I crafted a list of 10 life’s philosophical questions that I wanted to answers for myself. I could easily answer the questions based on my thinking. I thought—what would it look like if I ask the same set of questions to the best in the world from the different domain—so that I can learn from them—what they do, how they think on the same questions, and much more! I started this with a little experiment and soon—I got 50+ people to say yes to send their responses. Now, I take the pleasure of sharing the expert’s information with you so that we all can learn and grow from each other.
Sally Helgesen, cited in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership, is an internationally best-selling author, speaker and leadership coach. She has been ranked number 6 among the world’s top 30 leadership thinkers by Global Gurus, honored by the coaching consortium MEECO for her transformational influence on organizational cultures and chosen as the Thinkers 50/100 Coaches world’s top coach for women leaders.
Sally’s most recent book, How Women Rise, co-authored with legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, examines the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful women. It became the top-seller in its field within a week of publication and rights have been sold in 15 languages.
All the books can be found here
Please enjoy this conversation with Sally!
Nishant Garg: What books—or even movies and documentaries—would you recommend to someone who want to live a meaningful life? What books have you gifted the most, and why?
Sally Helgesen: The book I most often recommend and give is The Tao of Power, RL Wing’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. It’s quite simply the best book on leadership—and for living—that I know. I also routinely give books by Richard Rohr and Pema Chodron, both of whom I find enormously helpful.
Nishant Garg: What does your first 60 to 90 minutes in the morning look like? What are your specific rituals on a regular basis?
Sally Helgesen: My first 90 minutes is always the same. I spend 30 minutes drinking my coffee and doing inspirational or spiritual reading, often from the books noted above. Or it might be the Psalms. The next 30 minutes I do a mixed Pilates and yoga routine. Then I take 30 minutes to shower, dress and prepare my desk for the day. Please note: I do my morning reading from books, not on my phone or laptop. I find these distracting—I might start checking messages or news. I don’t open these devices until I’ve completed my routine. For me, it’s essential to spend the first 90 minutes grounding myself, not addressing my tasks.
Nishant Garg: You have interacted with many successful people over the years—what have you found are the most beneficial exercises that people really feel have changed their lives for the better?
Sally Helgesen: Marshall Goldsmith’s daily questions and his feed forward technique, by far. I’m also a big fan of peer coaching. I use it myself, teach it and urge it as a way to stay honest hold yourself accountable for being the person you want to be.
Nishant Garg: In the last 3 years, how have you handled work/life challenges? If so, what questions do you ask yourself during tough times? What does your support system look like(any go-to-person)?
Sally Helgesen: I have faced many challenges. When anything comes up, my first question is always, who should I ask about this. I have a big support network and I engage people very specifically for help and advice. I don’t believe in trying to do it alone. My go-to person is my peer coach, with whom I have worked almost daily for the past 11 years. She always spots my evasions, workarounds, fears and excuses. I do the same for her. I find that working with a peer coach takes pressure off my relationship with my husband and family, freeing me to enjoy them rather than looking to them for answers, except in those instances when I specifically identify them as the person I can best engage for advice.
Nishant Garg: What advice people should ignore when suffering with depression, anxiety, or any other negative emotions? Do you have a particular message you would like to give to the people?
Sally Helgesen: I can’t speak to depression or any clinical condition—I have no experience or background in these matters. But in my experience, day-to-day anxiety, which can be quite debilitating, most often results from an unwillingness to let something go, an inability to recognize that we can do our best, but a lot lies outside our control.
Nishant Garg: What practices do you have in your life to calm your mind and body during overwhelming moments? Any recommendation to someone who constantly feels stressed out?
Sally Helgesen: Breathing, always coming back to the breath, to the now, is the best way I know to get centered. And I notice that people who are stressed out are usually not really breathing so I advise that they give it a try. Your mind can’t really process being in two places at once, so if you’re putting your awareness on your breath, you don’t have the mental space to be anxious.
Nishant Garg: How do you cultivate joy in your life? Whom do you consider the most happy and fulfilled to you personally, and why? Could you share any instance(s) that caused you unhappiness and how you dealt with it?
Sally Helgesen: I read a great quote: “joy is awareness united with appreciation:. So to cultivate joy, I try to remain aware of the moment—this is where breathing comes in—while appreciating every facet of the moment. It could be bright sunshine, or soulful rain, or birdsong, or a warm house—gratitude is most effective when sought in the small, everyday conditions of life. I believe with Henri Nouwen, another author I often read in the morning that “Joy does not simply happen to us, we have to choose joy. And keep choosing it every day.” So I keep a running gratitude list to remind me.
Nishant Garg: How do you find the balance between being appreciative of what you already have and striving to achieve more?
Sally Helgesen: This is key to a happy life. Lao Tzu points the way—you mindfully decide at what point your intervention or action is most likely to be effective. You then take that action but recognize you can’t control the result. This to me is the most important lesson of life: you’ve got to try, but you can’t be invested in the outcome. Samuel Johnson got it right: “Still raise for good the comprehending voice/ But leave to heaven the timing and the choice.” So more prosaically did Stephen Covey, who advised that we always distinguish between our circle of concern and our circle of control and make an effort to align them.
Nishant Garg: What are some of the things you have changed your mind about in the last few years? Do you have any other favorite quote(s) or life philosophy you live your life by?
Sally Helgesen: In recent years, I’ve benefitted enormously by learning to let go of expectations. Big expectations—“I expect that my efforts will be rewarded.” Small expectations—“You’d think that person would have noticed/ learned/ would not have said, would understand …” fill in the dots. So I ask myself, have I done the best I can, and then strive to really let it go at that. I find this approach makes everything simpler and makes me a happier person.
Nishant Garg: Could you share any conversation from your life, or maybe more than one conversation that has made the most impact in your life? What is the biggest lesson you took away?
Sally Helgesen: Marshall Goldsmith once gave me a mantra—”Am I right about this? Probably so. Do I need to make the point? Probably not.” I found this very helpful. I tend to have a lot of opinions and to be eager to share them. This doesn’t always make me the best listener. So I’ve worked to become more mindful about when and whether I should weigh in. I have a little sign on my desk that says, WAIT. It’s an acronym for Why Am I Talking? In other words, do I need to say this, or would I be better off hearing what others have to say? These practices have made me a more effective and thoughtful communicator, which has served me—and others—quite well. I’ve also heard this described as “practicing the sacred pause.” And I try to do that, especially in personal relationships or relationships with a volatile history.
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