EP 100: The Power of Slowing Down, with Mo Gawdat
Kelly: I'm excited to celebrate this hallmark episode with a very, very special guest. Some of you may remember Mo Gawdat as the Chief Business Officer at Google X. And others might know him as the author of Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy. Either way, he's also the host of the new podcast Slo Mo. So be sure to check that out if you're feel inspired by this conversation today. I actually met Mo at the World Happiness summit a few years ago. I don't know if he remembers it. But he signed a book for a client of mine. And I was blown away by his presentations. So a warm welcome to you. I'm glad that you're here. I'm glad that we've reconnected and thank you so much for being my special guest on episode 100.
Mo: It's so special to feel, 100 is a very special number. I'm honored. And yes, I remember. And I remember the word Happiness Summit. I remember before they locked us down. And the first time I went to the World Happiness Summit, I was like, “There are summits about happiness?” Isn't it all about profitability and connectivity and technology? It was one of the most incredible experiences. I probably think you would agree.
Kelly: Yeah, I had a few clients who said, “Wait, you're going to a World Happiness Summit. So what do you do? You walk around and like smoke pot all day? I don't understand.
Mo: I don't. Actually the first World Happiness Summit was when I was publishing my book Solve for Happy. I actually published it there in Miami. And, it was a very emotional time for me because of the reasons of the book and so on. And I have never received more hugs in one day than I did that day in 17th Of March 2017. Basically people were so wonderful. Everyone there is saying, “Look, there are two sides to life. Yes, you do need to contribute and succeed, and make a difference. But you also want to find your happiness.” And so it was just a group of likeminded people that are looking for something very special and wonderful.
Kelly: Yeah. So let's talk about that a little bit, just as an entry point. So you actually researched the topic of happiness for well over a decade, which I actually don't think that I realized. What gave you the idea, to design an algorithm to try to reach this state of uninterrupted happiness in one's life?
Mo: A brain defect, if you want to believe it, Kelly. Engineers were weird. And at the time, I was a very serious geek, like real. I still am quite geeky, but not as much. To my mind, I was very happy until I was 24, 25. When I had nothing, life was difficult. And I became totally miserable by age 29 when I had everything. I was very successful, rich, by lots of measures, had the ability to print money in the stock market. I was doing very well. And, in my mind, I thought, like a geek, something went wrong with the code. So this piece of software that was in my head worked well until 24, and something went wrong. So let me debug this machine. And I did it literally. We debug software. I really started to list down all of the instances that made me happy or unhappy and try to find commonalities between them and try to make sense of it all, independent of spirituality, independent of practice, basically, like a lab scientist, if you want. And that paid off because happiness is highly predictable. It follows a very predictable pattern that can be summarized in an equation and to my brain when I figured that out, the rest was engineering, the rest was just hard work. But the discovery was there.
Kelly: And so why did you feel compelled to kind of bring this message to 1 billion people around this idea that this is like your personal mission in life?
Mo: Yeah, I don't wish that it was triggered because of the events that it was triggered. 12 years into my research, I was probably close to world champion on happiness. You couldn't dent my happiness. There wasn't much you could do because it was very clear and logical in my mind. As a matter of fact, in one of my future books, which is publishing in spring, next year, I talk about something that is called the happiness flow chart. It can follow a flow chart. And, when that happened, I started to share it with my family, my close friends. And the model worked. At the time, I think 2011 was the time when I decided probably I should write this down. And, make it a book, but I was busy. I was running around like all of us, executive at Google at the time, then moved to Google X and was Chief Business Officer and was very busy. And I think life nudged me, 2014, when life said, you really have to do this, and basically, sadly triggered me to go on that path through the loss of my son. So Ali was not just my son. Ali was everything. He was my son. He was my best friend. He was my coach in many, many, many ways. And he was 21 and half at the time. He was tall and handsome and wise and kind and had the best hug on the planet. Like, I can't tell you. I swear to you. And I'm this big old man who is a senior executive who just fall in Ali's hug, who just want to stay there. And he unfortunately, had a simple surgery, an appendix inflammation, and it went wrong. And so four hours later, Ali left our world and my response to it was more around, I can't bring him back. So what can I do now that he left? And the only thing that came to my mind at the time was maybe if I share what he taught me, I mean, we worked on my happiness discovery together. I was the brain. And Ali was just that instinctive heart. And so, I said, “Maybe if I wrote it down, and I share it with the world and somehow they found part of it in them, then it wouldn't be for nothing that he left.” My whole ambition was to deliver on his dream. A couple of weeks before he died, he spoke to his sister that he had a dream. And he said, “My dream was that I was everywhere and part of everyone.” I always feel emotional whenever I talk about him.
Kelly: Yeah, of course.
Mo: And Aya came to me four days after Ali died. And she said he had that dream. And she said, “It was so wonderful that he didn't want to be back in his body.” And, of course, immediately, I felt that he was giving me a target. If you know how a businessman's mind works, I sort of felt Ali was saying, “Papa, it's now your job to make me everywhere and part of everyone.” I promise you, Aya will tell you, I basically sat down on the sofa, held my face, and then raised my head and said, “Okay, habibi. Consider it done.” These were my exact words. Google executive at the time, I was responsible for emerging markets for years. I knew how to reach billions. And, I said, consider it done. And that's where it all started. Was it my life purpose? Did I find my life purpose? I don't know. I think my purpose found me.
Kelly: Yeah, you're making me tear up. It's never easy.
Mo: I mean, it's seven years ago now Kelly. I promise you, my heart is filled with… everyone who lost a child, it just doesn't go away.
Kelly: Yeah, I can imagine.
Mo: But let me tell you this. I mean, we're now 10s of millions in. If you imagine Ali, Ali was that wonderful being in every way. And I promise you, I think about it. And I sometimes ask myself, if I had went to Ali, if I'd gone to Ali before he went into that operating room, and I said, “Ali, would you give your life for 47 million people to be happier?” My belief is he would have said, “Yes.
Kelly: He would have said yes. Yeah.
Mo: Yeah. And if you understand that’s the way I understand it. I don't think that's a very bad deal. Sooner or later, I'll hug him and say, “Hey, it worked.” And maybe it's worthwhile.
Kelly: Yeah. Amazing. Thank you for sharing that, by the way.
Mo: Oh, my God. Yes. I love to talk about him.
Kelly: I think it's also really kind of like a beautiful wraparound that you had. You sort of released that book publicly and we're given all of these hugs on that same day, when you had this special relationship with his hugs. Yeah.
Mo: Yeah. If you don't believe in karma, I am the absolute example. I mean, right before lockdowns I was in an event called Wisdom 2.0, Wisdom in Business, and the host is a friend, Martin and he made me cry on the stage because somehow he asked me a question where I suddenly realized that I lost the love of Ali. But I had the love of every single person in those audience. There must have been like 10,000 people out there. And the amount of love that can came flooding on me, of course, Ali’s love is special, but can't complain, to be honest. It's amazing how what you give out, what you put out in the world comes back to you. Maybe giving is probably, now in my mind I know it sounds like a strange statement. Maybe giving is the most selfish thing you can ever do.
Kelly: I like that. I like that reframe.
So let's transition a little bit and talk about what we kind of wanted to talk about today for the majority of the time, which is this idea that there's so much power in slowing down. So slowing down is difficult. We’re wired, especially here in America, to speed up and we're wired to crush it. And we're wired to do all of these things, to put our emotions aside and just like focus on these goals and power through, which I'm definitely guilty of. Slowing down is antithetical, especially when you think about the last 16 months. When we've been forced to slow down, arm wrestled to slow down, we didn't do it voluntarily. So the natural inclination is to as things open up again, the natural inclination is to speed up. But let's dive into the power of slowing down. And actually, what does it mean for your life? And what does it mean for all aspects of the way that you want to live the rest of your life?
Mo: Well, I think it's a myth that slowing down slows you down. The truth is almost the exact opposite. Life is a mixture of being and doing. And, if you look at how we've turned it into our modern societies, we're just about doing. We forgot about being. Now we've become so efficient at doing that we do what we put our heads to, and the problem is, without being most of the time, we do the wrong things. And we waste so many cycles. And so in a very interesting way, slowing down are those moments of being that allow you to actually recognize what it is you're supposed to do. And if you do, you do it much more efficiently. You do it much more quickly, and you just get it done. So by slowing down, you literally are going faster. I remember one of my best friends, 43 years friends, and we started together in IBM. And his name is Waeil and so I'm saying his name because he will laugh when he listens to this. And the difference between Waeil, was at the time when we were there, I was an 8088, which was one of the early Intel processors that was my speed. And we used to call him Pentium at the time because he was so fast. He was so fast. I would be sitting in my cubicle and he sitting next to me in the other cubicle and you couldn't hear from how quickly he was typing on the keyboard, like unbelievable. But then eventually you would look at on his screen and there are only three lines written. And I go like what's going on? Well, then he says, “Yeah, I keep typing and then erase and then type and erase and then type and erase and then type and erase.” And that was how fast he was going. And wouldn't it be much, I'm like the other guy, tick, tock, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, and I write faster than most authors. I write at a speed that actually my publishers are unable to catch up with. Not because I type fast but because I slow down. I actually look at my idea. I write it on a piece of paper. I reflect on it. I waited a day or two. I research it a little, and I don't write a single letter. And then one morning, I wake up and poof, literally, I spit out the chapter. And, that's the power of slowing down. The big myth when you think about it is that we think that we are designed as humans to actually go fast. Not at all. If you remember the times of cavemen and women, we would go hunting one day of the week. That would feed the tribe for the whole week. And then we would stay back in safety and reflection. As a matter of fact, our natural state is a state of, your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, and your default mode network is completely relaxed, and you're really not thinking. You’re just there to digest your food, reflect, but rebuild your muscle, close your eyes and sleep. This actually is what humans are about. So I'm not saying we should be lazy, but we have to recognize that if you want to be productive, that one of the most productive ways of doing that is to actually slow down.
Kelly: Yeah, I was just thinking like, even if you're using like the caveman example, if you think about it, when we needed to run away from a lion or to run to hunt something. It was the sprint, and the sprint is very short. And you're saying it's once a week for a really finite amount of time. That's when we go fast. And then everything else is the slowing down. But somehow we have inverse this entire thing, where we're sprinting and sprinting seven days a week, and or six days a week, and maybe potentially maybe slowing down a little bit on Sundays.
Mo: Not really actually. And I think the trick is this. The trick is not because we're slower than the cavemen and women. We're actually quite a lot faster. It's because we fill our life with so much more. And so, when we were chatting before Kelly, I was telling you, I'm the CEO of a prominent startup, a very, very advanced tech startup. And I tell myself, of course, it doesn't happen every week. But I tell myself, that I would run this business four hours a day, four to five days a week. And many weeks, that's all it takes, not because I'm lazy. And not because there isn't enough to do. There is a ton to do. But we have to be very selective. For example, I do not subscribe to email updates. I do not subscribe. I don't follow many people on social media unless I find something very useful coming from them. There are many things that we can take out of our life to allow for that time to slow down. Last year, on my Instagram account, I had a series that was called Half Monk. And Half Monk was an attempt to say, being and doing. Remember being is to actually just be, not doing anything, reflecting connecting to your body, connecting to yourself, connecting to being around you, and maybe meditate, maybe you just sit there and do nothing, whatever you want. Monks do that for a lifetime. I interviewed one of my favorite monks on the planet and our good friend Matthieu Ricard on Slo Mo, and Matthieu has 65,000 hours of lifetime meditation. That's how far he goes into being. Now, we, on the other hand, if you calculate your life, 60 years of productive life, most of us will have 65,000 hours of doing, rushing from here to here. And the difference between them is there must be something in the middle and Half Monk was the attempt to say, “Can I spend 50% of my life being and 50% of my life doing?”
Kelly: I love that.
Mo: And believe it or not, yes, one of my posts at the time was the 10 things you can do to find enoughtime to become a monk. And yes, you can remove swiping and typing. You can remove subscriptions. You can remove notifications. You can remove friends that are annoying. You can remove obligations that you don't feel are important part of your life. You can remove binge watching stuff on Netflix. There is so much time.
Kelly: I’m laughing because it's exactly where I'm at right now. I'm doing some of these.
Mo: Yeah, totally. You know that show on Netflix that is called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. It's just this she's this wonderful Japanese woman that talks to you about how you can tidy your home. And her idea is that we live in so much clutter. Only very little of it gives you joy. And that's also true about your activities, that very little of what we engage in life gives you joy or make you productive. So you sit down and deliberately. Take them off one after the other. At the end of my podcast, at the end of every episode, I tell people openly, I say, I know you have a very busy agenda. But remember, there is always some time to slow down. And that's the truth. If you choose slowing down as another activity for the day, you're bound to find two, three hours for it every day.
Kelly: Yeah. And so slowing down, like obviously, there's so much power in that. And you've given some fantastic examples. I'll probably post in the show notes a link to the blog post that you mentioned. But all of this is not just to live monk like. It's so that we can sort of restore ourselves to a state of health where we don't feel so stressed out and so burned out and so much overwhelm and just so much. So can you talk a little bit about that? Because I know you have a fourth book that you're working on that talks a little bit more about that. And I'd love to go there.
Mo: Yeah. So I met actually, she was a guest on my podcast, a wonderful stress management expert, a lady called Alice Law. And Alice and I just immediately said, maybe we should write this book. And the book, we think it's going to be called Stressed? And my part of it is to understand the mechanics of it as an engineer. And stress is really not that complicated. You can easily understand that from physics. Stress is not the forces applied to you. It's the forces applied to you divided by the area that can carry it. This is the definition of stress in physics, and the reality is, the stress that we feel as humans is it's not just the result of the external pressures, or factors or challenges that we face, it's also a question of our ability to handle them. And, our ability to handle them is truly a question of, how much time do we give them? How much attention do we give them? And how much skill do we invest to learn about those things? Now, the stress in physics is actually not the scary bits. The scary bit in physics is known as fatigue. And fatigue is when you apply enough stress to an object that it breaks. In humans, we call that burn out. We call that depression. Sometimes we call it whatever. It's that point where you fail to manage the stresses anymore. And the idea is very straightforward. It's the pressures of life minus your abilities to handle them, then burnout and fatigue and break down is basically taking that equation and multiplying it by the time of application of that stress. A bit of stress is wonderful for you. If you suddenly get a tiny bit, a bit grainy, but yeah, a tiny bit because that tiny bit gets your system to work in a very interesting way. It engages your sympathetic and nervous system. It changes your hormonal makeup. You basically tell your adrenal gland to give you that amazing hormone, cortisol that basically gets you to become superhuman. But you rightly said in the cavemen and women years, that was intended to make you superhuman for seven minutes. So that you run away from the tiger or fight the tiger. And that's it. After seven minutes, you're supposed to slow down, you're supposed to relax, you're supposed to regain your strength during those seven minutes, just so that you understand, you're flooded with adrenaline, you're flooded with other hormones that are basically telling your digestive system to stop working. They're telling your muscles to burn to literally cut themselves out into little proteins so that they can burn into energy. They're telling your brain to consume all of the blood sugar in your blood. It's a very sustainable state. And, we apply that kind of stress, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, sometimes for years. You can be stressed at a job and you just get on with it. You can be stressed in a relationship and you keep waking up next to that person day after day after day. And basically that means you eventually end up in fatigue. You break down. So what's the answer? The answer is, we have to find a way as humans to just get that entire cycle back to seven minutes, or maybe seven hours; if you have a deadline for delivering a project tomorrow, that's fine. But we have to find a way to shrink that. There are many ways. The most important of them in my view, we say Alice's work in the book is focused on the types of stress. You can be mentally stressed. You can be physically stressed. You can be emotionally stressed, and you can be spiritually stressed. And the whole idea is to follow the cycle that we're actually designed to go back to our parasympathetic nervous system engaged to that mode, where we can reset and relax, and actually rebuild. So how do you do that? By planning it, by making it a very, very religious part of your agenda.
I never start my mornings before 10 am. There is nothing called breakfast meeting for me, which is very well known for CEOs with high paced agenda. I never end my day by going into bed. Right after work, or right after dinner, I have two hours of winding down, reflecting on the day, meditating, watching the comedy. These are things that are part of my agenda, and just like meeting with another CEO, if someone comes to me and says, “Oh, can we meet at 12?” And I'm meeting with the CEO of one of my clients? I'll say, “No, I can't do 12. Can we do 1?” Similarly, when people try to intrude into my peaceful time, my mo time as I call it, my mo time is mine. And you can't take it out of my agenda. And it has to be part of your daily ritual and practice.
Kelly: Yeah, what I'm hearing you saying, though, is it is absolutely a choice. It is a discipline. And it's designed with intention. So there are a lot of people probably listening saying, “This sounds great Mo. I'm glad you can do that. You're like X, Google guy. You're doing all these things. I can't start my day at 10 o'clock. I can't work only four days a week.”
Mo: Of course you can.
Kelly: Exactly. And this is what I want to pinpoint. Because it's not just the fact that you've gotten to a certain point in life where you can feasibly do this. Or I've gotten to a certain point in life where I start my day at 10:30. And I only work three days a week, or whatever the situation is. It's because it was intentionally designed that way. Like, this is the choice. This is the discipline. So what's important to you? And so that's kind of where I'd love to wrap up, like this idea.
Mo: And Kelly, it's not the number 10. If you have to start your day at 8, wake up at 6. And accordingly, sleep at 10. I mean, plan your day in a way where you have a choice. By the way, I'm the CEO, but if you're reporting to someone, and he is telling you, but I need you to work more, show them your agenda and say, I'm working on those six projects, you're adding one more, which one do you want me to drop? Because at the end of the day, I will be working eight hours, maybe nine hours. But I can't do more than that. But you have to be intentional in terms of telling yourself upfront, I can't be doing more than that.
Kelly: And that's also self-advocacy, what you're talking about. Like it's okay for you to say to your superior, to your boss, to your employer, yes, I can do this. Of course, I will take this on. But tell me where you want to re-prioritize some of the other things on my schedule? That's okay. Yeah, this is a really, really poignant and interesting conversation. Because at the beginning of this year, after all of 2020, before I even knew that you were going to be on the show, I think it was, I'm not into New Year's resolutions, but I created a mantra for the year. And my mantra was even slower.