What one skill = an awesome life?
We humans are in trouble.
I’ve been a medical doctor for 17 years, and I’ve researched the science of human motivation.
I’ve worked with thousands of people from all walks of life, and I believe that we humans are in trouble.
Now, why would I say such a thing?
When I look at the lifestyle of my patients, of myself, or even your lifestyles, we are in a state of bizarre paradox, a place of negative evolution.
We have made sleep deprivation a symbol of ambition, and rested a symbol of laziness.
We have made being too busy a symbol of importance.
And never before in human history have we had such conveniences and such knowledge, yet never before have our lives been so stressed and unhealthy.
So, yes, I do believe that we humans are in trouble.
But at the same time, I have seen a group of humans who are better than ever, individuals who have passion and purpose and meaning and joy in their lives.
And I’ve wondered: what is the difference between these two groups?
What does one group have that the other doesn’t?
So what do you think?
Is it passion?
Passion is a good one, but we all know passionate artists and entrepreneurs
who are stuck in a rut, unable to move forward.
Could it be, if we add hard work, and now we have grit, is that it?
Well, grit is great but we all know, all of us know hard-working gritty people who have no joy or meaning in their lives.
And when I became a psychiatrist, I thought it must be how you grow up.
But increasingly, I’m seeing people from good childhood
with serious anxiety, depression, and addiction.
So what is it? What is this one thing?
It wasn’t until I was in my most challenging role, when I became a mother of three beautiful kids, who are out there somewhere, that I went and found out.
You see, when I became a parent, this is what happened to me.
I became overwhelmed – overwhelmed with everything I had to teach my kids and do or was told I should do.
And I couldn’t understand how I, a Harvard-trained expert, a medical director of child and youth mental health for a whole city, was having such a hard time raising my three kids, when my mother who grew up in a village and never had a chance to go to school, not even grade one, successfully raised five.
And I turned out OK.
So what was it?
What is that one thing?
I searched, and I knew there was something more natural and simpler and more powerful than what I was doing.
And I searched through the neuroscience, the biology, the psychology, and the reality of success.
And when I say “success”, I don’t mean money or status.
I mean success in all aspects of that word: health, passion, purpose, security, meaning, and joy.
That’s what I wanted for my kids and myself.
And I found it.
I found the one thing, time and time again, that has been proven to lead to an awesome life.
And my discovery was earth-shattering but so obvious at the same time.
The one thing that has been shown to lead to an awesome life is: adaptability. Adaptability. Adaptability. That was it!
I was so glad it wasn’t the piano.
Adaptability, it made perfect sense.
Survival of the fittest isn’t the fastest or the strongest;
survival of the fittest is the one that is the best fit with their environment.
And wherever you look, if you look at bacteria, or plants, or animals, and humans;
and small businesses and large businesses; in corporations, in governments or empires; it is adaptability that made the difference between flourishing and extinction.
Right now, humans are being beat by bacteria because they are adapting to our most powerful antibiotics.
So adaptability is it, and we see it everywhere.
The company Netflix we all know, that company used to mail videos to people’s homes, and they adapted to online streaming.
And another company – some of us have heard – is Blockbuster.
And Blockbuster, despite its advantages as an industry giant, didn’t adapt; they refused to adapt, and they are fighting extinction while Netflix is flourishing.
Some of you may remember the “Kodak moment,” but that really was just a moment in time because Kodak didn’t adapt.
And this is true for humans.
The longest study of human development to date, the Grant Study, which spanned 70 years, they looked at everything: looks, IQ, wealth, they found and I quote: “The key ingredient for well-being is the ability to make lemonade out of lemons.”
So think of your life.
Think about times you were successful and times that you failed.
How did you adapt?
How did you adapt to a new school or a new relationship, to a new boss, or a new computer system in your workplace?
How did you adapt to the changing nature of your life, your relationships or even our own aging?
So it was adaptability.
But then I had to figure out how.
How do we adapt? Why do we adapt? When do we adapt?
So, my journey wasn’t over.
And thankfully, it was my research in motivation that gave me the answer.
If you hang in here, I’m going to walk you through some very eye-opening neuroscience of how our brain works.
So, when we humans do something that will help us adapt, like sleep, because we can’t think let alone adapt, if we’re sleep deprived, we are rewarded; our brain’s motivation centers are lit up with the powerful release of neurochemicals.
And that is our reward; we experience a feeling of well-being and joy.
And that is our signal to go do that again, do that activity again.
And if we oversleep, we feel lethargic and guilty, or we under-sleep, we feel tired and irritable, and those are signals not to do that again and to go get our reward.
Now, some of you may be saying, “Well, I like to shop, and I like to win.”
So is that what I need to do?
Yes, we are rewarded to shop and gather, win and compete, but we are over-gathering and over-competing.
How much stuff do we need?
And perfectionism in keeping up is ruining us.
That at the expense of other very powerful adaptation tools.
In fact, I believe that we humans are so off-balance that we have forgotten what it means to be human.
In my practice, I created a metaphor to help remind myself and my patients of what it means to be human.
I used to hear – I’m sure you’ve all said it – that you’re too busy to eat or sleep.
And I felt we really need to look outside ourselves to see ourselves.
And I picked an animal that is a mammal that lives its life fully underwater: the dolphin.
You see, the dolphin has or seems to have what every human seems to want.
They are highly intelligent with a high IQ, and they do no tutoring.
They, dolphins, have svelte, fit bodies, and they wear no spanx, and no fad diets.
Dolphins have great social lives, and they drink no alcohol.
And they show compassion, and they don’t even do yoga.
So how do these animals, these creatures, do all this in their very competitive environment
where they have to hunt for food and worry about sharks?
Well, they never compromise the basics of life.
My kids told me a great fact.
They told me that dolphins sleep by alternating their brain areas and keeping one eye open, so they don’t drown or be eaten by a shark.
Now, dolphins don’t compromise the basics because basics is how we adapt and thrive.
So right now in this world, and what I’ve seen,
there are three things that humans are not doing that has thrown us off-balance.
And these can be remembered in the word that is the centerpiece of the dolphin culture.
That word is “POD.”
So let me walk you through it.
The “P.” The P stands for “Play.”
Dolphins play every day, but humans have forgotten that play is a basic of life.
And when I say “play,” I mean the “play” of my childhood, not the “play” I was seeing happening with my kids and around me.
Lego is a great example of that.
Lego of my times, I was the fifth child, and I used to inherit broken Lego.
It was simple, and it was unstructured.
There were no rules, and it was imaginative, and it was limitless in what I could create.
The Lego of today is like today’s childhood.
It is constructed and complicated and full of rules and directions.
And we know the final product, and it makes kids fragile, and it is fragile.
And we get rigid and stuck and anxious when we don’t play freely.
We are in trouble if we don’t play.
But if we do play, we are rewarded.
Play – free play activates that frontal part of our brain, the very human part, and it stimulates all kinds of pathways for abstract thinking, emotional regulation for problem-solving, for strategy.
Play makes us comfortable with uncertainty;
it makes us take risks and learn from trial and error.
Play is how we adapt.
So what about the “O”?
The O is “Others.”
And others is why we adapt.
Dolphins are exquisitely connected
to their families, their groups, and their communities.
But humans have forgotten that social connection is the basic of life.
When we are socially isolated, it corrodes our bodies.
We get sick.
Being lonely is as much of a risk factor for death as smoking.
Tumors in cancer patients who are lonely spread faster.
And if you don’t believe me, think of the worst form of human punishment, a torture that has been well-documented to lead to a complete breakdown and self-mutilation.
That’s solitary confinement.
When we don’t honor the basics, we are in trouble.
But when we do, we are rewarded.
Social connection, contribution, meaningful relationships, not socializing superficially or social status but meaningful social bonding brights up our brains; it feels great.
And we are rewarded, and that is why we adapt.
If you’ve ever wanted to give up, and you were tired and exhausted, your connection to something beyond yourself is why you changed, why you adapted.
So when, when do we adapt?
That’s the “D”, that’s the “Downtime.”
So, dolphins relax once in a while.
And humans have forgotten that rest and relaxation is a basic of life.
In fact, we are so on the go that stress has become the number one health epidemic of the 21st century.
We are stressed, and our bodies are releasing stress hormones, it’s wreaking havoc on our brains and our minds.
When we don’t honor the basics, we are in trouble, and we do things like texting, and driving, and yelling at your kids to calm down.
Sorry kids, I know I have done that.
When we honor our biology, and when we rest, and we give ourselves downtime, we are rewarded.
The research on mindfulness slowing down, paying attention is outstanding.
It improves our focus, our memory, our concentration, our relationships, our life satisfaction.
The most progressive companies in the world are bringing in yoga classes, meditation rooms, and beds because they know that breaks are the moment of breakthroughs, that looking inward gives us innovation and inspiration.
So there it was – it was POD.
And POD is how we adapt, and adapt is how we thrive.
And once this all settled in, I was struck by the simplicity and the beauty of it all.
I was struck by how kind and generous nature is to us.
And I was struck by how I had forgotten what it means to be a human.
I had made being busy a symbol of importance and I had been over-gathering and over-competing.
And I had thrown my life and my kids’ life off balance.
And then I changed, and I adapted.
It wasn’t easy, but I brought POD back into my life.
And something magical happened.
When I played, I found new passion.
And when I connected, I found a new purpose.
And when I rested, I found my balance.
And amazing things started to occur, things I didn’t think I had the time or energy for.
I began to write blogs and articles, and people read them.
And I wrote a book on POD and adaptation, and I called it: “The Dolphin Way.”
So my mom, she can’t read very well, and she hasn’t read my book.
But she asked me:
why I was putting so much science and research into a book that she saw as being common sense.
She was actually worried that no one was going to read it.
And the book became a number one bestseller, and it’s been translated into multiple languages and released around in the world.
My mom hadn’t realized that we humans are in the place of paradox,
that we do need science as permission for common sense.
But we humans don’t need to be in trouble.
We can choose balance.
In my office, I give prescriptions for medications, antidepressants, and blood work.
And now, I give every single one of my patients a prescription for a daily dose of a POD.
I have been witness to the power of play, others, and downtime.
Give yourselves that prescription.
This is your prescription.
Give it to yourself.
Give it to your friends and neighbors.
Bring balance back into your lives.
Bring play, connection, and downtime back into your lives.
Give it to your students and give it to your colleagues and most of all, give it to your children.
You see, we humans, we are perfect instruments of adaptation.
We humans are built and meant to thrive.
And we humans, every single one of you can have an awesome life.