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Dani Hart is the former Head of Growth at Growth Hackers. Today, she runs a freelance writing and editing agency called Growth Gal, through which she also helps leaders find and sustain healthy work habits and practices.
Growth, as you may be able to tell already, is a huge part of her life. She is obsessed with it. But, burn out in her career shifted her growth focus from business growth to personal growth.
That shift forced her to reset the way she thought about her career and her life in general. The way she did that is by taking a step back, learning how to prioritize patience and rest, and ultimately, making it a life goal to help at least one person every single day.
Our Instagram Live conversation with her detailed how folks can do this during the pandemic, as well. Below the Instagram Live video, you’ll find the transcript if you’d rather read it and bookmark it.
It’s a fantastic, practical and pragmatic conversation on what we can all do to leverage stress and rest to grow in whatever ways we want.
Dani Hart: Of course!
Hi, everybody! It's storming here and it just started thundering. So hopefully that won't interrupt anything!
Anyway, my name is Dani and I started my career in the tech world and ended up burning out.
When that happened, I got so fascinated with burn out, the entire experience of that emotion and mental state. I had worked at least one job, usually two jobs, since I was 14 and at 28 years old –– I just hit a wall.
I know that 28 is kind of young to be burning out. So, I wanted to figure out what was going on, how I had ended up there.
So, I became fascinated, like I said, about how we live our lives and how that manifests into either burn out or not burning out.
The term that kept coming up in all my research was: resilient.
Resilience is the ability to come back after setbacks, the ability to learn from challenges and to become stronger on the tail end of everything that you experience.
I decided to start researching resilience with the team at psyML. psyML just stands for psychology and machine learning.
The CEO of that company, Dr. Galen Buckwalter, is actually the former Chief Science Officer at eHarmony! He was responsible for 4% of American marriages with his algorithms, which at the time they were built on the OCEAN framework. Now, we use the HEXACO personality framework.
Anyway, I've been working with him and that team as a writer ever since I began down this research path. Now, I dive into really helping people understand their personalities, how they can use their own strengths and opportunities to their advantage, while also being aware of challenges.
Everybody's personality will inhibit them at some point, especially under stress.
That work is so rewarding, and also helps me because I get to learn about myself, too. My stress response, for instance, is to be dependable and be friends. That means that I reach out to a lot of other people and find out how they're doing, and sometimes don't think about myself.
I also then tend to get very critical. So while I'm reaching out to folks, it’s likely that I’m not the best person for them to talk to. I might actually be invoking fear in other people, which isn't good.
Anyway, that's a long winded explanation of what I'm doing.
I actually found Eterneva, though, the end of last year and that was after coming back from about eight months living in Europe and really dealing with a lot of isolation and loneliness and grief.
I lost my grandma at the beginning of the trip. I was just moping around a lot as a result. Then, I had the great opportunity to work with Eterneva to write about some of those experiences and learn more about grief and death and really just study it myself. I think that is something that we can all do, especially with this much time by ourselves.
Dani: Yeah! It's important to remember that a lot of us in the US specifically are dealing with an unprecedented amount of stress prior to the pandemic happening.
That was one thing that we studied at Payoff, where I met Dr. Galen Buckwalter. We were studying how acute financial stress can impact people.
We found that a quarter of Americans and a third of US American millennials were dealing with acute financial stress, which had the same symptoms as PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a phenomenon that is not only limited to veterans. Of course, PTSD was introduced into the American vocabulary through veterans, because there's some very traumatic events that those folks have to experience in war time.
But, you can also experience post traumatic stress from watching someone get in a motorcycle accident in front of you. Divorce rates are high in the US, and a bad divorce can cause PTSD, too.
At the end of the day, PTSD sends the body into fight or flight mode. That is our body's stress response. That's basically our body saying, “I'm being threatened and I need to protect myself!”
A lot of times what happens to people in this prep mode is that they look at everything from a very critical standpoint. They're trying to protect themselves, after all. They're trying to figure out what all these potential threats are, and how they can navigate around them.
In reality, most if not all those threats are not realistic. Or, maybe they are real threats, but they're not something that we really need to worry about on a day to day basis. That kind of stress can drive us crazy.
Learning all of that was like my initial aha!
We're all already dealing with this amount of stress and now we're compounding on top of that a pandemic that none of us has ever seen before in our lifetimes, in our parent’s lifetimes, and in many cases, in our grandparents’ lifetimes.
We have media that we consume 24/7. The last pandemic that the US or the world saw, 24/7 media wasn’t a problem. It just wasn’t a possibility.
Now, we have this onslaught of media that is throwing the situation into our face on a regular basis. We're all very aware of everything going on.
All of that information is really just too much for the human mind to process, let alone thrive. For myself, I set an intention back when I was burned out from the tech world to be more patient with myself and not constantly be producing all the time.
We're always doing one thing after another these days, and it's hard to keep up. It’s impossible to keep up! Often, it isn’t healthy to even try to keep up.
Instead, when I’m getting frustrated now, I come back to the intention of patience. I ask myself: “How can you have patience here?” That was a muscle I seriously needed to build, and it took about a year and a half to get to a point where it comes a bit more naturally rather than me having to force myself to hold the space and the time.
That’s a long time, or it seems like it, but it is possible to retrain yourself!
Dani: Yep, absolutely. It was really telling for me when I first got to Europe. They move at such a slower pace!
Maybe that’s because of all their history of war and conflict. Maybe there is this inherent knowledge there to put more value and emphasis on family, nature, and time.
In the US, I just feel like we are always looking to that next milestone and never really taking a step back to say, "Hey, am I even still on the right path for long term happiness, let alone short term happiness?”
Dani: Well, first of all, it's going to be a lifelong journey for me –– and for all of us.
I don't think it's ever something you just have, patience that is. I think it starts with being intentional, though, and saying that this is something you're committed to: being patient with yourself and being patient with other people.
The biggest tip that really helped me anytime I was frustrated or feeling anxious or anything, was asking myself the question: “What can I learn from this?”
Nine times out of 10 times, what I was learning was something about myself.
After all, there is only one thing any of us can control, and that is how we react to something. We can't control other people, how they react, or how they choose to live their lives.
That has been a hard lesson for me, too. I used to think, growing up, that I could change my parents and get them to believe what I believe. That is just not true, and I was driving myself –– and them! –– crazy trying to do it.
Patience, then, is learning from everything that's in front of you. It's less thinking about things as stress and more as a challenge that you get to experience and come out on the other end a better version of yourself.
Dani: For sure, and it starts with really understanding how stress impacts you, because it's profound.
A lot of disease comes from compounding stress over decades, and I can see it. People that have lived through extremely stressful times or those that perceive stress as stress and as a burden seem to be sicker than others.
I'm not saying that there's a direct tie, and I’m not a doctor so I couldn’t!, but I definitely think stress has a bigger role to play in our health than we realize.
And it’s challenging because our society is built on stressing people out! We need to consume things. We need to buy things. We need to produce things. It’s all so stressful.
Instead, start to understand what your body looks and feels like when it is under stress.
What does your mind look like under stress and how do your reactions to things change? If you can recognize the small shifts over time, you can sort of pull yourself aside and say, “Hey, this is the perfect time for some self care!”
Figure out what 5 small things make you happy, and let yourself have them –– or at least one of them.
Then, think about how you can incorporate those things into your daily life in a healthy way. Make it more of a routine rather than something reactionary. It’s a more preventative approach.
In general, though, when you hit that point of stress, you have to take a step back anyway and get out of the fight or flight mode. You're not going to approach any kind of problem with a solid frame of reference. You have to reset.
Dani: Yeah, there was. In fact, I look back at my burnout as a benefit. When I was experiencing it a couple of years ago, it was so incredibly physical.
It was bad and I knew that I wasn't living the life that I wanted to be living. I needed to start making changes. That’s when I realized a lot of what I was experiencing was due to stress that I had carried with me.
I'd just planned a 500 person conference and hosted it. I had just launched a website. It was just one thing after the other, again and again and again.
I went on a trip for my brother’s 30th to Breckenridge, Colorado and it was the first time I actually let my body relax. I got out into nature. I went to the spa afterwards, and had a hot tub sweat session where I felt like I didn’t even exist anymore.
That’s when I started changing my mindset.
Instead of worrying about all of these metrics that were associated with the success of the company, I was going to focus on myself.
That meant figuring out what my values were, what my true beliefs were, what my personality was, and then taking those values and building a mindset that fit.
I started with wanting to figure out how to help one person each and every day. I was still at my job, but I flipped my mindset. I started reaching out to people who were trialing our software or whatever, and seeing what I could do to help.
It wasn’t about the company. It was my core value of wanting to help –– and that came across so clearly for others. It made me realize I could do so much more than just that at a job that had already burned me out.
Dani: Well, what's amazing in being able to study something like PTSD is you can see the brain patterns that exist in PTSD patients. Once they get to a point where there's cognitive behavioral therapy, real differences can be seen in the brain patterns.
That means that mental exercises can help people tackle how to live in a different way, like a different mindset.
It takes training and practice, of course, because what's happening is your brain changing. You have to re-form it, but you can change it.
It's called neuro-plasticity, where you can train your brain to exhibit different patterns. Things like:
Dani: It always helps if you can actually name what the emotion is that you're experiencing because then it's like, "OK, I'm feeling sad. I’ve been sad before, and then I was happy again. I can do this."
But then, you can also dig deeper and say, "Why am I feeling sad?"
Well, maybe it is because I was supposed to go on that trip and now the trip is canceled. I may never go on that trip again.
OK, why did I want to go on that trip so badly anyway?
Well, I really wanted to see my family.
OK, why do I want to see my family?
Well, because I love them and I value their time.
OK, great! We can work with that.
Now that you know the root cause of the emotion, which is that you really miss your family, you can do something about that. You can talk to them! You can figure out a new way forward –– all because you named the emotion.
Dani: I’m a person who is very much obsessed with growth. I mean, I worked for a company called Growth Hackers as the Head of Growth!
There was one book I read when I was there called Peak Performance, and it talks about what peak performers in every industry, everything from athletes to lawyers to start up founders, had in common.
And the #1 thing they all have in common is that they prioritize rest. Stress plus rest equals growth.
All of us, we're really great at the stress part. We're not so great at the rest part. We really need to be dedicated to rest, to reset our minds to see it as a priority, to retrain our bodies to act on it as a priority. It is the only way forward.
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