Zibby Owens: I'm really excited to be here today with Ben Michaelis, PhD, who's a clinical psychologist, elite performance coach, and the author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy. He has been featured on HuffPost, The New York Times, Psychology Today, Parents, Glamour, and many other publications and is a frequent guest expert about mental health on TV and radio. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University and earned his PhD from NYU. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome to Ben.
Ben Michaelis: Thanks so much. Glad to be here, Zibby.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on. Can you please tell listeners what Your Next Big Thing is about and how you came up with the idea to write it?
Ben: Your Next Big Thing was actually really about one woman who I worked with. I can say we mutually changed each other’s lives. To be perfectly frank, it was one of the most difficult clients I had originally. It was relatively early in my experience as a clinician. Nothing that I did, nothing in my training was helping this woman. She was in her early forties, single mother with a job that -- she described it as soul-sucking, I think was the word that she used. She was clearly depressed and caught in a really bad place. Nothing that I'd been trained for helped her. I felt pretty bad and honestly, pretty frustrated.
At some point during the work with her, I threw everything out the window. I said, “I want to try something with you. I want to try a thought experiment with you.” I asked her to close her eyes and to imagine her great-great-great-granddaughter. I took her through something that I came up with on the spot, this exercise where I tried to get her into the mind of her great-great-great-granddaughter. The one thing in this woman’s life -- the only joy was her daughter. I tried to get her to picture what this girl’s life was going to be like in the distant future. Then after I got her really steeped in this girl’s life, I had her turn the camera back on herself. What does this girl know about you? Besides the fact that you were her forebear, how did you contribute to her life? She opened her eyes. She said, “I want to make her a piece of jewelry to go to her senior prom,” her high school prom. Zibby, when I tell you that it was one of these moments that you never forget, it was so powerful. It was so specific and so powerful.
I'm telling you, from that moment on, something happened in this woman that changed her and ultimately changed me. This is someone that, at that point, she wasn’t a jeweler or anything like that. She had really liked making jewelry when she was a kid with beads. She hadn’t thought about that in thirty-some-odd years, and then quickly actually became a jeweler. She would come into the office. I don't know anything about jewelry, but I knew things that are cool looking. She would come in with these really cool pieces. She took a metalsmithing class on how to work with silver. Then she began selling her work pretty soon. This was a long time ago now when Etsy was relatively early. She was one of the first people that really made that into a career through Etsy. It wasn’t common back then. The work proceeded from there. I would try things with her. Some would work. Some wouldn't. I was taking notes about things that were working and some that weren’t working. Then at some point, I was like, wow, if you actually put these things together, it could be a book. I'd never written a book or anything like it at that point. That became the basis of the book.
Zibby: Wow. That's such an inspiring story. I love how at other times, when you got out all the crayons to really break through to another patient, and your creative ways of connecting with your patients and then being able to include those in the book, that was really awesome.
Ben: Thanks. It originally was going to be only about her. As you know, editors wanted it to be more diverse and other people. I did bring in work with other people. A lot of the book was really about her fundamentally.
Zibby: Tell me how the order of things went when you were working on this book. The book is filled with fantastic devices to help anybody who's stuck in their life figure out their next step, all these great quizzes and takeaways and lessons. When you first thought about the book, were you like, “I'm going to put in quizzes and make it so that everybody is using it like a manual”? How did that whole thing come about?
Ben: I tend to favor things that are very practical. I'm a very practical person. I like quizzes personally. I've written some quizzes for Oprah in the past. I actually really like them. I've gotten really good feedback about the quizzes themselves, that they're pretty engaging. The idea that they would help people to get engaged and think about where they are in their own journey is something that I personally like. I thought that having them in the book would be really useful for people.
Zibby: It was also good because as I went through it, I was like, I'm good here. I'm good here. Then I'm like, oh dear. This is where I need to focus. [laughs] It’s always good to have it really quantified and thrown back in your face like that without having to be like, how do I really feel about this? That was good. It’s interesting because as a therapist, there's so much talk about finding joy -- you talk about this in your book too -- finding happiness and all this stuff. The basic theory of your book is sometimes you are literally just stuck in a place in your life. That in and of itself is making you miserable. Maybe it’s nothing other than you can't get out of your circumstance. Then once you shift that, was your patient then really happy afterwards? Did she just need the -- do you know what I'm trying to say? Is it sometimes you just have to change things?
Ben: It’s a great question. I don't know if you saw this later in the book, but this patient had -- by the way, I don't love the term patient. I don't love the term client. They're both flawed. I use them, but I don't like either term. I think that patient implies illness. Client, it’s more business-y. Neither of them work for me.
Zibby: What should we call them?
Ben: I need to come up with a new term, but a human being. She's a lovely human being. The person who I was working with -- this is a lot longer -- she had started to make a lot of changes in her life, especially when the jewelry was starting to sell. She’d also lost a bunch of weight at one point, which is something she’d wanted to do for a long time. Once she started to get more attention from men, she panicked and disappeared from therapy for a while and gained back some weight and got back into some old patterns. For her, she was a pretty extreme example of someone that -- literally, this conversation changed the trajectory of her life. Having some guidance during those moments can be really useful, but also allowing things to evolve. There were so many changes in her life in a very short period of time that it was a little bit overwhelming. There's something to be said for letting things develop at pace. If you think about it like a diet -- I saw a patient yesterday who looked great.
Zibby: You can't call her a patient. I'm really sorry. Someone told me that it’s not nice to call them patients. If you could call her a human being, that would be better.
Ben: [laughs] Thank you, Zibby. It’s a guy, actually. I worked with him for many years. He struggled with losing weight. He's gone up and down. This was the first time that he's just been losing a little bit. He looks really good. This is a sustainable change now. Before he had to go to this one wedding, he lost a lot of weight and gained it all back. I feel like he's on a path now because it’s going slowly and smoothly. Long answer.
Zibby: That's okay. I'm interested in hearing. You recommend that people add some things in their life or really finetune play and purpose and work. These are some big buckets to focus on. I wanted to hear a little more about play. Theoretically, that sounds like, sure, I’ll try to put more play in my life, but what does that mean? Does that mean every so often I have to drag myself to listen to live music or something crazy? What does that look like? What constitutes play versus leisure?
Ben: That's a great question. It’s something that I've been asked about a lot. I don't really mean play in the, “Let's play ping-pong. Let's play football.” That's great too. Maybe I need to explain this a little bit more. Engaging the imagination and thinking about what you're doing a little bit differently, there's something about the attitude to it. My son and I went to a creek on July 4th weekend. He really wanted to climb up the creek, which was a little bit dangerous. I was like, yeah, let's do it. It felt very playful to me, even though you can say all you're doing is climbing up a creek. You had to climb over rocks. Something about that, it’s almost the spirit behind it, which I know is maybe hard to explain. You know it when you're doing it.
Zibby: The other day I was with the kids at this little beach club we belong to out here. There were only kids and me in this pool because every other mom, I think, is not as manipulated by their children and was able to stay in their cute little coverups. I was not. They were all diving off this diving board, which was grandfathered in because it’s been around for so long. I was like, you know what? I'm going to do a dive off the diving board in front of all these moms and everyone else. That sounds like fun. Let me try it. That was my attempt at play. Then I quickly realized once I hit the water and my neck hurt, oh my gosh, I'm too old for this. [laughs] Maybe play within reason.
Ben: Play within boundaries. I do like the spirit that you have.
Zibby: Thank you. Talk to me more about defeating your inner critic. That was a big section for me. Let's make this about me. [laughs] Help me defeat my inner critic. What would you tell other people about when your self-talk is a little too negative at times?
Ben: The inner critic, usually it comes from a good place, which is an instinct for self-preservation. Our parents and grandparents want to keep us safe. That's good. That's really useful. The problem is that you can't be safe your whole life or else you don't have any life. There is this sense of, “No, you can't do that. No, you shouldn’t do that.” Part of the process of maturation is figuring out which of those things is right for you and which of those is wrong for you. There are some things that maybe are dangerous. I don't think the world is as dangerous a place as many people think it is. When you think of the world as dangerous, then you can't be creative. You can't play. You can't explore. Realizing that the world is just -- I can go into a whole thing about statistics. I don't watch the local news. There's a lot of these things that make us feel afraid and feed into the inner critic and feed into the sense of, “No, you can't do that.” Most doors are two-way doors. You could walk in and walk out. The exception to that rule is having kids. There's only way through that door. If you walk through that door, you better be damn sure you want to be on the other side of that. There are very few other things that you can't walk back in this life.
Zibby: I just started reading a book called Don't Wait Up: Confessions of a Stay-at-Work Mom by an author named Liz Astrof who I'm interviewing soon. She said that in the delivery room when her son was born, she was like, “Don't take the tags off yet. I'm not sure we want to keep him.” [laughter] It’s true. You can't go back. It’s the only time you can't go back. Tell me a little, also, about the coaching that you do. Have you turned this way of getting people to find their next big thing into a one-on-one service separate from your clinical work?
Ben: The answer is yes, but one of the things I've been finding a lot of joy in in the last eight years -- it’s really taken off the last two. I don't think this was in the book. I started working with a couple of brothers who have a company together and working on the challenges of their relationship as being brothers and being business owners, and did that with a couple of different family businesses. Then I started to work with these two women -- this is public record -- the woman that run Of a Kind, on their business. Really admired them. They're wonderful human beings. From there, I’ve started to work with a lot of business partners on their relationship and the challenges of being friends or being family members and running a business together. I've been doing a lot of that lately with different businesses. It just so happens that the women that run Of a Kind wrote a book. I was in their book. I actually have a fair number of female founders in my practice right now that are friends or related and have businesses together.
Zibby: Very cool. Do you have any other stories, aside from your first client, who when you go to sleep at night you feel so proud of the influence you've had in their life?
Ben: I do. That was a pretty dramatic one. One from yesterday with these two different women that run a company together where it was the right decision to try to separate them for the purposes of their own emotional well-being and their business. This week, they are going to go their separate ways. They were both incredibly grateful for the process that we've gone through together to get them there. It’s been so conscious and lovely. It could be very much the opposite. When I was finishing my day yesterday, I was feeling really happy about that, to be able to hopefully be a force for good for people.
Zibby: You're like a marriage counselor for business owners, couples counseling. That's awesome. Tell me more about this One Minute Diagnosis on YouTube. Are you still doing these? I found all these great videos. I was like, oh gosh, what do I have? I have all of these things.
Ben: That was a public service that I decided to do. I do a fair amount of media. When Donald Trump was a candidate, I was interviewed by Vanity Fair about him. This was early in 2015. I talked about personality disorders as part of this article and then began to do a lot of media on that and realized the public doesn't know about personality disorders. I decided this is easy enough to do to make it digestible for people. I decided to do these videos on my own. They’ve actually been used by all kinds of agencies. The New York Police Department now uses them to train their force on these sorts of things. It’s easily digestible information that people should know. When people think about mental illness, they tend to think about depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, things of that nature. They don't think about this whole other category. That's where the videos really came from.
Zibby: I have a question about your being a dad and having all this information. You have a son. You're out camping. You're doing whatever. You see all these patients who end up at a place in their lives where they need to pivot in some way. What can you teach kids or what can you teach someone just starting out to make sure they start off on the right path versus going somewhere negative and then having to regroup? Is there anything you can do? Is it just life that has to happen?
Ben: To [audio cuts out] the question, as a parent, it’s very dangerous if you work from theory. It’s really not a good practice. My job is to love my kids -- that's my job -- and figure out how to let them develop in the ways that they want, and the ways that they have talents, and what have you. That's one category. For people that are not my kids, which is separate, I do think that there is a combination of listening -- it’s almost trite at this point. You have to listen to and watch what feels right for you. Again, it sounds trite. It takes a while. I'm a very, hopefully, sensitive human being, a very emotional human being. The world doesn't have a lot of tolerance for that or historically for boys, to be a really sensitive boy. It’s not obvious when you're a teenager, you should be a therapist. Listening to that and leaning into that as opposed to being like, because the world doesn't like that, I'm not going to do that, so listening to what feels right.
Zibby: Did you have doubts about becoming a therapist? What else did you consider doing?
Ben: I very seriously considered becoming a journalist. I started my undergraduate at Northwestern in journalism. It ultimately didn't feel right. Although interestingly enough, all of my best friends are journalists. It was a very similar -- there's a question about human motivation that comes with being a journalist. Literally, all of my closest friends are either -- or writers. It wasn’t the right particular angle for me.
Zibby: Now you’ve done it all. Now you have the book. I feel like everything kind of comes together, not always. What advice would you give someone if they were trying to a write a book like yours, a practical and amazing, useful book to help other people? What would you say?
Ben: This is going to be the part of the interview where I become less popular. Honestly, it’s discipline. It is a daily practice of writing. There's a website called 750 Words, which I know a lot of folks that I work with have used. The daily practice of writing, whatever time you're freshest in the day, you do that every day. Writing is something you can get better at through practice. Consistency is absolutely critical. Some days, what you write is absolute trash. Some days, what you write is brilliant. The practice of doing it is absolutely the way to go about it.
Zibby: Do you enjoy writing when you're not working on a book for publication? Do you write just for yourself?
Ben: I do. I'm working on this new endeavor right now that I feel very passionately about which has to do with building community. I've been leading these retreats. It’s very close to my heart. To do them the right way, I've basically shut off the writing for now. I'm hoping that six months to a year, I can get back to it. The answer is usually. I'm certainly not every-day consistent. I do write frequently. I do want to get back into it in about six months to a year, is my plan.
Zibby: Can you tell me any more about the excited retreats community? Is this a secret?
Ben: No. I'm not talking about them that much because the idea behind them is to create emotional safety for people. I work with a fair number of public-facing folks. To be able to create an environment for these people to have conversations of depth and meaning -- in order to do that, I interview everyone that wants to come and really think about it so that you can create an environment that is actually emotionally safe. It’s working quite beautifully. It just takes a lot of thought and effort. If I say to you, “Come to this retreat. It’s going to be safe,” you're putting an unbelievable amount of trust in me, which means I need to make sure that every single person that comes is going to be respectful of that and wants to do this. It requires a lot of time.
Zibby: I hope you didn't think I was trying to invite myself. [laughs]
Ben: No, not at all.
Zibby: You're like, “You can't come. Don't come to my retreat.” I was not trying to get an invitation. I was just curious about what you were doing.
Ben: It’s been going incredibly well. We’re actually launching the West Coast next week. I've really been enjoying the process even though it’s a lot of work.
Zibby: You found your next big thing.
Ben: I have.
Zibby: Perfect. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” and for being so patient with all our scheduling and everything.
Ben: No worries. It was absolutely a pleasure. I look forward to us getting to spend some time together in person soon.
Zibby: Me too. Take care. Have a great day.
Ben: You too. Bye, Zibby.