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The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.

Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

Dr. Nick Holton earned his doctorate in educational psychology from Michigan State University. After years of formal classroom teaching, he has expanded his efforts to work with schools, athletes, and leaders from around the world to enhance their performance and well-being. He is the Co-Founder of The Anti-fragile Academy and co-hosts the podcast FlourishFM, sponsored by the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

Nick joins the podcast to explain that true human flourishing requires us to take on difficult challenges, experience adversity, and discover a sense of meaning and purpose to guide our growth.

Tom: So, to get us started off today, I wonder if you could just tell me, where did you grow up, and what most captivated you as a child?

Nick: So, I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. What most captivated me early on, was soccer. Pretty good soccer player could have played collegiately but chose not to. It was history, which I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in later, but we’ll get into it a little bit more throughout the conversation. I think early on it was human potential. I love sports. I’m the kind of sports fan who enjoys dynasties. I don’t like underdogs. I’m kind of a black sheep that way

Tom: Must be tough for Michigan.

Nick: A little bit. Yeah, but I love the Idea that we have some sort of effective control over how we grow How we develop and that can be turned into consistent behavior, right? repetition over time. And that started out very early, must have been sixth grade. I have two younger sisters. We’re all two years apart.

My youngest sister, Sarah, was on a soccer team. Let’s say she was skilled. Athletics weren’t necessarily her thing. Great performing artist among many other wonderful things that she does. Soccer was just not her bag, but it was mine. And so, one morning I took her out into the driveway. showed her a couple of things, probably the rare moment in our childhood I was decent to her. Lo and behold she went out later that day. She happened to get squared off with a boy twice her size. She ended up just taking it to him, scoring a couple of goals. I was at the game. I remember watching it. I remember seeing the joy on her face, and I think, a sense of pride, not only in her, but also in me, because I looked at it, Correlation, right? And said, oh, I did that. It’s because we spent time in the driveway this morning, and the, the only reason I point to that, realizing I didn’t do that, because I think it was my first taste of This is what it feels like to help somebody else get better.

Just very generally, whatever that means, whatever is important to them, if you can help them improve and they experience some sort of satisfaction from that, I do too.

Tom: So, what you’re telling me is if your sister had gone out that day and broken her leg, your entire life trajectory could have been different?

Nick: But yeah, some very good positive feedback and sensing the joy in her, the joy in you, and thinking that this is an unlimited opportunity, right?

The human potential thing and the psychological piece didn’t really come till later. I don’t think I really appreciated what was required or what is required to help people level up in significant ways. I think I naively, like most teenagers or college kids or undergrads, said I’ll just go into school and make a difference, right? You know, just be me, be that presence, be there for kids. The science piece came later, post grad.

Tom:  Were there special people in your life? Mentors, coaches, teachers that really set your heart on fire and thought, this person is pointing me in a direction that seems exciting?

Nick: Many, there’s kind of multiple stages of that. So, one, I have a very dedicated, thoughtful, tenacious, in some ways, mother, who I think played the game in elementary school, and did what she needed to do to ensure, I kind of got the quote unquote good teachers. In retrospect, that was a big deal. That is an impressionable thing to experience as a youngster. but really it was high school, where things took, I think, the most significant turn.

So, in 9th grade I was a part of a program that created a job visit, right? So, you go out, you spend a day with somebody, see what they do, see how they do it. And I chose to go to a neighboring school and shadow my uncle, John Dolce. At the time he was an athletic director, like I said I was big into sports, I knew I wanted to go into education, I knew I wanted to teach, but down the road I could see myself doing something like an athletic director position.

So, I remember going into the school, and my exact thought in watching him interact with his students was, he gets to be on the other side. Of what I’m experiencing as a student almost every day. My teachers are awesome. They’re paying attention to me. They’re encouraging me. They’re pushing me as well, right? It’s not all pleasant all the time but you can tell they’re in it right and they’re enjoyable to be around and I look forward to spending time with a lot of them, not just learning from them. I’m walking through the halls and I’m seeing kids coming up to him giving fist bumps and encouraging people and talking to them about whatever was going on that day the newest baseball game or whatever was coming. And I just remember thinking that is a similar feeling to what I had from that sixth-grade experience with my little sister, but it’s happening in schools and it’s happening from adult to teenager in this case, and that was the moment I decided schools were for me.

Thinking back to when you headed off for college and were about to start your first semester, what was the future that you imagined for yourself at that time?

Good question. At the time, I think, again, it was naivete. I will go into classrooms, I will go into schools, I will make a tremendous difference, and it will be because of me, not we. Meaning, I don’t think I appreciated the external and internal forces that impact education. And certainly, young people’s lives, right? Like I said, I came from a very loving, warm family. That’s what I understood. That’s what I knew. They were supportive of me on the educational track, but it wasn’t necessarily a huge push or a ton of pressure.

And in many ways, that was great. It just also, I think, had me in a little bit of an echo chamber, right? in terms of what the variety of experiences are like. For young people. So I went in thinking, I’ll change the world by teaching history.

Which is a great place to be if you want to be in education. I think that’s what a lot of educators do, think, and feel. That gets challenged once you get into a classroom and work in different places.

Tom: Tell me about the difference you experience as a teacher in the classroom, maybe, your own upbringing aside, but the difference between what you learned as a student and having a good experience and what you learned and experienced as a teacher in a setting that you were excited and enthusiastic to be there.

Nick: One thing is the same no matter where you are. It’s relationships. It’s a hundred percent relationship. It’s the second greatest predictor of academic outcomes. It’s also just, I think, the most enjoyable way to experience that on either side, whether you’re the student or the teacher. And so, I spent probably the first six, seven, maybe eight years teaching modern world history in air quotes, because it was European history in many ways.

I was in inner city schools in Lansing. Then I was in a pretty well-off suburban school for my student teaching year.

Then I was in my old school, and then I had moved out to Los Angeles to this, candidly, very elite, very private, independent school in Bel Air. Right? In the hills of Los Angeles. And so, I felt like I had seen a wide range of experiences. and I just remember thinking, probably, I don’t know, three, four years in. This has got to be the best possible context I could be in for education. And it still sucks, a lot of the time.

Even in the best of cases. Not because of the kids, not because of my colleagues, but because of the system, and what we had to teach, and how we had to do it, and how the kids had to play the game. I felt like there were too many people leaving my room, leaving the school, that had no sense of themselves, had no sense of what they wanted to do. didn’t understand anything about their interests or passions. They were just playing the game, trying to get into one of 25 different schools that were the quote unquote best schools.

There was so much good in that, but it was not to your earlier question, the vision I had for myself as an educator or for education as a system. And that was the kick in the butt to go back to grad school. So, I’ll go get a master’s degree, maybe that’ll have some answers.

No, it had no answers, right? But it did have a course that introduced me to now the most watched TED Talk of all time: Sir Ken Robinson’s Do Schools Kill Creativity? I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but you ‘ve got to watch it. It’s wonderful. He’s got this awesome dry British humor, but he’s also brilliant.

It’s really funny But he pushes forward this idea that we’re really just teaching or training kids to think from the top down I’ll be professors memorize everything and he tells a story of Jillian Lynn She as a youngster, I think had a lot of trouble in school I’m going to spoil, the TED Talk for those that are going to go check it out, but she had a lot of trouble in school, her mom took her to, I can’t remember what it was, a doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, something like that.

Talked to Jillian for a little while, walked out of the room with mom, left her alone, looked at her through the window, and Jillian started moving around and dancing. And the doctor says to mom, your daughter’s not a problem or struggling with learning, she’s just a dancer.

Take her to a dance school. So those who might know the name Jillian Lynn, well she came up with cats. Among other things, right? She’s one of the most revered names ever in theater. The idea there and Robinson later went on to produce a book called the element, which I highly recommend anyone check out the idea. There was passion, right? something to not just chase but to engage in that is rewarding for its own sake.

I grabbed onto that idea because that’s what I thought was missing from a lot of the young people. I can teach you history and I can justify critical thinking. I can justify historical knowledge and I can rationalize it, but that’s not lighting you up and that’s not necessarily going to make the biggest difference in your life going forward. But if I can help you find a passion, that will. So that led to my PhD program. I said, okay, I’ve got to understand this phenomenon better and I want to understand it on a very scientific level.

So, I went back to Michigan State, enrolled in a doctoral program called the EPET educational psychology and educational technology. I focused really on the EP, the psychology part. And that’s where I got introduced to positive psychology, to the term flow, intrinsic motivation, deep engagement. I wrote my dissertation on eudaimonia well-being, which we can nerd out on a little later.

But that’s where I really started to say, okay, these are fundamental components of human flourishing, potential, well-being, personal growth, name it.

We need to understand these things and we need to figure out how to embed them in schools because if we can do that, we can take this system. We can harness it and we can leverage it to amplify the heck out of human potential around the country and that was really appealing to me.

Now, eventually I would find out that the pressures that schools and parents and families are dealing with are not always aligned and conducive to that. That’s part of the reason why I’m working with schools, not in schools currently. But at least that was the motivation and the dream at the time.

Tom: Gotcha. While you were doing your teaching, did you also coach sports? I know at a lot of schools they’re very eager for teachers to spend their free time also working for the school. Tell me a little bit about that.

Nick: So, I got lucky again, in undergrad, I sent out paper letters to five or six of the surrounding high schools and said I want to coach. One school, East Lansing High School, replied, said come on out to a camp.

That quickly turned into my college job. I was doing private training, and I was coaching teams. And so, to your question, when I moved out to Los Angeles, that was not only something I had learned to love and had gotten certain certifications in, but it was supplemental income as well, for living in Los Angeles as a teacher.

Tom: Tell me a little bit more, where are maybe more similarities and where are some differences as well in terms of, what results from the time and energy you put into that and what the time and energy that the kids put into those two activities.

Nick: Let’s start with the differences. The biggest difference is most of the kids are there by choice when it’s sports. It’s not the case with school for most young people at that time, I’ll tell you the middle ground which I later realized is When you’re teaching electives, you’re getting a different mindset. You’re getting a different Attitude, you’re getting a different motivation from those young people and that’s like sports, right? It’s interest based if not passion based So there’s not as much required of you to motivate even the most Basic behaviors when it comes to learning or growth or whatever it might be the similarities are it’s still young people They’re still trying to learn you have to differentiate and you have to figure out a way to relate to them on their level So like the simple example of this is in a classroom We’ve got to be careful with learning styles.

You know, how do I communicate with this kid in front of me? Do I need to be very soft spoken, cordial, supportive? Do I need to get into them a little bit, right? And you’ve got to figure that out. To this day, some of my favorite players, who I’m very close with, were the kids that I would maybe yell, scream, push, challenge a little bit because they always knew that was coming from a place of love and support.

I hope they would say that anyway, right? I think those are the similarities, right? Understanding individuals, figuring out what you must do to unlock the change, that must happen for them to move to those next levels. And like I said, that fits perfectly very synergistically, which is what I was also studying in graduate school.

And so eventually once I finished my doctorate, it was a very easy, obvious transition from teaching and coaching. To just coaching humans and consulting and applying some of the science and the research that I was learning to help people grow more generally, regardless of what the context was.

Tom: I want to pivot your work there on the West Coast to some of the activities you’ve been doing here on the East Coast the last few years. I want to ask you, what does it mean for a human to be fragile, first?

Nick: Adversity strikes you fall apart and there’s maybe little to no recovery, That’s a little different. Then resilience. Adversity strikes, and we can talk more specifically about what we mean by adversity. Sometimes it’s just basic unpleasantness. Sometimes it might be trauma with a lowercase t. Maybe it’s trauma with an uppercase T, which we can get into. But adversity strikes. Fragile people break down. Adversity strikes resilient people, might have a dip, but they’re going to bounce back.

They’re going to get back to baseline, which is a wonderful, great trait, and we have lots of, I think, valid, interesting ways of training that up. Antifragile takes it a step further, and so the common example we’ll always give is two mythical characters, the phoenix, and the hydra. So, the phoenix, that’ll fall apart, dissipate to ashes, be reborn as its sort of original self, kind of comes back the same in some ways.

But the hydra, for those unfamiliar with Greek mythology, was these nine headed serpents, and it had a unique characteristic. you were able to somehow slice off one of these nine heads successfully It wouldn’t grow back that head, it would grow back two more. That’s anti fragility. It’s growing and becoming better in various ways, shapes, or forms because of what we call high VUCA or environmental experiences. So, V U C A volatility. Unpredictability, complexity, and ambiguity. Things that feel unpleasant, probably for all of us, but can lead to a lot of growth. That’s the basic conceptualization, right? Fragile, resilient, antifragile.

Tom: It reminds me of that term that I’ve heard. I don’t know if it goes all the way back to Nietzsche, but what does not kill me makes me stronger. Is that an anti-fragile kind of phrase?

Nick: So, yes, and, this is where we want to be careful and nuanced because we are deeply, I think, respectful of and aware of the real negative impact that true trauma, with a capital T, can have, right? And, not everything that’s unpleasant is trauma, as I think we’re hearing and seeing more and more in today’s world. And

If you want to tap into human potential, if you want to grow to your best self, if you want to create deep relationships, if you want to have discipline that creates health and longevity, guess what?

It can’t be pleasant all the time. There actually must be the presence of unpleasantness. There’s utility and unpleasantness. And I think concepts like post traumatic growth in psychology or super composition and exercise physiology, which is the idea that you rip apart your muscles when you work out so that they grow back stronger speaks to that, quote you gave,

what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger. The simple answer is a lot of the time, right? Not all the time, but yeah, we have many, many examples and a lot of research saying that that certainly is a viable outcome of unpleasant experiences. And so that turned into how do we help people flourish or thrive more consistently?

How about we take these different worlds of research and, and a concept like anti fragility and say, okay, how do we help coach and train people? Across any context so that they can have a fundamental baseline of well-being, which is predicted by a few different ingredients, which we can get into if you want.

Build capacities for resilience, so when they’re not well, they’re able to bounce back and recover. and take some of the best stuff from, say, sports and performance psychology, among other fields, so that they can behave and perform optimally day to day. Those three ingredients, well-being, resilience, and optimal or consistent performance, we would argue, put you in the best situation or the highest probability of being anti-fragile when that adversity eventually does come.

Tom: If I hear this conversation and I think to myself, I would really like to be more anti fragile. Like, where do I start? What are my first steps, to a better future, knowing that I’m in a world full of uncertainty and obstacles and blindsided things that are going to happen to me?

Nick: Yeah, the first step, I think, is to start to identify, categorize, and strategize how I go about building certain capacities. So, I’ve given us three already. Well-being, resilience, performance. So much good research on how to develop certain tools and skill sets that can facilitate any or all those three, right? Now, I’ll give you the framework that we use at TAA, which is top down, bottom up, outside in. So, what do we mean by that?

Top down is thinking about your thoughts. It’s mindful awareness, it’s self-talk, its cognitive behavioral techniques, its acceptance commitment techniques, its books, its podcasts, its training, its coaching that can take you into that thinking about your thinking mode.

Bottom up, physiological or biological, right? So, we say bio psychosocial. So, biology would be understanding and appreciating the mind body connection. In the sports world, you often hear something’s 80 percent physical and 20 percent mental. no, that’s not the case. We’re 100 percent nervous. It’s all one entity. If we’re not paying attention to the mind-body connection, we’re leaving things on the table.

And then the outside in is the context. It’s the environment, right? This is a simplification, but you’ve probably heard the phrase where the average of the five people we spend the most time with, this is about emotional or social contagion, right? Echo chambers in civil discussion, Habits we are likely to acquire from other people. Language, attitude, mindsets, motivation.

One of my favorite studies on motivation came out of Michigan State, and it’s about students who really adopted the motivational style of their teacher. If their teacher came in extrinsically motivated, so it’s external rewards, I’m just here for a paycheck. What do you think the kids mostly cared about? Just the grades. I’m just here for the grade. We’re all playing the game. But if the teacher came in intrinsically motivated, it was more likely that the students would develop intrinsic motivation as well.

So, these network effects, our moods, our motivations, our attitudes, our behaviors can spread. We do not flourish or thrive or become resilient or anti fragile in a vacuum. We do it in the context of relationships and environments. If we’re not paying attention to the things outside of ourselves, we’re missing a huge part of the equation.

Tom: If I think about a formula for getting more physically fit, I could adopt something simple like I’m going to do every single day 100 pushups and 100 sit-ups, and let’s say as many pull-ups as I can. Is there Three steps I can be doing some rituals in terms of maybe psychologically something similar?

Nick: That’s a good question. So, I’ll answer in two ways What we do and our work with anti-fragility is take generalizable science, but understand and appreciate That people are wildly diverse So

You’ve got to run experiments on yourself informed by a lot of this generalizable science, right? So, I say that as just kind of a caveat. I’ll give some answers that I think work for a lot of people, but it is wildly diverse. You’ve got to play with the tools, find the right rhythm. Let’s start from the bottom up.

Sleep. Spend a third of our lives doing it if we’re lucky. It is a big deal.

You must have a minimum. Six hours, obviously most people know the recommendation is seven to eight. But what’s interesting is we’re finding more and more from sleep science. It’s less about the amount and sometimes even the quality. It’s about consistency of timing. It’s about circadian rhythms, right? So basic rules, pick a bedtime, pick a wake time, try to stick to that within a half an hour on either side. Which is challenging, don’t get me wrong, but ideally something like that. Sleep is number one. You can get into nutrition, movement as well as obvious things.

Top down. There’s a lot of stuff on top down. My head goes straight to mindfulness, which I know is kind of a buzzword, but I’m going to frame it slightly differently. A lot of people hear mindfulness, and they think, calm me down, de stress me. Think of the most popular mindfulness app, calm. Okay, that’s not what mindfulness is about. Mindfulness is about space between an experience and your response to the experience.

If you create that space, you, I think, at least increase the probability that you can respond and react in values aligned, desirable ways. Mindfulness and awareness underpin our ability to do basically everything.

So, number one, good sleep. Number two, some sort of mindfulness or meditation practice that’ll allow you to have better attention, practice gratitude, better emotional regulation, better self-regulation, or what we’d call willpower or discipline, challenge the beliefs in front of you, right? And exert what we might call cognitive flexibility. A lot more to it than that, but it starts with mindfulness.

Third area, performance. This is about attentional control, controlling distractions, preventing distractions, and having a basic understanding of your, what we call your dopamine manipulators, right?

If I must sit down and do something that I perceive as being somewhat boring. And that requires distress tolerance, guess what, the dopamine of going and grabbing a snack from the kitchen or getting onto social media or watching something on TV is probably going to be a little stronger than my desire to go do that unpleasant experience. So, I’ve got to control my environment, understand how to manipulate the boring experience to induce that dopamine, and that way I can start to harness my attention in the direction that I really want it to be.

Tom: I’m wondering about, in terms of dealing with some of the problems related to human fragility, is it enough to work on them at individual level, one on one? Or are there ways to address fragility in larger social units or, with groups of people?

Nick: 100%. You know, we were talking about coaching earlier, the, tone that you might set in a team, context, talking about different fields and industries, the way a boss or a leader might, handle his or her, employees, or team members, again, you can set up facilitative environments, you can make very explicit that it’s going to be a facilitative environment. I’m going to push you. I’m going to nudge you, but understand why, right? And that it’s coming from a place of love, support, goals, ambition, shared values, shared dreams, whatever it might be.

But I think being very clear up front about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and understanding that that is the culture that must be. And this is why I think there’s, me pieces and there’s, we piece I’ve been in schools, businesses.

Where sometimes both of those things were lacking, right? The individual employees or teachers or whoever it might be on the ground, of course, are pointing at administration, bosses, leadership, and saying, you’ve got to change the environment. And bosses, admin, and leadership are pointing at the individuals and saying you’ve got to change yourselves.

You’ve got to be more flexible; you’ve got to be a little grittier, you’ve got to be a little tougher. Stop complaining about everything. And I don’t think, again, that’s an “either/or”.

I think that’s a “both/and”. Understanding that me has some control over it, but there must be we kind of consensus and structure about how we’re going to live and exist at the same.

Tom: These antifragile activities and mindset we’ve been talking about, can these take place within classroom settings, within curricular space?

Nick: I think so. I absolutely think so. Again, this, this is where it gets complicated. So, part of the frustration was schools, and it’s truly frustrating. It’s not anger. It’s not necessarily a disappointment. It’s frustration., I’ve talked to a lot of parent groups. They almost exclusively agree. I want my kid to be happy, and I want them to do hard things.

And I want them to grow tougher, and I want them to be prepared for the inevitable adversity that has to offer. Right? And then, when the rubber hits the road, they bail out. And it’s understandable. They love their kids. They want their kids to feel good. They want their kids to get into the top school. They want their kids to make the team. They want whatever it might be.

It’s understandable why a loving parent would want to do that, but that can’t be the path. It cannot be the path, And so, to your question, that’s part of the frustration. You can’t control the messaging that parents are giving or the context or the environment that they’re setting, even as a classroom teacher.

I want to follow up on this topic of meaning and purpose. How does mean, and purpose fit in with this antifragile discussion that we’ve been having?

So, remember, if you think of this as a hierarchy, we have three parts, wellbeing, resilience, and performance.

Let’s double-click on the wellbeing piece.

The number two predictor of life satisfaction, right? Fulfillment worldwide is meaningful. Number one is relationships, right? Quality of our social relationships. So, what does that mean? What does meaning mean, right? It breaks down to a core sense of transcendence.

So, there is something that goes beyond my own self-interest, right? Something that helps me transcend the self. I feel some sort of connection or belonging to something bigger than me. If we can then take that sense of meaning and find some way to behave or live it and contribute to it in some way, shape, or form that’s purpose, that, at its core, is mattering. So why would it matter? Well, let’s go back to being a hunter gatherer, if you don’t matter, if you don’t have some way of contributing to something you care about, guess what? You’re going to get left behind, right?

You serve really no value, so we have this inherent desire to matter. That’s one way of accessing meaning. But another way could be, spirituality.

That tapping into transcendence and something bigger than yourself. And maybe, it is religion, maybe it’s faith in certain situations when stuff really hits the fan and gets terrible. There are different ways of accessing meaning, purpose, spirituality, religion, etc. But they all come back to that core anchor of some element of transcendence and connection.

Tom: Coming back full circle to your own life. When you look back over your life, do you notice a couple of different, pivotal moments where you started adversity or obstacles in the eye, and you felt like. By engaging with them, it made you become the kind of person that you’re trying to coach, train, teach, experience with others?

Yes, and I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as antifragile in those moments, which is probably why, in part, I’m interested in better understanding it and helping people train it up proactively so that they can.

It took me three attempts. to get into my college of education. I happened to be in my freshman year making terrible decisions about course selection, and I had three awfully boring, terrible science courses, and I was a freshman in college, which came with certain habits and behaviors. That puts my GPA in a certain situation, right? So here I am, know I want to teach since I’m 14 years old, at my dad’s alma mater, my favorite school, the top college of education in the country, and I can’t get into the damn thing, I had to try three times, I was almost about to transfer, I got in on the third try, everything worked out, but I think that was an early taste.

I think the more intense piece that really articulates the point later is, probably around age 30, going through a pretty bad breakup,

That has propelled me to make some changes that set me up to be the kind of person. I want to be married to, incredible woman and somebody that I love dearly and that I don’t think I could have attracted or married had I not gone through those periods of growth, right?

I think about that consistently, and the lessons I learned from it. And it’s not that I don’t make mistakes with my wife, of course, and still very much human. But those memories and those emotions are still very visceral for me. And then I think, try to motivate, and correct behaviors going forward.

Tom: And my last question, back at your high school self or teenage years, how might he have benefited from some of the coaching, training, and teaching that you are conducting right now?

Nick: Part of me wishes things would have been a little harder., I was a pretty natural athlete. And so subsequently I was one of the tops, if not the top player in my various squads, and I don’t know that that was necessarily a good thing. I think it allowed me in some cases to rest on my laurels.

I did fine in school, got into the college I wanted to get into, didn’t really care about test scores and those sorts of things. Potentially a little bit more adversity and kind of kicking the ass would have benefited, that’s not to say I wish I had experienced some sort of trauma.

That’s not at all what I mean, I think just understanding and finding that sweet spot. There’s some utility in embracing unpleasantness and learning to deal with it and sharpen oneself as a result.