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Brown, B. (Host). (2020, December 9). Brené on The Queen’s Gambit, Revisiting FFTs, and Resting Our Tired Brains. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-the-queens-gambit-revisiting-ffts-and-resting-our-tired-brains/
Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. Today, another on-my-mind episode. We have been podcasting for just over eight months and it has been a hell of an eight-month period. What a hard and beautiful time to start a podcast. What a hard and beautiful time to start asking the question of many different guests, the same question, “Help us unlock ourselves, help us understand who we are.” We’ve been doing this work together, and I wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been having with you on FFTs, effing first times, and how my strategy list of three ways to deal with them needs to be expanded. And the expansion is based on neurobiology and some other podcasts that I’ve done, and a show on Netflix actually, and so welcome to the weird intricacies of my mind and how I think and put things together. We’re going to dig into FFTs and see what two strategies we need to add to our top three strategies of handling effing first times. I don’t think they’re going away, y’all. COVID, God willing, and the creek don’t rise, and the vaccines get here, I think it will go away, but I don’t think the chaotic, disruptive culture that we live in is going anywhere. But I think we can handle it, and I think we can handle it together.
BB: So a few things on my mind this week that I thought we could talk about, questions that I’m asking myself, topics that I’m revisiting and some connective tissue that’s starting to come into focus for me. Let’s start with the very first Unlocking Us podcast on FFTs, effin’ first times. God, how many of these have we had this year, and how many are we still having? I mean, working from home, holidays without families, running NASA-level risk analyses for every decision we make about our kids. Constantly adjusting the mental health, emotional health cost-benefit analysis. Radical racial reckoning that is long overdue and still has a long way to go. Future planning with no sense of what’s coming. When I think about the FFTs over the last nine months… A special shout out to educators, teachers, administrators, staff who have found a way to keep showing up for our children in the most difficult of times and under the most radically changing circumstances, and to health professionals and essential workers who are putting their lives on the lines during again, a global FFT, it’s a global pandemic yes, but it’s also a global effin’ first time…
BB: We’re tired. I’m weary. In the first podcast I talk about how our organization put together strategies for dealing with FFTs, now, when we put this together, we were like new external partners, new projects, a new book, new systems for operations, it wasn’t built for a long-lasting pandemic. And so I talk about our strategy is three: Name it, just name like, “Oh my God, hey, y’all, we’re in an FFT,” try to develop some perspective, this is, this feels hard, this feels new, it feels uncomfortable, it’s not going to last forever, and then reality check the expectations, we’re in an FFT, this is not going to go perfectly, this is not going to be easy, this is not going to be fast, it’s not going to be fun, and it’s probably not going to be where we want it to be for three or four iterations. I think these are still invaluable tools for dealing with first times, but based on some of the learning I’ve done this year from Unlocking Us podcast guests, I think the list is incomplete. Look, let me walk you into my thinking, but this is the warning on the door, my mind is a messy and disruptive place, it’s also really good at building connective tissue, which is basically what I do for a living as a researcher, I connect the seemingly unconnectable, I find patterns and themes, and I live by the maxim from grounded theory that all our data, everything we read, come across, watch, consume…
BB: I never dismiss anything, and I always think about ”How do things fit together?,” so all our data, but we have to be rigorous in how we account for the data, so let me walk you into what I’m thinking and [laughter] walk you through it. Okay, y’all, what I’m picturing right now is… I don’t know what the term is, but in the original “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” movie, with Gene Wilder, I call it the Willie Wonka shit tunnel where there’s a tunnel that has terrible media images like chickens and then hatchets and axes, and they’re rowing through the tunnel, and he’s in that weird fester, like that weird thing, and I think about the shit tunnel a lot because my therapist asked me to describe what anxiety felt like for me, and I use that tunnel as an example, because I always see disconnected but kind of menacing images and it’s like a faster, faster thing, and so I just want to warn you that we’re not actually going in that tunnel, but that’s what my mind looks like sometimes so, proceed with caution. So here’s what happened. I watched “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix. Wow. It is excellent.
BB: It’s so good, it’s smart, it’s gorgeous, it’s well written, it’s a well-written adaptation based on a compelling book, and you can’t take your eyes off Anya Taylor-Joy, she does this incredible job, it’s just… You need to see it, if you haven’t seen it, so… Because I was also deep into the Unlocking Us podcast with neuroscientist David Eagleman at the time, I was getting this mash up in my head of, “Okay. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and the story of a young woman who’s orphaned becoming a grandmaster chess player,” and then I was thinking to myself, “Okay, David Eagleman, the neuroscientist from Stanford, he tells us that the brain is malleable and will continue to grow, but only if you challenge it,” so I thought to myself, as I think most people would, in my position, “I should take up chess.” Chess seems really challenging, like people spend their lives learning these strategies, and there’s books and there’s numbers and there’s formulas, and there’s all this stuff that it seems like you could learn forever. Maybe I’ll take up chess and that will help with my neuroplasticity. I’ll keep my brain growing. It’s interesting, and I’m not the only one, because I have read somewhere that the sales of chess sets have quadrupled or something since this show aired on Netflix, so I’m not the only strange person, and I was a little bit worried about it because I am more of a card player, we love cards, which we are equal part strategy and trash talk, and I’m a checkers girl.
BB: I’ve never played chest before, and you can laugh if you want, but I will kick your ass with a series of double jumps that will be staggering to the mind, It’s not “The Queen’s Gambit,” but it’s actually not even close, but it’s impressive, in my own way. So I start investigating, I start thinking, “Okay, what am I going to do? How am I going to learn about chess? Where do I start?” And let me tell you, I started this investigation into chess, fueled by the need to procrastinate, having multiple research projects due, two books due. And you know that’s rocket fuel, procrastination to not do big long weedzy projects, rocket fuel for these kind of things. So it didn’t take long before I decide not to pursue chess, but I came across this article that talked about this research from Robert Sapolsky, he’s a professor of neurology and neurological sciences in neurosurgery at Stanford, he studies stress in primates. So this research finding is that a chess player can burn up to 6000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what the average person consumes in a day. So this is based on breathing rates, which you’re breathing triples during chess competition, blood pressure, which just goes way up, muscle contractions before, during, and after play, Sapolsky suggests that grandmaster’s stress, the stress experienced by these grandmaster chess players and their stress responses to playing are what elite athletes experience.
BB: There’s a quote where Sapolsky says, “Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners.” So I’m like, this, this is fascinating to me. It also explains why when I started looking at different grandmasters and about their lives, because again, remember I’m on procrastination investigation. A lot of them like run, they work out, they lift weights, they eat and fuel for endurance, like athletes, mental athletes. So this has me thinking about this constant FFT landscape that we’re in, and my exhaustion, and our exhaustion, and it leads me back to David Eagleman, again, you met him on this podcast, he’s also at Stanford, and I have a question for him. “Does the brain get tired? Can all of these pathway, stretching, challenges, and FFTs, like wear our asses out, wear our brains and ourselves out?” There are so many first times that we have been forced into, invited into… I think my brain is tired and stretch marked. That’s my philosophy. That’s my thinking right now. So I shoot him an email and say, “Hey David, I have a question for you, follow up,” and he shoots back an email and says, “Alright, attaching an audio that explains it better than I can type it. Really great question. People don’t talk about it very often.” So let’s listen to the little audio he sent me back in the email with his permission of course.
David Eagleman: That’s a great question about whether the brain gets tired. So the brain uses glucose or sugar from the blood, that’s the fuel for its gas tank. So when you’re hungry, it’s harder to do good, clear thinking. And so in this light, people have studied things like will power, so if you do something that requires a lot of mental fortitude, like you resist cookies on a plate in front of you, then the claim is that you run your gas tank low, and if you’re confronted with another task later that requires will power, then you’re bad at it, you chow down on the cookies. So in that sense, the brain gets tired because it has less fuel to use, and then thinking is cloudy, and that’s what happened during the pandemic. It’s related to this because our brains are doing a lot of spinning the wheels under the hood using energy this way, and this is because during this time, our internal models of the world aren’t functioning well, and so we’re constantly trying to rebuild our expectations of how everything works, so what to expect in the world and how to operate in it, and so our brains spend tons of their time re-configuring and re-plugging and feeling around for new ways of doing things, and that burns a lot of energy. So it’s not exactly that this is a fight or flight response, but it’s a lot closer to that than if everything is running in accordance with your expectations when you’re sitting under a palm tree on the beach and there’s nothing much to analyze and worry about.
DE: The last thing I’d say is, on top of that, we’re an unusually social species and we thrive on the company of others, so your neural network is just part of a much larger neural network made up by the brains of other people, everybody in your life, and so, biologically, we require touch and talk and time with other people, and so what’s happening during lockdown can at the extreme plug into what we know in Neuroscience from studies of solitary confinement in prisons, which is extremely bad for our mental health. So I would say in these senses it’s no surprise that we feel weary, not just physically, but mentally, it’s because our brains are trucking along everyday working to refashion their understanding of the world, and that doesn’t leave a lot of energy left over for relaxed enjoyment.
BB: Okay, y’all. Wow, it turns out the brain gets tired. Thank God. Now, I understand why my brain is so tired, my mind hurts, our brains work hard and like our bodies, they need rest and fuel. So going back to the strategy for approaching FFTs. Name it, this is what we’re in, develop some perspective around it, it’s not forever. This is what an FFT is supposed to feel like. The discomfort is temporary. Adjust expectations. Reality check. How this is going to go. Now I’m adding a fourth, build in rest and recovery time, which has been very hard during the pandemic, and a fifth which is get and stay in fit FFT condition. Look, I don’t think we’re going to spend the rest of our lives straddling two pandemics. A virus and racial inequality, both pandemics, both lethal, but the world is always going to be changing and disrupting and challenging. So this leads me to yet another podcast, I just recorded a two-and-a-half-hour conversation for the Dare to Lead podcast with the one and only Jim Collins, a researcher who has one of the deepest and broadest understandings of human enterprises, organizations, and human behavior that I’ve ever read, known. He’s just incredible, his work has deeply shaped who I am in my work, it’s been very influential, he is the author of classics that are considered blueprints to building organizations by leaders around the world.
BB: His books include Good to Great, Built to Last, How the Mighty Fall, Great by Choice. And his new one, Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0 just came out in the beginning of December, and it’s a 2020 update to an earlier book written by Jim and his mentor and friend Bill Lazier. So when I was reading this new book, the Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, I came across this paragraph, and it stopped me in my tracks. The paragraph starts with a quote from history professor Edward T. O’Donnell, “History is the study…” I mean this is just, get ready. “History is the study of surprises.” Let me just have a moment here. That is so poetic, I think, and profound and true. So then Jim writes, following this quote that he shares with us as readers, “This line captures the world in which we live, we’re living history, surprise after surprise after surprise. And just when we think, we’ve had all the big surprises for a while, along comes another one. If the first two decades of the 21st century have taught us anything, it’s that uncertainty is chronic; instability is permanent; disruption is common; and we can neither predict nor govern events. There will be no ‘new normal’; there will only be a continuous series of ‘not normal’ episodes, defying prediction and unforeseen by most of us until they happen.”
BB: If you’re anything like me right now, you’re hitting pause and rewinding, so I just want to say this one part of the sentence, you can rewind this paragraph and listen to it again and again because it’s so tough, because I think it’s true. “Uncertainty is chronic; instability is permanent; disruption is common; and we can neither predict nor govern events. There will be no ‘new normal’; there will only be a continuous series of ‘not normal’ episodes, defying prediction and unforeseen by most of us until they happen.” Shit, that’s just true, and that’s hard. There’s a part of me that can be easily seduced by the idea of a return to normal, fewer FFTs, more SOSO, same old, same old. But there’s a bigger part of me that is in no way nostalgic for normal, because normal includes propping up systems that disenfranchise, dehumanize, and kill people, so I don’t want to go back to something that was so hurtful to so many, and cost so many people so much. I don’t want to go back to that, which brings me to Sonya Renee Taylor, she is an author, poet, spoken word artist, speaker, humanitarian, and social justice activist that we heard from on another Unlocking Us podcast episode.
BB: She blew our minds, literally. Every time I saw a tweet or something about the podcast, people would say, “My mind is blown. Holy cow, what’s happening? Like I can’t even get my head around what she’s talking about.” There’s a great quote from her that says, “We will not go back to normal, normal never was. Our pre-Corona existence was not normal, other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends, we are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.”
BB: It’s a lot of stuff that I’m connecting together here, but it feels important in my bones, it feels like there’s a learning here that I need to grab by the shoulders and pull in, just press against my heart. If I understand David and what he’s teaching us about the brain, and I believe Jim’s assessment about the fact that uncertainty will be chronic, and if I joined Sonya in her commitment to stitch a new garment, FFTs are never going away. In fact, rather than seeing FFTs as a disruption, I think I want to live a life that prepares me for them.
BB: I want to integrate them into my life as a way of living, not as an exception. But here’s the rub, as someone who has been up against, not just in this pandemic, but in my career and in my life, a lot of FFTs. Just because there’s more and more doesn’t mean that they get easier or more comfortable or take less out of us. So that means we’re left with only one option, which is to normalize discomfort. We need to expect discomfort and respect the awkwardness and the discombobulation, and look at awkwardness and discombobulation as teachers. Talking about embracing the suck. We need to embrace the suck of the FFT. And sometimes I think… Again, if I understand David Eagleman’s neuroscience, and I believe Jim Collins’ perspective on the culture never settling down into something predictable, and I join Sonya in the activism, that means sometimes I don’t just react to FFTs, I have to choose FFTs. I have to proactively choose courage over comfort, I have to choose to be new at something, to look and feel cringy and goofy and 100% uncool, I need to choose to be the learner rather than setting up my value in life as being a knower.
BB: I have to give others who are in the midst of their own FFTs grace, I have to give myself grace, I have to normalize discomfort for my kids, reframe it as the feeling that we get when we’re being authentic or brave or rising to a challenge. Hell, I have to reframe it for myself as that first, let’s be honest. I think we have to let our children and students see our FFTs. Like Steve and I, during COVID, we tried a new recipe because we’re trying to cook together more and find ways to connect, new ways to connect, because I’m not going to lie, it’s a tough season for couples, it’s a tough season for me and Steve, we’re so tired and our kids are stressed and we’re worried, and so we’re trying cooking together [chuckle] as its own FFT, not to mention this recipe that we tried. And it is bad, I mean it is not edible, like bad, and we ended up throwing it out and ordering delivery, but our kids got a front row seat to see what an FFT looks like, what laughing, not at learning, but from learning, looks like. And that it’s okay that it didn’t turn out.
BB: Name it. I’m in an FFT right now, that’s why this is so hard, this is why I’m so uncomfortable, this is why I feel so vulnerable. Give it perspective. These are not permanent. These are not permanent, and I have evidence that I’ve made it through other FFTs. Reality check expectations. First recipe, not a simple one. It’s not going to look like the Pinterest picture. The new number four, “build in rest and recovery.” I’m going to tell you all really honestly, Steve and I have been in bed many, many, many nights over the last nine months by 8:15 or 8:30, and I’m still trying to figure out what some new stuff means to me, and I will come back and talk to you about some of this when I have my head around it more, but we’ve got to rest and recover. And we have to stay in fit FFT condition. You know, building in rest and recovery time is pretty straight forward, it has to include sleep, period. Because apparently, according to the neuroscience, sleep is the very best thing we can do for our brains, it’s the way we love our minds, and it’s the way we show appreciation to our brain in our lives, sleep is basically self-respect.
BB: So I get that. As far as fit FFT condition, I think that’s up to each of us to determine what that means. The analogy that I have is in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. There is… My favorite part of the Big Book, the part I reread daily almost, is that one gift of sobriety is neutrality. We neither run toward what we’re craving nor do we run away from it, we have a sense of neutrality. And so the condition, according to the Big Book, for neutrality… And to me that just means like I’m not negotiating with a bread basket, you know? I’m not saying, “I’ll have two pieces, but I’ll just eat a half my dinner,” or I’m not saying, “No, I don’t eat bread, no bread please.” And then my family is like, “Hey, where is the bread basket?” I just have neutrality around it. But the pre-requisite for neutrality in the Big Book is that you have to be spiritually fit, you have to be in fit spiritual condition. And so I’ve defined that for me as a combination of working out, meditation, or prayer. I’m a prayer more than a meditator. Alone time to feed my introversion, connection with other people, and giving.
BB: And so I think we all have to figure out for ourselves, what does it mean to be in FFT condition? What does that mean for us individually, what does that mean for us with our partners, what does that mean to be a family in fit FFT condition? I know parenthetically next to my number five will be “See number four,” which will be sleep, it’s just… Can’t underestimate it. So I hope this make sense to y’all, it’s just a revisit to the FFT, to the effin’ first times that we have been thrown into during COVID, we’ve been thrown into during this fight for social and racial justice. I think we’re going to continue to find ourselves, as long as we’re engaged with living, we’re going to find ourselves up against FFTs daily, maybe hourly on some days, and I think these five strategies feel more whole to me, more complete. Name it, give a perspective, reality check the expectations, build in rest and recovery, and get and stay in fit FFT condition, whatever that means for you. Thanks for listening, y’all.
BB: Barney Glaser, who is one of the two people who developed grounded theory many decades ago, calls the process of doing grounded theory research “the drugless trip.” [chuckle] I hope that’s not what you felt like you were on with me, but it may have been. If so, either I’m sorry or you’re welcome, depending on your perspective of how that went. We have done almost 50 podcasts in close to nine months, between Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead. Can you believe that, y’all? Just incredible, unbelievable conversations. I have learned so much and my brain is so full, and in terms of learning, rest on the FFT, but in terms of learning I’m just so… My brain is full and happy. It’s been great to explore the big ideas, unlock, unpack, explore the experiences, books, films, research that just reflect the universal experiences of being human, from the bravest moments to the most broken-hearted, and to be named the number one Biggest New Podcast of 2020 by Apple, and one of the top 10 podcasts of 2020, it’s incredible, I’m so… How do I say thank you to y’all? I don’t even know, I just… I will try to keep making great podcasts. Things to note, the church bulletin, this week on the Dare to Leadpodcast I talk with President Barack Obama. We do. We talk about…
BB: I observed in him, and especially in his 700-and-something-page memoir, a leadership skill around holding the tension of opposites to create transformation, that it’s very hard to study, because I don’t get to spend that much time with leaders, I don’t get to spend time with them from the time they’re growing up to the time they’re leading, but this memoir gave me this great data set. So I really dig into this with him and ask him about that skill set and some other things that are pretty vulnerable, and it’s a great conversation. You can listen to it on Spotify on Dare to Lead. Another thing, in January, Unlocking Us will be exclusively on Spotify. We’re moving late January, but you’ll only be able to listen to it on Spotify, so if you’re listening right now on Apple or in other places, you need to go over to Spotify to find me, effective, I think, the last week of January. And you can listen for free on Spotify. I’m just excited, I’m grateful. We are taking a break, we’re going to be off the air until early January, so there’ll be a couple of weeks that there will be no podcast from us on Unlocking Us or on Dare to Lead.
BB: I’m taking a little… Taking some time off with my fam, which I’m excited about. I’m going to leave you with a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with Jim Collins on Dare to Lead, and a really fun conversation with none other than Dax Shepard and Tim Ferriss, two podcasters who are friends and who I think you’ll love our conversation. It’s an experiment. I’m trying something new, I haven’t even done it yet. I’m doing it later this afternoon, so you’ll see how it goes. Alright, y’all. Awkward, brave, and kind. That is our call. I’ll see y’all next week.
BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy Productions, and by Cadence13. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo. And that music that you hear, that’s by my friends Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.
© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.