in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 11, 2023

Podcast #924: How to Develop Rugged Flexibility

Change is a constant. Changes big and small are always happening in our lives, while the world also changes around us. We can either resist these changes as unmooring threats to our sense of self, or embrace them as chances to get better and stronger.

The key to taking that second approach, my guest says, is developing rugged flexibility. His name is Brad Stulberg, and he’s the author of Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything Is Changing – Including You. Today on the show, Brad unpacks why allostasis is a better model for dealing with disruption than homeostasis, and how healthy change moves in a cycle of order, disorder, and reorder. We then discuss ways to move through this cycle with rugged flexibility — an approach to life that keeps some things solid and stable, while letting others change and flow. We talk about the importance of adopting a being versus having orientation, managing your expectations, diversifying your identity, and more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Change is a constant. Change is big and small, are always happening in our lives. While the world also changes around us, we can either resist these changes as unmooring threats to our sense of self or embrace them as chances to get better and stronger. The key to taking that second approach my guest says, is developing rugged flexibility. His name is Brad Stulberg and he’s the author of Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything Is Changing, Including You. Today on the show, Brad impacts why allostasis is a better model for dealing with disruption than homeostasis and how healthy change moves into cycle of order disorder and reorder. We then discuss ways to move through the cycle with rugged flexibility, an approach to life that keeps something solid and stable while letting others change and flow. We talk about the importance of adopting a bean versus having orientation, managing your expectations, diversifying your identity and more. After the show’s over. Check at our show notes at All right, Brad Stulberg, welcome back to the show.

Brad Stulberg: Hey, hey Brad. It’s great to be here.

Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything Is Changing, Including You. And you take readers through research backed practices and ideas to help them better navigate change and disruption in their lives. And this change could be small change or it could be big change, divorce you lose a job, sickness, lots of things. What led you down that research path to write this book?

Brad Stulberg: A mix of the personal and the global is the short answer. The longer answer is in the last five years in my personal life, prior to writing this book, I had undergone all sorts of change, both good and bad in what felt like a really compressed period of time. So I moved across the country, I left my job with the corporate world, I became a dad for the first time. I became a dad again for the second time, got a big old German Shepherd and sustained an injury or I guess more accurately put, a longstanding condition tipped over the boiling point that took me out of running, which had been an enormous part of my identity for the past decade. Plus became painfully estranged from family members. It’s a long story, we don’t need to get into it, but really just all sorts of changes on every level of my personal life.

So that was going on. And then I distinctly remember being in our kitchen here in Asheville, North Carolina early on in the pandemic, and reading articles that all shared the headline, when are we going to get back to normal? And there was just something about how that was worded that rubbed me the wrong way. I remember thinking like, this is so dumb, we’re never gonna get back to normal. It’s absurd to think that we’re gonna get back to normal. And I was realizing that in my own life though, in many of these areas, like I was still kind of holding on to getting back to normal, whatever that meant. And that dissonance that occurred in that moment really led me to this intellectual journey of trying to understand how we relate to change and why we relate to change in the ways that we do.

Brett McKay: Well. So yeah, you talk about one of the… Our initial responses to change whatever that is, is we want to get back to normal. We wannna get back to what you call homeostasis. Besides that response, what’s another typical response that we have to change?

Brad Stulberg: I think we tend to deny it altogether or pretend it’s not happening. Engage in some version of magical thinking. We often just rotely resist change. And I say rotely because sometimes we ought to resist change, but I’m talking about going on autopilot. So just an instant reaction of resisting change. And then finally very much related to trying to get back to the way things were is we just don’t update our expectations for the new reality. So it’s like we’re living in an imaginary old world when what’s happening around us is very new.

Brett McKay: And so yeah, you talk about instead of thinking about homeostasis, I think that’s how we typically approach our life. Like we want everything to be balanced. And that’s, you often see in the blog post or podcast or you know, self-improvement books out there. Like you gotta find balance. It’s all about finding balance, work-life balance, balance with personal interest, family interest. But you say instead of thinking about homeostasis balance, you think we need to focus on what you call what, what’s called allostasis. So what is allostasis?

Brad Stulberg: This is such a hinge point in the book, one of the few. So I’m gonna spend a little bit of time here ’cause I think it’s nuanced and really important. Homeostasis. Many people have heard of it, it’s over 150 years old. It was the first science around change. But I say science with quotes around it. ’cause this happened in the early 18 hundreds when things were very different than they are today. And homeostasis has stuck around and it describes any healthy living system is craving stability and always resisting change and or when experiencing change, trying to get back to stability as fast as possible. So homeostasis describes the cycle of order, disorder back to order or X to Y back to X. And as I said, this has been the prevailing way that folks have thought about change for well over a century. Only more recently has the scientific community said actually when you look at systems that really thrive, they don’t show a homeostatic response to change.

What they do is something that is similar but different. So yes, it’s true that good thriving systems crave stability, but that stability, they achieve it by changing. So instead of a cycle of order disorder, order; healthy systems engage in constant cycles of order disorder, reorder. So they get that stability but that stability is somewhere new. And Peter Sterling, who is a professor at University of Pennsylvania and his late colleague Joseph Ayer, they coined this allostasis. And for the nerds out there, if you look at the etymology of these words, it tells the whole story. So homo means same and stasis means standing. So it says being stable by being the same aloe alo means variable. And it says being stable by changing. So allostasis describes stability through change and that has a double meaning, right? The way to be stable through change is by changing, by getting to a reorder by not trying to go back to the old order.

Brett McKay: No, I love that. In that when I read about that order, disorder, reorder paradigm instead of order, disorder, order again. It reminded me, we’ve had Richard Rohr on the podcast before and he talks about this idea that you have to, you construct maybe deconstruct, but then you have to reconstruct something new.

Brad Stulberg: That’s right. And I tip my hat to Richard Rohr in the book because in a more spiritual or just personal growth setting, Richard Rohr writes eloquently about this in his book, the Wisdom Pattern. However, what’s really interesting is you see this in so many different domains and right, my whole jam is like trying to find patterns across disciplines ’cause then I think there’s a chance it’s true with a capital T. So Richard Rohr is writing about this in spiritual wisdom work. But then you look at management science and they describe organizational growth as a cycle of freezing, unfreezing and refreezing. And then you look at Buddhism, Richard Rohr, historically more of a Christian lens and Buddhism talks about going to pieces without falling apart or integration, un-integration, reintegration. Then you look back at the first book I wrote with Steve Magness, Peak Performance, stress, rest, growth.

So you start to see this pattern really everywhere. However, so many people when it comes to change are still stuck in this model of homeostasis. I can’t tell you how many blog posts when I was first researching this book and I put in keywords, homeostasis are all written in the spirit of behavior. Change is so hard because of homeostasis or if you wanna lose weight or you wanna quit smoking or you wanna change a behavior, you have to fight against homeostasis when in fact it’s really just not an accurate model to think about change.

Brett McKay: Yeah, talking about allostasis, when we have a change, even when things get back to “normal” they’ve changed. So let’s take the pandemic for example. I was thinking as you were talking about we had this pandemic and people were thinking, well when can things get back to normal? And you’re saying, well things will never get back to normal. Things are gonna change because of this. Even when we drop lockdowns or masks or whatever. Examples that I’ve seen in my own life, the way we do work has changed permanently properly. It’s a hybrid model. We’re doing Zoom more often, we’re doing a lot of work online. My kids, their school life has changed. Like there’s no more snow days basically because now they have remote learning. And so when it snows a lot or we get an ice storm here, the teachers can send a remote learning assignment to our kids that didn’t happen before the pandemic. So even though things are kind of back to normal, things have changed.

Brad Stulberg: That’s right. And I think the change is still occurring. Major downstream effects that perhaps we haven’t really even seen the full result of. But just geographical change. How many people moved out of big cities and what does that mean for these smaller second tier, third tier places. Geopolitical change, the pandemic completely changed our politics. Trust in public institutions, are public institutions ever gonna earn back that trust? I mean there’s so much that is still in maybe a disorder phase and there’s never gonna be what it was before. There will only be reorder. And our work as individuals, as community members, as members of society is to try whenever there’s a change to get us to a favorable reorder, to engage with things, to not just rotely resist it on the one hand, but on the other hand also not to throw up our hands and say, Hey, there’s nothing I can do. But to really try to skillfully engage with the disorder to help create that reorder in a good place.

Brett McKay: And your solution, your idea to this, to be able to manage that disorder so we can reorder to something good and positive is rugged flexibility. So what is rugged flexibility and how does it help people develop that allostasis mindset?

Brad Stulberg: Rugged flexibility is, it’s a gritty endurance and an anti fragility that not only withstands change but can thrive in its midst. And I love this term because it comes out of what most people, at least people in Western society would think of as complete opposites. So to be rugged is to be strong, to be robust, maybe even a little bit rigid. And to be flexible of course is to bend without breaking to be smooth, to go with the flow. And we tend to think either/or. So when change happens, we’re either gonna be really rugged and and buckle down or we’re gonna be really zen and flexible in, and in the research that I did for this book and seeing really across the board all the way from evolution and how species thrive over time to the individual level and looking at really successful people who have undergone big changes and how they thrive over time, what you realize is that they don’t go to either end of that polar extreme.

Like they’re not just rugged, they’re not just flexible, they’re both rugged and flexible. They have rugged flexibility. So they’re rugged on their core values, on these things that really matter to them. They’re central features what make them who they are, the hills that are truly worth dying on, but then they’re flexible on how they apply those and everything else. And the key to navigating the cycles of allostasis that we talked about is just that. It’s knowing your defining principles, your essence, what makes you who you are that you’re not going to bend that much on, but then bending on everything else. So it’s this term that comes out of non-dual thinking. Not this or that. Not rugged or flexible, which is how we so often think, but, hey, if I wanna be gritty, if I wanna thrive during change, I need to be rugged and flexible.

Brett McKay: And so what you’ve done in this book is you’ve divided up into three parts on how to develop a rugged and flexible mindset, a rugged and flexible identity and how to take rugged and flexible actions. So in the rugged and flexible mindset section, you talk about being open to the flow of life and one thing that really stood out to me in this section was this idea of developing a, being over having orientation. So what’s the difference between the two?

Brad Stulberg: In 1976, I gotta give credit where credit is due. One of my intellectual mentors no longer with us, Erich Fromm coined this dichotomy between having and being. And Fromm says that a having orientation is when you relate to things in more of an I it’s way or you own it. So I have a house, I have a child, I I have a partner, I have a 500 pound deadlift. Can be other people, can be things can even be skills and Fromm argued and rightfully so I think that a having mindset inherently makes you really fragile because anything that you have will inevitably change. So I have a kid, well what happens when your kid moves out of the house? I have a 500 pound deadlift. What happens when you become injured or the aging process gets to a point where performance starts to deteriorate? I have a wife, well that’s not a great way to be in relationship with someone.

And Fromm argued that rather than this having orientation, we’d benefit from adopting a being orientation, which is less about owning something and possessing it and more about being in relationship with it. So you can be in relationship with training, you can be in relationship with another person and you can even to some extent be in relationship with the things that you own or at the very least not identify with having them but identifying with what they can do for you. And that’s inherently less fragile because that relationship is going to evolve and change over time. And if you expect that’s the case, that’s great. Whereas if you get so clingy to have something, then the minute that that things change, you start to become really fragile and discombobulated. I think you see this in two really big ways frequently, which is parents when their kids leave the house and people who really identify with their work when it’s time to retire. And it can really be a shock to the system if you thought that you own that thing and now it’s no longer yours.

Brett McKay: So with the parent example, what would a more being approach to parenting look like when your kid moves out of the house?

Brad Stulberg: I think it would just be realizing from the outset that your goal is not to control your kid. Your goal is not to as much as it takes wise thought to do this, but your goal is not to set your kid on any given path. Your goal is to love your kid and to be in a relationship with them knowing that that’s going to change and that’s gonna look like so many different things at so many different points in time. And as a parent you do wanna just hold your kid and sometimes you wanna freeze time. And I think wanting to freeze time while it’s valid and it gets to me, I’m sure you’ve had moments like this, it’s kind of like a having orientation. Like you wanna clinging clinge to this thing that’s going to change. So the more that we can realize it changes in love in the case of parenting deeply, not in spite of that, but because of that, the better off we’ll be.

Brett McKay: We’ve had some guests on the podcast talking about one of the challenges for former elite athletes is that moment when they have to stop their sport for whatever reason they just got old injury or whatever. And it seems like the ones that succeed are the ones who developed that being approach. They realize I can’t have the joy of being an elite swimmer anymore, but I can still relate to swimming for example, in another way. I can coach, I can mentor younger athletes coming up.

Brad Stulberg: Yep, you hit the nail on the head. That’s the second example I was going to use and now I don’t need to ’cause you’re spot on.

Brett McKay: Well, you had that example from your own life, it seemed like running was a have orientation for you then you had to develop a being orientation. What did that look like for you?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, that’s right. So it was really hard. At first I remember like just walking or even driving and runners and like seeing them and feeling a little anxiety like, oh, if I’m not this then like, I don’t have this anymore, then what am I? But ultimately what I realized is that there was nothing special about my running performance. Not like I was a pro, nowhere close to it. What I really valued was the mastery of craft, the being in community, the really objective, quantifiable progress and the physicality of it. And I could be an athlete without having to run. And that’s ultimately the shift that I made. I went back to my own strength training performance route. I grew up playing power sports like so many, got into endurance sports in my early 20s and pursued that for years and years. But realized that there’s so many different ways to be an athlete and to still be a part of the running community. Even though I myself am no longer running. I still go on so many running podcasts, I still follow the sport. I still mentor younger runners and that made the off-ramp much easier than if I would have continued to cling on to needing to run in order to be a runner, let alone an athlete.

Brett McKay: Okay, so this being bean approach allows you to be rugged ’cause there’s something about you that you value that’s there, it’s gonna be all the time, right? You’re an athlete, you’re a parent, but allows you to change how that looks as things change or even as you change.

Brad Stulberg: Yes. As you change. Bingo. Another way to look at it is like, what’s the core value underneath the thing that you’re currently doing and that core value that’s really rugged. Generally, you don’t have to sacrifice core values, but how you apply that core value over time. If you wanna change gracefully and with grit, then you have to be really flexible. So the value of athleticism or community or physicality or challenge or love that you hold onto, that’s really tight and rugged, but then the application of it is very flexible over time.

Brett McKay: And then you can apply this to your career as well. I think some people get, they get hung up in the have mentality about their job. Well I am an executive. I have this position. Well you gotta find out what’s the underlying thing about the work you do that really brings you fulfillment and satisfaction and focus on that and then figure out ways it can change over time to get more of that.

Brad Stulberg: That’s right. Someone that did this really masterfully, who I profile in the book is the tennis player Roger Federer, one of if not the greatest tennis players of all time, had a very incredibly long career. And what a lot of people that are casual fans of the sport overlook is that around age 32, 33, Federer fell off a cliff. For three years, between 33 and 36, he was dropping out of tournaments that he once would’ve won in his sleep. He was injured all the time. He was not ranked highly. I mean he just was performing like a below average tennis player. This is like Michael Jordan having a three year period of just kind of being average. And Federer realized that he couldn’t get back to the old, like there was no homeostasis. Aging had caught up with him and all the things that he thought he had, he had to shift.

He didn’t have them anymore. He didn’t have the speed and the reaction time and the power that were once there. But he still had this fierce love of the game and of competition and of excellence. So he held onto those things, but he completely adapted. So he learned a brand new one-handed backhand to take speed off the ball so that he could slow down his opponents getting to the ball. He learned to play at the net more so he wouldn’t have to run back and forth on the baseline. He even got rid of the racket that got him to be the best tennis player of all time in favor of a new technology that all the younger players were using. He changed how he trained so that he recovered more. Three year period, performance falls off. At age 36 and 37. Federer has some of the best seasons of his life. Wins two major tournaments, is ranked number two in the world again at age 37.

This is like a dinosaur in tennis, but it’s because he let go of all these things that he “had” and recreated his game, and to me, it’s such a beautiful, nicely contained example of rugged flexibility. He’s rugged because he loves competition and excellence. Those are his values, but he had to be really flexible when the change of agent came for him.

Brett McKay: One of my favorite chapters on developing a rugged flexibility mindset is the chapter on expectations, how do our expectations get in the way of us navigating change in life?

Brad Stulberg: It’s one of my favorite chapters too. So what we think that we experience is consciousness, so our thoughts and our feelings and our experience of them at any given moment is almost never objective reality, it is objective reality filtered by our expectations. So one way to think of this is the brain is like a prediction machine, it’s constantly trying to predict what’s going to happen next. And this is for good reason, imagine. If every moment was just unbiased white space, you would never get anything done. There’d be so much stimulus, you would be in a completely chaotic rot, so it’s good that the brain is a prediction machine. However, by definition, change is when things don’t happen as you predict as you thought they would, as they’ve been happening, and when our expectations are out of whack or out of alignment with our reality, it throws us for a loop, it makes us feel really uncomfortable, restless sometimes even sad and despairing. So when things change, the first thing that we have to do to be able to take productive action and confront that change is update our expectations, and if we don’t update our expectations, then we feel a lot of distress, and we don’t make any progress, because we’re not working on the thing that needs to be worked on, we’re working on what we thought would be the situation.

Brett McKay: What are some examples from your own life where your expectations just created more problems for yourself?

Brad Stulberg: I think a few… I think one is… Well, the biggest one is parenting, to be totally frank and honest, and I think this is something that a lot of men don’t always talk about, I know you have on this podcast, and that’s why I love you and your work, but I think a lot of dads just expect that the minute their kid is born, they’re gonna look into their kid’s eyes and their world’s gonna forever change and it’s gonna be the best moment of their life. And that does happen to some people. And for those people, that is so wonderful and beautiful, but for a lot of dads, that bond takes longer to grow, particularly in contrast to the woman next to you, the mom who often has a very biologically driven immediate connection to the child. And in my case, when my first son was born, and I was looking at my wife and I’m like, I see what you’re feeling, but I am not feeling that at all. And that was really hard, I felt a lot of shame, I felt a lot of guilt, ’cause I had this expectation that he would just be the love of my life from day one, and now at age five and a half, I would jump in front of a million bullets for the kid, and he is the love of my life, but it took a lot of time, and that was a really hard burden for me to hold.

And if I could have had a better expectation that it might take some time to develop that kind of bond with my son, I think I would have navigated the first two years of that… Well, not at that life of his life, and more importantly of how I navigated it myself, much better now, it’s of course, the first piece of advice I give to impending fathers, which is… Try not to have any expectation. Don’t think that you’re gonna immediately have your life change for the better, but also don’t think that you’re not, just try not to have an expectation. So that’s one example. And then I think, of course, another example is just in sport, I know that you train and there’s a time in your training cycle where you’re making a lot of progress. And every week you go up five pounds or whatever it is, and you start to expect that progress, and then you get good enough where suddenly the progress is a lot slower, and you add 100 pounds on your deadlift in a year. The next year you add 50, the next year you add 20, and now you’re fighting for every kilogram, every 2.2 pounds, and if you don’t expect that, I think you can get really frustrated with yourself and your training and potentially even quit.

Brett McKay: No, I experienced that when I was training seriously… Same thing happened to me. Deadlift would go up 150 pounds in a year and then by the end of… I was getting five pounds… I trained a year, and I would get five pounds and it would get really frustrating, but I just had to update my expectations, so instead of having a high expect… So but at the same time you hear things, you hear these research about having optimism, that it’s something good in our lives, should you just expect the worst. What’s a rugged flexibility approach to expectations? Do you need to become an either/or so you’re never disappointed?

Brad Stulberg: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s two-fold. I think the first is to just know that your mood at any given standpoint is a function of your reality and your expectations, so before you go trying to shift your reality or shift your mood, you have to ask yourself like, Hey, do I need to update my expectations for what’s happening, have my expectations not panned out, and is the problem simply that I’m refusing to see reality for what it is, and the second is this beautiful concept originally coined by Viktor Frankl of Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor, psychoanalyst sold gazillions of books, but following that book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote this essay called The Case for Tragic Optimism that’s not nearly as widely known, and I hope to popularize this essay more with this book, because Frankl talks about tragic optimism as inevitability an expectation that there will be suffering and tragedy in life.

Obviously, he underwent the most unimaginable tragedies, but Frankl was really clear, he doesn’t sugar-coat it, he says, Everyone, even the best life undergoes tragedy because we’re made of flesh and bone, and aging happens and aging often hurts physically. It often hurts because we have a pre-frontal cortex that allows us to make plans, and any time we make enough plans, eventually we’re frustrated because things don’t work out how we wish they would, and of course, because everything that we love changes and eventually dies, and that is just the human condition, and we should expect to face that tragedy, and it’s tragic optimism because we can maintain a hopeful attitude nonetheless.

So again, it’s this non-dual way of thinking, not tragedy or optimism, but tragic optimism. Expect tragedy, expect suffering, expect hardship and be optimistic nonetheless. And I actually think that this is such an important point, because today what happens particularly in the internet and in pop culture, is you get these two extremes, you get people that are just toxic, positivity, pollyanna, I’m gonna bury my head in the sand. Everything is great with my life. So why care about anything? And then you get this other extreme, which is despair nihilism, everything is so broken, why try to fix it?

Everything is structurally messed up, there’s no point of doing anything, and even though they seem to be polar opposites, I think what they have in common is they absolve the person that adopts either of those mindsets of doing anything. It’s a cop out, it’s lazy, ’cause if you bury your head in the sand, well, then there’s nothing to fix, there’s nothing to improve, but if you adopt this despairing attitude, well, then there’s also nothing to do, because you have to have some hope to take action, and what Frankl’s tragic optimism does is it situate a smack in the middle of those two extremes. And it says, Yeah, life is hard. There is a lot that’s broken about just an average individual life, and there’s certainly a lot that’s broken about the world, but in order to improve, we can’t become broken people. To fix a broken world or to improve a broken situation, we can’t be broken people, so we can be tragically optimistic.

Brett McKay: Those extreme mindsets that people take either the nihilism or the overly Pollyanna, what they do is it reduces your agency or your sense of self-efficacy, it’s like, well, what I do doesn’t really matter, so I just won’t do anything, but I think this tragic optimism, this middle, non-dual way, it actually increases your sense of agency.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, and it’s not lazy. And you’re right, I think your take is much more generous, which is, it decreases one’s sense of agency, which is true, but I also think it’s kind of lazy because once you adopt one of those two extremes, there’s literally no point of doing anything.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors, and now back to the show. Okay, so manage your expectations, expect things will be hard, but still have the optimism, you call it wise hope and taking wise action that you can have effect change once you accept what reality is, another thing you talk about in developing this rugged flexibility in your life is developing a fluid sense of self, so what does that look like, and how does it make us more stable and rugged, but flexible?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, this was my favorite chapter in the book, so I hope we can spend a little bit of time here, a fluid sense of self is Bruce Lee, I know that you have… I believe it’s his daughter that wrote that beautiful book you had her on, I love that episode. Be like water. So a fluid sense of self is like water, it can evolve over time, it can work around obstacles, it can go through an over things that get in its way, and that is so important because talk about being versus having, like a fluid sense of self is very being asked, it recognizes that you yourself are going to change over time. Now, what people often discount is that water with no bank or no direction is just a random puddle, part of what makes a river run and have progress is that it has a bank, it has a boundary, without a boundary, a river is just chaotic water, and the boundary, I think for us as individuals, those are our core values, that’s our sense of ruggedness, so we have to have some core values to guide our path, but we also wanna be really fluid as we go, so we can be flexible, so we can change, so we can evolve.

So ultimately, that’s what I mean by a fluid sense of self, so it’s not just water, it’s like be like water, but also have these guiding principles to guide the flow over time.

Brett McKay: And you use a great example of this speed skater Nils van der Poel. Is that how you say his name?

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, Nils van der Poel, you got that right.

Brett McKay: Yeah, he adopted a fluid sense of self and it helped him… Helped catapult his career, can you walk us through him, I love that example.

Brad Stulberg: Me too. So Nils van der Poel won the gold medal in the 10k and the 5k at the 2022 games. He also set a world record, so he is the best distance speed skater to ever step foot on this planet, and prior to his phenomenal performance at the 2022 games, Van der Poel was struggling, he wasn’t performing at what he thought was his best, and he’s a really mature, thoughtful reflective guy, and he stepped back and he said, What’s going on here? And he identified that he felt fear every time he stepped into the oval to compete, and he asked himself, why do I have this fear? And the answer was, his entire sense of self, his entire identity was derived from speed skating, Nils van der Poel was synonymous with his result as a speed skater and with the sport of speed skating itself, and that’s a lot of pressure to carry, and Van der Poel did this thing that is so remarkable for an Olympian to do, which is de-prioritize to some extent, his sport.

And in the lead up to the 2022 games, Van der Poel said, I am going to take a normal weekend during the week, I’m gonna train like crazy, I am a world class athlete, but on the weekends, I’m gonna have a weekend that’s more like my friends who are accountants, so he started to go out for beers and pizza, he went bowling, he went on hikes, he didn’t just sit around training all day and then doing specific recovery, and the reason he did this had less to do with his body and more to do with his mind, Van der Poel wanted to do what I’ve come to call diversifying his sense of identity, he wanted to create other sources of identity and meaning in his life beyond just speed skating.

So old Van der Poel was just Van der Poel the speed skater, but new Van der Poel was Van der Poel the friend, Van der Poel the beer snob, Van der Poel the community member, Van der Poel who loved hiking in the mountains. And what this allowed him to do is when he went to compete, his entire identity wasn’t on the line, it released so much pressure, and as a result, he skated without fear, and these aren’t my words. These are his words. So Van der Poel has written elegantly about what this diversification of his identity allowed him to do was to shed the fear that he used to carry with speed skating because he knew that eventually he would get injured or eventually aging would deteriorate his performance or he might fall in a race, or he can’t control what the other competitors are doing, he can’t control if other countries’ doping agencies don’t catch cheaters, so if his entire identity was tied up in the sport that was inevitably gonna change, his identity was fragile.

So Van der Poel essentially said, I need other sources of meaning. And the metaphor that I like to use for this is a house, identity is like a house. And if you just have a one-bedroom house and the equivalent of an earthquake blows up that one room, it blows all of you up, you are completely discombobulated, but if you have other rooms in your house, then when there’s chaos and change in that one room, you can seek refuge and meaning in those other rooms, while the other room that has the chaos gets back to a semblance of re-order, and I think this is so important, whether you call it self-complexity, which is the scientific term, diversifying your sense of self, which is what I call it in the book or just the Nils van der Poel approach to excellence, which is you have to care deeply about your main thing to be great, but it cannot be the only part of your identity because that inherently makes you fragile to change.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the analogy that I thought of when you were describing diversifying your identity was diversifying your investment portfolio. Like one of the common things you have got to diversify, have mix of stocks, bonds, international companies, domestic companies, so that when one goes down, the other one might be going up or staying stable, you’re gonna be fine, you can do the same thing with your sense of self.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, exactly. It just makes you so much more rugged and flexible. So much more robust. Yeah, we’re often sold the opposite, which is like you have to be obsessed and you have to go all in and you have to put all your eggs in one basket, and I think one, that’s not true, and two, even if you are obsessed with one thing and you do wanna put all your eggs in one basket, that’s okay. So long as you make sure that you have other baskets available, or to go back to my preferred metaphor, you can spend a whole lot of time in one room, but you never wanna completely close the doors to the others because you never know when you’re gonna need to seek refuge in those other rooms when things change in your main one.

Brett McKay: Okay, so this could look like, don’t just focus on your job, make sure you spend time on your family life, hobbies, maybe a social group, friends, church group, whatever, you gotta do it all so that when one of those areas is going off-kilter or changes, you’re not gonna be left in a lurch.

Brad Stulberg: That’s right, and I’ll use myself to make this really pragmatic because as a result of reading and researching for this book, I’ve really tried to adopt this. I’m trying to be a world class writer, I wanna be a New York Times best seller with this book. I treat my work like a crafts person, and it’s very easy to think that I should just prioritize writing and do less of everything else, so I can be a world class writer. But what I’ve realized is that when I try to do that, I carry a lot of fear and angst because it’s so much of my identity is on the line on this one thing, so it’s so much better for me instead of spending that marginal extra hour or two writing, this is separate from family, I’m never gonna leave my family behind, but to go to the gym and to have an identity as an athlete, and to garden, to plant fricking flowers and watch them grow because if my book flops, I can still go out in the garden and have a lot of fun there. And then, like I said, for me, my own values, family is just Central, so I think I am a better writer, not in spite of the fact that I have this family life that I garden, that I’m an athlete, that I also have this community life, but because of it, because it just makes me so much less scared to fail in writing, and the same is true for the other things, when shit hits the fan in the gym, I can lean into my other pursuits. So it’s really, really, really valuable.

Brett McKay: Well, I imagine it’s also making you a better writer because by doing those things, it’s making you a more interesting person, you’re not just hold up in your office, looking at books and just writing, you’re out there experiencing life, it will give you more to call to when you are writing.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, I think that’s it. And I think I’m using a very specific example, not that many people make a living writing, but this is so applicable to whatever you do, it’s like, What are the rooms that you want in your house, and then how are you allocating your time and energy across those rooms, and I’m not arguing for “balance” and spending equal amount of time in each room, I’m simply arguing that you have a few rooms and that you never shut the doors to any of them, and if you’re gonna be spending a lot of time in one room, make sure, that you don’t leave the others completely behind because you never know when things are gonna change.

Brett McKay: So shifting into practices, you talk about developing a practice of being more responsive instead of reactive, how do you develop this bias towards responding as opposed to reacting?

Brad Stulberg: There’s two things, the first is what is more of an internal or inside game, and then the second is external, so the inside game. Let’s start there. Stimulus in response, we wanna create space, I’m not the person that created that, it’s actually been attributed to Victor Frankl, some believe that falsely… There was a psychologist that talked about it before, but anyways, you want space between stimulus and response, because then you can respond, not react. What I came up with in the book was this heuristic, reacting tends to follow a path of two Ps, you panic and then you pummel ahead, responding tends to follow a path of four Ps. You pause and gather yourself, you process what’s happening, you make a plan, and only then do you proceed, so it is about slowing down when an unexpected change happens, so that you can get into that more thoughtful, deliberate, wise, effortful responding mode instead of just rashly reacting, ’cause nine times out of 10, maybe 99 times out of 100 in the modern world, things tend to work out better when we can respond instead of react. So listeners might be saying, Well, intellectually that sounds great, and everyone loves a framework, four Ps, but when the rubber meets the road, how do I actually do it? And here, some cutting edge psychology research can help.

The number one way to pause and process, the first two steps, simply take a few deep breaths and name what you are feeling. Name panic or overwhelmed, or surprise, or excitement, or fear, distress, restlessness, whatever it is. Name your emotions, because by naming your emotions, researchers call this affect labeling, you create space between yourself and your emotions. So instead of getting swept up in the store, you’re at least watching the storm, and that simple pause, deep breath in naming, you’re already on a path to responding, because you’re not immediately reacting. And then the plan part, this is about what are your core values? What is going to guide my next steps? If your core values are health, authenticity, family, let’s say.

Well, what would it look like to prioritize those? What would a healthy person do in response to this? What would someone who values family doing response to this? What would the authentic response be? And only then proceed, in depending on the size of the change, this whole process can happen in 30 seconds, you’re stuck in unexpected traffic or your dog vomit, it’s gonna make you late for a meeting? Or this can play out over a year, you get laid off from a job, you have a divorce, you have a falling out with the best friend, so this can be really condensed for more trivial changes or it can be opened up and slowed down for bigger changes. So that’s the inside game, really trying to adopt this four Ps, to pause, process, plan and then proceed.

And then the external game, and this often gets discounted, and I wish it wouldn’t, ’cause I think it’s probably equally as important, is to put yourself in responsive context. If you’re someone that spends all day on political Twitter, and watching Cable News, you’re gonna be a reactionary person, you can’t swim in reactionary waters, and then when unexpected change happens in your own life expect that you’re suddenly gonna be really wise and thoughtful. So if you wanna be a responsive person, you wanna try to put yourself in responsive environments.

Brett McKay: I love this. So get off of Twitter all the time.

Brad Stulberg: Essentially, I think it’s X now.

Brett McKay: X, yeah.

Brad Stulberg: How it makes me feel as like X.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of good things there. I love the pause and labeling your emotions, we’ve written about that before on how that can really defuse a situation when you’re feeling really amped up, stressed out, and when you’re that situation, when you’re feeling those emotions, like you said, our initial things, you wanna do something now ’cause we wanna make this emotion go away. But just simply labeling the emotion, it can just completely deflate it, and it puts you in a better mindset. And I think one of the things that requires labeling your emotions is becoming more emotionally literate, developing more words to describe your emotions, sometimes we might think we’re angry, but it might be we’re actually filling envy or resentment that’s different, and whether you’re feeling resentful or envious, it might change what you do. So I think becoming more emotionally literate is also important.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, you know what’s fascinating about that, Brett, so you look way back to folklore in ancient wisdom, and there’s this rule called the Law of Names, and it appears throughout all kinds of folklore east and west, and the law of name says that once you name something, it loses its power over you. So this is the premise of the story Rumpelstiltskin. Like the only way to get the protagonist child back from the evil villain, is to know its name, when spoiler alert for those that don’t know, it’s Rumpelstiltskin. But in all of these folkloric myths, you have to have the exact name. And the characters often guess and just miss and nothing changes, it’s only when you get the exact name right, that the evil force loses its power over you. And isn’t that just amazing how much that mimics modern psychology, which basically says, “The more accurate your naming of the forces, the more loses its power over you.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s really cool.

Brad Stulberg: Yeah, when I was researching the book, I just found that one of these fascinating moments when ancient wisdom and modern science completely aligned.

Brett McKay: Something you talk about in the book is that whenever we face a setback or difficulty, oftentimes our immediate response is to find meaning or a silver lining. And you argue that sometimes forcing meaning on a just a crappy situation isn’t helpful. Why is that?

Brad Stulberg: I think the answer is in the question, forcing meaning. So it is true that for most challenges in our lives, even the really, really hard ones, we tend to grow from those, especially if we have a good tool kit for change. However, that growth and meaning it has to happen on its own time. So you cannot force growth and meaning or gratitude for that matter, you have to have them come on their own time. So a change happens and you wanna have a growth mindset, you wanna respond not react, you wanna be rugged and flexible, you wanna do all these things. 98% of the time, you’ll probably be able to, and you’ll work through the cycle of allostasis of order, disorder, reorder really well, and you’ll get to a desired reorder and you’ll have grown and as what personal evolution is all about. However, let’s just say it’s 1%-2% of the time, in your life it just doesn’t work. Cancer diagnosis, loss of a loved one, spouse cheats on you, and leads to a messy divorce. The stuff where whatever tools you have, they just don’t meet the immediate challenge. In here, the best thing that you can do is to release from any need for optimism for growth for anything at all, other than just showing up and getting through, just surviving day in and day out. And then when you get to the other side, and you don’t get to determine when that is, meaning and growth tend to be there for you.

The scientist Dan Gilbert, coined this term a psychological immune system. And I just love it, because he says That much likely we have a biological immune system, we have psychological immune systems, in much like our biological immune system heals really fast from small injuries or from things that’s faced before, that’s the definition of immunity. When there’s a novel virus or when you undergo a major physical trauma, you don’t expect to just immediately be better the next day. It takes time, sometimes it takes months, sometimes it takes years. Yet, when we undergo psychological changes or emotional spiritual changes, we often expect that we’re just gonna grow from it immediately, and I think this is a huge trap in the self-help world, is that all of these books and growth in meaning and positivity, they’re all true and they’re all well-informed, but the worst thing to tell a depressed person is to come up with three things that you’re grateful for.

Once that depressed person gets to the other side of their depression, odds are, they look back on it and they’ll be so grateful for certain things and they’ll have so much compassion and wisdom that are freaking hard one through surviving depression, but when you’re in the thick of depression, all that matters is doing whatever it takes to get through. So I think it’s really important. It’s basically like, all the tools work for 98% of the changes, but when he really hits the fan, huge negative, unexpected changes, sometimes the most important thing we can do is just release from any need for anything other than survival, knowing that if we can just get to the other side, the meaning and the growth tends to come on its own time and take care of itself.

Brett McKay: And you offer ideas on what you can do to, instead of forcing meaning, usher it in, open up the possibility for meaning to happen and even that really hard time, and I guess it’s things like staying connected to a community, focusing on relationships. I love you talk about developing rituals and routines for your life, so even when you don’t feel like you don’t have the motivation to do things, you have that ritual, you can fall back on so you can get through that really hard time.

Brad Stulberg: That’s right. Ritual, routine, social support, this notion of surrender. So getting out a problem solving mode and saying, “I just need help, and then voluntary simplicity.” Which basically says that when your life just feels completely like it is spiraling out of control, do everything you can to simplify what you can control, because that just gives you more energy and more resources to meet the parts of your life that you can’t control. And the research here is really interesting, Brett, what it shows is that when individuals undergo Capital T trauma, so that 2% of change, that is really negative. Researchers look at the pathways of those who go on to experience post-traumatic stress disorder, versus those that go on to experience post-traumatic growth. And what they find is that the first three months are identical, everyone looks like they’re headed towards PTSD. Depression rates are high, anxiety rates are high, disparities are high, but then the three-month mark, the people that are going to experience post-traumatic growth, that’s when they start ticking up. Now, the question that many people have is, “Well, what separates the two?” And researchers don’t know, a lot of this probably just comes down to our inherited neurochemistry, but what’s fascinating about this to me is that it goes to show that we cannot force meaning and positive attributes and negative things, it has to come on its own time, and it never happens overnight.

Brett McKay: One of the things you talk about the book that really stuck out to me was this idea when you’re going through a hard time of separating the difference between fake fatigue and real fatigue. What’s the difference, and why is that important to know the difference?

Brad Stulberg: These are my terms and they’re the most accurate I could come up with, but if listeners have a better way to think about this, I’m all the ears, because fake fatigue doesn’t really serve it well because it’s real fatigue, but it’s fake. So I’m gonna get into what I mean by this. So real fatigue is when you feel really tired and down and out because you are physiologically tired. What you need to do is rest. There’s no way around it. What I call fake fatigue, feels exactly like real fatigue, you’re exhausted, your apathetic, you’re in a rut, but there’s no underlying biological reason for it. You have no reason to feel that tired, and they require two very different responses. So real fatigue, what you need to do is rest, shut things down, spend the day on the couch, read a book, focus on sleeping, and let your mind, body system recover and rest.

Fake fatigue benefits from the exact opposite, which is forcing your body into action, the podcast host Rich Roll eloquently says, “Mood follows action.” The scientific term is behavioral activation. And it basically says that for what I call fake fatigue, you don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to give yourself a chance at feeling good. So fake fatigue is like an inertia, and the only way out is to forcefully break the inertia, to force yourself to get going, whereas real fatigue requires that you shut things down. And what complicates this even more, is often what starts out as real fatigue becomes fake fatigue. So here’s the example, you’re super burnt out, it’s been a tumultuous time in your professional life, your personal life, maybe both, you got real fatigue, you need to shut things down, you need to do a staycation, take a week off, sleep in, be completely unproductive, just let your mind body system recover. But then after that seven day, 10-day, two-week period, whatever it is, you’re probably as rested as you’re gonna be, but you still feel really apathetic.

And at that point, what you need to do is, you need to jot your system out of it, you need to just go do the workout, or just start the next project. Even if you don’t want to, and I’m really confident in this framework because you see it practiced by elite athletes all the time. So before big events, elite athletes almost always go through what’s called the taper, which is basically they really dramatically decrease their training, so they’ve been training hard for months, in some cases years, four year cycle going into the Olympics, and then far between two weeks and four weeks before the big event, they pull way back. Why? Because they’ve accumulated all this real fatigue. They need to rest, but in the last couple of days before the big event, elite athletes almost always sprinkle in these very short but highly intense efforts. And the reason for that is to wake their body up. To basically snap the inertia of rest because there is rested is they’re gonna be and now what they need to do is they need to nudge themselves back into momentum and action.

Brett McKay: No, I like that a lot. I’ve seen that in my own life as well. Well, Brad, this has been a great conversation. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you’re really passionate about, you wanna make sure people understand about this idea of rugged flexibility?

Brad Stulberg: I think that we cover all the things that I would have hoped to cover today, you’re such a wonderful shepherd of these conversations, so I feel great about it. Thank you.

Brett McKay: Well, Brad, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Brad Stulberg: The best place to learn more about the book is really anywhere you get books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, your independent bookstore, Audible, it’s available in all formats, and then to learn more about my work, my website is just my name,, and the social media platform that I tend to be more active on is Instagram where I’m also @BradStulberg, just like my name.

Brett McKay: Fantastic, well, Brad Stulberg, thanks for time, it’s been a pleasure.

Brad Stulberg: Thank you, Brett McKay I appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest there was Brad Stulberg, he’s the author of the book, Master of Change, it’s available on and book stores everywhere, you can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at Where you’ll find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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