosed me and she said, I’m going to tell you something really important. Listen to me. You don’t have carpel tunnel syndrome. A lot of surgeons would tell you that you do, but you definitely don’t. Don’t let them operate on you, but I don’t know what you have.
Then I started freaking out because nobody knew what I had. I started going to other doctors and other disciplines and I started trying acupuncture and meditation and all kinds of things from the eastern/western medical standpoint. In this process, part of what I learned from online research and trying to figure out what I had is that this was a repetitive strain injury of some sort and one of the things that was helpful was changing my ergonomic set-up at work, the physical set up. I had a great physical set-up, I started using speech recognition, I had to use speech recognition for three years because I couldn’t use my hands for three years. In the training for the speech recognition software I met other people who had the same condition and had deteriorated to the point where they couldn’t use their hands for more than 10 minutes a day.
That freaked me out because I realized, wow, I can’t … first, nobody knows what I have or how to fix it, and if I get worse I’m not going to be able to use my hands and I don’t know how to do anything without my hands. That means I’ll be disabled and I’m only 27 years old. So I gained a sense of mortality, not in the sense that I might die, but in the sense that I might not be able to do things in the world. Through that I realized that what I was doing was not making a difference in the world. If I was prevented from continuing to work, I wouldn’t have made any different in the world up to that point. Because in venture capital, the way that I was thinking about it there was so much capital in the industry that the great startups were going to get started whether or not I was working there. I was in boards of directors, advising CEOs with very little experience so I was feeling a lack of authenticity and trying to be, you know, repeat what other people said and I had a deeper understanding of it.
I was feeling like I wasn’t authentic and doing something that was worthwhile. That’s why I went to grad school, and in the process my wife had changed jobs a few times until she became a teacher. When she did I saw a change in her where she found her purpose. It was a very different kind of feeling that she had and I realize that was an awesome thing to have and I didn’t have it. So I went to grad school in pursuit of that. I was interested in social entrepreneurship, I was interested in education so I explored several ideas for social entrepreneurship in grad school. I was introduced to Carol Dweck there. She’s the Stanford professor who coined the term growth mindset. She has done research for decades, and she was looking for a partner to partner with a business background to bring this idea out into the world, so that’s how I got into this work.
When I learned about her work and I read her book – this was in 2007, which was a year after she published her book – it explained so many things about my life where I had a fixed mindset where I presented myself from pursuing goals that I cared about that I wasn’t aware of. This helped me gain a better understanding about how to be more effective, and therefore I thought this was important work to get out there and help people reflect on.
Mari Ryan: Thank you so much for sharing that very personal story. I really appreciate that. I am also curious to know about how long from the time you made this decision to go in a different direction of your life, did it take before the symptoms that you were experiencing disappeared? Or did they?
Eduardo Briceño: They did eventually, but I was using speech recognition for three years. I was stretching for an hour and a half each day for three years. At the beginning I spent six weeks in DC getting a particular treatment there that is not available in California. So I spent about five or six months fully focused on my health and after that continuing to meditate, to stretch, to change the way that I ate because I didn’t grow up eating vegetables so I didn’t have micronutrients going into my body so my body wasn’t getting the nutrients it needed to heal and to function well.
So it took a while for my body to heal. It took about three years before I was able to start typing consistently and not using speech recognition. So it was about three or four years it took to get back to full health.
Mari Ryan: I’m so glad that you are able to regain your full health. It’s so interesting how sometimes our life lessons in these ways are so tied to the core of our wellbeing and our health. Again, thanks for sharing that.
Eduardo Briceño: I agree, and also I would add, Mari, that at the time I was 27 years old and I thought this was a horrible thing to be happening to me. I thought, wow, I can’t believe this is happening to me and I’m only 27 years old. It was a very dark period, but looking back I realized it was a blessing because if that hadn’t happened to me, first of all I would not have found purpose, but I also would have run down my body to the point where I probably would’ve had a heart attack in my 50s or 40s. Now I am in much better health, physically and emotionally I’m engaged in work that I love and that gives me purpose. So I am in a much better place because of this tempest that I went through and my body and my health were a signal that I needed to do something and change something.
Mari Ryan: So often our wellbeing manifests with the symptoms and it’s really important to get to the root cause. While it wasn’t our intention here today that our conversation would be about purpose, purpose is really, as we can see, such an important element in how it can influence our wellbeing.
Eduardo Briceño: Yes, and your points about root cause were simpler for me in my journey when I finally went to the person who diagnosed what I had and talked about what were the root causes of that, which were of life, the way I was living, the way I was holding my body with tension, the way I was eating, the way I was exercising, all these things. I had to change my lifestyle. I used to think that if you just take some medicine and you get treatment and then you are done but I had to learn what leads to this. Interestingly, eventually what I learned was that I had was something called myofascial pain syndrome, which is something that was discovered and studied by a doctor named Janet Travell, who was JFK’s White House physician, and then she stayed on for Lyndon B. Johnson. So she was his physician as well. She wrote this huge, two-tome medical book about it and because nobody knew anything about it, I read those books, which are meant for doctors so that I could educate myself and understand what was going on with my body. That helped me heal, but it took me learning about my condition and getting in the driver’s seat of my learning in order to figure out what journey I had to go on.
Mari Ryan: That is really a powerful story. Thank you so much for sharing that. In reflecting on your personal experience and what you were learning in the work that you are doing at Stanford, how did you come to see the relationship between a growth mindset and individual wellbeing?
Eduardo Briceño: There are several connections. One is that in a growth mindset – first of all the most obvious connection is that in a growth mindset we can get better at whatever we see in a growth mindset. For example, if we want to be writers and we had a fixed mindset about writers and about writing, thinking that some people are natural writers and some are not, that fixed mindset is going to prevent us from getting better as writers and becoming good writers. In the growth mindset we will always be asking for feedback on how writing and figuring out how we can do things better. We might read books about writing or go to workshops about writing.
The same thing is true about wellbeing. If you see happiness or something that you either are a happy person or you are not a happy person. That is going to prevent you from getting better at happiness versus if you have a growth mindset about happiness thinking that you can develop it. So that is one.
Second, in a fixed mindset it generates stress for us because everything is high-stakes. We are trying to prove ourselves in whatever we do, see if we are great at it and whenever we make mistakes or whenever we struggle, we feel bad about ourselves and we’re not so good and we don’t have a solution for that. That’s very stressful. It impacts our wellbeing.
Third, a growth mindset helps us have better relationships with other people because it helps us ask better questions because we want to learn from them. It allows us to better listen to other people and that builds relationships between people, positive relationships with other people definitely helped contribute to our wellbeing as well.
Mari Ryan: Fabulous concepts there. I’m curious about this idea of we think we can’t change or make changes in our lives. Around behavior change, which is a core element of wellbeing, often times is you have discovered in your personal journey we have to change some things and we don’t often think that we can do that. We talk about a concept called self-efficacy and I’m curious as to whether that’s the same as growth mindset or is it different?
Eduardo Briceño: Self-efficacy is very related to growth mindset. It’s a little bit different. It’s a concept that was coined by another psychologist named Albert Bandura, who was a colleague of Carol Dweck at Stanford – they are both its Stanford right now. Self-efficacy is the belief that we are in our driver seat, that we can control our behavior and control the things around us. In a fixed mindset, our sense of control is different than in that growth mindset.
So just to give an analogy, if you think about a sailor in a ship if that’s sailor has the sense that being in control means controlling the weather and controlling what is going to happen in the sky, that’s going to be really frustrating versus a sense of control is that you can better observe the sky, see what’s happening, navigate to better places and if there is a storm you will be able to control what’s on your ship so that you can get through it.
In a growth mindset we are in control of our behavior and we are in control of our learning, so when there are mistakes and challenges, when there is struggle, we have a sense of control that we are competent and we can get through that even if we don’t have the answers to start with. We can figure out what those answers are, versus a fixed mindset our sense of control is more like, I need to control everything. Like in the epidemic, for example, that we are living through right now, some people feel like, man, can’t we just fix this virus and have it go away. It’s about do you need to control everything and control life and be able to edit genes so you can control your babies and control absolutely everything, or do we have a sense of control in the sense that there is uncertainty coming our way, changes coming our way, but we are in control in the sense that we are competent, we can adapt to it, we can learn from it and come out stronger.
Mari Ryan: Great concepts there. Is there a way in which having a growth mindset, in the workplace in particular, can actually support wellbeing? Let’s talk about this in the context of the workplace.
Eduardo Briceño: Definitely a growth mindset helps us build a sense of wellbeing, whether it is as individuals or in the workplace. For example in the workplace we can think about can we improve our culture, can we improve the way we interact with each other. One thing that I think adds a lot of stress to people, I think, is if teams and organizations have the expectation that people need to reply to emails right away – just to give an example – if people need to reply to emails right away it means that everybody has to be on email all day and that has been shown to be a really ineffective way to work because people can’t focus on one thing and think deeply about that thing, and that leads to stress.
So if we believe that we can get better figuring out better norms of working, whether individually or with each other, then we can have conversations, ask questions, get different people’s opinions onto the table to figure out what’s working and what’s not working, how can we get better, and that results in wellbeing, along with better efficiency and better results.
Mari Ryan: It sounds like that is such a positive outcome for everybody to be able to have that viewpoint and be able to really believe that things can change and that they do have some level of control over making that all happen. No doubt wellbeing will be impacted because I’m sure I’m not the only person who hates email and it causes a little stress with that.
Eduardo Briceño: The root belief around growth mindset is that we can change. If we are feeling conflict with our colleagues, we can learn through addressing that and talking about it. If we are feeling stress and feel we can’t manage things and prioritize that we can change ourselves by trying to figure out how can I get better at whatever challenge is at hand.
Mari Ryan: No doubt that contributes significantly to well-being both the individual and at the organizational level. If our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, where can they find you, Eduardo?
Eduardo Briceño: The best place is LinkedIn. That’s where I am most active. I’m also on Twitter and my website is wiringgrowth.com.
Mari Ryan: Fabulous. Thank you so much for this great conversation. I’m so delighted that you were here with me today, and as always I adore spending time with you. Thanks.
Eduardo Briceño: Ditto. Thanks Mari, it was great to speak with you.
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