Brian Fretwell is a consultant, speaker, and coach. He has traveled the world teaching people how to get the most out of their unique talents, strengths, and opportunities. Brian uses our knowledge about neuroscience and how the brain works to help people understand why they do the things they do. He has written the book Experts Of Our Potential which is a story about a coach and his challenging client.
I recently discover Brian through Facebook. I saw a clip from his book, which really spoke to me. I immediately downloaded the book and read it from cover to cover.
Brian and I talk about why he wrote the book, why we struggle to value ourselves and how to survive in a changing world.
Can you talk a bit about the story behind the book?
This is actually the fourth book Brian has written. Only one other has the potential to see the light of day. Several people suggested he write a how-to and so he tried but found it didn’t click. A friend and editor suggested he write it as a story and that was when everything clicked.
It is fascinating to see both the clients struggle to find his direction and values and your struggle to help him get there.
If you want to change someone else, you can only do that to the level you’ve changed yourself. Brian wanted to show that it’s not just the clients who change as part of the coaching process, the coaches change to. He wanted to dispel the superhero idea we have of coached and leaders. We’re all changing, we’re all fallible and we all have this potential.
As a coach sometimes I feel this pressure to solve a short term problem. But typically it’s a symptom of a much bigger challenge. In the book, Chris has this challenge in his work but he hasn’t yet defined the bigger picture of what’s really important to him. He’s trying to grasp at these quick fixes without understanding the bigger picture.
Brian points out that Chris is trying to solve a non-linear problem in a linear fashion. What I want to do, who I can be, where I can go – it’s a non-linear problem which doesn’t have a direct answer. If a coach tries to give a linear answer, they are actually doing the client a disservice. Brian believes that a coach’s job is not to give a client the answer – they can google that- it’s to help people identify that they have the capacity to find their own answers.
Sometimes we want other people to solve our problems.
Our brains are built on efficiency. It thinks that if we get the answer from someone else then we can be done. But the growth part of our brain, the part we have to push, thinks ‘well how do we do it’. We don’t just need the answer we need to figure out how to reach the answer on our own.
We all have the answers to our problems and we often know what to do but sometimes we just can’t make that link.
When Brian worked in juvenile corrections, he learned that the hard way. Kids would ask him what they should do to turn their life around and he would tell them, only to find that when they left they got back into drugs, or even worse, died. He asked himself if he had given them any more tools than before they had entered the system.
When someone comes to you with a challenge, the real consequence of giving them an answer, is not giving them the capacity to operate on their own.
I like to ask questions and I find it challenging when I come up against defensiveness when I ask a question. You have mentioned that right behind the defense, is the potential. How do you manage defenses craftfully?
Our brains have a 5 to 1 ration of a threat to reward. Your eyes are scanning the environment for threat 5 times a second. We don’t acknowledge that. We’ve been taught to ask questions which are challenging, which are direct. And while those are needed, if you don’t get the brain in the right space they aren't going to be beneficial. Our brains need to be in the right space and to do that we need to change the way we lead into to these questions. Start with asking people what they’ve done well, how they’ve been successful and how they have solved a problem like this before.
So essentially getting into a place of more confidence rather than a place of fear and threat.
About 15 years ago Brian's core business was talking to couples about money. They’d talk about what they wanted at a deeper level. Then individually, Brian would ask them about a time when they felt really good about the way they spent their money. Finances are one of those areas we say ‘I’m screwing this all up, tell me what I’m doing wrong so I can start doing something else.’ From that standpoint, we don’t get any behavioral change. If we really tap into a memory of doing something really well it’s much easier on the brain to consider a change.
So if someone is listening to this and having a challenge in their life, they should first acknowledge the strength they have in that area?
They should honestly acknowledge it. Sometimes when someone has been through something really hard, they have a level of endurance and tolerance that other people don’t have. What do you have that nobody else has? And actually being honest about that is pretty hard work.
And super helpful to take some of those challenges we are having and reframe them into recognizing that we have had some success.
When you find that success when you find that part that you’re good at, throw gasoline on that fire. Put everything you can on it. From a neurobiological standpoint, it’s going you all the neurochemicals to actually follow through. It is impossible to focus too on what someone does well.
Before we started recording I was sharing with you that I’m looking to expand my business and I’ve been doing a lot of work. I mentioned that I haven’t been successful in a lot of things. And you asked me about where I have been successful. I really love this question of where have you been successful and how can you use your strengths to grow rather than trying to fix what’s wrong with you.
Coaches are in the business of trying to make people feel more proud of themselves. What do you do well? What are you proud about? What really engages you? Those are the questions you should ask yourself every day. Brian says that he struggles with this as well. His brain wants to go to ‘well you’ve screwed this up before’. He had a business that went $70000 into debt. So when he started a new business he had that at the back of his mind every day. He has to focus his effort on being clear about where he is going to shine the best. Where am I going to bring my highest potential? This is a question that we spend a lifetime trying to figure out. But it’s a much better question than ‘What’s wrong with me?’
Can you speak a little bit about priming your brain?
Your brain is water and fat. It’s not a muscle but Brian loves the muscle analogy. There are different levels of focusing on our success. We can get really deep, but to begin with, it can be ‘well I didn’t screw that up’. But we build this muscle and we can get stronger in recognizing our strengths.
I want to get into the social contracts we have. Especially with regards to our career. Can you talk about some of the old templates we have and how we change them in the face of changing technology?
Brian’s father was a union miner in the late 70s/ early 80’s. There was this idea that if he shows up to the job, is loyal, puts up with a bunch of crap, it will pay out and he will receive the benefits and be able to retire. We no longer have that safety net. What does still exist is our approach to the economy. We rely on a job to provide us with security but the numbers show that there is no security in jobs anymore. What’s changed is that we have to create that security on our own. We have to create that validation on our own too. We used to rely on I've got this degree; I’ve got this job. We now have to rely on I’ve got his skill, I've got this ability and apply it in 5 or 6 different areas.
One of the reasons I started my own business is because I got fired from a couple of jobs and felt that I didn’t want to put my security in somebody else's hands. I wanted to have ownership over that.
What you have identified is why we should be excited about this. And there will always be a part of you which is scared of hell about this. But imagine how it would feel if you knew you understood your value enough to weather any storm.
If somebody doesn’t know what they like and what they’re good at, then what?
You get to go and fall down a few times. Brian doesn’t have an easier answer than that. When he hears ‘I don’t know’, he also hears ‘I’m really worried about screwing it up.’ That feeling is very real but also short-sighted. You can go screw up really big and be okay. Because we don’t have these jobs that don’t last for 40 years, we also don’t have this inherent obligation to never screw up like we used to. Screwing up is part of the process now.
My experience has been that when I hold myself back, in terms of keeping myself safe, I actually experience more discomfort than taking the risks, trying and ‘failing.’
Brian’s wife is a counselor and her background is in transpersonal psychology, so comes from a Buddhist school. They have this philosophy about pain. You can either wait for pain, in which case it’s out of your control, or you can seek pain, in which case it’s in your control. If you are in a job hoping that the job will provide you safety, you are inviting pain that will be out of your control. If you are doing your own thing, you are inviting pain that is within your control.
I want to get back to this idea of valuing ourselves. So many people have difficulty seeing themselves as the person that can define their own values versus outside validation.
When Brian was in juvenile corrections he was a smoker. A kid challenged him in on it. He had a week where he quit smoking, met his wife and signed up for his first marathon. Over the course of 2 years, he ran 15 races. Every time he did a race, he got a medal. One day his wife laid them all out on the table and said ‘what do these say about you?’ He stared at those medals and started crying. He looked at them wondered if maybe they said that he was worthless. That’s a question that is plaguing people. We spend our time at school and at our job trying to get somebody to tell us we did well at a task. While that is needed and is valuable, when we tell ourselves we have value, it has the most power.
What do you think is the question we need to be asking ourselves?
There are levels to this. The question can be ‘do you believe in yourself?’ But for some people, that’s too big a question. The powerful questions are – ‘where do you believe in yourself?’ and ‘in what instances do you trust yourself?’ For some people who have been through traumatic experiences, they have to start at ‘I trust myself to turn the coffee pot on.’ Then those other questions of ‘where do you feel you add value?’ and ‘Where do you feel you matter?’
Can you explain a little bit about the reticular activating system?
Of all the data coming into your brain, you are only processing about 1 % of it. Your RAS (reticular activating system) is just a little instrument in your brain that filters your inputs. It says we are only going to pay attention to these things. And it’s generally anything that’s going to generate a higher emotional reaction. Because there's this limited ability to focus and because our brains are designed for safety, we generally look for things that are going to make us look stupid or dumb. If we can take control of the RAS, we can change the filters and literally change our reality.
Why do you think we overlook our talents?
Because we’re running away from bears. We feel social pain and physical pain the same way. We’re much more concerned if we’re going to look stupid or be embarrassed. Physical pain we have nerves for. Social pain we have emotions for. We’re so dialed in to not looking dumb that we avoid beauty. Avoiding fear is much more natural than finding beauty.
Do you think our value is in our hardships?
Our value is the whole picture. So our hardships are apart of that. There are things Brian has been through that he would not sign up to go through again, but they’ve allowed him to do things he wouldn’t have done otherwise.
What gives you so much meaning in your work?
When he sees somebody who has read his book, is in a workshop or he is coaching and they have that moment when they realize that they are actually worth something.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s not about you.
Tell us how we can get in touch with you and how we can get your book?
Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiN67V5q3C