May 16, 2023

Elizabeth Gould on feeling forwards, finding your golden thread, aims to behaviors, and your Inner justification (Ep64)

“If you don’t want something in your head, don’t take it in to start with. You become what you think about and you create what you feel is your focus.”

Elizabeth Gould

Tim O'Reilly

About Elizabeth Gould

Elizabeth is a high performance coach and the bestselling author of three books including most recently Feeling Forwards, which has been endorsed by the likes of Tony Robbins. She is a founding member of the Randi Zuckerberg’s leadership school at the Zuckerberg Institute, and host of the Feeling Forwards podcast. Elizabeth appears frequently in the media, including on NBC, Fox and Office Hours Live.

Website: Elizabeth Gould

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What you will learn

  • How the reward circuit of the brain plays a crucial role in consuming words and information (03:43)
  • Choosing the right information for better memory retention (05:23)
  • Having a clear purpose and goal in writing books (07:54)
  • How the book, Writing for Impact goes beyond just writing (09:03)
  • The first S’s  for amplifying cognition and making information easier to absorb and comprehend (12:49)
  • Using metaphors to make a subject more engaging (14:03)
  • Using surprising data and story to make a subject more engaging (14:33)
  • How using specifics aids comprehension and drives the reward circuit (16:27)
  • Importance of using emotion in writing (20:23)
  • Keeping the writing seductive,  smart, and insightful to make the piece more  effective and engaging (22:30)
  • How powerful finding an “aha” moment on your own is  (25:07)
  • Nurturing the unconscious or subconscious mind to initiate insights (26:01)
  • How the brain brings about dim and distant ideas (27:50)
  • Keeping the writing social and story-driven to make the piece more  effective and engaging (29:46)
  • How people process the meaning of words across languages, across mediums (31:18)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Elizabeth, it’s a true delight to have you on the show.

Elizabeth Gould: Thank you, Ross. We had a blast when we recorded the interview earlier in the week on my podcast, and I was so intrigued by your ideas. I’m very honored that you’ve had me on your show.

Ross: The premise is that we live in a world of accelerating change, and it’s challenging. I’d love to get your insights on how it is that we can cope, we can manage, we can thrive, we can succeed, and act better in a world of just moving faster and faster and faster?

Elizabeth: I love that concept of overload. Just to share with you, an overload of information to me is like conscious thoughts whereas overwhelm is like emotional overload. I loved the tweak to that which I heard once which is actually overwhelm is an abundance of what you asked for. If you’re an entrepreneur, and you want customers or orders or your widget or your app to be downloaded, you get overwhelmed when it actually all starts to happen. I love that tweak on your language and the work that you do. But I think the most important thing in a world of overload and sometimes overwhelm is to be able to find your path forwards because that’s getting increasingly difficult. The amount of information, as you will know that we have available to us, particularly in the high-performance and self-development space is incredible. There’s a new best-selling book telling you how to think, feel, work, and start your business, coming out every day, every week, at least, if you look at even just the New York Times bestselling list.

What I like to do with my work, which is contained in my latest book, Feeling Forwards, but really take a step back. Because I think personal development and how you cope and succeed in life has been a little bit hijacked in terms of it’s all about thinking. It’s positive thinking, it’s our thinking patterns; But if you strip that back, you can’t think of hope and confidence. That’s an emotional reaction. It’s almost a physical gut reaction as well. What I do with my work Feeling Forwards and also the Success Maximizer method is take it back and like, Okay, let’s start with the fundamentals. What is your aim? Then we build on that to what’s your inner justification for that? Then what are the behaviors?

The example I love to use is elite athletes understand that success is backward and also success is very emotional. An elite athlete will train, sleep, eat, think, and believe like a champion, probably five or six years before they’ve won a major race. But at the moment, we have an avalanche of information, I see that particularly with entrepreneurs that they get 55 ways to scale their business plan and everything else. They say, Okay, I have to do all this stuff, and once I’ve achieved a level of success, then I will get a finance guy to sort out my finances, then I will lose the 20 kilos, then I will get eight hours of sleep. It doesn’t work that way, success is actually backward. For me Feeling Forwards is cutting through the clutter. Starting with, Okay, where am I? Where do I want to go? How can I bring the future into my present to make that happen?

Ross: I think that the distinction between the emotion and the pragmatics of it is valuable. Again, this echoes quite a bit the messages in my book, you start with purpose, and then it’s around what behaviors you enact. Digging into that, let’s start from the aim when you’re discussing that. How is it that we can find that? One of the challenges today is that everyone’s saying purpose, purpose, purpose. So if everyone says, oh, what’s my purpose? Part of my framing is that it’s a journey. It’s not as if we find it and it’s there, necessarily, but I’d love to first get your insights into how it is we can uncover our aim, which can then shape our behaviors.

Elizabeth: I love that in your work, you use the word purpose rather than goal. It’s seen as quite controversial when I say, look, you set an aim, not a goal. I started down that journey in a bit of an unusual way when in my previous corporate life, I interviewed the head of human resources for the Sydney Olympics, who was an incredible man, and we were talking through his career, I was in executive recruitment at that time, and I said, What do you think was the greatest achievement in your role? He said, no one killed themselves. I went Okay. Then he explained that in every modern Olympics, until the Sydney 2000 Olympics, at the end of the Olympics, or shortly thereafter, sadly, one of the management team or more than one had killed themselves. He got the role of HR director and learned of this pretty horrific statistic, and thought, what can I do? From the very moment, anyone joined the Olympic organization for the Sydney Olympics, everyone talked about what was going to happen after the Olympics. So Okay, this is great. This is your role, but what are you looking for beyond that? His was the first Olympics where no one did actually kill themselves.

It got me thinking because, at the same time, I’ve always been fascinated in my work with elite athletes. So many athletes, it wasn’t Michael Phelps initially but some Australian swimmers came out and talked about how they battled with depression. Then Michael Phelps came out and talked about sliding into depression while he was standing on the podium getting his gold medal. Instead of me thinking, okay, there are a couple of really interesting links here. Because we know elite athletes encourage so heavily to visualize that moment, to visualize getting the gold medal every time they get to the pool, every time they run a race, I thought, Okay, so what’s missing from this? A little bit, like your purpose. I thought what if we swapped that for an aim?

If you think of a goal as running through a dark tunnel, and there’s a light at the end, and all you’re doing your whole life is focused on getting to that light at the end with firstly, no thought of what’s beyond that light, but also whether or not you’re actually going to make it, I thought, what if we could have an aim? Instead of that picture, have a picture of running along a track, but there’s an open field on either side. When I talk, in retrospect, to someone about their aim is like, Oh, I really wanted to get into med school, but I failed. I didn’t get into med school. I’m like, let’s go back, let’s look at the golden thread of all the decisions and the interests you had up to that point. Were you interested in finding a cancer cure? Were you interested in helping people? Were you interested in the mind-body connection? And starting to unpack that. Then they get to a point where they realize, Well, actually, maybe it was that it was broader than just being a doctor. I don’t have to have that sense of failure. I can actually go back and revisit why I was even interested in this area in the first place.

Then if you apply that same principle of running through an open field instead of a dark, skinny tunnel, and you think, Okay, we’ll know as we get older, we have family issues, financial issues, health crises, COVID, that can really knock our careers and what we want to do, of course, so if you think of heading toward an aim, and there’s a concept I use, called the Golden Thread, if you look back over the decisions you made, even as a child, did you come to play outside or did you stay inside and read a book, really basic stuff. If you join all the things that you chose to do, you do see a golden thread weaving through your life, once you find that, it’s much easier to make a decision on what my purpose is or what my aim could be. If it changes, there’s not that same sense of failure as if you haven’t reached a goal.

Ross: That’s one of the things where if you target something specific, then either you don’t achieve it, or you do achieve it. In either case, you’re kind of lost. Whereas if you are understanding what it is that motivates you, or where the direction comes from, and I sometimes wish that when I was a child growing up that I’d made a list of all the things I wanted to be when I grew up, to discover what was a little bit of that thread of who I was and who I was becoming. I have kept a journal since I was 16. I do refer back to my late teens and early 20s Journal very often to say, am I on track from who I was then, would I be proud of myself from that perspective?

Elizabeth: Oh, I love that. That would be so interesting, because so often, every kind of high performer, whether it’s an athlete, an entrepreneur, or a philanthropist, has a view that when they get to a particular point of success, however that’s represented, whether it’s financial, or big house, or whatever, that they are going to become some magical different person. I say it doesn’t matter how many bestsellers I write, I know, I hate rollercoaster rides, I have to have my plate heated so my dinner is hot, I like to have a bath at the end of the day, that’s not going to change, you’re going to be the same person. It’s not that you don’t become a future self as a different person. You embrace different behaviors that get you there. But you’re still the same person. That would be so fascinating to go back and read those journals.

Ross: Having uncovered aim or the Golden Thread in your life, how is it that you identify the behaviors which will support that aim or direction? And even harder, how do you enact those behaviors?

Elizabeth: I love that you’ve asked this question. That is a great question. One I was grappling with when I wrote Feeling Forwards. But what I did, I had a couple of clues, I actually dove into what is still the acting Bible, called The Art of Acting by Stella Adler. Method acting is another word for it. Let’s say, for example, if there’s a scene in which you were supposed to cry, she said, “Don’t think of when your grandparent died, or your cat died, or whatever, you have to be the character and be sad as the character for that event happening.” Around the same time, I came across a quote by the fabulous Cary Grant, who if someone’s not familiar, was the Hollywood man, think the George Clooney of 50 years ago, debonair, dashing, and fabulous. But when he arrived in Hollywood, his name was Archie Leach. He was the son of alcoholic parents, he had nothing. But he had a quote about how he approached his success, which was, “I decided to become someone until I became him or he became me.”

I thought, Okay. I developed a framework of every kind of category of behavior you can think of, what are you reading? What are you eating? What time you’re getting up? Who are you hanging out with? There are about 17 of them. Then I do an exercise in my high-performance coaching, which is Okay, imagine you have achieved the transformation you want to achieve. Let’s not worry about how you got there right now because if we all knew how our life was going to turn out, we’d just give up. We don’t have a crystal ball, it doesn’t come with us. Forget about how but say to yourself and remind yourself during the day, Okay, if I was, as you are, an incredibly successful internationally acclaimed speaker and futurist, would I be watching this crap on Netflix right now? Or would I have something to prepare? Or would I be reading an article for my speech or if I wanted to be on morning television and I was getting up at three or four o’clock every morning, would I be going to bed at 11 PM? It’s a Cary Grant principle. Once you can emotionally connect, once your imagination gets going, then you just catapult yourself so much more quickly to getting where you want to go.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. This goes to the concept of congruence, which is essentially, that you act on what you say, and hopefully, what you think and what you do are aligned. Somebody can look at you and say, the way they behave, it’s the same as the way that they speak what they’re speaking. You can tell that people are incongruent sometimes, they say some things and do something else completely different. You think about that congruence, this alignment of who you think you are, who you say you are, and what you do, it comes down to being integral. Because if not, you’re a divided self. Part of you is doing one thing or saying one thing and part of you is doing that other so it is ultimately about integrity – becoming a single, being whole, rather than divided between what it is you say or what you think and what it is that you actually do?

Elizabeth: Yes, I agree, and I love the word congruence. I think that is a much more powerful word than authenticity. I don’t think authenticity reaches where congruence does. Just as Aussies, I need to do a shout-out. You see people such as Hugh Jackman that embody that. He’s completely consistent in his behavior on and off-screen. We can all think of several athletes or public figures. We can also equally think of several athletes, public figures, and dare I say, politicians who present one way and then have it illustrated in a very public way that they’re not quite the way they would like to seem.

Ross: Indeed. What you’re saying is that having an idea of who it is you want to become or the successful You, then being able to look across these different categories of behaviors and see what behaviors would align with the You you want to be or you aspire to be or you think you can be? From there, how do you make the shift from your current behaviors to those more enabling behaviors?

Elizabeth: You’ve uncovered the missing piece in the middle, which is your inner justification. It’s really interesting. I balanced these three elements out in a formula and when a high performer comes to me and says, I’m working hard, but it’s just not working. We look at these three elements. Okay, let’s go back to what your aim has been. What’s your inner justification? And what are your behaviors? They invariably say, Oh, look, it’s my behavior, I really want to get up at four o’clock and do that. You know the image of the highly successful entrepreneur, they hustle, they get up at four o’clock, go to the gym, etc., which is not particularly realistic. But they say there’s something I want to achieve, but I’m self-sabotaging, or I have these destructive habits. Yes, that may well be true, but it’s like, it’s not actually your habits and behaviors you need to work on. Because your inner justification was so strong, you wouldn’t indulge in those habits or behaviors to start with, so let’s peel it back. Let’s go back to your aim first because as we move through life and become more or less successful, the aim can vary, particularly without emotional family lives as well. But what’s your inner justification?

I’ve been fascinated by the story of Tom Brady. I’m a huge fan of his discipline and his regime and his excellence. He’s come to the end of his career and he’s had an unfortunate final year and an unfortunate personal year. I think, well, what was your inner justification? Did you tweak that? Because if your inner justification is to be the best in the world at anything, there is inevitably a point where there’s physical or mental decline, or someone else, younger, faster, whatever comes up. That also has to move. If your inner justification has that flexibility to I’m going to be the greatest of all time, then that has to shift to I’m going to be the greatest of all time and then demonstrate or then support people below, that are coming up or would be the best example of my ethnicity in this particular area or through being the greatest of all time, I’m going to do this. Because then once you have that inner justification that sometimes does need to be tweaked, then sometimes you’ve got new behaviors and habits that have to fall.

Ross: Can you give me a short definition of inner justification? What does that mean?

Elizabeth: Your aim is what you want to achieve, or how you want your life to turn out. But then a justification is why? Feeling Forwards can be used for good and not so good if you like. You can feel forwards and create a life of the person you want to become for your own benefit. You may want to make as much money as possible, and you don’t care about anyone else, and that drives you forward. We see that being driven forward a lot, but your inner justification might be I want to overcome the challenging background I had, I want to repay my parents; one of mine is my parents sacrificed, and were unskilled migrants who came here, who sacrificed everything from my education. I have a very strong drive to create a life that pays respect to that.

But one of my favorite examples is there was a reporter who heard of twins. I love stories about twins because obviously, they’re people of the same age, at the same time have been brought up in exactly the same environment. But twins are different in terms of their personalities, and how they blossom. One twin was homeless, and one twin was a successful business person, just what made them interesting. The reporter decided to interview and ask them both the same question. He interviewed the homeless twin first and said, to what do you attribute how your life has turned out? The homeless twin said Well, I had no choice. My father was an abusive alcoholic, I had no choice to be but this way. Then the reporter went to the successful business person and said, To what do you attribute how your life has turned out? This twin said I had no choice. My father was an abusive alcoholic, I had no choice but to be successful.

Ross: Yes, it is all in our response.

Elizabeth: It’s very personal, it’s in your soul. It’s like, you know that if you don’t take a certain path, however, that works out, you realize that it’s your time, you either regret it or you celebrate how far you’ve come.

Ross: It really is the why or the reason for your life?

Elizabeth: Exactly. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning, what keeps you striving. You’ve had an extraordinary career. You’ve done so many different things to enable you to become a futurist. If you look back at the sum of that and what drove you forward, you could have settled at a whole number of points for less than you do now. You could have not tried as hard, you could have flunked a bit on preparing for speeches or whatever. But you’ve had inner justification that kept you going forward.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. That’s exactly right. One of the reasons why life has been so difficult, in a positive way, is that there were lots of places where I could have stopped off on the way. Oh, here’s a decent business, I can just keep on doing this business for a while. But I just was never satisfied with that. I was just wanting to just keep on saying, Oh, I want to go on to the next thing. I want to go to the next thing. Which makes it hard, got to say, But I wouldn’t have been happy.

Elizabeth: But that’s the biggest danger, isn’t it? Because you do as you just said, you get to that, it’s a good business, and then the worst thing you can get isb comfortable.

Ross: Yes, I can safely say I haven’t been too comfortable. But I still think there’s this gap. There’s still this thing. Let’s say somebody finds their inner justification, their Why, their reason, what is it they’re trying to do, that’s the single strongest thing that will get people across to be able to say, all right, yes, I will get up earlier or do my exercise or whatever it may be. But there are still so many blocks. I mentioned before this idea of the divide itself. There are two parts, you always say, Oh, well, do I really want to or actually, I wouldn’t mind a beer, or whatever it may be. Digging into the trenches of that daily life, how do you continue to keep yourself on track even when you lose the power of that justification at moments?

Elizabeth: You are the master of follow-through questions. I’m so glad you asked that because that unlocks the other part of my work. I work in neuroscience and I’ve just become part of a global neuroplasticion’s hub and my particular area of expertise is the language in the brain. The example I use is 4 AM. 4 AM isn’t a particularly comfortable time to get up. Let’s say you have to get up at 4 AM because you’re concerned that you haven’t prepared enough or you need to work on one of your upcoming London or US speeches. You imagine, yeah, the alarm will go off, and you’ve got a strong reason to get up, and you probably do get up at 4 AM because you’re a committed person, but you may not bound out of bed like a bunny rabbit. But let’s say you were getting up at 4 AM to catch a flight because you had one, and all-expenses-paid first-class travel holiday to the Caribbean for seven nights. You probably would burn out a bit like a bunny rabbit.

What’s the difference, because you’re still getting up at 4 AM? The difference is the language you use to yourself. You don’t wake up at two o’clock and think, oh, gosh, I’ve only got two more hours sleep, then I’m going to have to get up and do this speech, you wake up at 2 AM, and think, oh, wow, two more hours, and I’ll start getting ready for the holiday. Language is so so powerful, and how it literally shapes the brain is quite incredible. I do a lot of work on self-talk, I’m not talking about chanting and incantations. Because what happens when a subconscious or an emotion then transfers across to the conscious brain is then you end up in the survival brain because the brain isn’t designed to improve you, the brain is designed to keep you safe, to run away from the woolly mammoth, not eat the bright berries, and not fall into a hole, and all those sorts of things.

I read a couple of very interesting comments, I’m not sure whether it was David Goggins but someone was that was an instructor from the Marines, the US Marines. You may have or your listeners may have heard about a Hell Week which comes right at the end, which is extraordinary physical endurance, you get virtually no sleep, you’re running, you’re swimming in the middle of the ocean, it’s very, very hard. And at any time during Hell Week, if you want to leave, you just go up and ring a bell and you just leave, it’s just not for you. This is the last day of hell week and this is when all the physical stuff has stopped.

Before lunch on the last day, it would be very triggering, as I’m not going to say what the video shows, but the Marines are shown a video of what could happen to them when they’re captured. Then they go to lunch. Now, not surprisingly, after that event, a lot of people go up and ring the bell, but the instructor was saying he always noticed as a shift because right during Hell Week, he knows all the guys are thinking, really? What was I thinking? Am I really sure? But he said as soon as they articulate the thought, that’s the point they give up. He had a friend or someone he knew that was going through Hell Week and he was standing, he made it to lunch and then someone else was around the be;;, but the guy was standing there with his tray, and he said I don’t think I’m up for this.

Coincidentally, I was watching Noemi Asaka, a documentary yesterday. She was having some challenges when she was defending her US Open title, which she didn’t. She was being interviewed after and she said, and I saw her face change. I don’t think I have the champion mindset yet. I think oh, you said it, don’t say it. So much of our day and our psyche is driven by this constant self-talk. Once you stop and listen to it, that’s actually the secret sauce. Let’s go back to my example of springing out of bed for your Caribbean holiday, take out the Caribbean holiday, and just say I’m really excited about getting up in the morning, I’m really excited about tomorrow, I’m just excited because it actually does change your physiology.

There was this brilliant experiment done by Harvard psychology Professor Ellen Lena, and she did it about sleep. There were three groups of people, all sleepy, these college students. One went to bed at the regular clock, regular time, they woke up during the night and looked at the clock. One group had the clock set an hour faster, and one group had the clock set an hour slower. The people that woke up at that hour where the clock was faster, they thought they actually had got one hour’s sleep more than they thought. Their physical biometrics were the same as if they had had an hour’s more sleep. They told themselves, Oh, well, I’ve had all this sleep, but they hadn’t, they had an hour less, but their body reflected what they told themselves.

Ross: Absolutely, yes, we shape our reality in many ways. To round out, you’ve written many books around this. There’s a wealth of material in there, but I want to just put you on the spot, and to just give a few recommendations for those who are experiencing overload or in a world of accelerating change, what are a few things that they can do to thrive, to prosper, to create the results that they want?

Elizabeth: I’m actually going to echo a lot of what you say, Ross, and that is, if you don’t want something in your head, don’t take it in to start with. You become what you think about and you create what you feel is your focus. If you have a path, and I’m not saying that a high-performing, high-achieving path is the road to happiness, if it is for you, great. If you’re very happy with letting your life unfold, just be careful what you let into your mind. Because I remember when my children were younger, and they used to watch stuff, they used to want to watch something and I’d say, you realize you can’t unsee it, and you can’t unread it. Have that in mind before you even start. What you focus on creates your life and creates your future and you can create your future. One of my favorite sayings is what Abraham Lincoln said, “If you want to predict your future, create it, and what you notice and what you focus on will create that future for better or worse”.

Ross: Where can people find out more about your work and your books?

Elizabeth: Yes, please go to My books are on Amazon. I’m very grateful that Tony Robbins endorsed Feeling Forwards. He’s been such a great mentor for me. My LinkedIn profile and my Instagram is ElizabethGould_ and that should get you pretty much everything.

Ross: Fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Elizabeth, it’s been a wonderful conversation.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Ross. The questions were amazing.

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