080: Nataly Kogan, Part 1, Influencing others to live happier (transcript)
When people recommend guests for my podcast they tend to recommend people who are environmental, people doing environmental things, people doing recycling, stuff like that. I’m happy to get people like that but my goal number one is leaders. I want to bring leaders because people who influence others influence others and we can learn from them. That’s what Nataly Kogan is. She’s someone who influences herself and influences others. So if you think that you face challenges, if you want to know what you can achieve listen to what she did because her beginning of the story is how she came over as a refugee in projects to work in McKinsey to a very happy family life and actually the internal part is especially important how to be happy. I think it’s fair to say that that’s what she’s devoted her life to is how to be happy. From the perspective of skills that you can develop through practice and practice that she teaches and that she practices as well. So happiness is not just something you’re born with. It’s something that you can do. And I consider that important for working in the environment because it’s about happiness, it’s about joy. She focuses on what works and I think that’s what people who act on cleaning up the environment could learn from.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Josh. I’m here with Nataly Kogan. Nataly, how are you?
Nataly: I’m great. Thanks for having me. We were just talking and I said, â€œOh, we got to start recording.â€ We were talking about environmental things. I want to go back because some people might not have heard of you and might not know you. And I wonder if you can share a bit of your background. You talked about coming from Russia and I want to give you a place to lead toâ€¦You are what you called happier now. How do you get that on? And I wonder if you can lead up to that.
Nataly: Yeah, I can. And it’s actually you know I always say like if you ask me I don’t know 20 years or even ten years or even I don’t know seven years ago if you told me that, â€œOh you know in a few years you’re going to be the you know author of a book called Happier Now and you’re going to found a company called Happier and you’re going to teach companies and individuals the skill of living happy,â€ I would laugh you out of the room. Because while I come from a country you know there’s a thing they say about Russians that Russians are good at three things: suffering, making others suffer and complaining about suffering. And it would be really funny if it wasn’t almost entirely true and not only an evil sense of suffering but just say you know the Russian people and I’m Jewish also which is why we lost because Jews were persecuted so we left as refugees. But you know there’s a deeply rooted tradition and I have suffering as like a deep core part of my DNA. The women in my family are amazing at suffering. We express love through suffering. And so in a way, my journey to doing what I do, to being the teacher of the skill of happiness began at the oddest place.
I grew up in Russia. And when I was 13 years old it was still the Soviet Union at the time and we were Jewish and Jews at the time were persecuted by the government. And so when I was 13 years old my parents and I left. We left basically with nothing. We were allowed to bring couples of suitcases with us of stuff and we spent several months in refugee settlements in Europe, waited in refugee settlements in Europe, waiting for permission, applying for permission to come to the United States as refugees. My parents were interviewed several times. Eventually, we were granted permission and we settled outside of Detroit in the projects very grateful to get welfare and food stamps just to get started. And you know we were very excited. This was always my parents dreamed for us to have the opportunityâ€¦
Joshua: Sorry. You were excited to be in the projects in Detroit?
Nataly: We were excited to be in America. This was the dream. This was you knowâ€¦
Joshua: Can you remember the year?
Nataly: So this was 1989, in the summer of 1989 actually in August that’s coming up, itâ€™s going to bey 29 years in August. We landed in the projects outside of Detroit and thatâ€™s exactly the whole point of bringing up I would say we were I mean my parentsâ€™ dream was always to give me an opportunity to grow up in a country where I could be free to be who I wanted, a Jew, not a Jew entrepreneur, an entrepreneur. And so we were very excited, at the same time at least for me just completely overwhelmed with so much fear and self-doubt. I mean we hardly spoke English. We had no idea like how to get around life like my dad brought me to the bank to help him open a bank account because like I could speak a little more English. But just the idea like we didn’t know what a bank account was. No one had money in Russia so you didn’t need a bank. You know I went to 8th grade in Scarlett middle school. I mean if you think about 8th grade kids, my daughter just graduated from 8th grade and it’s not the nicest time for our humanity to say the least, â€œFrom here I come. I’m on food stamps. On welfare. I have like two outfits to my name which I really got from donations. I hardly speak English. And whatever I do speak, it comes out with this horrible Russian accent.â€ I mean they gave me around from my money and it was a really rough time. Like especially as a teenager like you don’t want to move cross the street. You already don’t know who the heck you are.
And so I felt pretty lost and you know in Russia my kind of core identity, I was really smart and a hard worker and all of a sudden I was like in remedial English classes. So it was a really rough time for me. And then there were these flashes of light and the flashes of light were any time I achieved something you know so like I remember when they moved me from remedial English to regular English. That felt amazing like I was like OK, oh my god, like okay. Or like the first time I said something in English and no one made fun of me. Or you know the more and more time passed like I kept working really hard and I would achieve like eventually you know we moved out of the projects, we moved to New Jersey, I graduated top of my high school class, winning all these awards, I got to a great college and so the happiness bubbles were all around achievements.
And so I kind of adopted this mindset of â€œI’ll be happy whenâ€ and I don’t think I’m unique that way at all. I mean I’ve had really the privilege of the last couple of years are happier to teach and connect with hundreds of thousands of people and I know I’m not unique. I know many of us have this â€œI’ll be happy whenâ€ You know I’ll be happy when I graduate with a great grade or get that job or gain weight or lose weight or meet my soul mate or get that dream house you know this is kind of how our brain works. And I lived with that kind of I’ll be happy when mentality for the better part of my life. I mean you know I worked really hard, I had to overcome a lot but I achieved so much of my I’ll be happy whenâ€™s you know from a refugee, from the projects I you know graduated top of my class at Wesleyan University. I got very prestigious jobs out of college. I went to work at McKinsey and Company, consulting firm. I became a venture capitalist by the age of 26 as a working woman in an industry where thereâ€™s like less than 5 percent women. You know I wrote books, I started companies, I moved to New York City which was a big dream, I married my college sweetheart, we had a beautiful daughter. Like all this like the dream you would think on the outside. And the thing is every time I did achieve one of these milestones I felt amazing thing and like I would always share it with my parents because it wouldnâ€™t mean anything until I shared it with them and they were happy and like literally we were in this bubble of joy. But the thing is that it would always pop like that feeling of euphoria would always go away and eventually you know a few years ago I found myself in a place where I just couldn’t chase it anymore like I could not keep fighting for this like big happy. I could never hold onto it.
And the other piece of it is I was really harsh towards myself because I kind of felt like that’s where motivation comes from. So like you always have to push yourself and just keep going like I got obsessed with grit. You know I feel like it’s our American obsession a little bit.
Then so what happened a few years ago is I hit a wall in every sense of that word. I literally just like the best way I can describe it as I just couldn’t keep like running anymore. I wasn’t enjoying any of this great life I built. I never felt okay with myself. Even like when things were good and I hear this from so many people. It’s like I couldn’t let myself feel the joy because I was afraid something was going to go wrong. I knew that feeling was going to run out. And that’s when I stumbled literally stumbled on an airplane into research into emotional well-being and I thought it was kind of crazy that people study the stuff because like I never in Russia like and in my family we didn’t talk about happiness like as a goal you know. The goal in life was to be educated and have a good job and take care of the family and so I was kind of baffled that people studied happiness but they did. And there’s a tremendous amount ofâ€¦
Joshua: Sorry to interrupt but I feel there is about to be a big change. Before we get to it I want to get a few things about the life you described so far. That for you to say that you were excited to be in a Detroit project suggests that materially speaking it was pretty rough. And I think that there are a lot of people listening to this right now probably never had a situation as challenging as you had, materially speaking of challenge. The biggest challenge you have I think a lot of people nonetheless will say, â€œYeah. Easy for her she had X but I didnâ€™t.â€ And so it was easy for her. And sometimes you keep describing situations that most people would describe not as privileged as privileged. You know I was fortunate to have this good luck. Is there anything… And so you said you have these nuggets or bubbles of happiness all over? Was there something special that you had that other people didn’t?
Nataly: It’s a great question. I have to tell you no one’s asked me this question. It wasn’t automatic or guaranteed in any way and the first thing I have to say and I always say it like that if there was one thing that I feel I have always been privileged to have and it is an incredible ingredient into my life is my parents and our family. I’m an only child, shockingly not a psychopath. I can share pretty well. I like people you know there’s all these funny crazy things said about lonely kids. But I am really close with my parents but not even out like that. My parents are the kind of peopleâ€¦They are just the way that they have always you know our life in Russia was not very peachy. I mean there was hardly enough food often and my grandparents who lived in the south would have to send us some. You know my father is one of the most brilliant scientists alive but it took ten years for him to be allowed to even defend his hD because he was a Jew.
You know they dealt with a lot but there was always just this foundation of love and support. And I think that is one of the main ingredients that has helped me get through that horrible time. And the thing is I share this in my book. Like my parents really didn’t know how to help me. First of all, they had their own problems like they went out trying to get jobsâ€¦
Joshua: You web page gas a lot of exercises that people can do and I don’t want to like give away your free stuff that you knowâ€¦
Nataly: No, it’s all good. I give a lot away because I want the world to be practicing this.
Joshua: People have to give up their story to get the skills to really work just learning the skills, help them identify the story [unintelligible]. Does it matter which direction they are going?
Nataly: We can develop emotional tendencies and instincts through action that we take and that we all have. So you know if you express anger a lot, you’re going to be really good at feeling angry and if you express kindness a lot or if you express gratitude a lot, you get really good at feeling grateful and kind. And so one of the core foundations you know Happier and my book and the programs that we do with companies and individuals is that happiness is a skill. And it’s just like any skills, you can improve it through practice. And I’ve identified five core underlying skills through a lot of research, a lot of practice and each one is founded in scientific research. And those skills what I ask people to do is just start practicing. I’m not asking you to drop your story, I am not asking you to believe in it. I’m not asking you to think that it’s going to work. I’m not even asking you to feel gratitude when you practice gratitude or kindness. I just want you to take the action because I’m just simply asking you to practice. Some gratitude is one great place to start with that practice. There are 400 skills. We can talk about in length. I said I love sharing great stuff. Go to happier.com. There is tons of content on each of these skills. They’re all in my book. They’re there. You know I try to create a lot of ways for people to connect to those material but you don’t have to believe in it. You just have to practice.
Joshua: I heard about gratitude exercises for a long time and I was a guest speaker at my friendâ€™s classes [unintelligible]. He is a big marketing guy. He said anyone who does the following exercise, he kind of threw this off the top, he said, â€œYou know I’ll give you a free marketing course on my siteâ€ and the exercise was to write ten gratitude emails per day for seven days. And I was like, â€œOK, great. I’m going to do this.â€ And so the first 10 – easy. Next 10 – easy. Next ten, I bet 30 or 40 people, I donâ€™t know how many people got that close. Also, by day 4 I’m getting responses from people I wrote in day one and when you write a gratitude e-mail they write back a touching meaningful gratitude e-mail. Now I got like 10 to write on day four, day five plus like five from the couple of days before and those have to be much more in-depth. Plus, I’m thinking some of these people that you feel gratitude to for something that they messed up for you but you learn from that and soâ€¦ Yours is much easier.
Nataly: I actually love that because it’s intense. What I find and I spend so much time thinking about is in my book I think there’s something like 37 practices to practice the five happier skills. Most of them take one minute. I think the longest one is maybe five minutes because I obsess about how to take this research and how to take these practices that are so impactful, how to make them so simple that people can start doing them without a huge time commitment because then you’re more likely to see the benefits and you’re more likely to do the more advanced ones like writing 10 e-mails of gratitude.
Joshua: I’m going to segue at this point to apply this to an area that a lot of people don’t feel so happy about. So the environment is I think a lot of people when they think about doing something they think about the issues they feel guilty or they don’t blame it because there’s a lot of doom and gloom out there. And yet blue skies and rainbows and oceans you know these are things that could make us feel really good. So when you think of the environment what do you think when you think about the environment?
Nataly: Yeah, it’s a such an interesting, such a great question. You mentioned before it’s kind of been percolating in the back of my mind. So it’s interesting because look we have a lot of environmental problems like again let’s start with the skill of acceptance. Let’s accept that there are a lot of issues, a lot, a lot of issues and I’m a parent and so I am constantly thinking of what is the world Mia, my daughter her name is Mia, is going to live in. And so there are a lot of issues dishes but at the same time where I go and this is probably a product of my being I was an entrepreneur and executive in technology for 20 years and [unintelligible] part of it is technology, part of it’s not but I have actually a tremendous amount of hope that we have so much imagination and so much creativity and both in our generation and older generations and also like I look at me and her friends and so much ability to invent and come up with solutions to problems including problems we create. And so I go to a place of hope because by the way hope you know I spent so much time on all this research of emotions, hope comes from we feel this idea that psychologists talk about an abundant mindset. When you’re in an abundant mindset, you believe there’s a lot of possibilities and you believe that by working together you can come up with a lot more solutions than working alone. And it’s a very empowering emotion actually. It helps you be more innovative and creative and productive. So where I practice going and again it’s a practice, is a place of hope and possibility and being surrounded by creativity and innovation again in many different ways including like how watching my daughter approaches the world because she’s not yet [unintelligible]. She approaches things like even when I did a workshop in school about how would you fix the environment like they were all sort of full of crazy ideas. They don’t know that they’re possible or impossible. So that’s where I go or again that’s where I practice going because just talking about the problems actually doesn’t do anything.
Joshua: I’m so glad you said just talking about things is not enough becauseâ€¦
Nataly: You cannot wait until it’s dire. And so that’s my little spiel for you.
Joshua: I mean you basically said a lot of what I try to communicate as well. You know when I talk about not flying or not eating packaged food I’ve got to switch away from these negative terms of not flying this is not negative in the sense of bad but negative of not doing something but in my head, in my heart when I’m not flying I am being part of my local community. I am creating a cultural exchange, learning how to create cultural change on my own or learning new cuisine or earning new creating adventure on my own. And so you know people hear me say I don’t eat packaged food but what I’m really doing is enjoying vegetables fresh from the farm.
Nataly: Exactly. You can describe those in different ways, exactly. Like you just said fresh vegetables. Again, like I’m being the mirror for you so that the listeners can hear how it makes other people feel like you just said eat fresh vegetables from a farm. Immediately like also I’m hungry. But like I had this half smile on my face I’m like, â€œOh, I’m going to make a salad.â€ Look, your actions to do something for the environment just also inspired me to go do something healthy for myself. Like that’s the power of us communicating the joy of doing things that are good for us or the environment like that’s the power in that tiny way that we all have instead of like don’t this, don’t this, don’t this like OK don’t this but what is the the beauty of the donâ€™t? Because there is.
Joshua: Here’s why I am doing this podcast is to give you a chance to take a leadership role if you want because I invite people at their option to do exactly what you’re saying – find one thing that they can do that’s based on what they want to do. Is there something that comes to mind for you that you could do?
Nataly: Something that I want to commit to doing and this has been popping up in like my social feeds and now I have this interview with you so I feel like the universe is saying, â€œDo thisâ€ is to stop using disposable water bottles. So it’s actually a thing for me because the first turtles I have crazy headaches like I’ve always had them since I was a child and I also tend to not drink enough water so it just makes that worse obviously. And so for the past six months I’ve been on this like mission to drink more water, drink more water and what that’s meant as I surround myself with water. So when I’m at home or in my home office like I would have like bottles of water, I drink just like thing called pint like flavored water or whatever. Like I put bottles of water in my car, full bottles of water everywhere just like you know just to be surrounded by it. And I just realized like about a week ago I’m using too many plastic bottles and so I bought two glass pitchers, one for my home office, one for office and in the morning like I’ve been trying to fill them up but I still like I went to yoga earlier, I grabbed a plastic water bottle because it was convenient, right convenient. So I want to make a commitment to you and to your listeners and to myself to stop using plastic water because I’m definitely using a lot. And the joy in that for me is two parts. First of all, I can tell you that I’ve been drinking so much more water and when I’m working for my office at home because I love the glass pitcher and there’s something so beautiful the aesthetic like to pour the water from a glass pitcher into a glass, itâ€™s like mad man but like with water. Not a cocktail. Like there is something so beautiful about that. I think it’s actually been encouraging me so I think not using plastic just likeâ€¦Iâ€™m also an artist, I paint, so aesthetic beauty is important for me so I think it’s just like my joy in giving up plastic bottles is that like glass feels better and it’s more beautiful. And like reusable water bottle just is more beautiful like it’s more pleasing. And so that’s my action and that’s my joy in it.
Joshua: Awesome. So I’m going to go out on a limb. Actually, first what I’d like to do is invite you back to share the experience. And is that something you’d be up to?
Nataly: I would love to do it. I think it’s fantastic. I think that’s awesome. I would love to.
Joshua: And we scheduled through someone elseâ€¦
Nataly: Yeah, but we can schedule directly. Don’t worry about it. We scheduled through my publicist but we can schedule directly.
Joshua: About how long do you think it would take to fit in?
Nataly: So I have some research on this because I study habits. So you know we all have this 21-day thing in our head like it takes 21 days to form a habit. Just for what it’s worth it’s true only for some things, it’s true for the simplest habits. It actually takes a lot more than 21 days to form any kind of meaningful habit in our lives. For really simple things it takes 21 days, it sounds good but like for anything meaningful it takes longer. I just want to share like I have that in my head like, â€œOh, if Iâ€™m not, it should take 21 days.â€ So I would say we should give it two months because I think plastic bottles are so pervasive in my life that I feel like this is a significant change. I want to be fair to behavior science and not push myself into a quick behavior adoption that doesn’t actually stick.
Joshua: So after we stopped the recording we’ll schedule for two month. Now everybody listening, you’re already saying you’re going to find joy in this because a lot of people may think it’s like deprivation or some challenge or something. Now even given that I think that if I ask you now to predict how much you will like doing this thing. call that X. I think itâ€™s still going to be greater than X. Even though you know that it can be greater than you think it would be, I think itâ€™s still going to be greater than that. Thatâ€™s my prediction.
Nataly: Iâ€™m thinking, I’m thinking, I’m thinkingâ€¦ You know well, first of all, it makes us feel good to say good things. So like I am just anticipating being better about not using plastic is making me happier. So that’s I’m already generating the joy which is awesome but I’m going to say that it’s going toâ€¦If thatâ€™s just about feeling happy. You know one of the happier skills that I write about is connecting to a sense of meaning in your life and the best way to connect to a sense of meaning is ask yourselfâ€¦You know we derive a sense of meaning when we contribute to something we’re good at to help someone else or a cause we care about. So for me what I feel like is this is going to do is help me feel a little more a sense of meaning in my life. Because I’ll tell you like the environment is not something I consciously like focus on all the time. It’s not part of my work. I’m obviously aware and so I feel like this is just going to open up this new dimension in my life and from that comes a lot of joy of like contributing in a positive way to something bigger than me. So I think it’s not just going to bring some joy but a little bit of a sense of meaning that is part of genuine happiness.
Joshua: Yep. And I think it’s going to be more than that. I think you’re going toâ€¦Well, I’m going to say still like because having seen this bunch of times I think that it’s going to kick in with your husband and your daughter and I think you’re going to start sharing with others and something that is now a neutral or not a big part of your life I think is going to be something that you connect with other people on and you’re going to feel like something you woke up to that was always there and you could have thought of this earlyâ€¦. Youâ€™re going to say something like, â€œOh, I should have done this earlier.â€ That’s my prediction.
Nataly: Yes. OK. I like it. I like predictions.
Joshua: So. All right. So I want to wrap up because everyone tells me, â€œDon’t let them go over an hourâ€ and sort of we’re kind of an hour now. But I do want to close with one, your site has exercises that people can do. Your book has exercise that you can do five minutes a day. And as a beginning like I guess people can stick with five minutes a day as long as they want but it’s also can lead to much more. And you don’t sound like a miserable person and you sound like before the research you sounded like youâ€™re hitting walls. And I took away that OK you had family that loved you and maybe some people were born in a family that didn’t really love them. But I think that there’s nothing in you that anyone who listens to us right now doesn’t have or doesn’t have access to.
Nataly: Yeah. I would say even more so. I mean I again just to remind our listeners like I come from you know my mom is an incredible human being but my mom really believes in suffering and my mom suffers a lot in small and big ways like it’s part of who my mom is and part of who my grandma was it’s like a strong tradition in our family. You know I come from a culture that is deeply rooted in suffering so I also feel like I had some weights around my feet approaching this. So I had to broke through some stuff which maybe some folks listening don’t have those heavy weights around their feet preventing them.
So I guess one of the things I want to end with is if we think about happiness as a skill that maybe we don’t have to spend so much energy arguing whether we can do it or not because any skill we know this to be true if you practice, you can start wherever you’re. Good at it, bad at it, but if you practice you’re going to get a little better and a little better. And so that’s my invitation to everyone listening is you know I’m not asking you to believe you can do it or not believe you can do it or drop your story or not or think about your past or not. Can you just begin to practice?
Joshua: And when they look for what to do, your page and your courses and your book give people where they can start. Also, environmental things are also places where we can work on these things too.
Nataly: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely true. Absolutely.
Joshua: OK. Thank you very much. I look forward to talking to you in a couple of months.
Nataly: Awesome. Thanks for having me.
So main points that I wanted to reinforce. She brought up how talk alone doesn’t work. In that context we were talking about environmental things and I think she gets that from her happiness work that talk alone doesn’t do it. You have to act. And she knows about changing behavior which I believe is rooted in her happiness practice in starting with the basics. That’s what her page and her book are filled with actions that you can do simple exercises so you can go there now. And her change over and over again she looked at change as not the challenge that it was going to take but the joy. It’s about what you do, not what you don’t. It brings you joy, beauty, commitment, happiness, meaning. Isn’t that the world you want to live in? Isn’t that the world that you want to create?
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