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It All Comes Down to Purpose: An Interview With Dr. Michael Gervais, High Performance Psychologist

What differentiates high performers from the rest? Why do some people have more resilience than others? According to Dr. Michael Gervais, it all comes down to purpose.

Dr. Gervais is the host of the Finding Mastery podcast and co-founded Compete to Create with Coach Pete Carroll to help people be their best every day.

I got so much from this interview that I had to share a snippet of the conversation we did over Zoom.


Usually my interviews start with the question “when and where we first met” but we’ve never actually met before this moment. I’m curious as to what compelled you to respond to my email request to be interviewed for my “In My Network” series.

There's some filters that requests for my time go through before they get to me. Some of my teammates were able to take a look at what you're doing and your point of view in the world. and they thought, oh, you know what? I think Mike and Christine would have a good conversation. And so when it got to me, I just did a quick look and I really appreciated what you're putting out in the world and your take on it. I thought this would be a fun conversation to have.

I reached out to you because I wanted to learn more about your quest of unearthing how the best in the world master their craft. What are some of the themes that you've heard? Are there any core principles or skills that have shown up through those conversations?

My podcast is called Finding Mastery and we’ve interviewed over 240 people. We took the transcripts from about one hundred of those and pushed them through a machine learning exercise. We created an algorithm to sift through the themes, streams and the insights so I can answer that from a science perspective, not just an intuitive approach.

If you look at the science, there's a purpose driven orientation, performance driven orientation and an outcome driven orientation. And these are styles are how people go through life. This not going to be a surprise but, people that are on the path of mastery are more purpose driven.

Oddly enough, the people on our podcast don't have clear goals. This is totally counter-intuitive. Clarity of goals has a negative relationship to flow state, though they call it absorption in our study. And those that are rigid about the goals don't find flow state or complete absorption as often. In contrast, those that are on the path to mastery are purpose driven and are loose with their goals and have high absorption rate. So, they're looking for the risk and the challenge and they know that they have the skills to meet that risk and challenge. It's much more than checking boxes toward a goal.

Our brains crave novelty and a stimulating environment and, when everything is so linear and buttoned up, it's hard to get that new. I'm not saying you can't because there's lots of styles and approaches, but you also need to go back upstream to ask why am I doing this? And then if you're really clear on that, make sure that whatever that is is part of the daily rhythm.

Some people are challenged with trying to have clarity of purpose. When you're talking about these people who are on the path to mastery, that's really clear to them. How do the rest of us find purpose if we’re not sure how to either articulate it or express it?

I think this is one of the big conversations in life. Harvard did a seventy-five-year longitudinal study on fulfillment and one of the key findings was that the people that reported being most fulfilled in life wrestled and struggled and tried to get their arms around the big questions in life: What am I doing with my life? What's my purpose? What's the purpose of humans? What's the purpose of this whole thing?

So you can thin slice it to say, what is my purpose today? What is my purpose this year? What are my resources? What are the skills that I need? What's the tone that's unique to me, that tenor of how I'm going to approach challenges?

Nobody can give you purpose or tell you what yours is - you have to do the work.

That comes in three ways that I know: One is mindfulness and meditation which includes sitting and paying attention to the storylines, the narratives, the emotions, the thoughts and how they all work together. The second strategy is journaling and writing. The reason for that is because the words of your native language create a forcing function to choose the word that best captures something. And then the third is conversations with people of wisdom. If you don't know a wise person, look around for the next best thing. Who is the most switched on person in your neighborhood? Who's that elder or even young person that really gets it?

I'm curious about what mastery actually looks like. When you say you've mastered a craft, it sounds like there is an endpoint, but is there really a finish line?

The goal in the pursuit of mastery is to stay on the path. As you grow, the challenges grow and the required skills grow. So, it keeps unfolding, unfolding and unfolding as you go down the path. There's no finish line.

What can we learn from those on the path to mastery about resilience during tough times? I mean, we are in the throes of it as a society right now so it’s very much top of mind.

Let’s take a physical example. You've done something physically hard because you’ve run a marathon so when I say this to this will not be a surprise. When your purpose is big and it's bigger than pain, purpose wins. When pain is bigger than purpose you haven't clarified the purpose and pain wins.

In athletics and in life, there are three components to purpose. The first is that it matters to you. Nobody can give you purpose – it has to have meaning to you. The second is that it's bigger than you, like it's outside of you. And the third is its future oriented. It's down the road.

How does this show up in a leadership context? Especially right now when leaders are trying to take care of their teams, save their businesses and serve their customers.

It’s all about clarity of purpose and vision. There needs to be clarity of why we're going take this hill and there's the vision of what's on the other side of the hill as well. Then they're able to communicate why this next step needs to be taken and how to achieve the togetherness for the next step. Not necessarily the tactics or strategies, but the importance of we need each other.

It requires leaders to begin with awareness of four things: awareness of one's own thoughts, emotions, body sensations and the unfolding environment. When you're aware of those for yourself, you can start to become better aware of those for others and now we're starting to get into that social connection that takes place. That's really about compassion and empathy and the communication strategies to bring us together.

From awareness, we can live in the present moment more often. If we stitch together moments of being present, then we get insights. And then with insights, we get to wisdom. So there's this dynamic interplay between awareness, present moment insights and wisdom that takes place. And with that, we become more of a dynamic human that has deep understandings about how humans work and how we work together. And so that's part of leadership.

What about at an individual level? What practices can we employ to manage through this pandemic?

Right now, we're in the global crisis and we're flying in formation kind of for the first time ever in our planet. At the same time, we need each other to have purpose. And that purpose is that you're going take care of your family and your loved ones. You're going to take care of people you don't know by doing all the socially appropriate things and bolstering your immune system to help the front lines.

And the home front really is literally your home, but also your home inside your body, because this battle will be won and met by your the strength of your immunity. There's never been higher dividends in your life for your health than right now. All the times that you did the extra little recovery, the extra little stress inoculation, the extra mile to build that outpatient adaptation, the extra vegetables that you eat instead of the chips. It's all paying dividends right now. So if you're late to the game, you can start with sleep as it’s the big defense mechanism. And if you can't get sleep right for whatever reason, fill your plate up with lots of vegetables and hydrate.

If there's one mindfulness practice we can bring into our lives right now, what is it?

There are two basic types of mindfulness. There's single point mindfulness and then there's more contemplated, which is the observing nature of mindfulness.

An example of a single point practice you can do right now is mastering the inhale and then mastering the exhale. It's that simple. When your mind wanders away from either one of those, just gently, quickly return back to working on mastering the inhale and then mastering the next exhale. Do it as if a loved one's life depended on you getting the breath right. There's an essence to it. There's a commitment to it. There's a deep focused all in nature to it.

So much goodness in today’s interview. Thanks so much Michael. Now it’s time for your rapid fire round:

  • What is one book that has greatly influenced your life: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. It's a beautiful eighty-one page, complicated, dynamic book about the nature of what is.

  • What do you do to restore: There's lots, but one of them certainly is mindfulness.

  • What is one mindfulness practice that you teach others: Breathing and the art of the exhale.

  • Fill in the blank - you are a master of __________: Being on the path of mastery.

  • One thing on your bucket list: I want to buy a thousand meals for a thousand kids, build a house for a family and to visit the eleven spiritual centers of the world. And then I'd be remiss if I didn't say the big bucket list for me is supporting my wife and my son.

  • Least favorite life maintenance activity: I don't really like flossing.

Dr. Michael Gervais is a high performance psychologist working with some of the best athletes, musicians, artists and business leaders in the world. Tune in to his Finding Mastery podcast to learn more or check out Compete to Create if you'd like additional tools to help you achieve your full potential.

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