In early March of 2020, author and speaker Mel Robbins was feeling on top of the world. She was in the midst of a publishing deal and was set to write a new book. She had started a daytime talk show at CBS. She was the most booked female speaker in the world--earning $100,000 per hour. And she had numerous audiobooks being listened to every day. In short, she was living her dream life.
And then the world shut down and with it went most of Robbins's career. CBS canceled her show, her publisher pulled her book deal and asked for the advance back, it became clear that no one was going to be doing in-person speaking events for quite a while and the panic began to set in.
"March 10th, they walked into the CBS Broadcast Center and said, we found Covid in the building, and with five minutes notice they canceled the show, and [it was] everybody out," she says. "60 Minutes, CBS News, Entertainment Tonight, everybody [was] evacuating. You could feel the walls closing in, because that was the week that the Final Four canceled, and the NBA canceled, Broadway canceled. You could feel it coming."
Spring 2020 was a really scary time for pretty much everyone on planet Earth. With this deadly virus circulating amidst the global population, and nearly every industry shut down, work stopping, money not flowing in, and no clear sign of how long we as humans would be stuck in this place. Robbins tells me that she felt like life had punched her in the face. She had worked for so long and hard to get to where she was, and she felt like, really? This is the time when everything goes to hell?
"So what I really thought, as I was pulling on the Westside Highway to drive back to Boston and New York City was disappearing in the rearview mirror, was, 'Are you f--ing kidding me?'" she says. "After 12 years of clawing my way out of nearly a million dollars in debt, after finally getting the liens off the house, after reinventing myself so many times, this is what's happening at the age of 51?"
Robbins could not believe that after all the work she had done, she was fired from her dream job, her speaking engagements were canceled and showed no signs of re-upping. She was worried about her staff and making payroll. (Remember, this was before there was any talk of PPP or SBA loans.)
Then one morning in April 2020, she got up and walked into the bathroom to get ready for her day. She took one look in the mirror and began doing what we all do. She started criticizing herself. Telling herself she looked awful. Getting down on herself for why things in her life were a mess. And then in a moment of desperation, something simple yet remarkable happened: She gave herself a high-five in the mirror.
"I don't know what came over me," she says. "But I literally, without thinking, just raised my hand and gave the woman I saw in the mirror a high-five because she looked like she needed one. And it wasn't like that first high-five was when the lightning struck. It wasn't that the heavens opened, and the angels sang. I wasn't like, 'This is my new book!' That was not what happened. All that happened was I felt a switch flip inside of me, and I noticed a big shift in energy."
This simple act of choosing to shift from a critic of herself to a cheerleader changed everything. And it begs the question of why we don't cheer ourselves on more than we criticize ourselves?
"There is an ugly and disgusting habit that every human being on the planet has right now and it's part of everybody's morning routine," she says. "We talk about meditation, we talk about exercise, we talk about things you should do to set your mornings up. But everybody has skipped over to a habit that every human being engages in, and that's starting your day with self-rejection. So based on our research, more than 50 percent of people don't even, and can't even, look at themselves in the mirror. This is men and women. They're either disgusted by how they look or looking at themselves makes them feel bad about themselves, because of whatever they haven't dealt with. Ninety-one percent of women don't like how they look. And I think it's probably that high for men too."
Robbins says they have 106,000 people (probably more by the time you read this) in 90 countries in a five-day challenge, and in real time they have seen this play out with people around the world.
I hear Robbins talk about this and I realize that I'm super guilty of this, too. I look in the mirror some days and all I can see is what's wrong. I start to get down on myself about how much I'm exercising or what I'm eating. Am I flossing enough? Should I be taking better care of my skin? And I wonder, why we do this? Why are we trained to do this? Perhaps it's because we are taught as a society that it's better to be humble and self-deprecating than to be arrogant and conceited. But isn't there a middle ground somewhere where we can be humble but still root for ourselves to succeed each day?
The concept of looking for validation outside of ourselves is something I think most anyone can relate to as well. And it's a slippery slope because the bottom line is that no one can show up for us in the way we can for ourselves.
"If you have a subconscious programming running in the back of your mind every morning that boots up and starts your day, this actually is the source of people's insecurity," she says. "You have begun your day by rejecting yourself, so of course you go out into the world, and you look for validation somewhere else. Most people are people-pleasers, not because they actually care about what other people think. It's because they're insecure within themselves. If you can't even look at yourself in the mirror, you will absolutely go out into the world and look for security somewhere else."
The first time I met Robbins, we were talking about her principle of making five-second decisions. She explained to me that our brains will always try to talk us out of doing things out of fear--another confusing human behavior. Her brain hack of simply counting down from five and then doing the thing she fears has become wildly popular. And it's one of the reasons that she's such a desirable motivational speaker. Robbins's work has helped people to stop second-guessing themselves, and to put themselves out there more definitively in the world. But this new concept she's been working with truly takes it a step farther.
"If you blew a free-throw at a basketball game, and your attitude starts to tank ... If a friend and teammate came up to you and was like, 'Bryan shake it off, man! C'mon,'" She high-fives me. "'You've got this!' Immediate energy shift. So it was the second morning when things got really wild. I woke up the second morning in April of 2020. Same overwhelm, same defeated energy, same ugh ... I get out of bed, and I start walking to the bathroom.
"This is when I started to actually discover the profound nature of what was unfolding. So, the first thing that I realized was that while walking to the bathroom, I was feeling something I'd never experienced in my adult life. I actually felt [excited] about the idea of seeing myself. Now, I've been excited before to see an outfit or a haircut. I don't think in my entire adult life I've actually ever experienced the feeling of being excited to see the human being, Mel Robbins."
Just before the world went topsy-turvy and Robbins found herself in the situation that inspired the high-five habit, she was struggling to churn out her next book. And this was part of the reason that her publisher canceled the deal and asked for the advance back. With that, and her show and speaking engagements being canceled, Robbins had huge reasons to feel discouraged and to feel like giving up and rejecting herself. What happened instead was that she got out of the way and allowed for things to happen naturally. Maybe she was frustrated and kicked and screamed as it happened. Many of us would do the same. But that state of letting things flow is just as important in our personal and emotional lives as it is in business.
This writers block was happening to Robbins even though she's a best-selling author who also has five audiobooks on Audible and numerous online courses that are beloved by her students. "I was having a really hard time [writing my next book] despite the fact that everybody around me was like, 'Can't we just take an online course and transcribe it into a book?' But nothing felt right to me. And it's really important whether you are writing a book, or you're starting a restaurant, or you're writing a business plan ... You have to understand that good ideas take time. And if you're working and toiling away ... And [if] something doesn't feel right, pay attention to that."
For Robbins, the inspiration to write a new book just wasn't there until she had this moment in the mirror. It sounds a bit corny, but I think everyone experiences moments where it feels almost as if life is holding us back because something more important is coming down the pike. And even when it comes to things as clinical as business, paying attention to gut feelings is important. Almost as important as showing up for ourselves.
For Robbins as she started her morning ritual of high-fiving herself in the mirror, she noticed that this embarrassing, or maybe silly, practice that she was engaging in was actually starting to change things for her in a profound way. And she had some important realizations.
"As I round the corner into the bathroom [the second day], the profound nature of what was occurring hit me. And then I had this second realization. Every morning in the bathroom there are two human beings. There's you and there's a human being in the mirror. That's not your reflection. I want you to think about it like it's another human being. And that human being needs you. They are trying really hard, and they need you to stop criticizing, and they need you to stop focusing on what's going wrong. And they need you to start being more encouraging and kinder. And when I realized, 'Holy sh--, there is a woman staring back at me that is trying her best. And she's been waiting for me to wake the f--k up and see her and help her.' It was a really spiritual moment. And I put my toothbrush down and I asked myself this question. And it's a question I'd never asked myself before. And the question was this: What does she need from me today?"
More of my conversation with Mel Robbins here: