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Emotional Agility Through Difficult Times with Dr. Susan David

Susan David, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her new #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility based on the concept Harvard Business Review heralded as a Management Idea of the Year and winner of the Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award, describes the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change. Susan’s TED Talk on the topic went viral with over 1 million views in its first week of release. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and guest on national radio and television. Named on the Thinkers50 global list of the top management thinkers, Susan is a sought-after keynote speaker and consultant, with clients that include the World Economic Forum, EY, United Nations, Google, Microsoft, NASDAQ, and many other national and multinational organizations. Her focus is on defining and executing effective strategy, especially in the areas of engagement, high-performance leadership, and culture change. Susan is the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, a Cofounder of the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School/McLean affiliate), and on the Scientific Advisory Boards of Thrive Global and Virgin Pulse. Susan lives outside of Boston with her family.


"How we deal with our inner world drives everything.'"


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  • Emotional agility is the most critical skill that allows us to be healthy with ourselves.
  • How we deal with our inner world drives how we love, how we live, how we parent, and how we come to difficult or complex situations — whether those situations involve dealing with the pandemic, job loss, or any other issues we face in our lives.
  • Basically, emotional agility includes the skills around psychological health.
  • It is the ability to be with yourself in ways that are healthy involving curiosity, compassion, and courage.
  • Curiosity involves asking why you are feeling what you are feeling and why other people are feeling what they are feeling.
  • Compassion involves being compassionate towards yourself because we live in a world that would have us always be hard on ourselves. We know that self-compassion is critical in order to be effective in a sustained way in the world.
  • Courage involves taking risks, accepting new opportunities, having difficult conversations, and taking steps that are aligned with our values even when it feels uncomfortable.
  • These are core skills that are absolutely essential to our effectiveness and well being.
  • These skills can be cultivated.


  • Each day we have thousands of emotions, thoughts, and stories.
  • Emotions might include feeling anxious, stressed, or worried.
  • An example of thought might be, “I’m being undermined by this person.”
  • A story might be one that was written on our mental chalkboards when we were in grade three about who we are — whether we are creative, entrepreneurial, and what kind of love and life we deserve.
  • These thoughts, emotions, and stories are normal.
  • Contrary to memes that you see on social media that declare “positive vibes only”, it’s normal to have difficult thoughts, emotions, and stories.
  • Rigidity is when you get stuck in an emotion, thought, or a story in a way that stops you from moving forward.
  • For instance, you become stressed so you bring yourself under the table where you are no longer present with your family, which takes you away from your value of connectedness.
  • A story that you have might say you don’t really deserve to be successful or you are not creative enough, keeping you from reaching for new opportunities.
  • Rigidity is something we see every day in politics, for example, when people become so entrenched in their beliefs. We also see it in the way we navigate our focus on being right, in an argument, for example.
  • The first reason people become rigid is that we have many norms within our culture that stop our ability to be flexible with ourselves and in the world. An example is when people say “just be happy” or in order to be successful, you have to think positive and go for it.
  • This leads people to be hard on themselves when they are experiencing struggles. When having a bad day we sometimes invalidate our feelings by saying we should not be feeling bad and should be grateful, e.g. “At least I have a job”.
  • We push our difficult emotions aside in the service of forced positivity or just getting on with it.
  • This can stop us from asking ourselves what our emotions are saying to us. Feeling guilty might let us know that we need to spend more time present with our children. Feeling bored could be a sign that we need a greater level of learning.
  • When we push aside our feelings in the service of the narrative that we have to be positive in order to be successful, it stops us from being flexible.
  • The second reason people become rigid is when we have huge amounts of information coming at us, the information leads us to become stressed and anxious.
  • We’ve all had a situation where we might have a fight with someone we love and we become stuck on the idea that we are right and the other person is wrong.
  • We forget to ask ourselves much more important questions of who do we want to be in that moment or how do we want to act, rather than if we are right.
  • When you look at people trying to suppress difficult emotions, it’s like having a delicious piece of chocolate cake in the refrigerator. The more you try not to think about it, the more you think about it. There is an amplification effect.
  • We might think we are in control of difficult emotions when we ignore or suppress them, but they control us in that case.
  • Rigidity takes you away from what you value. When you become so focused on being right or anxious about giving difficult feedback. If you were more curious about your emotions, they could serve as signposts of what you value.
  • If you feel rage while watching the news, it could be a signpost that you value equity. If you feel guilty as a parent, the guilt could be a signpost that you value family and connectedness. If you feel lonely because you are on Zoom 24/7, it could mean that you are actually missing connection.


  • We all need someone to encourage, educate, and challenge us, and cheerlead for us.
  • Embedded in the word encourage is the word courage.
  • Susan recalls a story from 10 years before her father died before they knew he had cancer. At the age of 5, she went through the fear of death. She remembers laying in her parent’s bed between them and saying to her father, “promise me you will never die.”
  • Her father could have forced a false toxic buffer between her and reality by saying don’t worry, I’m going to be around for so long. Instead, he told her that we all die and it is normal to be scared.
  • What she learned in those long, dark nights is that courage is not the absence of fear. Being beautiful, whole, and hearty in the world is not about never having difficult emotions, never being sad, never being angry, never being anxious.
  • Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking. Courage is being able to notice what you are feeling with curiosity and compassion and to do the same for others and to take values and connected steps even when it is difficult.


  • Take a screenshot of this episode, tag me on social media (@JimKwik & @SusanDavid_PhD), and share your greatest “aha!” moment from this episode with us.
  • Listen to Susan’s TedTalk, here.
  • Find out more about Susan’s book, Emotional Agility, here.
  • Take the Emotional Agility quiz, here.

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