Life is not without its own set of challenges and struggles for us to go through. Understandably, these are the very things no one asks for. However, the paradox in all of these lies in the way it reveals our strengths that we often don’t know we have. In this empowering episode, John Livesay interviews Ben Woodward, the author of The Empowerment Paradox: Seven Vital Virtues to Turn Struggle Into Strength. Here, Ben gives us a peek into his book and talks about the philosophy behind his words. “Surrender does not mean that you give in or give up.” “Imagination can help you increase your patience and strength.” “We’re always going in and out of a crisis in business and our personal lives.” At the heart of these, Ben shows us that while challenges are a part of life, they nevertheless help us to emotionally and mentally overcome whatever may come our way. Join him and John in this conversation where they discuss how to handle disruption and more.
Listen To The Episode Here:
The Empowerment Paradox With Ben Woodward
Our guest on the show is Ben Woodward, the author of The Empowerment Paradox: Seven Vital Virtues to Turn Struggle Into Strength. Ben talks about the philosophy, “Surrender does not mean that you give in or give up.” Find out what he means by that. Also, “Imagination can help you increase your patience and strength.” Finally he said, “We’re always going in and out of a crisis in business and our personal lives.” How do you embrace that? Find out more, including how to handle disruption, whether it’s sickness, death of a loved one or even aging. Enjoy the episode.
Our guest on the show is Ben Woodward, who is the bestselling author of The Empowerment Paradox: Seven Vital Virtues to Turn Struggle Into Strength. His unique experience as a senior executive and multibillion-dollar companies has seen him flourish as a businessman and thrive as a successful entrepreneur. His intimate experience with personal suffering, having to send his own father to prison has taught him how to make tough choices, live outside his comfort zone, and turn adversity into an incredible opportunity for personal transformation. He’s a dual citizen of New Zealand and the UK. He lives in Southern California with his wife and seven children. Ben, welcome to the show.
Thank you, John. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here.
You have quite the story and the readers love a good story. I’m going to let you decide where you start your story of origin. You can take us back to New Zealand or the UK childhood since your dad’s involved in your story, whatever you think is relevant that allowed you to learn these seven vital virtues.You are always going in and out of crisis...how do you handle it? Click To Tweet
The story probably began a long time ago. It is often the way. When I was 22 years old, I was living in New Zealand and I made a wonderfully impulsive decision to jump on a plane, fly to the UK and see my father who I hadn’t seen since I was fourteen. It has been a long time and I had enough money for a one-way ticket. I jumped on that plane. I remember panicking as I was halfway across from New Zealand to England going, “What have I done? I’ve got £50 in my pocket.” That was it. I landed in the UK. I moved in with my father and with £50 to my name. I certainly didn’t have any means of doing much else other than relying on that relationship, which I anticipated would be great as a platform for me to get going and have my overseas experience as a young twenty-something and then work my way back to New Zealand. That was the original goal. It didn’t work out that way. Shortly after moving in with my dad, I learned he’d done some terrible things. What do I do about it? It was obvious that a prison sentence was looming over his head. If I was to act on the knowledge that I had come across, what do I do with that? It impacts me as well. I’m living with him. It’s me and him. What do I do now?
There are many issues there: loyalty, survival, betrayal and morality. What’s the right thing to do on a bigger level? I can’t even imagine at such a young age when we’re still developing our emotional intelligence, how you coped with that. Please, tell us.
I moved out of his place and I had an older brother that was living there. Long story short, I initiated a criminal investigation into my father. It resulted in his arrest. The day that happened, I can’t even begin to express the ache in my heart knowing that he was sat in a police department somewhere being interrogated for hours on end, what that would be doing to him? These things aren’t quick processes either. You don’t get investigated, arrested. This stretches out for months and years. It led to his arrest. The arrest led to a trial at court. On the day of the court case, I’m sat there with my brother. We’ve been given a tour of the environment that we’re in, “This is where you’re going to sit when they call your name. Your father will be sat over there. This is where the jury is going to be placed. If people are in,” it was a public courthouse, “This is where they’re going to sit if they want to sit and listen.”
We sat there, my brother and I, with this horrible ache in our chest, going through this ordeal. The court official comes up and says, “The court case has been postponed. It’s not going ahead.” “What’s happened?” “Mr. Woodward has had a heart attack. He’s in hospital.” The stress of the event of everything that was going on gave him a life-threatening heart attack. He’s in hospital. Fast forward, it comes out again. He’s back in the courtroom. He gets sent to prison and he’s there for about 4.5 years. He misses my wedding. He misses the birth of my first child, maybe even the second. How was that at the start of my story? That sounds like a terrible experience. It forced me to confront difficult questions. By nature, I’m not a confrontative person.
Some people like to embrace confrontation and conflict and others don’t.
That’s not me but this certainly demanded it of me. You used that word morality. What is the morally correct thing to do? Don’t focus on who is right or what is comfortable for you. What is right? What is the right thing to do? Even for my dad, I don’t think anyone wants to go to prison, but if you want to turn your life around and get rid of the demons in your life, you’ve got to confront the tough stuff. Sometimes you need someone to help you out. This wasn’t done as a punitive measure from my part. It was done as a helping hand to say, “You’re not going to have the guts to do this by yourself to put it right. I’m going to help you.”
You’re not going to turn yourself in. As we transition that into your career in business and managing salespeople and consulting, there are some life lessons that get translated because sometimes you have to fire people who aren’t performing or tell them the truth. It’s awkward. If that’s not in your wheelhouse, it doesn’t impede your leadership skills.
A friend of mine who was the CEO of a billion-dollar business once said, “In business, you’re always going into or coming out of a crisis.”
I saw that in your book. He said, “If you’ve got a smile on your face, I know what’s around the corner.” What a great line.
Of necessity, if we want to be real leaders, we need to understand how to deal with a crisis, with the unexpected, to respond to things that are uncomfortable and are unpleasant, to do it with honor, morality and to do it because that is what is right versus having our own private agenda of comfort, ease or personal benefit front and center. That personal benefit can be things like, “I don’t want to confront this issue with this person because I like them. We’ve become mates.” You’ve got to be willing to do what’s right. That’s what leadership’s all about. Another friend of mine that I worked with, I was the president of the company at the time and he was a CEO. We would often spar off each other and work together and strategizing and planning. We were dealing with a particular crisis and he said, “Many people aspire to have our jobs. They love the title of CEO and president but I don’t know if too many people that would enjoy doing what we’re having to work through and would have the guts to make these decisions.”Surrender does not mean give in or give up. Click To Tweet
The glamour goes out the door when a crisis comes in the door. You’ve got a quote in your book that I love which is, “In business, you’re always going into or coming out of a crisis.” I don’t think people think of it in terms of that. They think, “We’ll fix this problem and then we’ll never have another problem again. Things will always go smoothly. Our growth will be linear year-after-year.” All of us experiencing a pandemic know that whether we like it or not, this is a crisis that those skillsets come from. For me, I learned how to not panic and stay calm in a crisis when I was a lifeguard and someone was drowning and my training kicked in.
Instead of panicking, I stayed calm and that’s helped me in my career when I got laid off after being at Condé Nast for fifteen years in 2008 when the mortgage crisis hit. That training you have from dealing with the crisis in your father of confronting hard times and dealing with doing the right thing and all those things, my lessons from a lifeguard of not panicking and staying calm, the same thing when I got laid off, I didn’t panic and stayed calm. There’s a through-line there for everyone reading going, “There are some stories here of things we learned about childhood tough decisions we had to make.” You talk about in The Empowerment Paradox, this concept of it’s about perspective. Can you expand a little bit upon that, Ben?
This is the critical thing and it’s the reason why I started perhaps with an unusual story at the frontend of, “Where does my story begin?” It revolves around my dad going to prison and the pain around that, what relevance does that have in my career? How do we view ourselves? What perspective do we give to our own life experience that can add value, diversity, insight, and clarity to a commercial environment, that they are all interconnected? If I was to look at myself for example, I come from a divorce, broken home. My father went to prison. What was me? I color myself in that light then, what strength do I give myself internally to rise up to claim my own ambitions and dreams, and chase them? Do I say, “I navigated that with a strength that taught me some lessons. I’ve got some wisdom here and some insights that can be a value I can make a difference in the world. I’m going to do something?” Do I see myself as someone with strength or someone that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and got lucky?If you want to turn your life around and get rid of the demons, you've got to confront the tough stuff. Click To Tweet
It’s easy. I’ve heard this many times in many different frameworks that we’re only as sick as our secrets and whether that’s an addiction, secret or being ashamed of something you did or someone in your family did whether it’s sickness, death or getting older or all the other things that you talk about in the book, those are all forms of disruption. I’m fascinated to hear your tips helping people embrace the disruption of getting older because even if you’re still young and you’re reading this, you have people in your life who are getting older whether it’s your parents or grandparents.
Sometimes depression comes for a lot of people that they’ve lost their purpose, “Why am I still here? I’m not working anymore. Are the best days behind me?” There are a lot of perspective thoughts that come up and I’ve been through some of those questions myself. That’s why I’m glad that you agreed to be on the show because you’re someone who walks your talk. Now you’re raising your own children and you’re clearly a different father. What tips do you have for us on dealing with the disruption of growing older or someone in our life growing older?
There’s a whole chapter that I dedicate to this principle in the book, which is around surrender. The word surrender doesn’t mean give up. We’re not talking about giving up or giving in to getting older and throwing our hands up in despair. That’s not what it means. What we mean here is that we surrender or let go of the illusions that we’re holding onto in our lives that hold us back from moving forward. As long as I’m holding onto that illusion, that illusion being, “I refuse to grow old,” like Peter Pan. There’s a perfect example. If I’ve got something that’s holding me back, as you said, it’s a secret within me that I’m keeping to myself and I’m not confronting it. If I’m not looking directly at it, I’ve started to build illusions in my life that allow me to exist and move forward. Pretending that reality is not what it is. If I can’t let go of that, there are a number of problems that come in. First, I devote a lot of mind space to that illusion and that mind space is wasted time. I could be devoting it to a real solution, but I’m not going to be able to get to a real solution if I’m holding on to illusions.
This concept of where are we on this journey of surrender and the illusion that something is happening, I tell people all the time, “Don’t play a horror movie in your head that’s not even happening.” What if this happens? What if the economy gets bad? What if this goes on? You cannot solve problems when you’re playing horror and I think of ourselves as the director of our own movie, and we can yell, “Cut,” any time and stop where the thinker thinking the thoughts, not the thoughts thinking us. I love the way you described that. Especially in business, in crisis situations, this premise of the illusion of, “I’m never going to grow up and I’m holding onto that. I’m going to fight it tooth and nail because I have a belief system behind it that I will no longer be valuable.”
Here’s a story. A friend of mine has a son that’s a teenager. He found a picture of his dad in his twenties and he brought the picture out to his dad. He said, “What happened to you?” His dad calmly went and got a baby picture of him at 4 or 5 and said, “What happened to you? Where’s my little boy? We all change.” When you’re in your teen years, you don’t think you’ll ever get old. You think you’re immortal. This concept of growing old doesn’t happen at a certain age. It’s a whole awareness that life’s always changing and then you can embrace it or fight it. Let’s go through some of the seven vital virtues that are part of this Empowerment Paradox. Before we go into that, did you entitle it? What made you want to say paradox? Is there something that’s a surprise that you think it’s one thing the paradox is something else? What makes it an empowerment paradox?
There are two layers to this paradox and multiple paradoxes within it. The first one is the necessity of the coexistence of joy and suffering in life. They’re two sides of a single reality and they both exist. There’s this wonderful saying we’re familiar with, “Time heals all wounds.” What a wonderfully reassuring message but time also seems to wound all heels if you can get your head around that. It’s heels the heel of the foot. Each of us gets hurt along this journey of life. I’ve been in a number of events where the self-help and personal development and a lot of people go. If you could imagine the ideal life for yourself, 5 to 10 years, let’s craft this, let’s build it out, what does it look like? Everyone builds this emotional homeostasis where everything is perfect, my health is in tiptop shape. My finances are fantastic. My relationships are good. My work-life balance is right and there’s no pain or suffering. I’m not suggesting we seek it or that we build it into our future. It will find its own way in but what we’ve got to recognize is that joy and suffering exist in our lives. It’s not one or the other. There’s the paradox.
It is a paradox. It reminds me of when people come to me and they said, “I get nervous when I have to pitch or speak. I get butterflies in my stomach.” I said, “The goal isn’t to get rid of the butterflies in your stomach, it’s to get them to fly in formation.” Part of that is when we’re excited or scared, our body feels similar. When you were writing about the perspective of it, “Either I get to do this or I have to do this. Either I’m excited to give a talk, a presentation or I’m scared to do it.” Our adrenaline has kicked in and we get to decide how we label that. That goes to what you’re talking about this paradox, “Something’s going, it’s out of my norm, butterflies and my stomach. Am I excited? Am I scared? If I’m scared, can I reframe it to be pretending like I’m excited?” One of the things you talk about is well-practiced patience. That’s my favorite of the seven vital virtues. Tell us a little bit about that and then hopefully that will entice people to go by The Empowerment Paradox.
My wife and I have the saying that we’ve got up in our bedroom up on the bookshelf, “No one knows how strong they are until being strong is the only choice they have.” That’s true. The reason I wanted to feature patience, I’ve even toyed with writing a whole book on that one virtue.You've got to be willing to do what's right. That's what leadership's all about. Click To Tweet
I’m telling you it could be the next power of now and the fact that it’s well-practiced not just patience. What you’re saying then is we need to practice being patient. Isn’t it something we automatically either have or don’t?
There’s a lot in this virtue. First of all, there’s an old proverb that says, “In patience possess ye your souls.” This means if you take the antithesis of that in patience, we run the risk of losing them. How many bad choices are made as a result of impatience?
“Should I have that second piece of cake?”
Especially if we are going to experience adversity, there is a necessity in understanding the role of patience in that journey so that we can get through it to the point where the wisdom and the lessons can emerge. There is a journey when we are hit with adversity, suffering, trials or whatever it may be, it’s not an event, it’s a process. It’s something where we need to first embrace it, and then strive to understand it and then get to a point where we can be transformed by it. That requires patience.
Let’s talk about being stuck in traffic. That’s usually a big trigger for people who get impatient or waiting in a line. If you go, “I can embrace this or be mad.” Maybe listen to a podcast while in traffic or something or waiting in line. The DMV is a big test of everyone’s patience.
Yes, it is. It looks like chaos there all the time.
You know you’re going to be in line even if you have an appointment. It’s going to happen in our personal and business life and how we reframe that will allow us to embrace the empowerment paradox. The outcome of that is ironically we’re not at battle with everything that we don’t like happening. We are embracing it is my summation of what I got out of the book.Let go of the illusions you're holding onto in life that hold us back from moving forward. Click To Tweet
I like this principle going along with patience that often we interpret it as, “In order to have it, we need willpower alone to see us through.” There are research and evidence that demonstrates that if we can have a greater sense of imagination, then the role of imagination in dealing with our adversity and struggles increases our capacity to respond with strength. If I can have in my mind’s eye a clearer picture of where I can go and what I can get out of this that will empower me more to exercise my patience and to allow time to pass through me well, versus having it come through me tooth and nail with resistance.
What a great note to end on. Ben, is there any last quote or thought that you want to leave us with?
“Our capacity to become more, achieve more, be more is in our humble acceptance of the reality of joy and suffering.” When we can accept it and embrace it, surrender our illusions, we can become the best version of ourselves.
That’s ultimately the journey we’re all on. Thank you so much, Ben.
Thank you, John.
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