I’m Dying to Tell You with Dr. Mark Goulston

November 14, 2023
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

— Mark Twain

Dr. Mark Goulston is a leading psychiatrist and communication expert. His mega-bestseller, Just Listen, is regarded as the world's #1 book on listening.

Among his extensive list of professional achievements, Dr. Goulston has been a hostage negotiation trainer for the FBI; a consultant for renowned companies (including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Disney); a contributor to the Harvard Business Review; and author of nine books that have been translated into 28 languages.

Dr. Goulston first appeared on the podcast in Episode 109 where we spoke about his incredible career, how to overcome anxiety and depression, and how to speak with others – especially your teenage children – about mental health. Clips from that episode have gotten millions of views online – and it’s because one of his many superpowers is helping us initiate conversations we all need to start having, not just with other people but ourselves, too. 

Since then, Dr. Goulston has become a close friend and mentor of mine. He's exceptionally good at what he does and I look forward to any opportunity we get to catch up.

Recently, Dr. Goulston was given some unexpected news that made him rethink everything he's doing in his life. I asked if he'd be up for a conversation on the podcast so we could talk about that openly and help others who might be in a similar situation…

Like he has done with every request I've asked of him, he graciously agreed.

In this episode:

  • How to save your marriage and create happiness with your family
  • A simple exercise to win every day
  • The gift of death – and the urgency of doing good; and
  • How to get clear on what’s most important to you, before it’s too late.

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Dr. Mark Goulston!

James Whittaker:
Mark, great to see you! Thanks for coming back on the Win the Day podcast.

Dr. Mark Goulston:
I can't believe we've only met in person once! We've been in contact frequently and I'm honored to call myself one of your mentors and I'm planning to do that as long as I'm around.

Do you want to set the table in terms of some of the interesting developments that you've had in your personal life to set the tone for what we're going to talk about today?

Well, a couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with something called lymphoma, follicular lymphoma, and it's a slow-growing cancer of the lymph nodes. That shook me up a little bit, but then it's something that people can live with for years. And my oncologist said, "Let's just follow the labs, follow your symptoms. If you're not symptomatic and the labs are okay, let's just wait until you get sick and then we'll treat you. And the treatments are pretty good."

Something that's dogged me is I've had this case of anemia that doesn't seem to respond to anything, and that's separate from the lymphoma. Lymphoma is the lymph nodes. Anemia is the blood cells. I received a bunch of treatments including a rather expensive one which was $10,000 an injection every three weeks, but it was paid for by Medicare – I am a little bit older.

That didn't seem to work. So we did a bone marrow biopsy a few months ago and it turns out I have a condition called myelodysplastic syndrome, MDS. And when they looked into the bone marrow, I was at high risk. And what high risk means is that untreated, I would move into AML, acute myeloid leukemia, between five months to two years. The longest I could go without moving into it would probably be four years.

The prospect of dying is teaching me things that living never did.

So that's been quite a journey. And also, finding great doctors, which I'm fortunate to have. I found a wonderful doctor at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Dr. Ron Paquette, and then an equally wonderful hematologist at the City of Hope, which is a big cancer hospital. And we were trying to determine should we go right into this thing called the bone marrow transplant, which is an organ transplant where they take out all your marrow and replace it with the donor's. 

I'm really fortunate in that all my three children are donors and I don't seem to have an antibody response. So in the event that I need to do it, there'll be matches. But everything has a risk. So if I get this definitive treatment, there's only a 50% survival rate for someone my age. And then there are certain medications that might bring down these things called monoblast. I'm at about 9 or 10, which is what alarms people. Because when you get to 20% monoblast, it crosses over into this leukemia, which is much more difficult to treat.

So I'm in the best place I've ever been in my life. It's phenomenal. I'm the calmest, the most content, and the prospect of dying is teaching me things that living never did. There were things that I was abstractly aware of, but they didn't really penetrate me.

We all know that we're all going to die at some stage, and it's no tragedy to die if we've lived well, like the Mark Twain quote reminds us. But what did having a fixed timeframe of death teach you about what it means to be alive?

Well, I'm trying to figure it out – because I don't think I'm in denial. I'm just incredibly calm. I've been recording these videos called I'm Dying to Tell You. I have to revise it to “Well, I'm Not Quite Dying But I'm Pretty Mortal and I Need to Tell You Some Stuff”!

I've recorded about 47 episodes. I'm not sure what I'll do with them. But I wake up every morning at 3:00 and I say, "Oh, this just came to me." So the first episode is called Michelangelo Dying. And I didn't know that I was going to keep recording episodes and Michelangelo is credited with saying, "I saw the angel in the marble and I carved to set it free."

It's a touching episode because I used to do house calls to dying patients, and at the end of their lives I would try to help them make peace with their lives. I remember seeing someone who was just this iconic, beloved, hugely popular figure with not the best personal life, which frequently happens. Some of these powerful people like that I can just be direct with them.

I said, "You look like crap and I don't think it's because you're dying. You've been dying as long as I’ve known you. What's up?" He looked at me and he appreciated the directness because everybody's freaking out. And he said, "I don't think I've ever done anything important in my life." I said, "You get a hospital named after you. You've created thousands of jobs. The public loves you." He looked at me and he said, with a rye smile, "Don't con a con man, especially when he is dying. I've got all the love that money can buy."

He said, "Everything I thought was unimportant is, and everything I thought is important, isn’t. And I’ve run out of time to fix that." So I remember I used to do house calls to people like this and I would leave them thinking, "You remember that, Mark." And so for me, Michelangelo Dying is I saw what's unimportant in life. That's the marble. And it's remarkable how much of life is unimportant.

Now that said, I'm 75, and so I'm in a different stage of my life than a lot of your viewers and listeners, so I understand that. And 15-20 years ago, it would be important. I still have to be able to keep making a living and whatnot. But still, I think you could go through something and think, "What's really unimportant in my life?" And when I was able to just lop it off with no hesitation, what became important to me literally glowed like an angel in the marble. 

Something else I learned, and I may get a little emotional, but it'll make for a good video! One of my other episodes is Let People Care About You. I've always been a caretaker, doctor, therapist. But I’ve always had trouble letting anyone care about me. And what happened is apparently there's a few people who care about me, including you. We'll have to revisit that as a mistake! But what I discovered is when they would ask me, "What's going on with you, Mark?" and I started to share what was going on, I just started crying and I couldn't really control it. I'm right on the brink of it now. I hope it's not a, "Boo-hoo, poor me." It just happens.

What became important to me literally glowed like an angel in the marble.

When I've discovered people caring about me, I say, I'd apologize. I'd be embarrassed. And every one of them, because I'm not sure that I would do this with someone who doesn't care about me at all, and with every one of them, they say, "Don't you apologize." And I say, "Well, I don't want to burden you." And a number of them have said, "This is not a burden, Mark. This is a gift because this might be one of the more intimate conversations I've had, period. A long time."

It's interesting, some of these people are very busy and it would often lead, they'd say, "Look at me, Mark," and I could hardly look at them. And they say, "24/7. You call me 24/7." And I thank them. But I think if you're someone who's used to caring about others and has trouble letting people care about you, there's a lot of people who would like the gift of caring about you. It's a gift to them.

You’re reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Dr. Mark Goulston, including bonus content that doesn’t appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀

Now, we need a little humor because this is a little bit morbid. If you're someone who doesn't care about others, who isn't prone to giving to the world, if you're someone who's a taker, a complainer or a whiner, you may have already used up all your chips.

Someone like you who has built up an unbelievable amount of goodwill with people all over the world over decades with your incredible career, have you thought about communicating broadly with those people to fill them in on exactly what you're going through to give more of those people an opportunity to express their gratitude and appreciation rather than keeping it to yourself?

Well, it's interesting you bring that up, because you'll post this down the road. But I was waiting for today to go public because I have a client that I've been coaching and they're under a lot of stress and they're taking a very important exam. And I think in our work together, this particular person and their family care about the work I'm doing. They're taking this major exam today, I think they'll do well, but I didn't want them to find out about this until they took the exam.

So it's not a distraction for them?

Yeah. Because well, it is a little bit distracting when someone you care about weighs this on you. 

You mentioned the increased urgency of connecting with what’s most important. Have you felt that urgency translate to enhanced productivity each day? And where do you find that energy directing you towards?

Well, I've never been as disciplined as you so I don't know! You've probably won many more days than I have. 

There's another episode I did called, Dying at the Improv, and in that episode I talked about visionary dying. And some years ago, I had a mentor named Warren Bennis. Most of your listeners or viewers are too young, but if you look him up, Warren Bennis was to leadership what Elon Musk is to technology. I was blessed to have eight mentors and he was one of them. And some years ago, we were talking about how do visionaries look at the world? Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and we came up with this. 

We came up with the three Ds of being a visionary thinker. The first D is you define reality, and the reality is something that nobody else can see but you can. So for Steve Jobs, it's to have a personal computer on everyone's desk, an iPhone that does all these things. For Elon Musk, it's batteries and cars, privatized space travel. And so you define reality beyond what anyone can imagine. That's what makes you a visionary.

The second D is you declare your intention to make it so. This may be impossible. In fact, the best visions are impossible at the time you come up with the vision, but we're going to make it happen. Steve Jobs discovered the graphical user interface and the mouse at Xerox PARC, and he looked at his buddy Wozniak and they said, "We're going to go make this thing happen. People aren't going back to typing after they see this."

And then the third D is you decide strategy. So how are we going to make it happen? After that, you cross over into operations and managers. Who's going to do it? Who's going to do what? How do we hold them accountable? And of course, if you're a startup, you have to get into some of those weeds. But the bigger you get, the more just staying with the first three, define reality, declare intention, and decide strategy holds you. I applied this to visionary dying so I have a real clear picture of what a good death looks like.

I applied this to visionary dying so I have a real clear picture of what a good death looks like.

For me, the main elements are I don't particularly want to have a lot of pain and suffering at the end. The second thing is I don't want to put my friends and family through a lot of pain and suffering. I will not be a burden to any of them. I'm going to have to work that out because they're going to say, "Dad, you're not a burden." And we might get into an argument over that. The third is I'm the creative force for about six projects and those projects are relying on me to be the visionary, and I don't want to leave any of those people hanging. 

Then the final thing is I'm going to share whatever I've learned through life but I never really scaled. I have books, they've done okay, but I've been a one-on-one type of guy. I'm not someone who, "Let's scale this. Let's create courses." I'm an idiot. I have 10 books, five bestsellers. I have never created a course for any of them because it just wasn't who I am.

So to me, I see that picture of a good death. That's my intention. I see it so clearly. And my strategy is get the absolute best people to help you do that. And I'm in amazing hands with a hematologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and the City of Hope. We've been in great contact. And I'm excited because I've been chomping at the bit because I've had this MDS now diagnosed for over two months and it's accelerating.

But I believe this week, in fact, I might've even canceled this interview because the medication has lots of side effects. I asked the hematologist, I say, "Does it have brain fog? Because I'd like to do some interviews."

They said, "You might be itching like crazy. You might be like this. You might be short of breath. But we think you're good with the brain fog." So voila, here I am! Next week, I might be a big mess. And so that's good.

Something I'm going to share with you, there's a project I'm involved with where I'm the creator and I want to share it with you and I'll give you a little gift. One of my close friends is a fellow named Colonel Chris Kolenda, and he is the head of something called the Saber Six Foundation. And those are about 700 paratroopers from some of the past wars. We are like brothers like you and I are brothers. In fact, he recently did an 1,800-mile bicycle ride to the graves of the six paratroopers that fell under his command. And I think he went from the Midwest all the way to Arlington. 

There's a saying I learned from Mr. Rogers. I never met him but it was in one of his documentaries. And he said, "Better to be deep and simple than shallow and complicated." Because your end users, as soon as you make something the least bit complicated, they smile politely and they don't implement. And it's a real problem. So whatever you're doing, from your company to wanting to have a marriage that stands the test of time, keep it deep and simple.

As soon as you make something the least bit complicated, they smile politely and they don't implement it.

One of the things that we came up with that we're using with the Saber Six Foundation, I told Chris, I said, "I think we just came up with a novel approach to PTSD, it's a culture change, to stress, to burnout, and to parenting." And what we came up with is a three-step thing that you develop a muscle for, and we're launching it as something called the 22-Day Trigger Mastery Challenge. 22-Day stands for the 22 days that veterans die by suicide. 

What we realized is that what happens in all those situations, PTSD, burnout, parenting issues, marital issues is when people are already stressed and they get triggered, that trigger almost always leads to making it worse. The first step, and here's actually a wristband. You can use this with your family. It says Saber Six Foundation. And here are the three steps. 

The first step, you say to yourself when you're feeling triggered, the first thing is to say, "I feel triggered," which is different than saying, "I'm being triggered." Because if you say, "I'm being triggered," you got to retaliate. "I'm being triggered and they're not going to get away with that. I'm a victim. I'm going to retaliate." But if instead of that, you could say, "I'm feeling triggered," it keeps it inside you and you don't have to retaliate.

The second step is downshift. If you're driving a motorcycle or stick shift car, when you want to gain control of the road, you downshift, the torque goes up, you pull the road towards you and you don't go off some cliff. So next time your wife or your kid or someone cuts you off in traffic, does that, first step is, "I'm feeling triggered," and not, "I'm triggered. I got to get even." "I'm feeling triggered." And then the next step is downshift. Downshift means don't make it worse. Don't get angry. Don't explode. Just downshift.

Then the third step is reframe. And reframe means look at it differently. So for instance a car cuts you off in traffic, your old way is road rage. But using these, "I'm feeling triggered, just got cut off", downshift, don't go nutty, reframe. What if we pulled over and before we duked it out, he said, "I'm really sorry. I got fired today." "I'm really sorry. My kid's in the emergency room." There's a good chance, unless you're someone into road rage, there's a good chance that you'll calm yourself down or that person will calm you down by telling you that.

You are the most empathic person I've ever met. What do you see when you interact with people throughout their day and how they feel about their lives?

Well, I think a lot of it started when I was a suicide prevention specialist. I think part of it is because in our last interview, I'd mentioned that I had dropped out of medical school twice. And my first mentor, I didn't even know what a mentor was, was the dean of students. He saw something in me that I never saw. He saw goodness. 

I don't know that he saw any skills because I was broken. He saw a future for me that I didn't see. He said, "You have no idea how much the world needs what you have, and you're not going to know it until you're 35. But you have to make it till you're 35."

So he saw something in me that I didn't have to perform to be worthy of. He saw a future for me that I certainly didn't see. And then he said, "And you're going to let me help you." Even back then, I wouldn't ask for help. If he said, "If I can help you, give me a call," I probably wouldn't have called him and I might not be here today. But he wouldn't allow that. And so he stood up for me and in the medical school, probably saw something that he saw. But that flipped a switch inside me.

And here's my approach to suicide prevention. And it's interesting because researchers in suicide prevention and depression would send me their kids and I'd say, "Do you have any interest in what I do or how I do it?" They'd say, "No." "Well, why are you sending me your kids? You could just send them over to your university." And they said, "Well, we don't have your track record." "Well, are you interested in what I do or how I do it?" "No, not if it's not evidence-based and you don't have a control group." And so this is why I didn't scale. I just say, "Send me your kid."

There's a lot of people who would like the gift of caring about you.

And going back to the deep and simple thing, because I've been giving a lot of thought because I'm retired. I don't do this. I'll do presentations and teach parent groups about how to get through to their kids. But imagine you at a low point. And if you're listening or viewing, imagine yourself at a low point. To me, it was very simple how to help you. And I even gave it a name, “surgical empathy.” Don't check the box and keep a clinical distance. Surgical empathy. Go in. 

And to me, it was two simple things. They've got a world of hurt inside them in which suicide makes sense. They've got a world of hurt going on and they just can't take it anymore. So find a way to lessen that hurt.

And also going back to the Michelangelo thing, I know that somewhere inside them, they have hope. They can't see it, they can't feel it, but I know they have hope. So if there's a way to lessen their hurt so that it's livable and help them find the hope so they can feel it. If you feel hope, you have a future.

There's another anecdote in my book Just Listen that people seem to like and we may have covered it or you may have read about, and this is really the power of getting where someone's coming from with zero agenda other than to alleviate fear and pain and even anger. And the anecdote is I was trying to see a CEO about something or other, and it wasn't easy to get an appointment with him. Finally, I got an appointment with him. I get into his office and he's fiddling with papers and he has glasses and they're lowered. And it's clear to me that the last thing he has on his mind is meeting with me.

So again, I can be a little feisty with people. I looked at him and I said, "How much time do you have for me?" And he looked up from his glasses and said with a look that was I think it's about over. And he just said, "What?" I said, "Yeah, look on your calendar. How much time do you have for me?" 

He's getting a little bit ticked, and he said, "20 minutes." I said, "We're into minute three. I have something to talk to you about that I think is worthy of your undivided attention, which you can't give to me because you've got something on your mind that's way more important than meeting with me. I have a feeling it's way more important than you're even being here. So here's the deal. Take the remaining 16 minutes, kick me out, we'll reschedule or you don't have to see me again. But take that 16 minutes and take care of whatever's on your mind because it's not fair to you. It's not fair to me. It's not fair to other people. You're not here."

If you feel hope, you have a future.

And he's a big football-type guy and he starts to tear up. And I think, "Oh, you're not supposed to make them cry in the business world, Mark. Come on, come on, come on. Use your inner LinkedIn voice! Don't make them cry." 

He looks at me and his eyes are a little bit tearful and he says, "You know something that nobody else here knows because I'm real private. And people 20 yards from here don't know it because I'm real private. My wife's having a biopsy and it doesn't look good, and she's much stronger than me and she told me to come to the office. But you're right, I'm not here." And I said, "You shouldn't be here. Make a call. Cancel the rest of your day. Just go be with her."

Then he looks at me and his eyes dry up and he shakes his shoulders and he says, "I'm not as strong as my wife, but I'm pretty strong. And I served in Vietnam." Then he looked at me and he said, "And you've got my undivided attention and you've got your full 20 minutes." And it turned out okay. But you can see how that can win friends and influence people.


About 11 years ago when I first moved to LA, I heard a speaker say, "People just want to feel like they matter." Something I encourage my clients to do a lot of is to send audio messages on your phone just to check in with people: "I was just thinking of you. Let me know what I can do to help and just give me an update on what's going on with you." If you can do that every single day for an entire year, you will get a massive amount of things in return. 

You don't do it to get something back. You do it just to give. And a byproduct of that is that people will turn around and say, "What can I do to help you?" And if you've got a good thing that they can then help you with, then it means you get access to a lot more opportunity that other people will ever get to experience. And most people won't even come close to doing that activity.

You didn't even know it when we met for lunch, but maybe you'll recall. I'm really blessed. I have an amazing wife. She's an amazing mother and grandmother. We're lucky we get to see our four grandchildren every day, and they're 4 1/2 and under. And I'll do my best to race home just to see them. And when I'm with my wife and two daughters and my grandchildren and we're in the kitchen, nobody pays attention to me. I mean zero. Nobody looks at me. Nobody asks me a question. I'm not exactly ignored, but I'm not included.

And I made this interesting discovery because I could be there and I thought, "Well, nobody's paying attention." If I was my grumpy father, I would think I'm going to go somewhere, check my emails, check my Master of the Universe projects that are going on. But I got a hint that something's going on because even though my daughters can be multitasking, looking at their phones and whatnot, if I picked up my phone and looked at it, everybody gave me the stink eye like, "What are you looking at your phone for?" 

And on one occasion and only one occasion, I said, "well, no one's paying any attention to me." It was so pathetic. I only did that once. It just gives me the chills how pathetic that was. But I thought maybe something's going on.

So the next step I took is to put the phone on the table and I wouldn't look at it. And they weren't including me, but I think about what was on my phone. I'm thinking, "Ooh, I'm getting some fancy message. Ooh, am I going to get a chance to be famous for my nanosecond in the world?" Look, I don't mean to offend you if being an influencer is important. It's the way of the world. Go knock yourself out on Instagram and TikTok. I apologize if I was slightly sarcastic. But when you're dying, it's not that important how many likes you have. How many loves you have is important.

When you're dying, it's not that important how many likes you have. How many loves you have is important.

And so one of the things I noticed is that my grandchildren, they'd be playing, and maybe they picked up that lonely grandpa was just sitting at the end of the table so they would occasionally look at me as they're playing. Then here was the great revelation…

I was going to sit there with zero on my mind, I mean zero, which is getting easier and easier for me to do. And when my grandchildren would look at me, I would bathe them in utter delight. When they looked in my eyes, they would see my eyes sparkling with a look that says, "I am so glad you're here, it hurts." And they would take second takes. They'd look, they go play, and then they'd look.

I'm not sure I did a good job doing that with my kids when they were growing up because I was busy making a living. I'd check boxes, "I love you. I'll see you later." But I was racing out. I had to make a living. But this is really special. When I bathe them in utter delight, there's no ego going on. There's no ambition going on that's seducing me away from being utterly, utterly present. So I'm trying to develop that practice.

And you can do that with a waiter, a waitress. You can do it with anyone. Of course, if they're rushed, they may not get it. But if you're going to a restaurant and the waiter or waitress finishes and says, "Is there anything else?" You look at their name tag and calmly say their name and you look in their eyes with utter delight and you say, "Yeah, Nancy. Hey, thank you." And they'll look at you like my grandchildren do. And they'll go, "Okay." And then you watch them walk away from the table and they shake their shoulders like, "What the heck was that?"

What do you want to be most remembered for?

He gave more than he took.

And what about a message for your children? Is there anything in particular that you want them to always remember, or a piece of advice that you've given them, or just a message that they should carry in their hearts forever?

Just remember that I love you beyond life. 

And if you're ever feeling alone or lonely, and you can remember that, and it helps you feel a little bit better, that's really going to help me rest in peace.

What can couples do to make sure that they can retain that harmony and reduce conflict in the home at a time as they're trying to figure all that stuff out?

Well, I write for a lot of places, and one place that I write frequently is Newsweek, and there's an article, The Seven Year Itch 2.0. And many of you listening or viewing will not know what The Seven Year Itch is, but it was a famous movie in which Marilyn Monroe's dress got blown up in the middle of Manhattan. And the seven-year itch was a term for referring to when romance goes out of a marriage. 

I wrote the article because I think, and I hope I'm wrong, that we're entering an epidemic of that. Because especially with working mum, working dad, what's happening is a lot of younger generation X, Y, and Z, before you have children, you can really clip along. This is great and you don't have to be patient. And people I know in those generations talk faster than I think. It's unbelievable. But you give birth to an infant, it requires a level of patience that you don't have.

What I'm seeing with a number of couples now, the wealthy, wealthy couples, they say, "We don't have that problem. We have six nannies and a live-in." But to the 99% of people who are not that lucky, what I'm noticing, and I hope I'm wrong, is that when a wife becomes a mum, especially if she's a working mum, at least a couple of things happen. That infant requires patience that she doesn't have. That infant sometimes won't sleep, won't feed, will pull a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket. 

What happens is that young mum doesn't want to admit to herself how angry she is towards that baby because it makes her feel, "I'm a lousy mom. I shouldn't have had kids." And what she does is she will displace that onto her husband as opposed to bearing her neck saying, "Oh, I don't know if we should have children. I think I'm a terrible mum." And the husband would be delighted, "Oh, I'm out of the cross here. I'm good to go. You're a great mum. You're just tired."

But that doesn't happen in couples because it's too threatening for a young mum to think, "God, I was just so angry at that kid, I just felt like yelling and screaming." So instead, they will displace the anger onto their husband who comes in and he feels frequently he can't do anything right. Everything is wrong.

Being reactive can destroy almost anything. When you're in a reactive mindset and you act on it, you're going to make almost every situation worse.

Add to that, you once had a career but the bond you feel, mum to infant, this life that you gave birth to, the surge of oxytocin and emotional connection, it's beyond anything you could have ever imagined. When you're breastfeeding that infant and after a few weeks or months that infant is looking up at you and smiling, nothing else exists, especially your husband or your career. Your career becomes a job. 

And by the way, you can't go to work and say, "Can I tell you how amazing it is to be a mother?" No, you have to suppress that and give high-fives to the jerk who came in because he landed a deal for seven figures and you don't want to be a Debbie Downer. So this is happening a lot. And add to that, the husband is going on trips with associates, meeting clients. He's running into women who look at him with the same adoring eyes that his wife once did. And he's out there feeling adored and he comes home and everything he does is wrong.

I bring up seven years because if it's seven years, and let's say you don't immediately have children, but at seven years there's a good chance you'll have a four-year-old maybe, maybe a five-year-old, and that's about the time when husband dad gets the bond with his children, "Daddy, Daddy." They're not solely wrapped around mum. And he comes home, she's not greeting him with the dog wagging the tail and the kid's saying, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy." 

So what happens is the husband says, "I’ve a good relationship with my kid. I really feel secure in this bond. It's not quite the same thing as the bond to their mum, but I'm locked and loaded. But when I look at my wife and we look at each other, we don't like each other anymore. We have a right to have fun. She's not happy with me and I'm not happy with her not being happy with me. And I got another trip coming up and I haven't acted on it yet, but can't wait to see Mary."

And here's the solution… I'm also a great believer that being reactive can destroy almost anything. When you're in a reactive mindset and you act on it, you're going to make almost every situation worse. If you can be proactive, which is rare, you might have a chance to prevent that. So what I'm sharing with you, or if what you read in the article rings true and you want to prevent being part of this epidemic, what I'm advising couples is you proactively find a way... 

Have a dinner, just the two of you. Or if you can't get away, when the kids are asleep, make sure you do this. Schedule it. And what you want to do in that dinner is bring up anything that gets in the way of either of you looking forward to seeing the other. Because once upon a time, you each put a smile on each other's face. You were in love, you were in like. And so what you bring up is anything that the other person is doing or failing to do that is causing you to not look forward to seeing them.

The ground rules are try to be civil. But if someone gets really feisty, they have to keep talking until they're talking from the hurt and fear underneath. What's the hurt? "I can't remember the last time you liked me. I can't remember the last time you respected me. I can't remember the last time you were proud to be with me in public. And it's killing me. And what I'm afraid of is feeling those feelings because it might be over." 

So you bring up those and then you seal it that evening with an apology for something, a sincere apology. And once you get all this stuff off your chest, you look into each other's eyes and you see why you fell in love with each other and why you still love them.

How does someone separate stress in the present with the recognition that the marriage might be over, it's time for each of you to be better individually to go and find yourselves? 

What would be a helpful deterrent is to play out who the casualties in the family will be if you get divorced, what you're introducing your children to, the potential of the alienated parents syndrome, which is horrible, the potential of children acting out in very destructive ways. 

And teenagers, by the way, teenagers often hit a level of rage that chills everyone, including them. They don't even know what they're enraged about. That rage is very close to very destructive behavior. And so you might want to play that out in your mind. They talk about the importance of role models in life. They're so helpful in developing resilience. You might want to play out not wanting to be like certain role models who got divorced in which the whole family just fell apart.

You’re reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Dr. Mark Goulston, including bonus content that doesn’t appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀

In your role as a psychiatrist, is it more important to talk to the parent or is it more important to talk to that teenager who's feeling all of that rage?

Well, I think it's equally important to talk to each of them. And look, I know this goes against what's conventional, but you can have something where everybody in the family has their own therapist, the couple, the husband, the wife, the kids. 

First of all, no one can afford that. Second of all, you really run the risk of this is one of the challenges of being a therapist, is you need to develop a rapport enough so that your patients come back. And then you try to leverage the rapport so that you can share with them things that might not be easy to hear, but they need to hear.

So something I would say to you, here's a little bit of coaching because I think the world of you. And again, you're one of the loose ends in my life so I can't die too soon. I think presence is really important. And I think one of the best ways to be present is to be declarative, which is not the same thing as motivational. Declarative is you stand for something that's not about you being right. It's about standing for something that will benefit whoever you're with, and you declare that.

So there's someone I'm coaching and his business is really blowing up. It's going to be big. Billionaire investors. And I said, "You're really lousy at conflict." I said, "Now, here's the deal. You're the visionary. You're the founder. You can be terrible at conflict. But if I'm an investor, you better have someone who's good at conflict to be the hitman. And by the way, you're going to be very vulnerable to not just delegating to that hitman. You're going to abdicate. And if you abdicate, they're going to have you over a barrel. So you got to be really clear that when you fill in functions that you're not good at, that they're in a position to take advantage of you and you have no idea what you're in store for."

Reminds me of a quote I heard the other day. It says that people who win wars are not the same people who are good at making peace. Different roles for different talents.

And to this person's credit, he said, "No, I got to get better at conflict because I'm not that good at conflict at home." And I think the empathic, emphatic is the good news is you're a genius. The bad news is you owe it to the full expression of your genius to eliminate anything that gets in the way of it. 

One of the things that's going to get in the way of it is you suck at conflict. And you don't have to get good at it as long as you have someone who is good at it. But if you could get good at it and be also the inventor visionary, you would have it all because investors would like it to all be packaged with you. And you're such a genius, they'll accept that if you have a hired hand to be the heavy, but they'll respect you more if you can do it both.

That's empathic emphatic catalyst.

A question that I get a lot, which I'd be interested to get your opinion on, how does someone gain clarity on who they are and what their role in the world is?

It's the end of your life and you assess the three Ps. At the end of your life and you look back, how'd you do professionally, personally, and purposefully? For me, professionally would be was I able to support my family? And I did. Didn't make them rich, which I think was one of the best failings I've ever had. And hopefully, I've helped anyone who ever worked with me to be able to support their families. I've been fortunate. I've done a profession in which I don't think I would ever have to be ashamed of saving lives. I'm somewhat proud of that.

Personally, it's interesting. This is a work in progress and I think the dying is helping. Get emotionally close to the people I love. I love my dad. I think my dad loved me. We were not emotionally close. I can maybe think of two times in a lifetime when we were completely emotionally open to each other. It was a waste. "Oh, we were shy or we were embarrassed." Bullshit. So personally, I believe in emotional intimacy. I think that's why people, when I start crying and I apologize, I say, "Don't apologize." It's because some of them say, "I love my wife, but that's more intimate than she and I've ever been." It's the real deal. So for me, I want to be able to say that I was able to feel exquisitely emotionally close to someone and they to me.

Then purposefully is was it good that I was born? Did I leave the world better than I found it? And I think I may have. When you identify those three things, to me, transformation requires deleting the transactional present because the transactional present is myopic. Find the deal, do the deal, next deal. Make some money, buy some things. Fill in the lack of intimacy with a Tesla and another house, and you're good to go until you become an alcoholic.

And so if you can identify those three things, then you want to look back at each of them. What do I need to get those things going? And so you get the three things, you reverse engineer, what do I need to do to get those things going? And the third element is you got to be accountable. And to me, there are other ways to be held accountable. But the two top ways to be held accountable to doing anything are to calendar it, schedule it because we usually don't flake on our calendar. And have an accountability partner.

So true, so important.

Here's a funny story. I went to reach out to my kids and I said, "I'd like your help with something. I'd like to eat better and exercise more, but I'm not motivated." And if I knew you were doing things that really could help your life, and I'm not going to tell you what they are but you probably know what they are, what are some things that you could get better at? Because if I knew that you were doing those things that are helping your life, it would motivate me to exercise, which I'm not a big fan of.

I love my children. One of them said, "How about a golf shirt?" I love her for this kind of crazy thing. So you can have an accountability partner. And I think that would be great because I can tell you, especially now, "Ooh, I might be able to get this deal done because my children want and need me to live longer." I think the main motivator for me to need and want to live longer is they're needing and wanting me to and my wife feeling that way. 

I was all set to go out in flames!

Final question, what's one thing you think everyone should do to Win the Day?

Besides getting your Win the Day Accelerator!?

Well, I've got a lot of stories. Someone I got to know a little bit was Bob Eckert, and I knew him when he was the CEO of Mattel. I interviewed him about what was some of the best leadership advice he'd ever heard. And he said that before Mattel, he was the CEO of Kraft Food. And before that, he was the president of the cheese division, which was their biggest division.

A couple of months before he became the president of the cheese division, all the dairy prices went up. And so Kraft raised its prices. Then a month later, the dairy prices went down and all the independents lowered their prices but it was written into the bylaws that Kraft wouldn't do that. He had no control over that. And in his hometown newspaper, it said, "Heads are going to roll at Kraft. The cheese division is gouging people."

He said he was really in a funk and he was watching an NFL football game and the Cincinnati Bengals had just lost their 10th in a row. And they'd gone to the Super Bowl two years earlier and their coach was a guy named Sam Wyche. And he said, "I was just staring at the television, just out of it. The reporter said, 'Hey, Sam, you're going to be fired on Tuesday. What do you think of that?'" Because he thought heads were going to roll at Kraft. 

And he said, "Sam looked out of the TV. I thought he was looking at me. Sam said, 'It really doesn't matter. You know I'm going to be fired on Tuesday. I know I'm going to be fired on Tuesday. Everybody knows I'm going to be fired on Tuesday. The only thing that matters is what can I get done between now and Tuesday to make the Bengals a better team?'"

He said after that day, he adopted that. And one of the ways to help him go to sleep is before he'd go to sleep, he'd make a list and he'd say, "What can I get done by the end of tomorrow to be a better dad, to be a better husband, to make Mattel a better company? And I'd write it down and I'd be able to sleep because even if I woke up and changed it, I wouldn't be racing ahead to something that might or might not happen." He said that's what he was doing. "I was racing ahead. Oh my God, am I going to get fired at Kraft?" And his whole approach would be, "What can I get done to make Kraft a better company?"

So I think one of the ways to Win the Day and maybe get some sleep is before you go to sleep, write down, do a 360 of your roles and say, "What can I get done by the end of tomorrow to further my business, be better in my roles as a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, or a child to an aging parent?" And write those things down and then look at them in the morning and see what you want to do.

So good.

An absolute pleasure, my friend. Thanks so much for coming on.

Well, I'll see you from the other side.

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Resources / links mentioned:

🧠 Ep 109: Win Your Mental Health with Dr. Mark Goulston

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🎨 "I'm dying to tell you" on YouTube

🎵 "I'm dying to tell you" on TikTok

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❣️Preventing the Seven Year Itch 2.0

🎤 TEDx Talk ‘What Made You Smile Today?’ by Mark Goulston

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