Openness, Kindness, and Curiosity with Dr. Daniel Friedland
On San Diego and how he lives in openness, kindness, and curiosity. Danny also goes deep into mindfulness and his work with Leading Well from Within.
Today’s guest is Dr. Daniel Friedland, who’s an expert on the science of high-performance leadership and the CEO of SuperSmartHealth. He helps leaders and their organisations to cultivate high-performance leadership. He is also the author of Leading Well from Within: A Neuroscience and Mindfulness-based Framework for Conscious Leadership. He talks about mindfulness and leading from within, openness, kindness and being curious.
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Danny, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Clare. I’m so happy to be with you and with all your listeners.
Tell us about where you live and where you came from.
I live in San Diego about two or three miles from the beach. It’s just a wonderful location. My accent is up from the Deep South. I come from South Africa. We immigrated over here in the mid-1980s. My father who was in his 60’s moved out here to settle us in. When we left, we were at the height of Apartheid. I’d been called up to the military, which I did not want to go to at that time. The family felt like we all needed to leave. My parents settled in San Diego. Then I actually spent about fifteen years living in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco’s wonderful. It’s cosmopolitan. It’s got that intensity. Interestingly enough, I didn’t have a sense of community. It’s a very, very fast city. There was a confluence of events. Unfortunately, my mom developed cancer. After she passed away, my dad was living alone here in San Diego. We moved the family down to San Diego so my dad lived with us for a number of years. The choice to come down here was a wonderful choice because we formed a sense of community. There were some elements of San Diego that really nurtured our soul.
Part of growing up in South Africa, one of the things, as challenging as a country it was politically, the country was beautiful, just truly beautiful. I grew up in Cape Town, which was on a peninsula with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other side. I grew up surfing. I just loved, loved being in the water. I’ve always been called to being near the ocean. One of the great perks of living here in San Diego is my mental world being and supported by continuing to surf and just enjoy the Pacific over here. I can be very, very stressed out during the day with my work and just one dive into the ocean and through a wave or taking off on a wave, that stress washes away within seconds.
Is there a favourite hidden gem that you and your family have in San Diego that you love to hang-out in?
There’s this walk where you walk up the back of Torrey Pines, you switch back up a road and then you get to the top and you do this three-mile, the whole loop is about three miles, we do the switch back through this Torrey Pines old beach brush land with cactus and beautiful flowers going through these canyons and you keep switch backing all the way down until you hit the beach. Then you walk about a mile up the beach back to the parking lot. Oftentimes when I’m depleted, I go in. I purposely, as I park in the parking lot before I walk up the back of the hill to the top and then I’ll switch back down, I actually calibrate and ask myself what my energy level is. I can start out with my energy level being a three out of ten. By the time I’ve completed the walk, I’m at an eight or a nine regardless. It’s not even that I’m trying too hard, it’s just that the environment is just soaking in. The exercise going up the hill, it’s a good workout as well. The combination of that exercise and just this undiluted exquisite beauty, I just really feel so incredibly blessed. We talk about just awe and gratitude for this environment. I feel very appreciative every day.
How might somebody who’s been really frazzled and overwhelmed after a horrible day take a few moments to capture that essence that you’ve just described?
I travel a lot so I don’t always have access to what’s in my environment at home. For me, the core of my practice is mindfulness. It’s the ability to simply notice whatever you’re experiencing in the present moment, which is a light touch of openness, kindness, and curiosity. That’s why I love the name of your company, Urban Curiosity, because I think curiosity is one of those experiences that if you can just simply sit in the observation and be curious with what you’re experiencing, it can open a space for tenderness, a space for leaning in with kindness and then also a space for beginning in your internal dialogue to be able to be curious about asking more questions. “What is it I can do right now to nurture my soul? What is it that I need mentally? What do I need physically right now? What do I need spiritually right now?” If you lean into those questions, just because everybody’s going to be in a different environment, you’ll be able to reach for what’s in your environment around that.
If you’re in an urban setting and it caused you to go out for a walk and you can find a green space in your city or town, that can be a wonderful outlet. If taking a break and going out and doing some exercise or some yoga calls to you, that can be beautiful. If simply taking a wonderful warm, soothing bath. The main thing here is that if you pause into your question of, “What is it that I need?” Just the act of pausing and noticing your stress and asking what you need is a declaration that you’re actively caring for yourself. That orientation and that question will shift you from being potentially in a problem frame into a nurturing solutions frame.
The nature of the coaching that I do, it’s based on the foundation of my book and my online programmes, which is around leading well from within. The idea here is if you want to know how to lead well in the world, whether you’re a leader in a big business or you’re a healer or you’re a coach or you’re a parent, if you’re looking to lead more effectively. The way I define leadership is leadership, particularly conscious leadership, which is having this awareness around your leadership, the way you touch others, conscious leadership is about the capacity to influence the character and behaviour of others for good. If you look at that in terms of influence, before you can be highly influential and lead well in the world, the first place we need to know how to lead is lead within ourselves. How do we go about navigating stress and focusing on what really matters? That’s the arc of the work in my book. I work a lot around the neuroscience and mindfulness-based framework. I look at all of the science around leadership and leading well from within.
I’m a great optimist. No matter how distressed and overwhelmed people feel, I’m a great optimist that people have more capacity than they even imagine. For me, the great purpose that I feel is when people activate their inherent capacity and I see them shine. That gives me the greatest joy in the world.
It must be a very rewarding moment when you have that realisation after working with a particular client. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you help individuals cultivate resilience.
When you look at cultivating resilience, resilience is the antidote to burnout. Burnout is an epidemic in society. Let me just share what burnout is, if you or any of your listeners have ever experienced any of this. Burnout is a triad of emotional exhaustion, disconnection, and a reduced sense of accomplishment in what you’re doing. When you feel this over a chronic time you can feel very, very depleted. In many ways, this relates to the way our brain is architected. In many ways, our brain is architected according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Our circuits that deal with safety and survival in the lower parts of our brain, love and belonging is the middle and higher parts of the brain and our capacity for significance, self-esteem, self-actualisation really resides at the top part of the brain that integrates all levels below it.
What happens is, in the brain, when we experience the threat of stress and self-doubt or the threat of stress, uncertainty, and self-doubt, we drive all of our thought streams down into our survival circuits where we become exhausted. We forgo love and belonging so we feel disconnected. We forgo what gives our life a sense of meaning and significance so we actually end up with this reduced sense of accomplishment.
In the book Leading Well from Within and in my coaching and workshops, I teach individuals how to first and foremost to create a greater sense of internal safety within themselves, how to create a sense of internal safety with no engaging their stress and uncertainty and instead of beating up on themselves, to learn how to be kind to themselves, much like they would treat their best friend. The foundation of this work is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the capacity. Mindfulness is your ability to pay attention with a sense of openness, again kindness and curiosity for whatever is arising in the present moment, as I mentioned early on. Meeting where you’re at with kindness and openness and curiosity. Your first thing is that openness, just meeting yourself where you’re at creates a great sense of safety and security. The ability offsets some of the emotional exhaustion and brings in the vitality back into your life. Meeting yourself with kindness activates your love and belonging needs, moving you high up the hierarchy, if you will, giving you a great sense of connection with yourself and with other people.
Certainly curiosity leads you in with this curious mind-set to rise to all the challenges you’re facing, so you can experience greater sense of significance in your life. I also work with this larger 4-step framework, this 4-step system to help people proactively shift in the moment. I’ve got some very specific skills and practices that also support this shift. Fundamentally, it’s by helping people feel safer inside themselves, feeling more connected with themselves and others, and a higher source of inspiration, and being able to engage with a deeper sense of purpose and fulfilment and meaning in their lives that gives their lives a sense of significance. All of that gives you a greater sense of resilience in your life and a great sense of empowerment.
What kinds of practices do you observe yourself? You mentioned you have a busy travel schedule. You’re not always able to dive into the ocean to feel better. What are the key things that you do every day to enable you to thrive and do the work that you do in the world Danny?
The heart of this is mindfulness for me. Mindfulness is a very simple practice of being able to just simply observe your thoughts, sensations, emotions and just simply be able to pivot your focus of attention in that field of awareness. Really, if I were to boil mindfulness down to its most simplistic element, it’s the capacity to notice and choose. There are some formal practices around that and informal practices around that. The formal practices, there are a number of them.
One of the common practices that you and your listeners probably know about is just a simple breath-focused meditation, where you simply allow yourself to observe your thoughts, sensations, and emotions without trying to change, fix, or modify anything. You’re not even trying to quiet your mind. You’re just simply allowing yourself to observe without resistance. Then, just as you allow yourself to get into that place of open awareness, pivoting your attention to your breath over and over again. Of course your thoughts will come back into your forefront. Notice your thoughts come up and you pivot back to your breath over and over again. In that way you can build a stability of mind, this ability to notice what you’re experiencing without getting over entangled. We tend to be over-identified with our thoughts, sensations and feelings. We tend to say things like, “I am sad. I am hopeless. I am angry.” You roll those things into a knot. But from the observing place, this place of observation, with open awareness, you begin to say, “I’m noticing that I’m having angry thoughts and feelings. I’m noticing that I’m irritated.” Now because you’re in the noticing of it and not in it, you have a choice.
Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said, “Between stability and response, there’s a gap. In that gap you have the power to choose.” Mindfulness puts you into the gap where you can just notice what’s going on and you can simply lean in and choose how you want to engage your environment. Because you’ve exercised coming back to your breath over and over again, that builds your stability of mind to pivot over and over again. Noticing that you’re having these angry thoughts, you can pivot to the sadness below it, you can pivot to forgiveness, you can pivot to shifting your attention and ultimately, where you choose to focus your attention moment by moment. You can choose on these thoughts that torment you or these thoughts that inspire you. You can choose to engage these people that deplete you or these people that nourish you or these projects that drain the living day light out of you or these projects you find deeply meaningful and fulfilling. Where you choose to focus your attention moment by moment is ultimately what dictates the meaning, joy and significance of your life.
You can choose to engage these people that deplete you or these people that nourish you or these projects that drain the living day light out of you or these projects you find deeply meaningful and fulfilling. Where you choose to focus your attention moment by moment is ultimately what dictates the meaning, joy and significance of your life.
My practice in the morning is oftentimes just a five or ten-minute mindfulness practice. The breath-focused mindfulness practice is a simple one. I have a number of others. Mostly throughout the day, I thread this through where I’m just simply noticing where I’m at and just allowing myself, particularly when I feel the stress and irritation and angst rise, leaning in with curiosity and realising that there’s no flaw. I’m just stressed because there are things that I’m caring about that matter to me. I’m just beginning to ask what matters here and pivoting all that energy toward into the outcomes that are meaningful. That helps me stay on track. There are moments certainly that I do get derailed but I can find my way back.
I’d love to hear about the genesis of your previous book, The Big Decision.
Thank you so much for asking me about that because that’s so close to my heart. That was a labour of love. The genesis of that was my oldest son, Zack, was turning 13. While we’re not religious, I asked Zack if he wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah. I’m Jewish, my wife’s not. We don’t have a religious household, but I wanted to give him the option. He declined on the Bar Mitzvah. I said, “As you move from becoming a boy to becoming a man, that moves through a doorway of service. What do you see as being your service offering?” We’ve spoken about a lot of different things. We spilled out different things. When we settled, I said, “Would you be willing to write a book with me, a book that could be helpful for other teens?”
Because one of the things that as a parent, as we care for our kids, more than anything all I want for my kids to be able to do is to make good decisions in their life so they can live rich meaningful lives and make a meaningful contribution to the lives of others. I said, “Would you be willing to write a book with me on making good life decisions?” There was an opportunity because I had already written a book on helping doctors make science-based decisions. What we landed up with is we wrote The Big Decision. It’s a story and framework to inspire and empower better life decisions. He wrote the story, the first eleven chapters, for teenage kids. I wrote for parents the last eleven chapters, which was the framework, the brain science around making decisions.
The story he wrote was gorgeous. Zack’s a very good athlete. He wrote a story about being a running back on an American football team and they’re miraculously marching to championship final. The other arch of the story is his favourite aunt’s getting married. The championship final and the wedding lands up on the same day, it collides. He goes to his dad who happens to be a doctor in the book. He said, “Dad, this is a painful decision for me. What can I do?” His dad says, “Son, you’re at the age right now where I no longer make these big decisions for you, but I’m going to give you a framework by which you can make this big decision yourself.” His father gives him the framework of evidence-based medicine.
This is the framework that I use to teach doctors how to make good science decisions but it can be applied to making good life decisions. It’s a framework of knowing how to ask good questions, find good answers, evaluate and trust those answers, and apply those answers to taking meaningful action. Zack used this framework to solve the challenge in the book, and by that token, learned other ways of using this framework to make good decisions in his life as well. It was just really a joyful experience.
I’d spoken in 2012 at Conscious Capitalism with the CEOs of many of these illustrious companies. In 2013 they asked me to come back with Zack to speak with him on making good life decisions. Zack at the age of 13 is the youngest speaker ever at Conscious Capitalism, teaching these illustrious CEOs all about decision-making. If you have interest or your listeners have interest, if you go to SuperSmartHealth.com, under the speaking tab as you scroll down to the bottom, there’s a video on making decisions and watching me and Zack speak at Conscious Capitalism. I got the greatest compliment of my life that day when somebody came up to me and said, “You’re a great speaker and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way but I want you to know that today you are only the second most impactful speaker because your son just knocked it out of the park.” That was the best compliment I ever got.
What a great experience for you both!
I love, love, love both of my boys. One of the other things, you talk about little practices that you do. The heart of a lot of this work is just love and compassion. Businesses either run on fear or they run on love. Families run on fear or they run on love. Another accidental event that paid huge dividends was when Zack was eight and I had some work in Alaska. Instead of going to stay in hotels and going to the hospitals and doing work there, I rented an RV and we slept in the hospital parking lots. We were together for a week in that small RV just travelling around. What we did was we created a secret handshake when we were on the trip. It’s one of these bro handshakes where you slap your knuckles together, but it ends with a heart to heart, laying it heart to heart.
We’ve done that twice a day since he was eight. He’s now eighteen and he’ll hug me when he goes to sleep at night. I’ve been thinking how it might have been different for me if I had hugged my dad twice a day for ten years while I was growing up and have my dad say to me, “I love you,” every time he does that. I see so much beauty in him. Part of it is because he’s wired in to his heart literally from that physical heart to heart, that deep knowing that he’s loved unconditionally.
I have a lump in my throat listening to that. That’s such a beautiful story.
I’m really excited that you’re coming to London as part of your itinerary.
Zack is now eighteen, next year will be Senior Year so this is really our last big summer together. At Christmas, more of a Christmukkah, a mix of Hanukkah and Christmas, we surprised our kids with a month trip to Europe. We’re going to be landing in Paris and then we’ll take the Chunnel to London and then we’re going to go from London we’ll go then to Venice and then to Cinque Terre and then to Rome and the Greek Islands and back to Paris. It will be a full month. Actually, all of us, we just got backpacks. We’re going to come freewheel with this as well.
I know you’ve worked with the Global Wellness Institute and that they run the Global Wellness Summit – these are the leaders in the spa and wellness industry in that space, right? And that’s how you came to know a woman called Corinna Yap of the COMO Metropolitan, is that right?
The COMO Metropolitan in London. Corinna is such a gem of an individual. She’s also in this community. Annie Hood is another wonderful woman. She works with wellness intelligence and she’s in the space too. I said, “I’m coming to London. If you’d like to do an evening where we can just chat about the book and this work that you and I are talking about right now, we can do a Q&A. I’d love to meet your community and connect.” She said, “Yeah, absolutely.” They put together this event at the COMO Metropolitan. I believe it’s August 7th. There’s an Eventbrite link out there and I believe the COMO Metropolitan’s beautiful space. I’m just so looking to come there and just have a meaningful evening which Annie’s going to be interviewing me. It’s going to be open for Q&A. My work isn’t about presentations. They’re really about conversations and meaningful conversations. The opportunity to have this meaningful conversation with you today and then extend the conversation in London with just a wonderful community. I hope some of your listeners if they’re inspired, they want to join us on that evening.
It’s going to be great! We’ll share the Eventbrite link in the shownotes for that event on 7th August 2017. I can’t wait to meet you there and connect with like-minded people. That’s what these events are such a great opportunity for, as well.
I find it’s the collective intelligence. In many ways these events self-select for a group of individuals that are heart-centred and growth-hungry. You just meet your tribe around events like this. For those of you who can’t get there and if you want to dig down and just learn more about this work if that calls to your heart, then I would just invite you to go to SuperSmartHealth.com. On SuperSmartHealth.com, on the homepage, there’s a free excerpt of the book Leading Well from Within that you can download. If you go to the speaking tab, there are a lot of videos over there from a lot of different events including the keynote, a wonderful event in Turkey about a year or so ago for Global Wellness Day, that might be of interest as well.
That sounds like an excellent resource for people to go and delve into and learn lots of cool things. So at this point I have to ask you what you are curious about right now?
The heart of my work that I do, I shared with you that I have this four-step framework to help people shift from a reactive frame to a creative frame, if you will. The fourth, the step four, is all about catalyzing your growth and tapping in. It’s the framework of evidence-based medicine. It’s your ability to ask good questions and create storms so you can find good questions and evaluate them and then trust your knowing to take good action. I’m always very curious about asking good questions. When I’m stressed, at every phase of our growth there are different stressors, I come back and I continually ask myself those questions about, how can I deepen into my love and kindness? How can I better connect with myself and others? How can I best express myself? What’s my best service? A lot of times I ask myself the question, how can I open my heart more fully? I lean into those questions and I see pieces, elements that arise. My favourite question that I would offer to you and all your listeners is, what are the good questions I can ask right now? Just asking the question is, I believe, one of the best questions we can ask.
Dr. Daniel Friedland, thank you for being a guest on the Urban Curiosity podcast today.
It’s my pleasure, Clare. Thank you for the work that you do. I just really appreciate spending time with you. Thanks to all of you listening here too today. Thank you so much.