March 09, 2022

Robin Athey on intellectual cocaine, the journey to purpose, slow leadership, and finding your North Star (Ep12)

“I would say purpose, oriented towards a really clear, focused filter to decide what to take in and what not to take in is how I’ve managed overload.”

– Robin Athey

Robert Scoble

About Robin Athey
Robin Athey gave up her high powered corporate career including nine-years as Research Director at Deloitte to found Integral Growth where she guides founders and leaders to manage transformational change and trust their inner wisdom in fast-moving, complex, high growth environments.
Website: Integral Growth

LinkedIn: Robin Athey

Twitter: Robin Athey

Medium: Robin Athey

Facebook: Robin Athey

What you will learn

  • How purpose can help you thrive on overload (01:19)
  • What to expect on your journey to purpose? (04:38)
  • A simple tool or framework to finding purpose (09:01)
  • Finding your purpose does not require radical change (12:23)
  • What are examples of a pathway and keys to finding purpose (13:14)
  • Why simplifying is crucial to avoiding the pain of overload (16:27)
  • Why and how to set limits to distractions (18:24)
  • Start your day eating the frog (21:31)
  • What is the maximum number of big project at any given time (22:46)
  • Why we needs frames and boundaries for sensemaking (25:04)
  • How truly wanting protects you from the constant assault of information (30:08)

Episode Resources


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

Robin Athey: Ross, thank you.

Ross: When we think about overload, and how it is we can thrive off of it, what comes to you first, when you think about that, Robin?

Robin: I’m laughing because when you say the word overload, I have these flashbacks, actually, to the beginning of the internet. I don’t know if you remember, but the dawning of what was happening, and the impact it was going to have.

Ross: I do.

Robin: Everyone was just like flying around, talking about overload. Then all of a sudden, I remember that dread of feeling it. It was interesting. I was just reflecting on this and preparing for our interview, it had me really reflecting on how do we actually thrive? And what is that? I feel like I’ve learned to thrive, and there have been so many different dimensions of that happening.

Ross: I think one of those is purpose.

Robin: One of those for sure is purpose; I would say purpose and having a really clear filter to decide what to take in and what not to take in. But it had to be really focused or oriented towards how I’ve managed overload, even with my body, what I can possibly digest? I was having memories of the early days when not only was the internet happening, but you and I were connected in some similar circles around the early to mid-2000s. I was involved in so many different councils, and there were so many ideas flying around, and the Internet was propelling a lot of those around knowledge management, and how do we handle all of this. With sitting in those councils, I remember at one point feeling like, wow, this is intellectual cocaine, I can get so addicted to this.
At the time, I lived life largely from my head, taking in all of that information, it was intoxicating. I actually didn’t know how to digest it. At the time, I was practicing yoga and meditating, and all of that, but I was living life so much from my head that I felt myself ping-ponging through all the days, from one idea to the next, and the next. But not in a way that was really coherent, and not in a way that I could really make sense of a lot of it, and the impact that I wanted it to have, I really wasn’t clear at all, how it was going to channel through me as a human being who wanted to have an impact in the world. I was largely a broker; I could think of myself as a dealer of this intellectual cocaine but I was constantly connecting ideas, people with people, and ideas with ideas, and really spurring on the life, the addiction to ideas and information.

Ross: That only resonates a lot with me, where I also live in my head a lot. Now, part of the way I bring myself back to the body is by trying to get in the ocean every day. But just as that balance because otherwise, you’re quite entirely in the head and the ideas. I believe that purpose and forms, as you say, the filtering, and how it is you balance yourself, tell me about that journey to purpose. How has that happened for you, just for starters?

Robin: The journey to purpose I would say is, it’s largely one of really listening to my instincts and trusting deeper instincts. If I track back, Ross, to when that journey even started, I think it probably started when I was a kid. I look back at some of the things where I feel very aligned with purpose today is stuff that was planted in me as a kid, and whether that was nature or nurture, I don’t know. It’s beyond my paygrade. But what I’m really clear about though, is that the instincts were there when I was a kid, and then there were certain points along my path that helped. I’ll highlight as dark nights of the soul, which started early for me, probably in my early 30s. As a leader, actually, as a senior leader in an organization,
I remember encountering my second dark night of the soul. The first actually happened when I was about 25 where I went through a passage that had me really consider the path that I was on and led me into some pretty dark places where I had to go in and look at patterns, things that were happening for me that felt very much out of alignment with something that wanted to come through me, and I didn’t have any words for that, at the time, I only knew what I didn’t want. What I didn’t want was some of the stuff that I was engaged in. I’ll give you an example.
When I was 33, I was a senior leader at a very high-profile organization, at the time, a very well-known brand. I was a VP jetting around the world and handling production and stuff like that. I was miserable. I had the car, and the office, and all of that; the fancy office and five-story townhouse filled with mahogany, everything. I had arrived in an Italian suit, in the best shoes, and bags, and all of that; very glamorous, very high flying, jetting off to Italy and South America. Anyway, I really hit this point where I was just really unhappy. It was one of these points learning that Oh, all these entrapments, the fancy car, and all of that are what I’m supposed to want, right? At 33, I’m at this place where most people try to get to, all the way through their 50s. I was lucky to have an experience early to realize that, Oh, my identity is not really this car that I spent forever buying because I couldn’t decide what color was the best color for me to render.
It was a really early introduction for me to some of my egoic fixations, and I would say it’s a point because it led me on to, Okay, I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing, what do I want to be doing? And what am I naturally good at? And I would say that that’s a journey that’s haunted me most of my life twisting in my britches about who am I? Who do I want to be? And looking everywhere, and trying so many different things, and jetting around the world. There’s this kid’s book, I don’t know if you have ever heard of it, it’s called, “Are You My Mother”? In it, there’s a little bird that makes its way out of its nest while its mother is off getting food, and it makes its way out of the nest, and it doesn’t know who its mother is, so it goes to ask the chicken, and the dog, and the cat, and the cow, are you my mother? And it was kind of like that. With purpose, I try all these different things. It’s like, are you my purpose? Are you my purpose? And then I came to understand, purpose is not a what, it’s not a thing. It’s more for me like an essence. It’s a way of living in life and being in a relationship with life.

Ross: Are there any tools or frameworks that you’ve found useful on that path?

Robin: Tools or frameworks for finding purpose?

Ross: Yes.

Robin: Yes, I’ve experimented with a lot of them. I actually guide people on purpose journeys to these days, because it was so much a part of my life for so long, and it continues to be. Sometimes clients will call me and they’ll think they want to go on a purpose journey, and then they realize maybe that’s too big. The one very simple thing that I oriented them towards is just the inquiry. How can I best serve in the world is an example of that. How can I best serve? And just to be in that inquiry alone, I found it to be very powerful. Then there are all sorts of things that supplement that. For me, meditation, dance, being able to receive, to listen to signals of life, so I navigate.
There are definitely things that you can do in journeys like going out there and going on soul quests, and nature, and things like that, things that I’ve done that have been hugely helpful, things that you can do to speed up a journey to get really clear about one’s purpose. But for me, it’s definitely it’s not a what. It’s not like, Oh, I meant to be an architect, that’s my purpose in the world. But it has a quality of service when I get to the essence that helps me to navigate information overload. It’s more of an essence. It’s how I’m in a relationship with life. How do I live my life and how do I navigate the world in a relationship with myself, with others? And for me, I’ve learned that there are these certain qualities that when I show up in the world with those certain qualities, things just start happening.
I can often struggle or strive, try really, really hard, and when that happens, it’s hard to feel in alignment with purpose. When I rest and allow… the best word that I can come up with is graciousness. It’s not relaxing into life and letting life happen to me, but more engaging, and let’s see if this makes sense, as I just tap into it right now, when I come into a place of purpose in my relationship, and I’m pretty clear what I care about in the world. I’m super like that’s my North Star. I’m pretty clear how I best serve. When I orient towards that, I feel coherence in my body, and then I just keep coming back to that over and over again. The tools that have helped me to get there have been all about being very intentional, that this is something that really matters for me.

Ross: Are there any stories from other people, public or otherwise, that you think illustrate this?

Robin: I’m laughing because recently on a podcast, I actually brought up the case of a client, and then I wondered if I should really do that. Let me use it, I’ll use a composite example. I’ll say as a headline to this, that often when people come to me to go on purpose journeys that they think they need to make some radical change in their life. Often, they’ll find out that they’re exactly in the right place; It’s really a matter of changing how they are in a relationship with what they’re doing. I’ve noticed that as a theme, over and over again, and people have made some pretty big changes, gone back for PhDs, or left their work to reorient with their network in a new way. For me, it involved months in ashrams, long stints in India and Brazil, and all these different places. But I want to say that it doesn’t require that. Give me a little bit more of a prompt here in terms of a curiosity you have.

Ross: I suppose the finding, so it is this process of finding. As you say that’s obviously very unique, because we are all unique, and our purposes are unique, and how we find it is unique. But I suppose it’s around the path. To your point, I believe that the path is the answer in a way, as if you’ve arrived somewhere, or you have a purpose. But what are the examples of a pathway, which could be useful to others who are on that path of looking for purpose?

Robin: I’ll share with you that some of the key things that for me have been most powerful and important are having some way, first of all, of getting quiet inside, is the best way to say it. This may sound a little abstract. I found that my moments of insight about my purpose were not things that I made happen, they weren’t insights that I made happen, they arrived, that’s the best way I can describe it. They came as these spontaneous insights, that were not about me thinking about something, but they happen when I was very, very quiet inside. Then all of a sudden, I would receive an insight about something. I’ve had a daily meditation practice for 25 years. That’s helped a lot to get quiet. Meditation, some contemplative practice, key; Patience, key; Inquiry, key; Curiosity, key.
Then there are morning practices, I think, those are really useful. When I guide people in purpose journeys, we establish some morning practice that, I would say, opens this field of curiosity. Curiosity is so key on this. If I go out and try to make my purpose happen, it’s as if it can’t find me, but curiosity and going lightly. Working with the body is really important. When I received these insights, sometimes I felt my arms buzz, it had that sensation, it’s like something in me, tingles even, I’ve had those kinds of downloads or whatever you want to call them, where everything in my body is lighting up and saying that. To do that, I would say any somatic practice or body-based practice, not just going out for a jog, plugged into the news or something like that, or music. I guess jogging is okay, but practices that really loosen the body up, dance, yoga, can be useful. A lot of people, I think who are very aligned with a sense of purpose practice, Qigong, or Taichi, or something like that.
We set up some morning practice, and then do things that allow life to be simpler. It’s interesting, we’re talking about information overload; I think so much of being able to get clear about one’s purpose in life really has to do with simplifying one’s practice, one’s day, and avoiding information overload. Whenever the brain encounters uncertainty, it registers it as physical pain, not knowing one’s path can trigger a lot of uncertainty for people, so they might go out and consume everything they possibly can. I’m not sure that’s the way because when we consume information, I’m not sure that we have those spontaneous insights that just naturally come, we might, but there’s something about relaxing, working hard, and relaxing. The last thing I’ll just share for now is I’m remembering apparently the story of Einstein receiving the relativity theory is just that, he’s sitting on a hill, and his eyes are gazing off, and he hears this clock chime, and he’s looking across, as I understand he’s on a hill and overlooking a town, there’s this deep relaxation that’s happened. I’ve heard of inventions being born in bathtubs, and so on, and then boom, something comes in. It’s like that.

Ross: Which takes us to the filtering part, as in one of the choices you make. From the sense of purpose or its essence, or whatever it may be, what’s the process then of using that to filter to say, this is something that I will spend time with, this is something I won’t spend time with, this is important, this is not important, how do you take that into your daily routine? Because that’s reality, information comes to you daily, through your day.

Robin: Comes to me daily, and it is a daily practice. Like most people, I can so easily go down my purpose. Nemesis is that the right word is Yahoo News. For whatever reason, I had a Yahoo account from the early days. Learning about Britney Spears isn’t necessarily aligned with my purpose, but I can get trapped here. I set limits. If I’m going to go into that sinkhole, 10 minutes, and then I’ve got to be back.

Ross: Do you use a timer, or how do you know that your time’s up?

Robin: I watch my clock, I’ll set, by 3:30, I’m going to be back. I have found, to be honest with you, that what I do is something that I care about so much that I actually don’t lose myself for long periods of time. When I didn’t know what I wanted to do, when it wasn’t as easy for me to digest life as it was showing up, it would be a lot more alluring to numb myself out, go internet surfing. Mind you, some magical things have happened in those periods of time where I felt a little lost and didn’t know exactly what I was doing.
Sometimes I would discover things on the internet in particular, I met a group of social entrepreneurs years ago that I’m still with, just surfing one day, and following curiosity, and Huh, what’s that about? And then going through a portal and realizing, Oh my God, there’s this cool group of people I didn’t know about. I’m still part of that community today.
I allow some time for wandering because otherwise, I get rebellious. I’m insatiably curious, but I do care about what I’m doing enough that it’s what I want to come back to over and over again. My fascination with the Free Britney Movement, or whatever it happens to be, I’m just throwing that out, it has a natural lifespan, I guess, it just doesn’t last that long because it’s not as interesting as what I love. I want to come back. I do have boundaries. I think morning routines matter a lot. I start the day, I don’t know if you know this saying, eating the frog, doing that thing, apparently, it comes from Mark Twain.

Ross: Vaguely…

Robin: If you start the day eating a frog, then it’s something like you’re guaranteed not to have anything worse happen that day. I start the day eating the frog, like doing the thing that I know I need to do, that’s going to have the biggest return. Right now for me, that’s writing. I’m working on a book. I’m eating the frog in the morning, first thing. Starting the day that way, and then knowing when I get tired, and at the end of the day, that’s the day where I can most easily stray into something else because my will is not as great. Really focus in the morning. There are rituals that I have every morning, and that help me to stay focused. Then it’s just coming back again and again to the thing that I love, and mind you the thing that I love has so many dimensions to it, so I can easily get lost in that.
Having very clear projects, I orient my days around client projects that are things that I really care about, that I want to deliver on, that set boundaries, writing, really constructing, and having no more than four to five big projects at any given time, I max it out. I constantly stretch myself but really organizing…

Ross: Only four or five.

Robin: Only four or five, exactly. I swear I could live 11 parallel lives at once, and I’d love to have 8, 9, 10. Calendar blocking for me is huge. Calendar blocking and making sure… I go through a lot of planning. I have a pretty clear sense of where I want to be in three years, how I want to be living, and it’s quite a different picture than how I’m living today. I want to be bringing leaders out into the land and doing much more nature-based work than I am right now, and living in a place actually where we can bring people and that’s very different than how I’m orienting right now, where I live right now.
That is like a North Star. Then I have a three-year vision, and I have a vision beyond that. But that three-year vision just keeps me honest. I back that up to one year plan, the nine months plan. I am a little bit rebellious, I rebel if my goals get too strict, but I have very clear intentions. Then calendar block, every week religiously on Sundays, I sit down and decide how am I best going to spend this week, and I make sure as I go because I block out my calendar about two to three months in advance, for the most part, I’m pretty clear about where I’m going to be going with clients. I just make sure that every day is balanced. I don’t get into six or seven hours of nonstop calls, which you could do.

Ross: The schedule then keeps you on track?

Robin: Keeps me honest. Yes.

Ross: Are there any practices for sensemaking? In whatever field which you’re delving into, or writing a book, that’s a lot of focus, and you’ve got some organizing themes there, there’s a lot to digest, so do you have any practices or approaches for how it is you make sense or what I describe as the synthesis of all these elements?

Robin: I’ll come back to this metaphor of a North Star because it’s one that’s used so often. It’s in for a reason. For me, it’s really powerful. With this particular book that I’m writing, I want to have a certain impact. There are some questions that I’m asking with a book, that are really important for me. Just to fill in on the nature of the book, the working title for the book is Slow Leadership. My proposition is that to navigate the complexity and the uncertainty of the world that we’re in, which is a thing I love, is understanding, exploring how to do that. To navigate complexity and uncertainty as leaders, we really need to learn to slow down. Most leaders I know, know how to go fast. Few leaders I work with know how to slow down, as well.
The impact that I want to have is for leaders to question some of the sacred cows of… it’s my little provocateur, it comes out of Wall Street, bigger, bigger, we’ve got to go bigger, bigger, of venture capitalists, faster, faster, faster, runway, runway, in the Silicon Valley, go fast enough to break things. I want to question some of that because I think there’s an appropriate aspect of that, fast enough to break things is really to fail, to supposedly safe to fail experiments. But there’s this urgency in this theme of action that’s become so prevalent, not just in the private sector, but also in social justice and other sectors, the climate that I work with. The urgency has set people into a blind action, a lot of leaders. I want to be able to tell stories of what happens when you go too fast, as people look in the rearview mirror, as leaders look in the rearview mirror, I want to be able to tell those stories, I want to talk about the neurobiology of what happens to our decision making when we go fast. I want to talk about how proper decision-making, and complexity and uncertainty, are so different than when you’re in a predictable world.
Most leaders are still approaching complex adaptive situations as if they were predictable. They are very different beasts. These are not just problems that you’re to solve. They invite a lot of perspective-taking, and they invite a lot of inquiry and pausing. This is my North Star. I know the impact that I want to have. I know the question that I’m wanting to ask, and then I do my best to just stay on that path, open to possible pivots. Mind you, all of those things that I just mentioned, unleash lots. They unleash neurophysiology and trauma in the body, and egoic fixations, and patterns, and blind spots, and gear conditioning as human beings, and our nature as social beings that can’t survive alone, where there are good reasons that we listen to Wall Street and everyone else to feel social acceptance, and so on. It unleashes a lot.
I think structuring, getting clear about what the structure is going to be for this, I would say, this is true, whether this is a book, or it’s a project that I’m working on, really deciding what the bones of that are going to be early on, is really important. What am I going to speak to? What am I not going to speak to? If it’s a project for a client doing team stuff with a client, where are they at? What am I going to speak to? What am I not going to speak to?

Ross: So creating a frame?

Robin: Creating a frame.

Ross: Yes, we need the frames. Otherwise, we don’t know where the boundaries are.

Robin: Yes.

Ross: To round out, we’ve delved very much into purpose and the quest, which transcends a lot of this idea of overload. But beyond anything, which we’ve covered, are there any final thoughts, or ideas, or recommendations for those listening on? How to be well, and to prosper while we are assaulted by information on all sides?

Robin: The thing to me that probably goes most core is wanting to be well, wanting to prosper, wanting to have a clearer sense of purpose, that very desire, something turns on in just truly wanting to be well, truly wanting to prosper, which is not for me about wealth and making life more complex, necessarily, but having everything that I need for me to serve in the world. That’s what puts wind in my sails. It’s just wanting that.

Ross: And finding how to do it?

Robin: And then finding out how to do it, how to have support. I think they’re better around purpose. There are some practices for me that are more effective than others, but just wanting it alone, and then experimenting, and going out, and seeing what happens. Patience, for me, is a quality that’s so important in this domain, just patience, it’s not overnight that these things necessarily change, it’s easy to fall back in old habits, and just having the patience to get up the next day, and try again, and show up over and over again, it’s very powerful.

Ross: Yes, takes you to wonderful places.

Robin: Indeed. Like into the water, swimming every day.

Ross: Thank you so much for your time and your insight, Robin. We found that really powerful, so thank you.

Robin: Thank you, Ross.

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Ross Dawson

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