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Daniel Coyle: “When You Shift into a New Narrative, You Are Opening Up an Entirely New Set of Possibilities”

Daniel Coyle: “When You Shift into a New Narrative, You Are Opening Up an Entirely New Set of Possibilities”

Interview: Daniel Coyle

Daniel Coyle is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and the author of six books, including the New York Times bestsellers Lance Armstrong's War (Amazon, Bookshop) and The Culture Code (Amazon, Bookshop). In his new book, The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed (Amazon, Bookshop), he provides readers with sixty concrete skills to help any team build a strong, cohesive, positive culture.

I couldn't wait to talk to Daniel about happiness, habits, and success.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Daniel: I find it deeply insane how much my internal state can be boosted by a hard physical workout. The simple, idiotic, Neanderthal act of putting your head down and pushing really hard for a few minutes shifts something deep inside you. It wakes you up in a new way. It’s your body saying, Hey, I’m down here, and the outside world saying, Me too! And those combine to get you out of your own head. It’s not that different from losing yourself in beautiful music.  

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Being young brings many happiness advantages because A) you don’t know much about the world; and B) you’re not actively trying to be happy. I find that the instant you start aiming for happiness as a goal, it evaporates. I think that’s why people who focus on happiness as an extrinsic goal (hello, wellness industry) project such a narrow, almost businesslike vibe. Now that I’m older, I focus less on happiness, and instead try to spot it out of the corner of my eye whenever it bubbles up. To pause and take it in for a second. Then get back to whatever it was that caused it to happen. Which usually involves some activity that is not centered on me – either absorbing work or doing something for someone else. 

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

I’ve spent most of my career exploring big mysterious questions right under our noses – why do certain people and groups succeed, and others don’t? What is success, really? The continuing, everlasting surprise has been how much success is generated and governed by our internal narratives. To put it simply: success looks like a talent contest, but it turns out to be a story contest. Certain stories generate awareness and behaviors that generate virtuous spirals, producing creativity, well-being, and connection. Other stories generate the opposite effect. So story remains the strongest drug ever invented. When you shift into a new narrative, you are opening up an entirely new set of possibilities and pathways – which is sometimes a bummer but ultimately hopeful, especially considering the challenges we are facing as a species right now. 

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

For most of my life, I had a big-time sweet tooth. I would not want to estimate my glucose intake from ages 5-25, but it would be measured in metric tons. Over the past few years, I’ve dialed back a lot, mostly by noticing the chain of sensations – the desire and the taste and the feelings in the body afterwards -- and then thinking about what is really happening during each of these steps. Not that I didn’t eat an entire box of Milk Duds at a movie last night – but hey, at least I realized what was going on! 😉 

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger

I’m an Upholder with my kids, an Obliger with colleagues, a Questioner with my siblings, but down deep I’d describe myself as a Rebel. I am attracted to boundaries and I like to push against them to see what happens. Maybe this is connected to spending my childhood in Alaska and visiting my parents’ homes in near St. Louis, Missouri, every summer. Early on, I was alert to the nearly-cartoonish contrast between the two places – one place wild and invented, with gravel roads and a culture of making up the rules as you went, the other tidy and traditional, where you color inside the lines (or else!). All that added up to create in me the unshakable idea that borders are most fun if they are discovered, stretched, and occasionally broken. 

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

Like everybody, I would put distraction at the top of the list. At the same time, I want to put a good word in for distraction, because I find that it can help with creativity. I know it’s not supposed to (the research on “switching time” is pretty definitive) but I have to confess: the little time spent watching a funny video while I’m from writing (even as I’m writing this) ends up leaving me a bit refreshed and able to see new pathways that I might have missed. I’d say that the key is in paying attention to the ways that you are distracted – and in being intentional about it, so that you use your distraction in a healthy way (as a lever), and not in an unhealthy way (as a perpetual escape).  

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Amazon, Bookshop) at age 15 set me onto this path of being a writer. For me, that experience was like when musicians of a certain age describe the feeling seeing the Beatles perform for the first time on television – a feeling a door opening to reveal an entirely new world — you mean people can get paid to do that? That book – that smart, fun, rollicking voice — lit me up and led to a set of questions that I’ve ended up exploring in various ways for my entire career: where does greatness come from? How do you get it? What is the price?

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

I like “Get up on the Roof.” You use it when you feel stuck in a situation or in a particularly narrow emotional reaction to a situation, and it works because it nudges you toward the truth: there exists a higher perspective, and all you have to do is take the time and step up onto it, and look around.  I also like the way it speaks to the magic inherent in perspective shifts. Unlike so many other progressions in life, which require sweat and grit and time, changes in perspective actually do happen in a micro-second. Life seems fixed and utterly irreversible and then — presto! — you get on the roof and see it in a new way that makes your old way of seeing seem like a distant memory. This mantra is doubly useful because it applies in both “good” and “bad” situations.  It reinforces the truth: our lives, no matter how dire or how wonderful, are never purely bad or good, but rather exist in multiple ways. 

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

Most people – me included, for much of my life – walk around thinking that good books are about providing answers, that the role of the author is to be the deliverer of Big Secrets. I’ve come to think this is wrong. Great writers aren’t the ones with the answers; they are the ones with the enduring questions and the useful tools for exploration. 

They are able to do this because they are in in touch with the inner lives and curiosities of their readers. They have a sense for what anxieties, dreams, and questions people are thinking about when they’re laying awake at 3 am. Then they find ways to explore those areas – mostly questions. In all, I think good writers are sort of like the divers who explore these great oceans inside of us, and then they hand you a snorkel and flippers or maybe even a scuba set so that you can do it yourself.

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