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Innovation coach and tech pioneer Ellen Petry Leanse joins the program to discuss how to tap into the power of your brain to gain more focus, confidence and relaxation.  Ellen shares what it was like to be part of the iconic 1984 Macintosh launch team, and her thoughts about the current state of the tech workplace for women.  Ellen also reveals the importance for leaders of creating a safe environment for all employees.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How Ellen’s concept of herself changed over time (1:50)
  • Ellen’s experience of working on the 1984 Macintosh launch team (7:00)
  • What diverse workers need to understand about their career trajectory (17:00)
  • How the brain can keep us from innovating (20:03)
  • What happens to the brain when we feel unsafe (25:55)
  • Why helping people feel safe in the workplace increases productivity and creativity (28:10)
  • The importance of all people participating in the diversity conversation (37:00)
  • How to take care of yourself when feeling overwhelmed (44:10)
  • A powerful question to help quiet your mind and connect with others (45:00)
  • A brain hack to decrease stress and get more restful sleep (45:30)
  • How to become more mindful and vigilant about our thoughts (48:10)
  • How to stay positive even under stress (49:30)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown.

Today my guest is Ellen Petry Leanse. Ellen has worked for Apple and Google, and has consulted for more than 40 technology companies. Today, she coaches start-up teams, teaches at Stanford University, and writes on innovation, mindfulness, and product design.

Ellen, welcome to The Will to Change.

ELLEN LEANSE: Jennifer, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure thing. Well, we always start this podcast with true stories of diversity and inclusion. That sounds really dramatic. (Laughter.) I know you have a bunch, so I wanted to ask you: When you think back on your journey and your “ah-hah” moments, realizing what diversity and inclusion means to you and how you’ve experienced inclusion and exclusion, where does that take you down memory lane? Can you share with our audience a little bit about who you are and what shaped you initially?

ELLEN LEANSE: Thanks, Jennifer. You know, there are stories and there are “true” stories. For a long time, I had a story about myself as someone who was young, scrappy, and hungry starting out. First person in my family, besides my father, to go to college—so the first woman in my family to go to college, and first of my siblings.

I put myself through. After I got out of college, in a very renegade and spirited way, I connected with a company that I fell in love with, that company was Apple. I talked my way into a job there. Built a career there that I felt great about, and always saw myself as a person who did things on my own, made things happen, took advantage of opportunities, and stepped in. I felt like I had a lot of agency, self-responsibility, and gave myself a lot of credit for the things that I had done.

Fast forward a number of years to the time I started teaching and began doing some coaching. A fellow that I’d connected with on Twitter—someone I’d never met, but had some exchanges with—saw that I was teaching a class at Stanford.

Here’s what I knew about him: I knew that he was a formerly incarcerated person who got into crack-cocaine manufacture and trading. He was out, looking for work, and making a presence for himself on social media, which is how we connected.

We’d had a couple of conversations. I loved his spirit and his energy. But he said to me, “I see you’re teaching this course at Stanford, and I wish there were a way to take it.” I told him, “Guess what? I am prototyping this as an online Stanford offering, and I would love to talk that through with you so you can help me get my materials right.” He said yes.

We made an appointment to meet for eight weeks—it’s an eight-week-long course—for an hour and a half a week so that I could share my course materials with him.

By the second class, I realized I’d gotten it all wrong. I wasn’t teaching him; he was teaching me. He was sharing stories about his own past and his own life journey. It aligned with my materials, but from a completely different perspective.

He opened my eyes in gentle ways, but also in some pretty intense and dramatic ways to how wrong my story was. He made me realize that I, like any white person male or female, whether we know it or not, we carry an invisible backpack with us. And that backpack happens to very conveniently have the tools we need to open doors and engage in conversations. People of color or people of different backgrounds simply do not have that backpack.

I began to see my story through the lens of someone who had the privilege of absolutely, without ever thinking of it once, walking into all of these situations as a person who was white, as a person who was physically able, as a person who was lucky enough to actually have an education. My education doesn’t reflect my intelligence, but neither would it have reflected my intelligence if I hadn’t had access to that education.

My friend Devine, of whom I speak, only had an eighth-grade education. This person has become not only a friend and a long-term teacher, but someone who has really changed my perspective on the importance of diversity and inclusion. If I had been exposed to a “Devine” decades earlier in my life or in my career, I would have known and done things differently and better. He would have opened my eyes and helped me remove my blind spots and assumptions in ways that would have made me more creative, more innovative.

I would have benefited greatly back then, as I’ve benefited now, from his radically different perspectives.

That’s my “true” story of diversity and inclusion, and how it started being a myth. I think that is very common for people who haven’t had a wake-up like that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely. We’ll get to that a little bit.

You’re a brain science expert as well, and it’s fascinating to think about how many in the workspace share the blind spot that you just beautifully described and how it was exposed to you. Often, they’re exposed to us by people who care enough to spend time with us, point things out to us, and they give us that gift. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It changes the way you see everything.

ELLEN LEANSE: Everything.

JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s go back, though. Technically, you were very much in the minority as a woman in tech at Apple in 1984. You were in the trenches at that moment. I would like to hear a little bit about what that was like. If you’d like to go there now, has it gotten better or actually worse for women in tech?


JENNIFER BROWN: There are a lot of disturbing stories being written about representation and woman coming out with computer science degrees and all of it. What was it like back then? What was your experience of your gender back then?

ELLEN LEANSE: Right. My experience with my gender back in the Apple days was absolutely invisible. Amazingly, I did not feel like a minority as a woman at Apple. In fact, I would say that the gender balance at Apple was probably as good as I’ve seen it at any tech company I’ve ever worked in. It was a full-throttle, full-empowerment, full-inclusion environment where everybody was asked to do more than was humanly possible. We had so much fun doing it together that we simply did it.

My experience of Apple at the time was that I was enabled and empowered to do things that were really audacious, and put into situations that were definitely stretches and beyond my comfort zone, but I would be supported and guided in doing it.

Part of that is really true, but as I’ve looked back over the years, I’ve begun to see a few things differently. At Apple, especially in my later years at Apple, I did something really “geeky” that no one had ever done before—I brought Apple user communities online. This was pre-Internet, pre e-mail. We did it on something that was a combination of ARPANET, DARPANET, Usenet, The WELL, and all of these sort of proto-Internet networks where people were sharing information with each other, computer to computer, through modems.

This was really unconventional. Apple was, and thus I was, the first company to bring these communities online per our knowledge. We haven’t found anyone who predated us. But this was really weird stuff that nobody had done before. It was geeky, and it was working with our most technical user who, by the way, were a really interesting representation of a very diverse community. We had so many female geeks and geeks of color in those early user group communities. It was much more representative than what we think the computer world was at that time. It was a renegade pack with a lot of really interesting and unique people in it.

But when I brought Apple online, there was a tremendous amount of resistance from people who were from more traditional computer backgrounds. Steve was gone at that time, John Sculley was running the company, and John was a fantastic advocate and champion of the work that I was doing.

In the seniormost management ranks, primarily populated at that time by people from more traditional computer companies, and thus more of the traditional white male, if you will, somewhat senior people who tended to be executives at computer companies at that time, they had never heard of anything like this online thing before. Nobody had. But they were very entrenched their traditional and “proven” way of doing things. The way that they had done it at whatever company you could name in the Valley that had syllables in it like “info,” “tech,” and all of these composite names of tech stuff. I don’t want to name names, but they weren’t Apple.

And they would come in and say, “No, we’re not going to do it that way. Why would we go online when we can put these things in the mail and mail them to people?” Of course we had really good answers to that, but they didn’t want to hear those answers.

In the later years, it wasn’t about Apple per se, but as our organization became a little bit more traditional and operational, then I felt like I was working against tremendous resistance.

My brother, who worked at Apple at the time, and who is a very close friend, said to me at one point, “If I were doing what you were doing, it would be easy because they would believe it from me, they would take a risk with me, and they’d bet on me being an innovator, but they won’t on you because you’re a woman.”

It had never occurred to me before. I felt this surge of two emotions: One was a fury, a fighting fury, and another was just the sense of being washed with relief because I thought it was me, I thought I was crazy. I thought that this was only hard for me because I wasn’t smart enough, good enough, not working hard enough, or missing something that other people saw. I thought it was a character flaw. Thanks to my brother, I was able to flip my perspective. That message has made me much more of a champion of women and minorities since then. We might not realize that we’re working against invisible obstacles that are the result of other people’s projections, assumptions, and blind spots. But we have no access to them because we’re simply hardworking people doing the best that we possibly can. We don’t realize that there is this wall we’re pushing against.


ELLEN LEANSE: I’m grateful to my brother, and other male allies who have said things like that, too. I’ve had some great ones. I’m grateful that I got that message when I did.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s why we spend so much time, and I’m always torn about it, as you say, especially with younger talent. Sharing the headwinds. If they don’t perceive that they’re facing them now, they will. And they need to know, and they need to have their eyes open. Those are happening, and they are invisible, you’re right. That’s what makes them so pernicious.


JENNIFER BROWN: Yet, when you have the conversation and reveal that your trajectory is going to be different unless you mindfully and intentionally make a plan and get the support you need to combat the biases that are going to happen to you.


JENNIFER BROWN: They’re going to be small, they’re going to be micro inequities—you blink and you miss them, but they may happen to you, and they’ll wear you down.

ELLEN LEANSE: Yes. Yes. Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s almost as if you don’t notice it, it’s just happening.

ELLEN LEANSE: No, you think it’s you.


ELLEN LEANSE: Your word “headwinds” is brilliant. That’s exactly what it is.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. But I’m always torn because I think, “Wouldn’t you rather know than not know?”


JENNIFER BROWN: Of course, I always come out on the side of wanting them to know. If you raise it to people’s attention, then at least you can commit to trusting the research. There’s a lot of research out there now about it. If you’re a young woman or a young person of color, you cannot escape the narrative that’s going on right now. There is more than enough to alert you to the fact that you’re going to have particular challenges, you’re going to need particular support, and you’re going to need to navigate things more strategically.


JENNIFER BROWN: And, by the way, you’re going to have to create mental space and emotional space to do that as well.

ELLEN LEANSE: You’re taking the words from my mouth. Here’s my message to your audience: If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you have a physical difference, gender identity, anything that’s different, your skill sets can be a direct match with a person who does not have those things, but your mindset has to be twice as strong. You have to know you’re leaning into that headwind.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good! That’s really good, Ellen. That’s good.

I want to shift a little bit and go back to what I wanted to talk about earlier. In our prep call, we talked about the hyper masculinity that the workplace has become and how the brain normalizes things quickly.


JENNIFER BROWN: It shapes around things we know, that known piece. And what’s known when you come into the business world is whether you know what you’re looking at or not, you’re looking at a workplace out of balance. It’s interesting, particularly in the way you described Apple, when did the suits come in? When did everything get corporatized? Who was doing the corporatizing? That group was not diverse. If you fast forward to the ways companies now have these entire management teams with no diversity, things have gone exponentially this direction. To the point where that diverse talent coming in doesn’t see anyone who looks like them at the top of the house, or maybe the first three layers of the house.

ELLEN LEANSE: Right. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us about how the brain normalizes the environment we see, and then we decide subconsciously, “This is what a leader looks like.”


JENNIFER BROWN: That’s how we interpret it, right? Tell us the science about how that happens and how that turns all of us into complicit participants in propagating an out-of-balance workplace.

ELLEN LEANSE: Great, thank you. I want to rewind, rewind, rewind—go way, way back into an earlier time.

If we look at early human cultures, any sustainable civilization or population groups, we always saw a balance between a couple of different things. In Asia, China, we had Yin and Yang. In other cultures, we had the myth and operations or technique. I like to say the “myth and the math.” Those are my balances.

These are really balances between different forces. We look at art and science, Yin and Yang, myth and math, masculine and feminine. And we see, even as I’m talking about it, listeners can’t see it, but I’m actually putting my hands together in a way where they fit together nicely and they’re very complementary and complete.

This is the complete, all-encompassing set of human potentiality and experiences that fit well together and complement each other. Even if we look at certain functions in the brain, we see that they’re very separate, but very collaborative, complementary, and I even like to say “co-conspiratorial” ways that even the brain works together to balance the creative and imaginative forces with the much more concrete, literal, and labeling forces.

In western culture, about 3,000 years ago in Greece, there was quite a dramatic shift that took place as the great thinkers of that time, the philosophers, said, “It is time to leave the world of the myth and move to the world of reason.”

At that point, we western humans began a procession to the place that we stand in today. Little by little by little, we have prioritized scientific proof, mathematical proof, evidence, data, and objectivity in our decision-making process, and thus in what we value as good or right.

Now, I am not saying these things are not good or right—they are. But we have paid a price for emphasizing them as much as we do. And the price we’ve paid for that is in the ambiguous, the imaginative, the collaborative, the more connective spirit that actually complements and strengthens the things that we value so much in our society now—the proof, the evidence.

As a matter of fact, it’s easy for me to talk about this, and I can imagine people in the audience saying, “Oh, no, STEM learning, all of this.”

A funny side note: I had an image today when writing something about STEM learning that only showed a stem, there was no flower on it, right? (Laughter.)


ELLEN LEANSE: I thought, “I’m going to have to work with that.” I am a huge advocate for STEM, as long as you bring in the critical thinking, the art. People talk about “STEAM.”


ELLEN LEANSE: I will get to the brain with this, because it’s really important, but this is an important setup.

ELLEN LEANSE: We live in a world which increasingly prioritizes the proof, the evidence, and the data, which is about getting more and more focused on what is right, rather than opening up the realm of what is possible or what is curious.

We might say, “No, we’re not. We’re innovating more than we ever have before.” Yes, but we’re innovating in a way that is derivative of past innovations. This is a very human thing that we do.

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, a brilliant author, says—and I’m paraphrasing—”We are at this point in our human history because we human server never really been good at thinking about the unintended consequences and the narrowing that our decisions make.”

So one of the ways that the human brain works is it takes what is happening around you and it looks for repetition. And with repetition, it converts that information into a different type of, if you will, memory or knowledge that simply becomes invisible to us. These become the routines that we run on.

For example, if I’m a young black kid growing up on the east coast, like my friend Devine was, and when I go to the grocery store, I see business magazines at the checkout counter only with white people on them. I never get a message that there are black people that can be business leaders worthy of being put on a magazine. But I do get the message that business leaders are white people, and that simply becomes an invisible assumption to me.

When I work in a company and I see that everyone at the top is a white, male, fully abled person or usually abled person, straight, whatever—I get the message that those are the people that are going to lead, and I will probably subconsciously minimize my role or potential without even knowing it as a potential leader of this company.

The interesting thing is those routines run in the fast-thinking part of the brain—as Daniel Kahneman calls it in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. But the slow-thinking part of the brain is really the home of our highest human cognition. This is the prefrontal cortex, which is the most human part of our brain. It’s the home of critical thought, long-term thinking, mood and action regulation, self-censuring, self-awareness, and what we call “meta thinking,” which is thinking about thinking.

By thinking about thinking, we can say, “Look, I’ve always told myself this story that I can’t do this or that only people like that can do this.” We can think about our thinking. This is where I say the mindset can come in. We can begin to work and practice new mindsets, where we see ourselves as more than what those blind spots would tell us that we are.

This is a big, big issue. You mentioned hyper-masculinization. I’m not sure that I would say it’s necessarily “masculine” in the fact that those are male humans in there, that is also true, but it’s really what has been more traditionally called the “masculine mindset,” which is more literal—more hunt and less gather, more math and less myth, more Yang and less Yin. It is those things that have been valued more in the workplace. This is something that I think is actually limiting not only inclusion and diversity, but our potential.

JENNIFER BROWN: My goodness, there was a lot in that. That was great, Ellen. A lot to chew on. Yes, indeed. Women in the workplace, of course, then adopt what our friend Vivienne Ming calls “the tax” that we pay on being different—the ongoing adjustments, large and small, that we have to do in order to speak the language, learn the language, adopt the posture, the stance, the behaviors. For some of us, whether we know it or not, it’s especially exhausting.


JENNIFER BROWN: I always think of this, I describe being up in front of a room, and I’m presenting data. Meanwhile, I’m having this whole other sensation of my own identity and whether or not it is a safe place to bring that identity. So I’ve got this really interesting thing that feels like an intellectual aspect that’s going on, but also a personal, emotional, safety-related thing around being the only “fill in the blank” in the room. This is a frequent feeling.

I have described that it feels like running two hard drives.


JENNIFER BROWN: It feels that I’m doing extra work, double work to not only be present to the knowledge that needs to be shred and the job I’m there to do, but also managing this reality of the undercurrent of how I am feeling a fight-or-flight situation. I’m sure it’s very primal.

ELLEN LEANSE: Yes, it is primal.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m sure that it’s absolutely the “lizard brain” of me saying, “Am I safe?”


JENNIFER BROWN: Put a woman in a sea of men, these days especially, there’s so much mistrust. But we’ve been feeling this for many, many decades. Ask any woman. This is something we live with, it’s something we navigate, it’s something we just put up with.

My theory is we’re working double. How does that manifest itself? It manifests as stress, burnout, physical illness, and the inability to hang in there anymore at the job.


JENNIFER BROWN: Which means we have droves of diverse leaders bailing out of these situations because they just can’t take it anymore. It’s heartbreaking. I know that’s why the numbers are going backwards.

ELLEN LEANSE: It’s such a loss, yes. Jennifer, you describe it so well. I’ll give you a brief answer. What you’re talking about is real.

First of all, it is more than paying the cost in stress. We are paying the cost in cognition. Let me tell you two things that the brain does when we feel like you’re describing. The metaphor of two hard drives running is spot on.

First of all, when we feel any sense of psychological unsafety, when we feel any sense of threat, the amygdala fires. At that point there’s a surge of the fight-or-flight response. Even on a subtle level, it puts up to 30 neuromodulators into the brain that actually change the way the brain works.

It’s a great survival mechanism because it takes you away from thinking things through slowly and really optimizes you for fast reactions. These modulators actually constrict the blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, which is the home of our higher cognition, the home of our innovative thinking, critical thought, mood regulation, long-term thinking, if/then scenarios, things like that. Those things, largely, go offline. Depending on the sense of threat, they can completely go offline when we feel any sense of unsafety.

Think about that. So when we feel that threat—we’ve actually all experienced this—we’re not able to think as well as we usually do or would want to.

That’s a lot to chew on right there, isn’t it? It absolutely compromises our higher cognition.

The second thing, you talked about how it’s exhausting—you used the word “exhausting”—to be in front of the room going, “I’m the only fill in the blank, and I’d better fit in so that they accept me.”

There’s a term for that, and it’s called “cognitive load.” It’s a term that refers to the amount of thinking your brain has to do before it can actually start thinking.

In computer jargon, I would call it emulation mode rather than running in native mode. If I get up in front of the room and say, “I hope that they accept what I’m saying, even though I’m completely different than them.” I am paying a tax literally in cognition before I can even get to my best thoughts. I might be more likely to forget a key point or fumble the way that I explain something that I want to share with the group.

This is a loss to everyone. The people in that room are not getting the full benefit of the person addressing them unless they are taking a deliberate action, through their own mindset and skill set, to make that person feel included and psychologically safe. Then they are empowering that person to share more intellect, more ability, and more cognition with them—from which they will benefit.

JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. There’s a lack of awareness to all of those dynamics happening.

ELLEN LEANSE: Thanks for helping to change that.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m working on that. I’m working on that.


JENNIFER BROWN: You and I talked about the change drivers that will compel people with power, broadly defined, to really get on board with the conversation about this tax that is being paid by so many, that they are blissfully unaware of.


JENNIFER BROWN: That is true suffering for many people emotionally, spiritually, professionally, physically. It’s amazing how different the perception of reality can be depending on which side of the identity equation you sit on.


JENNIFER BROWN: You and I had a very interesting conversation. I was complaining, which I’ll use in quotes because I don’t like to complain—everything is an opportunity. I spend a lot of my time making the case for why leaders need to pay attention to this, to invest in it, understand it, take action around it, and get outside of the fast part of the brain to the higher order of thinking around long-term sustainability. Not just for themselves, but especially for others in the organization for whom it feels relatively more difficult.

If you describe it to leaders that way, you would think they would say, “That’s very inefficient.”


JENNIFER BROWN: You tell me that people are not performing because they are managing all of these dynamics, and that I could have something to do with changing that. Only some people will resonate with that. Fortunately or unfortunately, it takes creative twisting around to get people to truly buy in, not just intellectually, but at a heart level to step forward and say, “Yes, I want to investigate my white privilege. I want to investigate the kind of environment I’m creating around me that is unwittingly harming somebody’s ability to bring their full intelligence and gifts to the organization.”


JENNIFER BROWN: There is such a reticence to jump in and have that level of openness and learning. I’d love you to share what we talked about—that which is keeping leaders from not looking at diversity and inclusion as a side of the desk, nice to have, “Isn’t that nice, it’s the right thing to do.” There’s a real power struggle, it seems to me.


JENNIFER BROWN: And we’ve got to get underneath all of this. In your opinion, what is the actual resistance about?

ELLEN LEANSE: This is a really tough and actually painful topic, isn’t it?


ELLEN LEANSE: This is really tough. If things are working, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?


ELLEN LEANSE: That might be the attitude that a leader could have. From their perspective, it may not be broken. Things are going well, they’re optimizing for the things they’ve done in the past and the way they’ve always done it. They’re looking at the short-term perspective and not the long-term perspective. Getting people off of that ideology can be really hard. If it’s not in their self-interest, why would they do it?


ELLEN LEANSE: The fact of the matter is, with many of the companies that I’m sure in contact with and that we read about and many of your listeners are working for, up at the top, things are good enough. They don’t see a reason to change.

What do we do about this? This is something we really explore in the class I teach at Stanford. We look at the long-term ramifications of staying on this course. And we see that long term, this isn’t going to work out. This story isn’t going to end the way people want it to end.

If we talk about a “VUCA” world—volatile, uncertain, chaotic—and what’s the “A”?


ELLEN LEANSE: Thank you, ambiguous. One of my favorite words. If we think about that, clearly, what got us here is not going to get us there.

Now, we talk about the CEOs, what is it going to take for them to make a change? This is something that has to really be looked at a board and shareholder level. From inside the organization, many CEOs are probably not going to see or learn something that makes them want to change. But on a shareholder level or a board level, there can be external influences that really do help open eyes and create change.

This is one of the reasons I love so much the evidence that’s come in that shows how diverse boards outperform. Diverse boards cause their companies to outperform or break out of the pack relative to companies that have very homogenous boards. Board diversity is such a powerful, powerful tool, also for influencing the C suite, the CEOs.

The other thing is shareholders. I talk to more and more people, and I’m one of those people, who make sure that I only own shares or stock in companies or funds that are ethical citizens, that have a diversity and inclusion agenda. I don’t do that so that I can be a good person by anybody’s definition, I do it because I deeply believe this is the way to build the most value.

I also look at opportunities. I think of even my own coaching and advisory work, some of which I look to get into diverse communities and have a balance of different types of people in the work that I do simply because I have learned that helps me be my best, that helps me learn more, it helps me get smarter and get better working with all people.

I believe that that also transcends or transfers over to companies that have that sort of thinking. That is going to favor me as a believer in and shareholder in these companies.

There’s some external stuff that can be done. Unfortunately, it is done at a level of access and privilege that does have to do with shareholders and boards and leaves the people who are working in the trenches in a little bit of a position where they’re saying, “Well, what do I do?” Right?

I would say, “Long-term vision, my friends.” Believe in the journey and walk forward on it. Don’t give up. Have a higher vision of yourself. While you’re at it, do what my friend Devine did for me—find someone who isn’t like you and ask to talk with them. Share your story, and humanize it for them. Maybe that will have a trickle-up effect that does make a difference of value.

JENNIFER BROWN: I believe that so much. In a lot of our work, we are recommending these days literally the exposure to a trusted relationship of any sort. Given what the top of most organizations looks like, it is usually a cross-diversity, cross-identity, reverse-mentoring situation or a mutual mentoring situation.


JENNIFER BROWN: To have that trusted person that you can run something by or have a private conversation where you can ask some questions that the person is going to understand your intent. You have that foundation with them.

My fear is between what happened with the Google memo writer, for example, and the #MeToo conversation that’s happening, the needed conversation that’s happening, we are actually inadvertently creating an even more fraught landscape in which we still need more than ever to connect across difference.


JENNIFER BROWN: More than ever, we need to be curious and welcoming of learning about difference, across difference, and sharing our story.

Yet, I can imagine the message that’s being received, particularly from people who have not traditionally seen themselves in the diversity conversation. Right?


JENNIFER BROWN: Isn’t that the province of women, people of color?

ELLEN LEANSE: That’s for them.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not my thing. That’s why in this podcast we say, “Everyone has a diversity story, even those you least expect.”


JENNIFER BROWN: We try to hold that door open to see the humanity in everyone. I’ve built that discipline myself, and I still catch myself looking at somebody and saying, “What would they know about diversity?” Just based on who I think they look like.


JENNIFER BROWN: And then being overwhelmingly surprised and ashamed that I had my own bias playing out around what made that person who they are. I ended up with a different impression of their story, the facts of their life, their wisdom. It’s happened to me so many times. Now I don’t ask if we’ve been going about this wrong, but I wonder what you think if the 1.0 of the diversity and inclusion conversation was, “Find your community” because there were so few of us. We needed to shore ourselves up say, like you said earlier, “It’s not just me, it’s not something that I’m doing wrong.”


JENNIFER BROWN: It’s in the air. It’s institutional, right?


JENNIFER BROWN: We talk about institutional racism these days. Maybe you’re not racist, but you are in a racist system, right?

ELLEN LEANSE: Oh, yes. Then it becomes invisible.


ELLEN LEANSE: I want to share a phrase from a teacher that I really love. Her name is Pamela Weiss, she’s a Buddhist scholar, teacher, and someone I really admire and learn from. She says, “If you feel a sense of judgment, ask yourself, what do I not yet understand?”

And you mentioned walking into a room, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed about it, this is a very human thing that you’re doing, Jennifer. It’s part of the way the brain works, it ties into that normalizing that the brain does and the learning of routines. This person is not going to understand diversity, and then they blow your mind, they surprise you. So if we feel we have that sense of judgment, “Oh, they’re not going to get it.” Simply ask yourself, “What do I not yet understand?”

Can you imagine if everyone asked themselves that question when that had that visceral amygdala reaction to someone who was different than them?

JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.

ELLEN LEANSE: Isn’t it beautiful?


ELLEN LEANSE: She’s so brilliant. Yes. What do I not yet understand? Hopefully, when we ask that question, after a while, we find ourselves softening the way that we approach situations and we find ourselves being more curious, looking to understand rather than looking to do that very primal brain thing, which is to protect.

You brought up another point, Jennifer, that is so important. You said that with some of the things happening in the cultural and political environment, is it getting more divisive? You asked earlier in the conversation, “Has it gotten worse?”

I’m so sorry to say, I think it has. And there’s a part of me that ways to say it’s always darkest before the dawn.


ELLEN LEANSE: But then I say, “Damn, when’s the dawn?” (Laughter.)


ELLEN LEANSE: I don’t know when it’s going to come. Bring it already! But it has to change, it can’t go on like this. If you look at the trajectory that we’re in, it’s unsustainable. Person by person, mindset by mindset, conversation by conversation, we are making change. There is resistance, and we can’t give up on this direction. It will correct. There will be a better balance that is struck, and I certainly hope it happens soon.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. Me too. It doesn’t feel like a very scalable answer. If we put our rational brain back on, as we do in the business world, that’s always one of the top-five questions you ask about everything. How are you going to propagate an idea across hundreds of thousands of team members across the world? How do you shift a culture in a multi-national company, right?


JENNIFER BROWN: And we default to the correct statement that it stops at the top, right? That’s one of our favorite wisdoms in consulting, the top has got to be right on and present and really driving it, visible, and consistent. Many, many thousands take their cue from the behaviors, the mindset, and the words of leadership.

My focus these days has been on asking that beautiful question, “What have I yet to learn or understand? To have a sense of openness to everyone’s diversity story and to create a safe space, and then to coax, through trust, the revealing of the diversity stories that live even in the executive levels.


JENNIFER BROWN: Yet, the unbalanced workforce, of course, has been discouraging leaders, even male leaders, even white male leaders—perhaps especially them—that they had to walk this very narrow path around what a leader looks like. It hasn’t been healthy for anyone, hasn’t been healthy for them either.


JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t mean to be an apologist, but I do think it’s a really important part of the equation. When we say we’re inclusive, are we really practicing inclusion?

ELLEN LEANSE: I admire how you speak about that. In our prep call, you talked about it, too. You opened my eyes with the generosity that you bring with statements like that. That is such an important way to lead this conversation that you’re building.

JENNIFER BROWN: By the way, it’s hard. It’s so hard.


JENNIFER BROWN: You’ll get in a room of practitioners, and everybody will look around and say, “Are you tired? I’m tired.” (Laughter.) We’re tired of holding this space. It’s holy work, but it’s really exhausting. In particular, how do we take care of ourselves when we are holding the door open for so many others so carefully, generously, and lovingly?


JENNIFER BROWN: And we’re holding open the door for change. I think it takes a toll on us, yet we’re all such warriors that we continue to push the boulder uphill.


JENNIFER BROWN: How do we practice that self-care? Do you have an idea from a brain perspective for those of us who are advocates?

ELLEN LEANSE: I love it, thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: How do we take care of ourselves from a brain perspective?

ELLEN LEANSE: Yes. That’s a great question. First of all, when you get into the room with those exhausted practitioners, now you have a couple of good brain buzzwords you can use with them. You can say, “Don’t worry, it’s cognitive load and an amygdala hijack.” And then they’ll know it’s not only them. (Laughter.)


ELLEN LEANSE: But one of the real self-care things we can do is exactly what we’re doing right now, and that is find kindred spirits, find people who believe, and remind ourselves that we’re part of something bigger and we’re not alone in this. We are paying a tax for this work, there’s no doubt about it.

Everybody’s paying a tax, too. We all are struggling against things seen and unseen. There is a burden that we carry for it.

Begin with empathy and remind ourselves, hard as it is sometimes, we’re all in a very confusing and difficult human soup together. That might be hard for some people to hear because our reaction is going to be, “No, it’s harder for me than it is for some other people.” Well, then, at that moment, what a beautiful invitation to ask yourself, “What do I not yet understand?” And even if there’s nothing that you don’t yet understand, your amygdala response will be softened simply by your curiosity of answering that question.

The most important thing is really to connect with others, talk with them and make sure that those open and trusted conversations are part of your journey.

I’ll give you one little brain hack, since you asked for it, Jennifer. If there’s something you’re working on long term that you really want to have as part of your long-term story in your life, even if there are some things that are important to you short term, be very, very mindful of the last minutes before you sleep at night. Your brain, while you’re sleeping, actually works on its synaptic pruning process. It doesn’t go through and do all the pruning that very night, but over time, it will begin to etch away synaptic connections between thoughts and information in your brain that you’re not using, the inactive or less frequently used thoughts. It will deprioritize them relative to the things that you’re frequently bringing to mind.

One of the things that’s really hard is people who carry stress in their work or who feel like they’re working against that headwind or whatever, they might fall asleep at night feeling overwhelmed and troubled by the things that have been hard for them in the day. While they’re sleeping, if they do that, their brains will naturally prioritize those thoughts, they’ll nourish and enhance the synaptic connections between them.

Invert that dynamic. When those thoughts come up, say, “I’m not going to think about those right now. Here is what I want to be thinking about long term.” If you make that a nighttime practice, you’re actually working with your brain to do work it’s going to do anyway, and that’s to nurture your frequently held thoughts.

And you can use that as a little bit of a brain hack, if you will, to have it nurture the thoughts that are most positive, that are more intentional, that are more in keeping with the things that you really want in your life.

Oprah talks so much about intention. More and more in my work, I feel that is the word that summarizes it all. When we set intentions for things and we bring those intentions to mind, we’re actually favoring our brain to prioritize, we’re priming our brain to prioritize and select for information supporting that intention. And we’re much more likely, in my experience and in the things that I learn about this, to point ourselves in a direction where we’re likely to reach what we seek.

JENNIFER BROWN: My goodness. I love that hack. Ellen, I can’t imagine any of us do that perfectly yet.

ELLEN LEANSE: Practice. It’s all practice.

JENNIFER BROWN: It is all practice. Coming back to that beautiful question, “What have I yet to understand?” Shortcutting that amygdala. It’s the neutralizing of the strong emotions that we have in this work. Our strong emotions are important, our passion is important, but to be positive with that passion is where it can be tricky. The cynicism can build.


JENNIFER BROWN: It’s almost like pruning the tree. You have to be really vigilant about what you think, which becomes what you know, what you feel, and all of it is related. The stamina that is required in this work, how do we build the right kind of stamina? It’s not whether you can withstand this day after day, it’s asking, “What is the next adventure in terms of learning ahead of me?” I get to shift my lens on something, I’m going to be broadened by someone’s story. I will be delighted. It’s such an intentional choice of words.

I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but I’ll tell you, it has been absolutely like a muscle. We can despair, we can get into a spiral of feeling defeated. But more than ever, the world needs those of us who have been doing this work for a long time to have more stamina than ever right now.


JENNIFER BROWN: We’re going through a whole lot. You are not wrong, there are forces swirling around that would be overwhelming even for the most skilled of us.

ELLEN LEANSE: Absolutely.

JENNIFER BROWN: I want to direct people to your book. I’m sure there are a million other little hacks in your book which I think would benefit the practitioner community. Tell us quickly, where can people find it? Where can they find more information about you? After listening to this, I’m sure everybody wants you to coach them every day.

ELLEN LEANSE: Oh, that’s so nice. Well, thank you. My book is called The Happiness Hack, by Ellen Petry Leanse. Jennifer, you so kindly said that you’d be sharing spelling and so forth on your page.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, absolutely.

ELLEN LEANSE: My website is EllenLeanse.com. That also includes information on the book. But the book, The Happiness Hack, is easily found on Amazon.

I want to quickly say, to wrap up what you said, we talk about the limbic system, which is a very important house of emotional and memory center in the brain. I talk about it in the book as a rubber band ball. You spoke about all of the stress and all of the hardship of this work.

There are ways of working with our emotional centers to actually take those outside layers of the rubber band ball, which are in very close anatomical proximity to the cognitive parts of the brain. Now I’m moving into a metaphor—we don’t really have a rubber band ball in our brain, please. Any neuroscientists listening, I didn’t mean that. (Laughter.)

I think of the limbic system allegorically as that. But the things, the emotions, and mindsets that we refer to frequently are the ones that our brains will reference during cognition. It takes time to soften what the outer bands or to layer new bands onto that ball or peel away some things that we’ve fallen into habitually.

The book is very simple and friendly. It gives you a couple of easy things you can do to break habits that are probably holding back the way you act and the way you think during the day.

For everyone feeling stuck or carrying exhausting pain about this topic in the way that they’re working on being more included and showing up as their full self, know that with time and practice, you really can change the way that your brain responds emotionally to the situations you’re in. All of this is a practice, and all of it can be, if not changed, certainly improved.

Intention, as Oprah speaks about, is such a great pathway to doing this. In the book, we talk about tangible ways that you can work on it. But if you only do one thing differently as a result of listening to this podcast, set an intention, visualize that highest version of yourself that you know you can be, and make it part of your daily practice to reflect on this. With time, you will see your brain will co-conspire with you to guide you more and more to that place.

JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful practice. Ellen, I can’t thank you enough. This was exactly the message we needed to hear today. Thank you for joining us.

ELLEN LEANSE: Thank you, Jennifer. Really an honor, and thank you to all of the listeners. I wish you all well.



Ellen’s Website

Ellen’s Book – The Happiness Hack