No amount of career success is ever really worth killing yourself for. We need to take stress management seriously if we want to be our best selves and be truly of value to the people who matter in our lives. This message resonates clearly in Lighten Your Day, a book written by the inspirational Professor Pete Alexander. Joining John Livesay for this interview, he shares his own story of how he almost lost everything by being stressed out. He also shares some cool tips on how to deal with pandemic stress and introduces us to the ancient Hawaiian art of Hakalau. Feeling a bit stressed lately? This episode has everything you need to get out of that situation. Listen in and start lightening you day!
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Lighten Your Day With Professor Pete Alexander
Professor Pete Alexander is an expert in helping people reduce their stress. His book is Lighten Your Day. He talks about his own story of how he almost lost everything by being stressed out. He said, “When you trade in your health for focusing on your business over your health, that’s always a bad trade.” He has some tips on how to deal with pandemic stress. Don’t try to control what you can’t control.
Our guest is Professor Pete Alexander, who’s a recovering hard drive leader with years of sales, marketing, educational and entrepreneurial experience. He successfully battled the negative effects of stress head-on and developed the LIGHTEN Stress Model. He also has a book called Lighten Your Day. He helps people get motivated to take action in a few minutes a day where they learn stress management techniques, which allows them to become better leaders. Professor Pete, welcome to the show.
John, thank you for having me on.
Let me ask you to take us back and hear your own story of origin. You weren’t always a professor. At one time, you were a young lad in school. You can take us back to your MBA days or even before that where you started to experience the stress or were aware that there’s another way to live.
The stress goes way back to when I was a kid because I grew up in a dysfunctional family. I had to deal with a lot of alcoholism, suicide attempts and a suicide that was successful in our family. For me, it was a challenging experience because as a young kid, I had to be the adult in the family. In a lot of cases, it was stressful because I wanted to stay straight. That was my way of figuring that I would be able to get out of this crazy situation. From there, I was grateful in my mid-twenties to come across a twelve-step program. It’s Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families. When I started that program, it taught me not only to like myself, but to also love myself. My whole life changed after that. It was an amazing experience to be able to realize that there are other people that could understand what was going on with me as a kid.There is only one person that you need to compare yourself to and that's yourself. Click To Tweet
Career-wise, from a stress standpoint, it continued to be high. I always was putting my career as either one A or one B in terms of my priority list. Doing my sales, doing marketing for different companies, I was always the one driven to be the number one employee. It’s a good work ethic I have. The problem is that when you don’t listen to your body about what stress is doing to it. I didn’t do that in 2008 because not only did I have a business I had to run, my dad was dying and needed to have his affairs taken care of. My mom had major surgery and didn’t have the insurance to have physical therapy afterward. She had to be cared for. I had two small kids at the time. By the way, I had a marriage that was heading for divorce.
All of a sudden, I lost 30 pounds in 30 days. That was in my mid-40s, John. At first, it was like, “Fantastic.” I wasn’t doing any special dieting. I wasn’t doing anything unique in my exercise regimen, but it started coming off. I hadn’t lost weight in twenty years. I thought, “This is fantastic,” until that 30th pound came off. I thought, “I better get it checked out.” Sure enough, it was stress-induced diabetes. I listened to my body about what stress is doing to it. For another ten years, I ended up burning the candle at both ends until I ended up in the emergency room with a severe case of diabetic ketoacidosis. For your readers who don’t know what that is, my body was eating itself alive because of my stress.
Here’s the crazy thing. I got transferred from the emergency room to my first ever and hopefully, last time, stay at the ICU. It was on my second day in ICU when my blood sugar, which was high when I was admitted to the hospital, they were 8 to 10 times higher than they were supposed to be. The doctor said I was an hour from being comatose. It was skyrocketing. My boss knew that I was in the hospital. On the second day, around 6:00 in the morning, they were checking my blood sugar every half hour. I get this text from my boss and he says, “You have a webinar you need to run at 8:00. What are you going to do about it?” I went into fix-it mode. I got to make sure everything is taken care of.
My blood sugar, which had come down into closer to normal range, all of a sudden, 90-degree angle, skyrocketed up. The nurse that was working with me at that time, she happens to say, “You realize this is what put you in this hospital bed in the first place.” That was my epiphany moment. I needed to have a complete stranger tell me that I was killing myself. When you trade your health for your career or other responsibilities, that is one bad trade.
That’s a great line, “When you trade your health for your business, career or responsibilities, that is one bad trade.” It’s such a great analogy when it comes to trading stocks and stuff.
The way to think about it is whenever you are sick, let’s say with the flu or something like that, did you feel like doing anything other than lying in bed?
If you just want to lie in bed and you don’t have any energy for anything, you’re no good to your business. You’re no good to your spouse. You’re no good to your kids. You’re no good to anybody. Take care of your health.
You were a professor at Berkeley, hence, Professor Pete. What lessons did you learn there? What stresses did you see your students going through those years?
It was a wonderful experience to get the honor to teach students. When I went through college, I’m probably ahead. Ninety percent of my professors and instructors were sadly, forgettable because they would either teach right from the book and teach in a boring way. I always said that if I had the opportunity to teach, I would teach in a much more interactive way, the way that I would like to be taught. When I started teaching back in 1999, the opportunity I had was to experiment with different gaming-like activities. Engage the students and get them to learn what was most important by applying what they were learning.
For me, my stress was always experimenting with different techniques to see if they worked or if they would flop. It’s like a great presenter going out there. As much preparation as you possibly can have, there’s no guarantee that something is going to be delivered the way that you intended to the audience. Every now and then I get some sort of a flop. It was like, “Let me try something different.” For the students, it was almost always about the grade. Sadly, that’s something that we have in life. We’re comparing ourselves to others.
The grading system, A through F, if you don’t get an A or B, whatever you expect, you feel like a lesser person. For me, what was awesome about my class and why the students connected is not only because they applied what they learned. If they did the work, they get As or high Bs. They just had to show up and participate and they would learn. It wasn’t about memorization. Let’s apply what you’re learning to a real-life situation because my promise that I would always have to my students was that no matter what career you’re getting into, you’re always going to have to do some marketing. Think of every career.Fear is a four-letter acronym: Fictional Evidence Appearing Real. Click To Tweet
It even comes to the point where when somebody says, “I’m an accountant,” whatever it happens to be where you don’t think you’re doing any marketing. That’s not true. There’s personal marketing. You have to sell yourself to others, sell yourself to get a job, sell yourself to a client, etc. There’s always marketing. If you learn a couple of techniques that’ll help you improve your career, that’s what I would promise in my classes. I never had a single student say that they didn’t get something that helped them in their career.
There are many things you said there, Professor Pete, that I want to double click on. One is I always tell people, “You’re always selling yourself all the time.” That’s why I’m such a big proponent of whoever tells the best story is the one that gets hired or gets promoted or gets a new client. We’re not taught storytelling techniques in school. Many people think, “Am I ever going to need this algebra?” Nobody is ever going to question you, as a professor, about, “Am I ever going to need to know how to market myself or sell myself or tell my story?” I’m completely in sync with you on that.
The other topic is this concept of comparing ourselves. I tell people all the time, “Let’s not get on that self-esteem rollercoaster where we only feel good about ourselves.” In my case, in sales, making my numbers or not good about myself if I’m not or my dramatic situation of being laid off after fifteen years and then winning an award. If you let yourself go on this self-esteem rollercoaster, comparing, and only looking outside of yourself for how your self-esteem is, it’s exhausting. It’s not consistent. What I love about what you’re doing is you’re teaching people easy real-life skills in both your book and your workshops on how they can get off that rollercoaster because it’s stressful. The other thing you’re tapping into here is the imposter syndrome, comparing ourselves to other people. How do you avoid the imposture syndrome for yourself? Let’s start there.
One thing is you have to get away from comparing yourself to other people because there’s only one person that you need to compare yourself to and that’s yourself. Think about that. You need to prove to yourself and nobody else. I always remind people that the key thing to remember is that most stress is self-induced. We do it to ourselves. When we’re comparing ourselves to others, we’re doing it to ourselves. Let’s say the next-door neighbor, who’s driving the fancy car and has this big house or something like that, you think, “They must be doing well.” Maybe they are. Maybe they’re leveraged to the hilt. If they were to get laid off, the house and car goes and they’re back to square one. You’ll never know.
The only thing you can control is yourself. Comparing yourself to somebody else doesn’t do you any good. It’s going to add stress. The great thing that I like to mention to or have them think about when we get into this imposter syndrome is it’s all fear-based. We’re thinking, “We’re not good enough.” First of all, I like to remind people that fear is a four-letter acronym, Fictional Evidence Appearing Real. We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re assuming something is bad when it isn’t the case. When somebody is thinking, “I want to go for this promotion.” “I want to go for this big fish client.” “I have this important presentation.” That fear of, “Am I good enough?” The question that I always suggest to people is, ask yourself, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” What that does, John, when you hear that question, it opens up the world of possibilities.
It turns off our fear mode. We’re always in fight or flight. When you have that question posed to you, you get out of your fear or fight mode in your brain and say, “Let me go to my imagination where storytelling lives and see what all that’s going to be.”
You can be storytelling to yourself, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” I asked this of my eighteen-year-old. First of all, trying to connect with a teenager as a parent is a challenge in itself for anyone. However, he was struggling with what he wanted to do for a career. I asked him that and I said, “Think about that but don’t tell me right now. Think about it and let’s talk tomorrow.” The first thing he says to me says, “Dad, that was an interesting question.” First of all, I’m like, “I got through to him.” He came up with three different possibilities, things that were way out there. Instead of being stuck, he was thinking about one of those things and he’s pursuing one of those.
You have something specific for people who might get nervous before they have to pitch or have a big interview and it’s called Hakalau.
It’s a light meditation that comes from the Hawaiian culture. What it’s designed to do is exactly what you said. If any of your readers are about ready to go on stage or go into a conference room, let’s say a Zoom conference where you have to give a good presentation, there’s pressure there and you’re thinking, “What’s going to happen?” A great way to ground yourself is to use Hakalau. This is a minute or two beforehand. What you do is you pick a spot on the wall, a stationary spot anywhere. If your readers want to practice this, I’ll walk you through it.
As you stare at this spot, which is preferably above eye level, if you’re either sitting or standing, you let your mind go loose and you focus all of your attention on that spot. If you notice, within a matter of moments, your vision starts to spread out and you see more of the peripheral than you see in the central part of your vision. As you start to see the peripheral, pay more attention to the peripheral than the center of your vision and you stay in this state for as long as it feels comfortable. Notice how that feels. You do that for 30 seconds or a minute maybe. You open and close your eyes, come back into the room and you’ll notice that you’re calmer, more aware of your surrounding and ready to take on that perceived stressful event.
In a way, it sounds like a little bit of self-hypnosis.
It can be.Gratitude is the best stress reliever. Click To Tweet
Your book, Lighten Your Day: Fast, Easy and Effective Stress Relief tips and you have this whole LIGHTEN Model that you’ve created. Who do you work with for this? Is it individuals? Is it companies? Is it both?
It’s both. Usually, it starts off like a Zoom workshop for an hour. I have a team of people. I walk them through certain activities. Hakalau is one of them that I walk them through. If any particular individual might be struggling and needs a more in-depth stress relief, I’ll work one-on-one with somebody.
We’re in a pandemic, which a lot of people are experiencing a whole another level of stress from the isolation part of it. Do you have any tips for people on that?
The most important one there is don’t try and control the uncontrollable. This whole COVID thing and having to be stuck at home in many cases. We as humans, our human nature when we’re faced with a stressful situation is that we stress about all aspects of that situation. Inevitably, only some of it is within our control and some of it is outside of our control. We can mentally think about creating two lists, our controllable list and our uncontrollable list.
Let’s take COVID for example. Thinking about that, what can’t we control? We can’t control the government response to it. Let’s say if you have small kids and whether or not they’re going to school physically or online, we have no control over that. You don’t even have control or we don’t even have any control over the person next to us wearing a mask. We don’t have control over that. You list out whatever things you don’t have control over.
On your controllable list, you list things like, “I can wear a mask. I can wash my hands frequently. I can make sure to keep six feet distance from the next person. I can focus on my own mindset to make sure that I’m not worried about or try not to stress about all aspects of this situation.” If you separate those two and you say, “The uncontrollable stuff, I’m going to do my best to forget about that. I can’t do anything about that.” You focus as much of your mindshare on the controllable. What happens is, when we feel like we’re in control, when we can affect change, our stress goes way down.
If somebody wants to reach out to you, your website is PeteAlexander.com. Any last thoughts or a piece of advice you have for people on stress or a quote you like?
People ask me, what’s my favorite stress relief tool? I tell everyone, consistently, “It’s gratitude.” Have gratitude for what you have. What happens is a lot of people think, “That means I have to have gratitude for the big things. I’ve got a great paying job. I have a big house. I have a fancy car,” whatever it happens to be. Gratitude is for the little things in life. My wife and I, every night, we have a gratitude exercise where we ask each other, “What are you grateful for today?” I always start with, “I’m grateful for my health.” All else is secondary. Both of us will bring up things like, “I’m grateful that I got home from work safely. I’m grateful that I got a chance to go out for a walk because the weather was nice. I’m grateful that I had a chance to talk with one of my kids on the phone.”
When we lose track of the small things and think, “I have to win $1 million to be grateful.” We’re not giving ourselves a recipe for success. When we focus on what our own progress is, as opposed to comparing ourselves to other people, that seems to be the big takeaways that you’ve given us. What a great reminder of only compare yourself to your own self. I say, “Focus on your own progress and you win.” That’s the race you have to compete in. Thanks for being who you are in the world and helping us all realize that stress is something that we’re choosing to respond to, as opposed to being victims of any one event.
John, thank you so much for having me on the show. It’s been an absolute pleasure. I appreciate the time of your readers. I hope they got something out of this.
I’m sure they did. Thanks again, Professor Pete.
- Lighten Your Day
- LIGHTEN Stress Model
- Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families
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