If you consider yourself to be ambitious, this has happened to you. Your alarm goes off, and you’re ambushed by thoughts of the grind ahead; finding that needle in a haystack; denting the universe; the roller coaster that never ends — and many more horrible but unfortunately apt cliches. Today, the groupthink in tech largely believes that you have to suffer and barely survive to succeed. But this is a trap, says sought-after executive coach Katia Verresen, who counsels leaders at Facebook, Stanford, Airbnb, Twitter, and a number of prominent startups.
“You’re not going to build a billion dollar business on a string of bad days. It has to be a sequence of your very best days,” she says. “Your performance is tied 100% to your attitude.”
The ideal attitude is what she calls Abundant Thinking — a mindset that gives you the creative agency and grit to reach your vision — and, on a daily basis, to design your own life. When Verresen first meets most of her clients, they’re in reactive mode. It’s like they’re in a movie, acting in their job and life without knowing the script or having perspective. Her goal is to put them in the director’s chair, with more choices, perspectives and possibilities to rewrite and upgrade the script as they go.
Seeing these choices is at the root of Abundant Thinking. And, according to Verresen, this couldn’t be more important right now with the economy and fundraising climate shifting. In this exclusive interview, she grounds the concept of abundance in real tactics and actions anyone can use to feel more energized, expand their world view, and achieve their vision of success.
Early in her work with a client, Verresen will give them a scarcity vs. abundant thinking diagnostic. The goal is to separate out and identify the physiology, feelings and thoughts they experience when they're in a scarcity-driven mindset vs. what they experience when they’re thinking abundantly. This helps them truly feel the distinction and notice the tipping point between these two modes in their everyday lives. That way, they can proactively choose a more constructive attitude. Note, this is closely connected to Verresen’s earlier work on physical, emotional and mental energy, and how important it is for entrepreneurs to maximize and exercise all three.
You can use the above to identify how you’re feeling and trigger a different response. But what can you do to shift into abundance if you’re feeling so low? Verresen’s developed a large body of work around making this transition. Here, she shares six practical tools to get you started.
“Abundance is really your ability to see more in your life: More options, more choices, more resources. And that starts with noticing more,” says Verresen. “You never have the full story. If you’re in a meeting, there are as many realities as there are people in the room. There’s always a different way to see something.”
The problem is that we’re biologically wired NOT to notice things.
In 1999, Harvard published a now popular study where they showed people a video of a small basketball team passing a ball around in a circle. Participants were asked the count the number of times the ball was passed. Simple enough. But after the video, when they were asked if they had noticed anything unusual, more than half had no idea what the researchers were talking about. They'd missed the fact that a person in a full gorilla suit had been walking around the court for a handful of seconds. Over half of people’s brains seemingly deleted this information.
What does this tell us about life and work? The brain can only absorb so much. When you’re hyper-focused on a task or an idea, you miss things. “It’s just plain biology. You’re not crazy and other people aren’t stupid. It’s just that our brain is designed to see what it’s already looking for and believes. For example, if your belief is ‘it’s impossible’ or ‘I can’t do it,’ then anything that contradicts you will get thrown out.”
This is also how professional groupthink happens, because it literally takes energy to resist it. It’s possible that you’re deleting alternate paths, resources, all kinds of stuff because it doesn’t fit in with this collective view of the world. So think of what awaits you if you can break away from your brain’s default setting: Significant creative and competitive advantage.
When you devote time and energy to noticing, new doors open. Serendipity accelerates. You feel like the universe is conspiring to support you. But really, you're just not limiting yourself.
You can cultivate this abundant mindset and self-awareness. It’s biology. As with anything worthwhile (think exercise, eating healthy), noticing requires exercise to become habit. The best regimen: Ask yourself open-ended questions when you’re feeling the tug of scarcity. Rely on your mind to have recorded information you might not have seen or considered before, but can now be called up. These questions are designed to recover that data and expand your map of reality:
If I were to experience this situation differently, what might I notice?
What are my choices here? (Note: this is not questioning whether you have choices, but rather acknowledging that you definitely do.)
If I were to perceive something useful here, what would it be?
If this seemingly impossible task actually is possible, what's my next logical move?
What's going right in this situation?
I wonder what it would be like to... (fill in an action that seems to exist outside the scope of possibility.)
What resources might I have that I’m not seeing yet?
Noticing is also contingent on letting go of existing boundaries and limiting beliefs — including about your own knowledge. “One of the best things you can do is admit to yourself again and again, out loud ideally, ‘I don’t know what I don’t know.’ You want to consistently be busting your assumptions,” says Verresen. “If you go to neutral — being okay without knowing — you’re much more likely to notice something that escaped your attention before.”
Some people call this Beginner’s Mind, but the concept extends beyond embracing ignorance — it’s the capacity to release judgments and assumptions. In doing so, you create new possibilities without being blinded by limiting beliefs.
For years, Verresen was one of the in-residence coaches for the most popular class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Called Paths to Power, it emphasizes the importance of neutrality: The world is not fair or unfair. It simply is. The more you can suspend judgment, the more you can learn and grow your power.
What do you believe to be absolutely true? Is it still true when you look at it holistically?
“Ask yourself, ‘If I was neutral on this subject, would I notice anything different? If I knew nothing at all about it and just stepped into the situation this moment, what would I see?’” says Verresen. “Neutrality saves you from both blind optimism and safe pessimism. It puts you in proper relationship with what truly is.”
Regularly, she hears from companies that recruiting is impossible. There’s no one out there who’s any good. It’s all hopeless. Then, suddenly, when trained to go to neutral and give up what they think they need in the role or who would be right for it, they realize the right person was in front of them all along. (For the record, she’s seen the same thing happen with San Francisco apartment hunting. Those who have no idea how difficult it is are the ones that tend to find diamond-in-the-rough deals.)
Neutrality also acknowledges that reality is a mess, and one thing is never true for everyone. Companies and teams are made up of many different points of view, contradictions, opinions and voices. The best leader is the one who accepts that they're all true simultaneously — it’s not only their thinking that’s true. This can take many forms. Here’s just one example:
“I tell my clients, if there are multiple opinions on a decision or what to do next in a meeting, write down what each person’s voice is saying in the room,” says Verresen. Maybe 8 people say yes and two people say no to a decision. When you write this down on a whiteboard everyone can see, you’re making it about the ideas, not the people; everyone visually sees the truth of what’s in the room; and the minority opinion gets respected and included.
Importantly, this is not about consensus-based decision-making. It’s more practical than that. When you don’t acknowledge all voices, you always pay for it later. You get people who want to reverse the decision later or slow down the process. “When you go in with eyes wide open, the resistance or negativity you might have felt gets released — neutralized.”
“If your attitude literally dictates the information your eyes are able to see (or what your mind thinks they see), then you have to prime your mental state to see more — it’s just as important as flossing,” says Verresen.
Priming is engaging in any activity that boosts your emotional and mental energy. Sleeping right, eating well and exercising are part of it, of course, but it can be more granular than that too. It can be taking 5 minutes to look at photos that make you happy.
“I coach people who run big companies, and they rely on ‘power boards’ — stacks of photos they’ve grouped on their phones of peak experiences (past victories, ideally), that give them the mental break they need, that shift their energy in the right direction,” she says. “It sounds unlikely or contrived, but you don’t have to believe in magic for it to work sometimes.”
Priming is critical first thing in the morning, but also anytime you feel yourself going into scarcity mode — when your body contracts or your heart starts pounding. When this happens, being able to shift gears fast makes a world of difference for your well-being and creativity. Priming gives you the control to decide which version of yourself you want to be.
“Your body usually knows first what’s happening, so use it like an antenna,” she says. “Then pick the tool that’s going to work in the moment.” Here are the tools she’s seen work best — and she recommends making playlists of this content (i.e. filing it all in the same place on your phone) so you can easily dip in and press play:
HUMOR: Read or watch something you know will make you laugh. (There’s a proven, scientific connection between humor and creativity at work here.)
MEMORIES: This is where power boards come in handy. Do you have photos of experiences and people you love? It can be a big win — something that seemed impossible that got done. Anything that takes you to a happy place and reminds you what you value on a higher level.
SOUNDTRACKS: Some songs or sounds are bound to have positive associations for you. Play them when you’re down, you’ll feel the change.
MOVEMENT: Get up. Walk anywhere. Staying in one place traps you in the same mindset.
EXTROVERT: Find a thought partner who can offer a different perspective. Get around a group that makes you feel happy and supported.
INTROVERT: Find a quiet conference room to take a break from the noise. Breathe and savor the silence.
These tools are also useful during the day. “11 a.m. and 4 p.m. tend to be when energy drops and these become useful boosts,” says Verresen. “But any time you feel a little a first pinch of stress or insecurity, you should go into priming. Just go into a conference room or somewhere quiet for five minutes. Use your soundtrack, look at a photo album you’ve made for this purpose. You need distance from whatever you were just doing.”
Priming is a lot like going back to home base during the day to recharge. “Understand that feeling depleted or hopeless isn’t your fault — it’s just wiring — no big deal,” she says. “Get off your own case and focus on doing the next constructive thing.”
Resilience is the ability to self-soothe — a process that has three steps or phases. Verresen uses this framework based on Psychology Professor Kristin Neff’s work at UT Austin:
First, admit that an experience or situation is painful, that you’re suffering, you’re struggling. Maybe you’re burnt out, things aren't going the way you want, or you just received some bad news. Feel the discomfort in the moment, and don’t try to hide from it or dismiss it. According to Neff, simply labeling an emotion starts to calm you down.
Second, acknowledge that this type of pain is a shared human experience. Life is full of terrible, trying, maddening, sorrowful situations. It happens to the best of us, and none of us are alone. All founders experience pain when fundraising. “There are no new stressful thoughts. Someone else has experienced what you’re feeling before or is going through it right now,” says Verresen. “When we’re in pain we isolate. We need to reconnect to start recovery.”
Third, figure out what kind, mindful action you could take to feel better right now. What can you give yourself to get even just a little relief? Maybe it’s getting out of the room, or choosing to sleep or exercise over work, or admitting you don’t know the answer. Play with your pet. Soulcycle. Do something kind for yourself — that means nourishing, grounding, something that makes you feel concretely better after you do it. Neff says even putting your hand over your heart of a minute can get oxytocin flowing to provide emotional relief.
Studies have shown that self-compassion is correlated with much greater grit. For instance, researchers monitored veterans returning from Afghanistan, and it turned out their incidence of PTSD was not correlated with the duration or severity of their combat, but with their individual levels of self-compassion.
Quickly running through these three steps is one way to maintain an abundant mindset in the most stressful or emotional situations. Everyone is bound to run into scarcity. Verresen recommends taking several self-compassion breaks during the day. It takes less than 3 minutes and gives you a tremendous amount of emotional flexibility and resilience. This is especially vital if you’re in full lock-down mode, in the trenches, battling it out, sprinting, and need to maximize alignment with your team.
Know your personal currency. Research shows that the most powerful and happy people are at the center of large networks constantly giving to their connections. This is how you grow a tribe — by being generous with your currency, whether it’s valuable introductions, technical skill, editing abilities, being a good listener etc.
Too many people feel like they have nothing to offer when they have a ton: attention, presence, kindness, knowledge, access to resources.
Along the same lines, she recommends forming "giving circles" of friends and co-workers who can do the same thing for each other — just 5 to 7 people where everyone is working on something unrelated. They can come to the circle to have other people give them ideas for how to solve problems, and point out unseen opportunities they might have.
“Other people’s mind maps help you get unstuck,” she says. “Remember, the people you know the least generally have the most power to introduce you to something new or change your mind.”
Each person should present what it is they want help with, and then set a timer for 7 minutes, during which the other participants brainstorm solutions. Make a Post-It note for each of these ideas and put them on the wall. This will keep momentum high and yield concrete results. The only requirements: Generosity, and understanding that there are no bad ideas. Whenever Verresen has run these circles, members have reported feeling energized for days afterward.
When you build a tribe of people you support, you're building a tribe that will support you.
You should always seek fresh perspectives outside the groupthink of your immediate workplace. Who out there can shed light on your blind spots and assumptions? Identify people in your life who want to develop the same skill set, but who are at a different company or in a different industry. Those are the people who can best flag possibilities for you.
This will also help you find mentors, which is critical. Verresen strongly suggests creating your own personal advisory board of mentors, including experts outside of your field. They open up green fields and blue skies because they’re not mired in the same culture as you. “What seems like a roller coaster to you is often a straight line to someone who's been there before,” Verresen says. “I often tell clients, ‘You can borrow my certainty if you want,’ because I’ve seen how companies like them get the funding, or win in the long-run, and I know it will happen for them too no matter how scared they are. You want mentors who will give you this type of certainty.”
Early in her career, one of her advisors was Larry Mohr, co-founder of Mohr Davidow Ventures. During the 2000 dot-com blowup, he would say to her, “Forest fires are normal and good. Panicking isn’t going to help. Just keep your eyes open, because after forest fires, there’s always a wave of seedlings.” And he was right, a whole crop of new companies — Twitter and Facebook among them — marked the birth of the new social media era. She got to borrow his certainty to weather a rough patch.
One often overlooked form of generosity is appreciation. It sounds so simple, but it has an outsized impact on the people around you. “I’ve seen so many people’s performance change in a snap because their boss told them, ‘Good job,’” she says. “In this culture, everyone is bearing so much weight and responsibility, they’re not even appreciating themselves.”
The abundant mindset sees opportunities to appreciate others, and the result is more abundance. The best form of appreciation is precise. It recognizes something specific and the impact it made. The effect this can have on a company is astounding.
For appreciation to be effective, it needs to be observable and specific. (This means not pulling people aside to say, “you’re awesome.” It means speaking up in a very grounded and tangible way to reinforce high performance for a team or individual.) Studies have shown that the highest-functioning teams abide by the law that people do their best when they receive 7 positive pieces of feedback for every one constructive criticism.
“When you look at healthy teams, unbridled, uninhibited appreciation is always a key ingredient,” says Verresen. “It’s the No. 1 retention tool in the world.”
Gratitude is the muscle that makes miracles happen.
According to Verresen, looking at your world through a lens of gratitude reveals what might be hidden right in front of you. Myriad studies have shown that consistently and proactively (even hyper-consciously) practicing gratitude can rewire the brain and have lasting side-effects.
But what does practicing this actually mean?
Take 5 minutes a day to focus on only the good things that are happening right now. Actually schedule this time on your calendar and commit to not missing it no matter what else is going on. You can use gratitude to prime yourself when you feel your energy running low. It refreshes the brain.
“So many people overlook their success and things they’ve created in their careers,” says Verresen. “You have to express gratitude for your own creations to really acknowledge that they happened and get that value and leverage the momentum forward for what you're creating next.”
One of her clients recently celebrated their company’s 10-year anniversary. So, she made each of the founders a list of the major milestones they accomplished. When she shared them, the room was euphoric. Then she told each of them to take just a moment to envision the 2005 versions of themselves who would have never believed this reality was possible. This is a vital step.
“By reminding yourself that you have literally achieved the impossible, you are that much more likely to believe in your abilities and stretch your goals going forward,” she says. “If this thing was doable, just think of what you’re capable of now. Capture that momentum to accelerate future big thinking and growth.”
The human brain operates in feedback loops. So it’s essential that we regularly feed them the right diet. Too often, driven people move onto the next challenge before they fully experience their most recent win. When you do this, you rob yourself and your team of the velocity you would get from acknowledging goals that have been met.
This also reinforces the point that abundant thinking shouldn’t wait. It’s a part of the process of getting to your goal. “There’s this pervasive feeling people have that says, ‘Once I get that funding, it will be okay.’ Or ‘Once we hire that person, it will be okay.’ And on and on. But that’s just living in scarcity and nothing will ever be enough,” says Verresen. “When you take time to be grateful for what you do have going for you, you’re training your brain to shift away from stress, to not overreact, and to be open to alternative routes forward.”
Once a client asked her why this was so important. He thought the pressure was working in his favor. Her response:
Because you’ll suffer fucking less. When you’re suffering, you’re not at your best.
She often sees leaders in scarcity mode come out of meetings beaten down, upset about something that was said or a disagreement. And they’ll totally miss the fact that they were allocated resources, or that there was consensus on another point that mattered to them.
“They literally delete information that someone in the same meeting would have taken to mean, ‘Fuck yeah, they just gave me engineering resources to get this done!’ If you make a point of being thankful for everything given to you, you won’t miss the small gifts and opportunities,” she says.
You can build gratitude into your life through regular rituals. Verresen recommends daily, weekly and monthly reflections that emphasize what went right, what you’ve created that you’re proud of, and what you’re thankful for. All it takes is writing it down in a journal (whether that’s pen and paper, on Evernote, or whatever).
Do it at the end of every day. Do it on Sunday evenings for the entire week, picking out the most important things. Do it again the last day of every month. Do it until you have a distilled list of three things that really moved the needle or mattered for you.
As you write more down, you’ll increase your energy. You’ll start to see achievements stack up to reach goals that seemed insurmountable. You’ll power up your confidence and go forth with greater vision for what you can do in the next day, week and month. And, to make an even bigger impact, do what Verresen does, and advises all her clients to do:
She writes down what she’s grateful for in her own life.
She writes down what she’s grateful for that other people did.
She immediately sends those people an email or calls them out at a meeting.
She’s seen this habit completely transform company culture. And it takes mere minutes at the end of the day.
Consistency builds trust and speed. When you do something consistently, you work in the interest of the long-term. You resist being reactive.
Doing something that moves you toward your goals every day gives you built-in resilience. That way, when there is a fire, and someone runs into the room shouting that everyone needs to stop what they’re doing to solve THIS problem NOW, you won’t lose sight of and momentum toward your ultimate mission. You’re building the underlying structure that keeps your team nimble and on track.
Every leader wants to think of themselves as being strong, open, and inspiring — not the kind of person who plays into zero-sum criticism, command and control management, or thinks they’re the smartest voice in the room. But the only way to ensure you’re not this type of leader is to consciously practice these habits and attributes every day.
“In every moment and interaction, you have the freedom to choose what you want to be like,” she says. “A really good leader is the one who knows that — that no situation or reality is forcing them to act a certain way. This gives them that freedom.”
When you make a point of thinking abundantly — noticing more, integrating more, and sharing more of what you know — everyone on your team will know what direction you’re heading. They’ll follow your model and include more information and opinions in their decision-making. They won’t rush to judgment, or panic about having the wrong answer.
When you’re building something new, you’ll inevitably run into 11th hour, all-hands-on-deck, crunch-mode situations — all the time. When you lead teams, you’re never out of the woods. In these cases, it’s so easy to tell your team, “Keep cranking, we’ll breathe when we’re done!” It’s easy to let all the habits enumerated above fall by the wayside because you believe you have no time or room.
But this is exactly when they’re needed the most. Every tool mentioned here takes less than 5 minutes to perform, enabling you to be at your best — which is also the way to ensure your team is at its best. At the times that matter most, you can't accept less. That’s not going to happen if you’re pushing through exhaustion.
“These are the moments that should remind you why you got into this in the first place. Every big launch or event or crisis or fire — this is your jam. This is when you want all cylinders firing and to double down on the practices that keep you at peak performance,” says Verresen. “There’s absolutely no mojo in saying, ‘we just need to get through this.’ Remember why this work makes you feel alive and go from there.”