The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Performance Psychologist Michael Gervais — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss (#564)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Michael Gervais from my 2017 TV show Fear{less}. The “less” is in parentheses because the objective is to teach you to fear less, not to be fearless.

Fear{less} features in-depth, long-form conversations with top performers, focusing on how they’ve overcome fears and made hard decisions, embracing discomfort and thinking big.

It was produced by Wild West Productions, and I worked with them to make both the video and audio available to you for free, my dear listeners. You can find the video of this episode on YouTube.com/TimFerriss, and eventually you’ll be able to see all episodes for free at YouTube.com/TimFerriss.

Spearheaded by actor/producer and past podcast guest Vince Vaughn, Wild West Productions has produced a string of hit movies including The Internship, Couples Retreat, Four Christmases, and The Break-Up.

In 2020, Wild West produced the comedy The Opening Act, starring Jimmy O. Yang and Cedric The Entertainer. In addition to Fear{less}, their television credits include Undeniable with Joe Buck, ESPN’s 30 for 30 episode about the ’85 Bears, and the Netflix animated show F is for Family.

Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

#556: Performance Psychologist Michael Gervais — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss

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This podcast episode was transcribed by Rev.com.

Tim Ferriss: I’m Tim Ferriss, author, entrepreneur, angel investor, and now TV host. I’ve spent my entire adult life asking questions then scouring the globe to find the answers. On this show, I’ll share the secrets of pioneers who have faced their own fears. We’ll dig into the hard times, big mistakes, tough decisions, and how they got through it all. The goal isn’t to be fearless. The goal is to learn to fear less. Welcome to Fear{less}. I’m your host, Tim Ferriss. And on this very stage, we’ll be deconstructing world class performers of all different types to uncover the specific tactics they’ve used to overcome doubt, tackle their hardest decisions, and ultimately, succeed on their own terms.

So imagine yourself standing 127,000 feet above the earth, trying to set the free fall world record. Or, stepping onto the field for the Super Bowl, or perhaps attempting to take gold at the Olympics. If you were nervous, or if you had to prepare for that, who would you turn to? Who would you ask for help? In less than a decade, my guest has built a very impressive client roster that includes Olympic gold medalists, like Kerri Walsh Jennings, teams, like the Seattle Seahawks, and the US Armed Forces. Please welcome to the stage Dr. Michael Gervais. The step has gotten me. You guys ready for a show? All right. We are going to begin with a video. So let’s roll that.

[Video begins.]

Video Narrator: 128,000 feet above the ground, Felix Baumgartner stood at the edge of space preparing to do what none had done before. And then when the moment was right, he took a step, leaving the capsule behind and beginning his 24-mile fall to earth. Along the way, Baumgartner reached a speed of 833 miles per hour, becoming the first sky diver to break the sound barrier. After falling four and half minutes, Baumgartner deployed his chute and floated to the earth in the desert of New Mexico.

[Video ends.]

Michael Gervais: That was not me.

Tim Ferriss: That was not him. That was me. No, that wasn’t me.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, that was Felix Baumgartner, who jumped out of space from 130,000 feet from the stratosphere on the Red Bull Stratos program.

Tim Ferriss: What was that like?

Michael Gervais: Helping him through a fear that would allow him to go to a place that no other human’s been, and when he jumped, to jump from 127,000 feet to jump and possibly go through a double sonic boom, where some of the brightest minds were not sure if his limbs would make it through that sonic boom.

Tim Ferriss: What was his primary fear?

Michael Gervais: Well, he could die.

Tim Ferriss: Well, this guy calls himself a professional? No. But okay, good answer. What did the work look like?

Michael Gervais: So he needed to be in a space suit for X number of hours, five or six hours. And he became claustrophobic. He could no longer be in the suit for, I think at that time, it was like 30 minutes. And so he had to rip off the helmet and get out of it. And so they were scrubbing the project. It was done because if the person can’t be in there for 30 minutes, then it’s not going to work, period. And then, so they asked me to come in and see if I could help him move through that experience. And it is possible to extinguish fear. It is dangerous, and many people don’t make it through it, and he wanted it, and he wanted it with all of his faculty about himself. And he really was going to do the work because it mattered more for him to go for it and die than to play it safe and never experience his potential.

Tim Ferriss: And what does extinguishing phobia look like?

Michael Gervais: I knew you’d want to talk more about that.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Michael Gervais: So how do you extinguish phobia? There’s good science. There’s two main kind of ways that, as approaches, systematic desensitization and flooding. And so it is possible to extinguish a fear response to something that you have. And so how do you do it? I don’t know how much in the weeds you want to get with it, but — 

Tim Ferriss: Let’s get in the weeds.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, okay. So flooding as a concept is that if somebody has a fear response to whatever it is that you and that person agree that you’re going to put them in that environment and not let them leave until they extinguish the fear, until they have a new wiring of the response to the stimulus. Once that flooding of emotion takes place, and the circuitry is going haywire, and they’re not reinforcing the response by exiting, you force them to stay in that environment hook or crook that a new pattern emerges. And so that’s the essence of it. That’s pretty radical. Now — 

Tim Ferriss: It’s like the Indiana Jones into the pit of snakes approach.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Now, maybe he’s cured, but so what happens for all of us in fear base responses? So say it’s a mouse or whatever it might be, or public speaking or whatever it is, is that mouse comes across the countertop, and tension, and then exit. So then thinking over time and if that happens to get attention and then exit, and then over time, just thinking about a rat or a mouse on a countertop, and you would just want to get away. So there’s that looping behavior of tension and exit. And so it’s possible to re-circuit it, but it takes time, and flooding — the counterpart to flooding — is systematic desensitization.

Tim Ferriss: Which is like building up a tan or exposure.

Michael Gervais: Yeah. Yeah. And you can do it two ways. You can do it in reality, and you can do it in imagination. And so there’s a set of protocols that you would walk somebody through, backfill them with some strategies on arousal control and thought management. So arousal control is breathing techniques or whatever. And then thought management is increasing awareness of one’s thought. So you can guide and adjust and play with your thoughts maybe at one point. And so you backfill the mental skills, those are mental skills for them. And then walk them through an experience where they’ll list the triggers of the fear that they’re walking into from zero to a 100, or zero to 10. And then you systematically put them into those environments, either in imagination or in reality. I did both. But they can’t leave stage three until they brought their heart rate down to rewire the fear response. So that’s the really long answer to it.

Tim Ferriss: So you’ve worked with some of the highest profile, most successful athletes on the planet, but it didn’t start there. Where did you grow up?

Michael Gervais: My roots are in a small town called Warrenton, Virginia.

Tim Ferriss: Were you a happy kid, would you say?

Michael Gervais: Yeah, I didn’t know any better. It felt like being out in the abundance of nature that — I didn’t have worries or concerns. And I was just a kid trying to sort out how to be a kid — 

Tim Ferriss: And then — 

Michael Gervais: — which is a great gift for parents.

Tim Ferriss: For sure.

Michael Gervais: I feel like was an incredible gift that they gave me. So then Dad started working into some corporate worlds, and then punched over to California when I was young, it was fourth grade. So I had to figure out how to adjust from the farm to Northern California. And now I’m straight in the city. I was a hillbilly. I just was trying to figure out how to fit in. And the fitting in is such a strong human need. And I do remember, though, well enough that I couldn’t come home to my parents and talk to them about being picked on me. And then finally, I came home and so I said, “Dad, a kid after school said he is going to chew me out.” I said, “What is that?” And so chews you out is like, “Hey, we’re going to fight.”

Now, a hillbilly doesn’t know what that is. So chews you out. So the next day, my dad, my mom, and my grandmother were in our living room and they’re showing me how to fight. So it was fantastic. And so my dad knew how to fight.

Tim Ferriss: What was Grandma’s move?

Michael Gervais: Okay, so Grandma, I’m glad you picked up on it. Grandma was on point. So Grandma, it was like the last finishing touches. She says, “Make sure and check if they have a ring.” Okay. Not a bad idea.

Tim Ferriss: Good advice.

Michael Gervais: And she says, “Cover yourself. Cover yourself.” And I look at her and I go, “What do you mean?” She says, “Well, have one hand to hit him, and one hand to protect yourself.”

Tim Ferriss: Good advice for a lot of things.

Michael Gervais: “Okay, Grandma.” Yeah. So, yeah, so that was the family environment.

Tim Ferriss: How’d the fight go? What happened?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. So here I am, and I’m getting ready to go. And I’m thinking like, “Do I go this way? What do I do?” And I remember like, okay, it’s going. And I looked for the ring, no ring. I’m okay. we’re dancing like we’re going to do something. And I see my mom and my grandmother driving, and they parked right there, and I was like, “Okay, well, it’s not going to be that bad.” And then I started to get embarrassed, my mom is here. And so, I think she starts starting to scuffle and then the car drove off and she kind of saw that it was going to be okay. It wasn’t like — we’re not going to shank each other or something. And so, yeah, that was my welcome to California.

Tim Ferriss: Well, wait a second. So did you guys get into it or?

Michael Gervais: Oh, yeah, we, yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: And afterwards? What was the end result?

Michael Gervais: So I think when 10-year-olds fight, you try to throw some punches. This is what I remember, tried to throw some punches, he tried to throw some punches, we ended up wrestling, it went to the ground, all the other kids split it up. And then I got up and I was like, “Am I cool now?” And it was fine. It worked out just fine.

Tim Ferriss: What was your high school experience like?

Michael Gervais: High school, I jumped down to Southern California, same exact story from fourth grade, same exact thing, but the guys are a little bit bigger.

Tim Ferriss: Fight Club SoCal.

Michael Gervais: Fight Club SoCal. There it is. And I just didn’t know their way. I didn’t know their style yet about how to be in high school. I didn’t even know how to be myself. And so I showed up, and I ended up getting in a fight with this kid. Blood was all over the place, and I took off my shirt and I was like, “Dude, let’s stop.” And he’s bleeding, “Let’s stop.” And so I’ll never forget that because he and I, David Halls is his name, he and I became great friends, really great friends. He brought me in, showed me how the surfing culture works. And I surfed some of the biggest waves with him in high school. So it ended up being a really cool transition for me.

Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned not knowing yourself, or not knowing how to be yourself.

Michael Gervais: Oh, yeah. I — 

Tim Ferriss: Can you elaborate on that?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. So I don’t know exactly when people become the person that they’re sorting out to become, but there is a transition that, that does happen for people. And for me, I was very late in figuring out who I was. And so I was very, very busy early on in my life, up until this point and further through first year of college where I cared so much, so much about what other people thought of me. I was consumed with it. And so now studying, it’s called cognitive dissonance, where it’s almost nearly impossible to be in the present moment, because part of you is working on monitoring the way that you look, or you might be perceived by another person. And it’s a really painful experience to be caught in the consumption of what another person might be thinking.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned surfing, was that a small, moderate, big piece of your life?

Michael Gervais: The biggest.

Tim Ferriss: How did it fit in?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. So younger years, I had a reaction to being coached, and I didn’t like the way it felt for another human to tell me yes or no, or give me approval, because I was already so sensitive to it. It’s like my cup was full — 

Tim Ferriss: And was that in surfing or was it in?

Michael Gervais: No, not in surfing. That was in traditional stick and ball sports. So I moved away from that because my cup was already full, and to have another adult coach me or critique me in front of peers, it was just too much. And I think that’s the case for a lot of kids. I don’t think I was unique in that. I was an anxious, overly aggressive through compensation kid. So I came from an anxious place.

Tim Ferriss: Did that ever affect your surfing?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. The anxiousness that I felt while surfing actually kept me from pursuing it competitively. And so the thing I cared most about, and I had this other part of me that was just crippled by being consumed about what others were thinking, that I couldn’t feel my feet, I couldn’t feel my body, I couldn’t access what I knew that I was capable of doing. And so any given day in free surfing, it was fine. And I was one of the guys, right. But then as soon as the tent would go up, as soon as the judges showed up, as soon as the friends and family showed up, all of a sudden my brain was overloaded with what could go wrong, because that is the essence of what anxiety is, a consumption of what could go wrong.

Tim Ferriss: And you couldn’t get there because you had this dominating anxiety.

Michael Gervais: Anxiousness.

Tim Ferriss: Did you have any inkling of what you wanted to be when you grew up at that point?

Michael Gervais: I didn’t even know the field of high performance in sports psychology existed. I thought I was going to go to junior college, surf as much as I possibly could because I figured that out in high school, and it would just be a nice little two year run in junior college. And then I met three professors that were best friends; Dr. Kuzio, Dr. Perkins, and Dr. Zenko. And they’re a theologian, a philosopher, and a psychologist. And they saw me coming, right. They saw this kid that was just bumbling through life. And those three wrapped their arm around me and showed me how to love and be fascinated by the invisible. I love saying their names.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Describe for us the first meeting with any of those three.

Michael Gervais: I think it was the philosophy class, or Dr. Perkins. And I showed up into his class, and I was like, “Well, who are these people? Aristotle and Plato and Seneca?” And like, “Who are these people?” I got some real stuff. They offered me to take the special class, this leadership invite-only kind of class. And they gave us Tao Te Ching, okay, which is a fascinating read. I’m sure that you spent some time with it. And they gave us The Art of Seeing.

Tim Ferriss: The Art of Seeing.

Michael Gervais: The Art of Seeing.

Tim Ferriss: Like the title. I don’t know the book.

Michael Gervais: Beautiful book. Yeah. Both of them are about the same style, very poetic, very deep. And there was about 15 of us, and they said, “Hey, listen, we’re going to go to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. That’s what this class is. We’re going to teach you how to live all on your own for a week. And then the only rule is that you get these two books, a pencil, and a pad of paper, and that’s it, that you cannot see any other person for that week.” Life-changing.

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

Michael Gervais: Life-changing. I wish everybody could do that.

Tim Ferriss: That sounds like the most amazing class ever.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, really. And so it is just go get lost, literally, and go see what you find. And it was hard.

Tim Ferriss: What did you write about?

Michael Gervais: I don’t know. I don’t know. I wish I could tell you what I wrote, but I experienced something that changed me.

Tim Ferriss: What was the experience? Describe the experience to us.

Michael Gervais: Being scared, figuring out how to face anxiety. And because I’m alone by myself, which is my head and my hands and my feet and that’s it. And this pad of paper and these rich texts, and there was nothing else for me to turn to. When you face down that stuff, and I mean really face your ghosts, and really face the things that haunt you the most, it changes you.

Tim Ferriss: After you came back from that experience, how did your goals or direction change?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. It just felt like there’s this gradual switching on. There was this thirst and hunger to try to understand how the human experience works. And it’s complicated. There’s no shortcut to the path of mastery or understanding the complexity and the beauty of the human experience. It’s complicated. And so I wrapped up a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and I didn’t know anything. You don’t know anything with that. Master’s degree in kinesiology, because I want to understand the body a little bit more. I didn’t know anything. PhD in psychology with an emphasis in performance and across the hall was a Tibetan Buddhist Psychology program. So East meets West. I still didn’t know anything. And I’m not saying I know it now. I’m saying that it’s hard to understand the nuances of how the human mind, body, and spirit work. And so that was the beginnings for me of that trajectory.

Tim Ferriss: When did you start homing in on or discovering, for that matter, sports psychology or performance psychology?

Michael Gervais: So I had a mentor, Gary DeBlasio, who helped shape my understanding of myself during those college years. When I graduated from school, I was like, “I don’t know what to do now.” And he said, “Well, there’s this part-time temporary job.” And it became my 18-year-run wildly successful using sport and psychology to teach young men in Los Angeles every Saturday night, the basic, basic, most basic mechanics of how the mind works. It was phenomenal, and it was wonderful. And so what I was doing is I had this working laboratory, the beginnings of a working laboratory of how to take the ivory tower stuff and land it to a group of a 100 or so kids that really didn’t want to listen to me, but wanted to play ball.

Tim Ferriss: And that was the price of that?

Michael Gervais: That was the price they had to pay. And so that was the beginnings of kind of — 

Tim Ferriss: What would be an example of one of your most successful or best received of those talks? And I don’t expect you to remember all the details, but just to give an example of how you take something that could be very complex and put it into a 15-minute presentation or something like that. What might be a principle that you would talk about?

Michael Gervais: Starting with figuring out who you are is the largest work you can do as a human. But when we start there, it’s so kind of big and heavy to begin — 

Tim Ferriss: It’s so overwhelming.

Michael Gervais: — so it begins to seem overwhelming. So in a perfect world where people are like, “I want to do whatever it takes to be my very best to have a deep, meaningful life and to kick ass at what I do. I’m going to do the work.” Then I begin there. And we just go on a journey to figure out how can you articulate who you are in one to 20 words. And the litmus test for that is that under duress, imagine that we’re met in a dark alley, and you and I have done this work.

Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard about your fighting stories. I don’t want to be in a dark alley with you!

Michael Gervais: Yeah. I was in fourth grade, right. And yeah, I didn’t know what to do with my hands. So imagine we’re in a dark alley, we’ve done the work, what happens for most human beings is that they’ll do the intellectual work to say, “This is my philosophy.” And they’ll spend a lot of thoughtful time to shape that in just the right way. But under duress, somebody comes behind you with a knife, right? And they say, “Hey, listen, I’m gutting people that can’t say what they stand for.” Most people can’t get it out. So it begins with the foundation. Who are you? “How do you make decisions?” is what a philosophy is.

Tim Ferriss: What would be an example? Maybe you have one yourself, but it could be hypothetical, an example of the one-to-20-word answer.

Michael Gervais: If you think globally about the most influential people in the world, they’re political leaders and spiritual leaders. That’s who shapes our global culture. So what is Jesus’ philosophy? What is Buddha’s philosophy? What would Jesus’ be? Love. What would Buddha’s be? Loving kindness? All people suffer. Have passion. So what was Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy? Dr. King was about equality. We know it because he was clear about what it was. He said it, he walked about it. He talked about it. And when he went in a room, it was real. And that’s what he talked about all and did as a life effort. There’s no confusion.

So mine is: every day is an opportunity for a living masterpiece. And that’s the way I orientate my life every day. And I’m training those important words inside of it every day. And so I see this is a gift that you’ve given me to be able to share the things that I think about a lot. So thank you.

Tim Ferriss: This is fun for me. So it’s a gift to me as well. I really appreciate it. And I do.

Michael Gervais: Do you have a philosophy?

Tim Ferriss: I would say the first thing that comes to mind is: hope for the best; prepare for the worst. I mean, it’s — 

Michael Gervais: Is that the thing that makes your heart thump a little bit, and that’s how you make decisions? You push it through — 

Tim Ferriss: That’s how I make a lot of decisions.

Michael Gervais: Say it again.

Tim Ferriss: Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.

Michael Gervais: Hope for the best; prepare for the worst. And is there a — 

Tim Ferriss: That’s not what drives — that’s more of a sort of an operating system rule, like a logical rule that I use for preparation, definitely. But it wouldn’t be the thing that drives me.

Michael Gervais: Yeah. So I think when you get that thing, right, you got what you want. That’s it. And so I’ll tell you a quick little litmus test for it is that if there’s a word or a part of that sentence where your heart thumps just a little bit, it’s like, there’s a skipping of a beat. We can describe why that takes place. That’s when you know you’re onto something when it’s like, “That’s it. God, I hope I can do that.” I don’t know if you, the person across from me can understand it, but it’s that type of beautiful work to articulate the thing that is pure about you. And it’s a decision-making framework of how you push everything that you do; why you buy your car, or your clothes, or why you’re here. So that’s what it’s about.

Tim Ferriss: What was your first paid gig with an athlete?

Michael Gervais: He was a professional hockey player. And he was on the minor leagues, and he had all this potential. Now, the word “potential” can be a crippler.

Tim Ferriss: Because you get performance anxiety about the expectations?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. So when we have our little kids, parents, as we have our kids and we say you have great potential, we have to be thoughtful about how we share that word with them. Because it can create expectations that there’s more, which is great. But the idea that you’re not reaching your potential is right on the other side. “Am I reaching my potential?” It’s right on the other side of it. And so we did some great work. We worked through some stuff, and then he said, “I got my shot.” I said, “Oh, boy, I hope this thing works.” Because at that point, I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I was asking questions, and I was present with them. And so he got a shot, and he crushed it, and he did great.

And so we hugged it out afterwards. It was one of those beautiful moments that you think about, like the celebration of the strong man or woman who is nervous and scared, figuring it out. It was wonderful.

Tim Ferriss: What are some of the most fascinating pre-performance routines or effective that you’ve seen?

Michael Gervais: Okay. So as a strategy to find one’s ideal competitive mindset, right, there’s good research and science around having a routine to go through, almost like a checklist to turn on or activate that mindset. The not great examples are superstitions. That’s not what we’re talking about. If I hop over the line or I do something, if I wear my dirty socks, I’m going to be successful. That’s awful, right. There’s a lot of people are upset with me because that’s part of the entire baseball tradition, right?

It’s archaic. It’s bad science. It’s not good. It creates a fragile mindset. Because what happens if your dirty sock is no longer there? We have problems. So it’s not that. What it is, is having, let’s say one, two or three things, let’s make it super simple, that that are triggers for you to think a certain way, for you to adjust your body posture that is in alignment with your ideal competitive mindset. And so take it from the rhetoric into something more applied. There’s only a handful of ideal competitive mindsets; either intense, slanky, smooth, happy, aggressive. There’s only a couple of them that people talk about, and then they’ll put their own language around it, okay. And so when I tie my shoes, now I’m going to like first trigger, let’s say, and you want the athlete or performer to create these on their own.

When I tie my shoes, what do I say to myself? When I put on my mouth guard, what do I say to myself? When I put my helmet on, what do I say to myself? As I walk through the last threshold, what do I say to myself? What do I do to get me closer to that ideal competitive mindset? So that’s what a pre-performance routine is. And I think early on, it’s a really great strategy. And it’s really cool. And you might not ever believe it, but you’re taking particular moments in time to activate great thinking and great body posture.

Tim Ferriss: What about individual versus team? Is team simply individual multiplied by X number of team members? Or is there a different —

Michael Gervais: Yeah, no. It’s like a one plus two equals something different. And so yeah, it’s not 1, 1, 1, 1. There’s an ecosystem. There’s a culture that is really important that allows people the space or the pressure, if you will, to figure out their potential, to figure out how to do something really well. And I’ve learned so much from Coach Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, about culture, about creating a culture that gives people the space to be the very best they can be.

Tim Ferriss: So you mentioned Pete Carroll. Let’s talk about that for a second. So in terms of culture on a team, what are some of the rules or ingredients that he’s put in place to help with culture?

Michael Gervais: It begins with the relationship, first with himself, and then with the men and women inside of the organization. It’s a relationship-based organization. The Seattle Seahawks, what we’ll do is we do football, but said company produces a product or said company produces a service. We produce football, but we are a relationship-based organization is how we think about it, coach Carroll and myself and the organization.

Tim Ferriss: When I’ve looked at coaches in any given sport, there very often are certain behaviors or attitudes, actions that they just do not permit. Is there anything on that list for the Seattle Seahawks?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. There’s three rules in the organization. 

Tim Ferriss: What are they? 

Michael Gervais: You want one of them?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah! I want all three. He’s really making me work for it. It’s like Willy Wonka. [inaudible 00:31:22]. I’m just kidding! 

Michael Gervais: So be early.

Tim Ferriss: Be early.

Michael Gervais: Always protect your team. Rule number one. Rule number two, no whining, no complaining, no excuses. Rule number three, be early. Pretty simple. Pretty simple, simple little rules. Always protect your team. Have people’s back. It’s not about you being great. It’s about figuring out who another person is, and celebrate them. Always protect each other. Whether you’re in the gear or out of the gear, whether you’re in the club or we’re in the living room, take care of each other, and we’re going to create an ecosystem that’s trying to do that the best we possibly can. It’s hard. You’d be surprised. Maybe you wouldn’t be. It’s hard to do that, because people, what happens under duress is they want to take care of themselves or to take care of them and their buddy. No protect all of us.

And so that’s a really powerful thought. And then underneath no whining, no complaining, no excuses, own it. Own your stuff now. It is you, and your responsibility to bring the very best to compete to be the very best. So own your stuff. And he’s great how he plays with these two rules, and the third is be early. And what’s underneath be early? It’s not be on time. It’s be early. Demonstrate that you care about the other people that are part of the system by organizing your life, by having respect that they’re going to be here too. Because if people are waiting on you, you’re slowing down the whole system. So be early. And so those are very three basic rules. And I’d say if there’s an unwritten rule, it’s the word we talk about a lot. It’s love.

And I’ve learned so much from the athletes over the last couple years through success, public success that we’ve seen and winning Super Bowls and not winning Super Bowls. And I’ve learned so much from them about love. And it’s been wonderful. I know what you want to ask right now.

Tim Ferriss: What I want to ask?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. You want to ask about what was it like to win a Super Bowl? What was it like to not win a super bowl?

Tim Ferriss: I tell you what, what I’m going to focus on first is the loss. Tell me about the loss. We’ve had the highlight. We’ve had the highlight reel so far.

Michael Gervais: That’s good. Let’s talk about the loss. Yeah, okay. The loss. What do you want to know about the loss? There’s a lot to talk about.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, there’s a lot too. So this is Super Bowl — what is it? 49. I want to know the lead up to it. So in that game, if you felt, for instance, if you felt like you guys had done the best job possible in preparation, and then the reaction from yourself, and the team when you guys lost.

Michael Gervais: Sure. What a wild event the Super Bowl is. It is media, and glitz and glam. And the whole thing is just like amplified. The NFL does a great job of creating a wonderful event of the Super Bowl. And coach Carroll and the coaching staff are relentless. Relentless, and very thoughtful on the first day of practice. This is a championship practice. The first preseason game, a lot of people think preseason games are throwaway games. This is a championship opportunity. The third game of the season, this is a championship game. The next practice, every practice, is a championship opportunity for practice. We get to the Super Bowl, we’re prepared. So the first Super Bowl, when you do a post analysis, the other team, Denver Broncos, the other team we’re talking in media about this is the biggest game of our life. This is a self-defining, this is it. This is the moment. It’s the biggest game that we’re going to ever play in, and we’re going to do it.

And the Seahawks, this is another championship opportunity. This is what we do. So we really see it as, this is the opportunity that we’re prepared for. I say there’s no such thing as a big game. There’s no such thing as a big practice. No such thing as a big play. There’s just this moment. Coach Carroll says, “Every game is big. Every practice is huge. Every play is important. And so let’s maximize it now in this moment.” We get to the same exact place. And so it’s a relentless training to be as present as you possibly can and never let that influence this. That it comes from within. And that’s dictating your experience and environment rather than being dictated to. And so I need to share that with you because the win that’s idyllic, and it happens all the time. It’s theoretical, and it’s applied.

The win, it’s easy to win. The loss and the way that the loss was experienced in the second Super Bowl was dramatic. Coach Carroll did two amazing things that I think are the demonstration of a philosophy at work. So right after that happened, he’s on the sidelines. I didn’t see this, but I saw the tape afterwards. He’s on the sidelines, and he watches the play happen, and he is in it. And then the play unfolded, where the ball was intercepted and he dropped his head. It’s about a two-second beat. And then his head comes back up. And when his head comes back up, the thought, I hope he is okay with me sharing it because it’s beautiful. The thought that he had was, “I’ve got to be there for my guys.” Oh, just — that’s what it is. When you care so much, you don’t get overwhelmed by your pain. You feel it. But then I’ve got to be there for my men.

Tim Ferriss: I’m not a football guy. I know very little about it. I can enjoy watching it. I enjoy Super Bowl parties. I enjoy highlight reels. I can recognize a hit that I wouldn’t want to take. But the Seahawks actually came onto my radar about, I want to say a year ago when I read a Sports Illustrated piece about a book on Stoicism, The Obstacle Is the Way, that it sort of somehow found its way into the ranks of the NFL, including the Seahawks. And I read this with great interest. You mentioned Seneca. So I’m a huge fan of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius. It’s one of the philosophical schools I pay a lot of attention to. And when you think of not overreacting to factors outside of your control, or emotionally overreacting to situations, it seems that you have to have developed a certain degree of awareness. So what I wanted to ask you, because this has sort of come up indirectly a few times, is mindfulness. What role does that play in your world?

Michael Gervais: So a center. It’s a centerpiece for sure. Mindfulness, the ability to be here now, a particular way of focusing on what’s happening within and outside of oneself at any given moment. Without it, I’m not sure how we can become everything that we want to become. I’m not sure how we explore the depth of the human experience without being aware. And so mindfulness is, yeah, it is a center pillar. It’s a day in and day out practice. And as often as I can talk about it, I love to, and so I think it was 2001 when I first began to understand what it was really about from a mentor that shared it with me. And it’s just an invisible process of becoming more aware.

Tim Ferriss: And for those people who were wondering, like I did for a very long time. I went out and in a very — not haphazard fashion, it’s scattershot fashion, bought every book I could find on meditation, mindfulness. And I came out of it, and I was like, “I am more confused now than I was when I started.” And do you have any recommendations for people who would like to develop that type of awareness, how they can either start practicing or resources or guidelines or anything that you could suggest?

Michael Gervais: There are more and more available resources for people that want to go read about it or watch a video about it, but that’s not how it works. So the thought is to do it, is to sit or stand or lay down, or wherever is comfortable for you in a particular moment and pay attention to one breath at a time, and start over and over, and over, and over again. And so it’s the practice of it that is the work. And so I don’t think you need to read about it. I would say start first and mechanically, just begin with paying attention to your breathing. And then when your mind wanders, which it will, the natural state of mind is like a drunk monkey, and it wanders. And I don’t know if yours is double fisted, maybe.

Tim Ferriss: I don’t know — what kind of show is this? No!

Michael Gervais: So drunk monkeys will get wild, right?

Tim Ferriss: Certainly, yeah.

Michael Gervais: So all of us, we’re burdened and amused by the drunk monkey. And so having a relationship with it, and bringing it back, come on back to right now, that’s the work. And so you don’t practice it. You don’t get good at it.

Tim Ferriss: Are there any — 

Michael Gervais: But can I finish one thought?

Tim Ferriss: You can finish.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, I want to make sure I don’t stop there because the real purpose of mindfulness work is insight and wisdom. And so without awareness, I’m not sure how to help myself or another person reveal the wisdom and insight within. So that’s the real essence of it. It’s a deep process. And if we only stopped with awareness, we’d be butchering an ancient tradition that modern science is finding to be incredible for change and growth. So I want to make sure that both of those bookends are included.

Tim Ferriss: No, for sure. I mean, it seems to me as someone who’s only meditated consistently, and I’m not saying it’s the same as mindfulness or different ways to go about it, but for the last, I want to say two to three years, I mean, pretty recent, as a percentage of my lifetime, it seems like the awareness is putting on the prescriptive glasses that brings things into clarity. But then you also have to look at the right things. If you’re just reading People magazine all day, every day, no offense, People magazine. I still love you, but you also have to focus that clarity on the right areas. Personally — 

Michael Gervais: And then I would add to listen as well, right. A big part of it, especially in modern times, it’s hard to listen because there’s so much external stimulation and stuff coming in from all over the globe, and we have it in the palm of our hands. So spending that time to integrate, literally integrate our senses from what’s happening within and what’s happening in the environment and just listen, and the journey home there is daunting.

Tim Ferriss: Do you have any suggestions for people who have kind of wobbled trying this in the past?

Michael Gervais: So you can do a coach, you can do a digital coach, which is what an app is. You could read about it. And you can also sit and pay attention to one breath at a time. And so there’s lots of ways to begin. The beginning, the process of mindfulness is beginning a thousand times, and over and over again. It’s the process of starting over. So if you just kind of — it’s hard. It really is hard to sell this. I think the people — I think it’s impossible to sell it because not until you understand it, and feel it, and not until you’re around people that are so grounded and so aware and so switched on and are able to adjust eloquently to whatever environment to go, “I want some of that. What is that?” So that is, I think, building a community of people that are switched on in that way, you just want it.

Tim Ferriss: We have such an engaged, incredible audience this evening. Let’s go to some audience questions. All right. This first question is from Robert McBride. Robert. When do you know, or how do you know when to draw the line? These are dangerous activities in some cases that can and often do result in injury or death.

Michael Gervais: I think about that question a lot. And that’s the thing that keeps me up. It really keeps me up at night. And so here’s my thoughts around it is, I remember the first time I presented at a conference, about some work I was doing in the fight game, there was a group of psychologists in the back, and they were saying, “How are you doing this?” And they were pissed. Like, “How are you helping other people damage each other?” And so that’s when it really hit me, that they are grown adults that have a real thing that they want to do that is very meaningful to them. And I just might be able to help them unlock some ways of thinking and being that will create safety for them when they’re in harm’s way.

Tim Ferriss: What was an opportunity or a situation as you are becoming better known that made you — whether it’s nervous or just put you on the spot in an emotional sense?

Michael Gervais: Well, I’ll tell you the one that I was — Luke Aikins, who jumped out of an airplane at 25,000 feet, first person to do so without a parachute into a net that he designed and rigged with a team of engineers, the consequences, it’s a binary outcome. He lives, or he dies. And you’ve got to be all in. You have to love deeply because you don’t know the next time you’ll see him. You have to care deeply and be fully present, and you’ve got to get some stuff right. You really have to get some stuff right. Because if I’m arming him with the wrong strategy or approach on how to be fully present, that could be really dangerous for him. And I feel privileged. I feel privileged to be that intimate with people that are that skilled, and that open to growth, and that have said publicly some time said, “I want to learn more. I don’t have all the answers and I need it to be successful.” Who better for me, who better than to learn from people that are chipping in and pushing the frontier. And for me, when the consequences are real, I’m way more interested because there’s so much more to learn, I think.

Tim Ferriss: Well, not only real but clear, right? I mean, you can measure the outcome.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, for sure. And that’s what I was most attracted to, or those environments where consequences were on the line. And many consequences in sport are like money or fame, future contracts or twisted ankles or reputation, something along those lines for most stick and ball sports. The off access sports where people are in the rugged back countries, doing things that have never been done before, those 0.0005 percent of people like the fractional frontier explorers are such rare people. We need them. We need to understand them because they’re doing the things that you and I are not doing, or maybe even capable of doing. So they teach us about the frontier when they come back and live.

Tim Ferriss: This question is from Jeffrey N. Where are you? Jeffrey N? All right. And here’s the question, what is something everyone should do on an everyday basis?

Michael Gervais: That’s it?

Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Gervais: Love deeply.

Tim Ferriss: Good advice. Is there any practice that you have in your life for ensuring that that is the case?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. It’s practicing openness, practicing vulnerability, if you will, practicing saying the difficult things that are difficult to say. And so love is an action. It requires doing loving things. And one of the most important things we can do is be present with people. That’s a loving act. We’re doing it right now.

Tim Ferriss: It’s like a Lady and the Tramp moment. You see that like, you’re missing the spaghetti though.

Michael Gervais: So that’s the practice. Can you be present with another person then? Can you say the difficult things? It’s hard to look away right now.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Michael Gervais: And then can you be there when they want to do the same thing?

Tim Ferriss: Question from Michael Charles, I suppose this is how this is said, from Facebook. What is the first step from coming back from massive failure?

Michael Gervais: Massive failure, I guess we’d have to operationalize what massive failure is. I don’t really think about it in those terms.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s say the play after the Super Bowl loss.

Michael Gervais: So what do you do after? What is the process?

Tim Ferriss: That’s right.

Michael Gervais: The value of front-loading a philosophy, I can’t say enough about it because it becomes a compass. And so this pain that one is feeling is measured against the compass. It’s measured against the tent pole. So front loading is a really important process. If you don’t have that in place, it’s really hard.

Tim Ferriss: So they already have the coping software pre-installed?

Michael Gervais: And it still took a long time. So I’d say, if we think about massive failure, again, the way I think about failure is just playing it safe and small and not going for it when you have more to give is to feel the pain. That’s the first, right? Feel that pain and sit — 

Tim Ferriss: Don’t try to lock it out.

Michael Gervais: No, don’t try to push it away. Feel it. The only reason I don’t have any science around this, other than my experiences, the only reason people change is because of pain. So the worst thing a friend could do, or a psychologist could do, or a coach could do is take away pain. Because pain is the impetus to be able to say, “I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore.”

Tim Ferriss: This question is from Zach D. Zach D, where are you? All right. Question is: you have a lot of advice for top performers in high-stake scenarios; what would your advice be to the everyday person working a 9:00 to 5:00 job?

Michael Gervais: It’s the same stuff. First order of business is a good question. I tend not to think about advice-giving very much or at all, because I don’t know the path that people have walked. And so I need to learn a lot. And in those questions and that relationship building so much has learned from both people. So there’s a lot revealed in just the beginnings of that. So if I kind of put that into a way that you could maybe, or we could operationalize that is be in relationships where people really genuinely care. Find those relationships where they really want to see you do well. And so you’ll have conversations and stimulating questions and responses that get to the center of stuff. So that would be the first thing I would suggest. The second is from the craft standpoint of the skills that I’ve come to learn from science and people in the rugged environments is being present is very, very important.

It’s like almost mission-critical. And so figuring out a way for you or us to be more present in our lives is foundational. And mindfulness would be one of the great practices. Another way for enhancing the ability to be present is conversation. So there’s three ways that I like to think about the process of awareness and insight is great conversations, writing, and then mindfulness, which is listening. And then the third would be, know who you are and let it rip. Flat out, let it rip. 9:00 to 5:00, what does that mean? You’ve got a life that you’re living and it’s now, and there’s nowhere other than now. So know who you are, and never let — refuse to let — somebody or an environment dictate your experience in life. And when you do have those moments — 

And I say that, Tim, because I lived it for so long. And it’s so painful. It is so painful to be consumed with what others think. So I would say that those are the three. And then, so how do you do that? Get after it every day. Get after it and put yourself in these really emotionally, uncomfortable situations where you can feel so that you can adjust.

Tim Ferriss: This next question is from Connor McCloskey. Where’s Connor?

Michael Gervais: Where’s Connor?

Tim Ferriss: Connor’s right there. You mentioned studying Seneca in college, or at least reading Seneca. How much of a role does Stoicism play in your life?

Michael Gervais: Good question. Stoicism as an idea, the center of it, and I’d love some brushing up on it from you is control what you can. Just pay attention to getting that stuff right. So if you think about mastery, and this is the thing that I’m most interested in as a craft, right, what is the process of mastery and what is it in particular? I’ll tell you what — it keeps coming up over and over again, whether it’s Seneca or some of the ancient traditions and the wise men that are doing the thing today. They are relentlessly talking about, “Listen, I don’t have time for all that other noise.” It’s about, “I want to have great thoughts, great actions, great effort, great attitude. I want to control the stuff that’s in my control, all that other stuff I’m working to gate it out.”

Tim Ferriss: So if you had the opportunity to put a few words, short message on a gigantic billboard, in other words, just get it out to the world, what would you put on the billboard?

Michael Gervais: It’s going to sound too campy. I mean, I want to say something really clever and smart or whatever that could — I don’t know, but I’d be pretty fricking simple. It would be “Love.” Just fricking do that. Great. And so, yeah. And then I’d say like, if there was something with a sharper edge to it — not that love is soft, it’s really hard to do — but if there was something with a sharper edge, I’d say that billboard would read, “Make a decision, build capacity, and test yourself.” I think it would be those three things and test yourself.

Tim Ferriss: And if you could make one request of everybody watching this, just like a next step suggestion, whatever it might be, and ask of the audience, what would it be?

Michael Gervais: Each one of us are on a unique journey. And that journey is not determined by what you do, but rather who you are. So the journey is a journey of self-discovery. And it would be wonderful if more people would embrace a true, authentic journey of self-discovery. And then with that discovery to be able to share those insights and gifts with others. And so that kind of relationship-based amplification of authenticity would be phenomenal, if more people could go down that path. And then I’d add a layer on top of it that would say: get in really rugged and hostile environments and feel what it feels like to be on the razor’s edge, and be overwhelmed by it, and then come to love that razor’s edge.

And then the last would be: learn how to be here now. Learn how to work with your own mind, to be in the present moment, and increase the frequency of being able to do that across many different environments. And I think if we could get some sort of those three things, right, like test yourself, go on your authentic journey, and be here now, we’d be on some cool stuff.

Tim Ferriss: Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Michael Gervais.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 700 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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One Reply to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Performance Psychologist Michael Gervais — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss (#564)”

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