Oh man, I thought--he's making us stand up. Take deep breaths. Stretch our arms up toward the ceiling. Smile at our neighbor.
It's going to be one of those kind of talks.
I was at Srikumar Rao's break-out session, "Are You Ready To Succeed? The Art of Personal Mastery," at Inc.'s GrowCo conference in Nashville. An Inc. editor had emailed me that morning asking me to cover the talk for the website.
But the problem was, I'd enjoyed Nashville's Honky Tonk scene a little too much the night before. I was hungover. I did not want to go to Dr. Rao's talk, or anywhere.
Nevertheless, I dragged myself out of bed and over to the Omni Hotel's convention space. The room was packed. I squeezed into a seat in the front.
"Folks, I'm going to share techniques and concepts that will dramatically change every aspect of your life," Rao began. He had a gentle Indian accent, and the slightly rumpled look of an absent-minded professor. "You will become more effective and more efficient. You will get a lot more work done than you ever thought possible. You will become a fount of creative ideas. You will be more inspired, and inspiring, and most important, there will be much less stress in your life."
Big promises, I thought, stifling an eye roll. Meanwhile, was it getting hot in here? I impatiently checked my phone. Rao, a professor who has taught courses at Columbia Business School, now speaks all over the world at conferences like TED and runs the Rao Institute, where he coaches executives on how to improve their happiness and success at work to the tune of thousands of dollars. Still, I doubted this session would improve my life much any more than my original plan: staying in my hotel room, hiding under the covers, and nursing my throbbing head.
This was going to be a long hour, I thought.
But as it turned out, Rao's talk was all about exactly what I was doing in that moment--what we all do--let the running voice in our heads negatively affect how we make experience life. "It's like an unwelcome relative who shows up to your house, and you can't throw him out. So what do you do? You live your life in spite of it."
This "mental chatter" governs much of our lives, argued Rao, and yet we never examine it. Neither do we consider the concept of "mental models"--our assumptions about how the world really works.
"There are dozens of times every day when you make decisions [due to mental chatter and mental models] and you don't recognize that you even had a choice about them," Rao told the audience.
Just recognizing these concepts are at work lowers stress, Rao said. And once we realize we have the power to change how we think about the world around us, and what the voice is telling us, we can begin to alleviate our own suffering.
As an example, he suggested a technique that he recommends for people who have trouble sleeping at night, but which works for plenty of other situations.
Here it is: Instead of dwelling on the three or four things that typically keep you up at night, consider the "40 or 50" things that are going right. Pause and feel gratitude for each.
That exercise alone interrupts the mental chatter, disrupts the mental model telling you that you're in trouble, and relaxes you. "When something happens to you, suffering doesn't begin. Suffering begins at the instant you label a bad thing--as something that is wrong," Rao said.
I tried it out.
It didn't cure my hangover, but the exercise made the pain a little easier deal with. It helped almost as much as the glass of the ice-cold water I grabbed from the pitchers in the back of the room afterwards. Hey, I'm thankful somebody thought to put them there.