The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Michael Gervais (#256)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Michael Gervais, performance psychologist to elite athletes and coaches. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.


#256: How to Overcome Anxiety and Stress - with Adviser to Olympians, Michael Gervais


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Tim Ferriss: Hello, my beautiful little munchkins. It’s Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world-class performers, to tease out the habits, routines, favorite books, etc. that you can use. This episode features Michael Gervais. He’s @MichaelGervais, G-E-R-V-A-I-S on Twitter. Michael is one of the few performance psychologists that elite athletes and coaches, among others, turn to when they want to level up or when they’re returning from hard times and want to not just get back to where they were, but exceed their previous highest levels of excellence.

His clients include Olympic gold medalists, Super Bowl-winning NFL coaches, you name it. It’s an incredible roster. In this episode, we discuss how to win the war against anxiety, some of the more effective and less effective ways, even self-defeating ways to use self-talk; behind-the-scenes stories of Michael’s clients, understanding the path to master the process to mastery and much more.

The audio from this episode comes from my new TV show, fear{less}, which is “fear” and then “less” in parenthesis because it’s not about being fearless, but learning to fear less, where I interview people like this, world-class performers, on stage in front of a live audience about how they’ve overcome doubt, conquered fear, made their toughest decisions and so on. You can watch the entire first episode, which is with David Blaine, the illusionist and master endurance artist, for free at

To watch all of the episodes, there are ten of them, you can go to and if you are a cord cutter, just click on DirectTV now, which is a button there. Any of the packages get you the show. So you can chose the cheapest one if you like. We recorded three hours of material in this particular episode of Michael and only one hour was used for TV. So this podcast episode is almost entirely new, exclusive content for y’all, my listeners, because I love ya.

It did not appear on television. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did. Without further ado, here is Michael Gervais.

Welcome to fear{less}. I’m your host, Tim Ferriss. On this very stage, we’ll be deconstructing world-class performers of all different types to uncover the specific tactics they’ve used to overcome doubt, tackle their hardest decisions, and ultimately succeed on their own terms. Imagine yourself standing 127,000 above the earth, trying to set the freefall world record. Or stepping onto the field for the Super Bowl or perhaps attempting to take gold at the Olympics. If you were nervous or if you had to prepare for that, who would you turn to? Who would you ask for help?

In less than a decade, my guest has built a very impressive client roster that includes Olympic gold medalists like Kerri Walsh Jennings, teams like the Seattle Seahawks, and the U.S. Armed Forces. Please welcome to the stage Dr. Michael Gervais.

Michael Gervais: Thank you. How are you? Thank you. The step will get you.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the step has gotten me. You guys ready for a show?

Audience: Yeah!

Tim Ferriss: All right. Just describe your family a little bit. What did your parents do? Do you have siblings?

Michael Gervais: Yeah, okay. So I have one younger sister. I was actually born in a city and they said okay, we’re done, and they moved out to the farm, a farm. Now, this isn’t a glamorous farm. We had 12 chickens and a pony, not a glamorous farm. They moved out to the farm to get away, to get back to finding who they were. And so that was what it felt like for me for a long time. We didn’t have heat in the winter, in the middle of winter in Virginia. We had a wood-burning stove that at age 6, 7, 8 years old, I was chopping wood, literally.

Carrying a lot of wood. Pop saying, “Hey, listen, if you want to be warm tonight, that wood’s got to get into the fireplace some kind of way.” So that’s where I feel like I figured out some roots and sorted out what it meant to listen to nature. We had a large amount of land behind us. We didn’t have lights; there were no street lights. I needed to figure out – my parents were really laissez-faire, if you will. They allowed me to explore. If I didn’t get home by nighttime, it was a long night. The fear of that – I never really got stuck out at night – but the fear of that was real. I figured out how to tune a bit to nature and then working hard was just part of the process.

Tim Ferriss: When did that change? When did the farm cease to be home base?

Michael Gervais: Middle of fourth grade, which I think is an important footnote. That it was the middle of a school year. Because they did that to me a couple times. And so changing it in a school grade is one thing, but then changing in the middle requires a different type of transition skill.

Being put in an amphitheater, whatever that amphitheater is, is one of the greatest teachers. Far beyond what we learn from books and watching others, but figuring out transitions or any other skill is really important by doing. So welcome to California.

Tim Ferriss: How’d that go for you?

Michael Gervais: It was hard.

Tim Ferriss: How did that go for you and were there any specific tactics that you used or approaches to –

Michael Gervais: No, as a fourth grader, I didn’t have any tactics. I was like, okay, I’m going to miss my friends, but this seems like it could be okay. Because they sold me on California, the dream of California. Then we moved again. And so we went from northern California to southern California and it was mid-year, mid-year again, freshman year. We actually moved again in sixth grade, at the beginning of the year. It would be nice if the theme ran through. But yeah, so we moved down to southern California. I didn’t want to go. I wasn’t into it.

Where I was growing up at the time, I was having just a lot of fun with motocross and motorcycle and BMX and just loving that type of stuff up in northern California. It was the right move for the family. They dragged me along with them. Then there I am in southern California. I know that there’s that story that I hear often from some of the best in the world that they knew at an early age that they wanted to do fill-in-the-blanks. Whether it’s music or sports or art or business.

I didn’t have that. I was really more interested in today and figuring out how to do today the best way I possibly could, as a 6-year old and a 16-year old. No one in my family went to college. I didn’t know anyone that went to college. I didn’t. If they did, they didn’t talk about. I certainly didn’t know anyone that had a graduate degree.

Tim Ferriss: Were you good in school?

Michael Gervais: No. The assistant principal, the Dean of my high school, pulled my then-girlfriend, now-wife, cool story, pulled her aside and said, “What is a nice girl like you dating Gervais?” Kind of heavy in school the way that went down. But that was an indication that I was not on the right path. I didn’t have a structure to really help me get the right path. I learned a lot the hard way. I had no idea that there was even this profession about being able to give back through understanding how the mind works. That’s how my journey began.

Tim Ferriss: So if you were to teach any class or mandate, this is a better question, mandate certain types of experiences for, it could be high school students or, in this case, college students. What might they be or mandatory classes?

Michael Gervais: If I could create a class that was mandatory for incoming freshmen or whatever?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Michael Gervais: Yeah. It would be dangerous. For sure, we are raising children that are – I don’t know how old you are –

Tim Ferriss: 39.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, so you grew up probably kind of with a seatbelt, but not always maybe.

Tim Ferriss: Mostly off leash, just like faceplanting skateboarding down hills and stuff like that.

Michael Gervais: Our generation right now is every one of them grew up with instant access to whatever and everyone’s buckled in safety harnesses from the beginnings of their life. We don’t have a real appreciation for danger. So we pompously walk around with a soft underbelly thinking that we understand what’s true and real and beautiful and hard and honest. It’s the rugged and hostile environments that teach us. They teach us by leveraging real fear.

We say that we conquer fear. We say that we’ll do things. But not until you’re squarely facing it down does the risk of putting yourself in that situation provide insight. But that class would be too dangerous for modern times. Like there would be stuff that possibly people would get hurt, which would make it real and maybe somebody loses limbs or life or something, which makes it real. Because this bubble that we live in is problematic for the next generation.

Tim Ferriss: I agree with that. Lord of the Flies 101. No, I agree. I couldn’t agree more. I had someone ask me recently in Q&A, they said, “Have you ever thought about doing a summer camp for adults?” I said, “Well, kind of occasionally maybe after too much wine thought about it.” They’re like, “Well, what would you have everyone do?” I’d be like, “It would be mostly suffering. You would definitely exercised until you vomited.” All the hands go down.

But yeah, definitely undervalued. It’s thought of as a negative thing, but it’s a tool and a teacher.

When was the first time when you felt like you had made a huge mistake or failed someone? It doesn’t have to be the first time. The first time that comes to mind.

Michael Gervais: The first one that comes to mind will remain nameless for sure, but it was an entertainer that I just couldn’t quite reach. It was hard. It was deep and it was rich. She made it. She survived, but I wasn’t able to do what I had hoped we would do. It’s those kind of haunting experiences. That one’s not haunting, but I knew that I can’t connect in the way – I can’t access the depth and the richness that I need to go to because I have limitations of what I was able to do at that time.

Tim Ferriss: What were the limitations?

Michael Gervais: She could go deeper than I could go.

Tim Ferriss: In what respect?

Michael Gervais: Authenticity. To talk about the real stuff. So here’s the full circle of the conversation. Before I finish that story, I don’t think about failure that way though. Failure is not making a mistake; that’s not failure. Failure is not being authentic. Failure is not going for it. Failure is being small. Whether you win or not, if you’re authentically you and you go for it? Okay, it sounds easy. It sounds like you could put that in a fortune cookie, but that’s really what it’s about. So when you play it safe and small and you’re not authentically yourself, it’s your whole day is failing. Your whole month, your whole year.

I don’t think about it like that’s a win, that’s a loss, that’s a failure, that’s a mistake, that’s good, that’s bad. The experience is a day-to-day orientation to try to pivot and grow. It’s relentless and it’s hard and it’s difficult.

Back to this experience is that when I reshape how we think about failure, it really is about – no, let me, I think I finished that. When we talk about the emotional piece, is that if we can hold our ability to be authentically ourselves when it’s difficult and that’s only emotional. We use physical whatever to get to the emotional. There’s no mental difficultyness, there’s no such thing. Because they’re just words, right? It’s the emotional thing that’s the hardest for us.

So if we can hold presence, this is the gift to give another person. If we can hold presence when another person is rattling and they’re a wreck, you’re there for them in a really cool way. But if you can’t go deep enough to be able to hold true and to be authentic with them, then they don’t trust you. They take care of themselves and the work is not real.

Tim Ferriss: In that case, when you’re having difficulty going as deep as she went, was it not having enough present state awareness so she could tell you weren’t truly paying attention? Was it not asking the harder questions?

Michael Gervais: I was overwhelmed and so I couldn’t be there authentically for another person. That is the essence of what love is.

Tim Ferriss: How did that manifest?

Michael Gervais: If you and I are having this conversation and you’re checking your phone – I’ll be dramatic, you’re checking your phone, you’re looking at your watch, you’re checking to see if we’re okay, you’re checking out – because this is not interesting? Then I’m going to be like F this. This sucks. So that’s one level of it. It happens every day, all day long, every airport that I’m in. That’s what’s happening. Deeper than that is if he or she is saying something and they’re trying to see if they can go for it and I’m missing it – people all the time will tell you who they are. You just have to listen.

You have to be really present with them to hear the essence of what they’re trying to communicate underneath the boy meets girl. There’s Romeo and Juliet in every story, but we have to look for it, which is the emotional, gripping, true experience that people are wanting to sort out. So you have to get under there to do it. If I miss the lob that the person’s giving, they’re out. So that’s kind of how relationships work.

Michael Gervais: It was on the half yard line. It was a roller coaster of a third and fourth quarter. Tom Brady on the other side and that team, they did a phenomenal job. They did a phenomenal job. They’re skilled, very skilled. So here it is on the half yard line. The entire stadium thought the ball was going to go to our running back – exceptional running back Marshawn Lynch.

Bill Belichick – mind you, the intensity of trying to sort out what the next play is while the clock is going down, while there’s an emotional stimulation that’s taking place, is not an easy thing to do. That’s a very complicated thing. When the environment is losing their minds, be clear about what the options are. Bill Belichick brings in his men to stop the running game. The coaches are like – because we brought in a particular unit that was just a beautiful play and it was a pass play. So I could see the coaches go, that’s the match-up you want. That’s the exact match-up.

There’s another thing about this match-up is that the Seattle Seahawks are 20 percent from running from the goal line. As a general rule, we want to put people and organizations in positions of strength, not roll the dice on positions of weakness, right? So being 20% from the goal line, those are not great odds.

So they’re matching up for the run, here we are trying to get to a pass play and the ball’s intercepted and game’s over. What was happening on the sideline before that is that we were ahead of time. The sidelines, not the men out here. But the sidelines were ahead of time.

Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by that?

Michael Gervais: If you think about music, music is benefit when it’s on time. Even if there’s some dissonance, but when it’s on time. Ahead of time is that syncopation creates chaos. So we were on the sidelines because we weren’t in the game, ahead of time. Ohmygod, we’re winning the game! This is it! And then all of a sudden, we thought it was ours. Now I’m speaking about me, really. I was ahead of time. And the ball’s intercepted. The game’s done. That team storms the field. What was it? Blue and silver tickertape is coming down. Our sideline was stunned.

The emotions in the locker room afterwards, was the most intense environment I’ve ever been in that didn’t have real violence. Yearning and searching and questioning why was, on a scale of 1 to 10, 100. Anger and just being pissed off about what just happened because the loss – our brain is phenomenal as you well understand, but there’s no redundancy in the brain, so the circuitry for grief and loss is the same circuitry for losing a game. So it was grief. It was the most intense grief, like somebody just came in at the last moment and took away everything that you thought was yours.

It was exciting, it’s a thing you’ve worked your whole life for. So coming into that locker room, there was 6’8” crying, 6’4” ready to break someone’s head open, 6’2” was taking off his tape, ready to punch somebody. There was a person behind me that was screaming, “Why? Why is this happening?!!!”

There was another gentleman, another athlete in the back that was kind of snickering and laughing. And then there was plenty of people that were just completely overwhelmed and didn’t know what to feel.

Tim Ferriss: What are, and I’ll give a personal example here, maybe some baby steps, remedial approaches that people can take if they’ve had a hard time or suspect they would? In my case, I found the gateway drug to get me moving in the right direction was guided meditations. So listening to Tara Brach or Sam Harris or someone else. Basically every couple of seconds, just like, “Hey, idiot.”

Michael Gervais: Come on back.

Tim Ferriss: “You’re thinking about porn or your to-do list. Come back.” In addition to that, I found a few apps like Headspace to be very helpful. But the thing that actually helped me to break through, and it’s maybe embarrassing in a way to admit this, was social accountability.

So I actually did take a course. In this case, it was transcendental meditation. But I knew that if I didn’t meditate, I would have to go to the session the next day. And there was an hour set aside for me to talk about my two sessions, and I would just feel like an ass. And I also paid for it. So those are a few of the crutches that I used early on to get to the point where I had enough sessions under my belt that it became like brushing my teeth on some level. At some point, I became obsessed with Bhutan. Why on earth would I become obsessed with Bhutan?

Well, there’s this very romanticized story of gross national happiness and the happiest country in the world and so on. Well, one year they got overtaken in a poll by the Danes. So the Danish are now the happiest people in the world. I’m like, the Danish? Okay. So I at one point ended up going to Denmark. I was like, “Are you aware that you’re supposedly the happiest people in the world?” The guy was like, huh, drinking his beer. I said, “Why do you think that is?” He goes, “Low expectations.”

It’s easy to dismiss that and go like haha, but then I was like, no, there’s actually something there. In my mind, if I sat down and meditated and I wasn’t on point, like 90+ percent of the time – I was thinking of it as almost in terms of school grades – I was failing. I was losing.

Michael Gervais: Because you weren’t quiet.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I wasn’t doing my job. I wasn’t following the script. And I was having a conversation with Tara Brach, this very well-known Buddhist and meditation teacher. She has great talks that she gives regularly and they’re recorded. I explained this. I was like, “I could go from sitting down for 20 minutes or roughly 20 minutes,” sort of what I do in the morning when I can, which is most days. I said, “I could spend 19 minutes thinking about some cartoon I watched when I was a kid, like ThunderCats. For 19 minutes. And then I’ll be like, Ferriss, you’ve spent 19 minutes thinking about ThunderCats!”

Then I’ll come back. She says, “That’s a successful session.” Because the training isn’t getting it right, it’s the coming back. The coming back is the rep. I was like, oh, okay. As soon as I thought of it in those terms, suddenly I was having successful sessions and I was able to stick with it.

Michael Gervais: The misconception is the first trap. If you just focus on your breathing – there’s two types of mindfulness training, the way that I’ve come to learn about it: single point and contemplative. So single point is one thing over and over and over again so you notice when you leave that moment. Then the work is to come back. Once you become aware that you’ve shifted from now, the breath of the dot on the wall or a mantra, whatever it might be, and you’re over here, what do you do with that? Do you say mother– or do you say –

Tim Ferriss: I want you to curse so bad.

Michael Gervais: Come on back.

Tim Ferriss: Don’t do it. It’s a trap!

Michael Gervais: Do you come back? Can you swiftly come back? Can you do that 1,000 times? That’s the work. And then eventually, you’ll slip into that no-minds experience. I’ll tell you my first teach, he said, “Mike.” Mind you, I don’t know how old I am, I was young. But he says, “If you knew what I knew, you’d be doing this every day.” I said, “Okay, what do you mean?” He says, “It’s like a full-body orgasm.”

Tim Ferriss: That’s the way you sell it.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, that’s how you sell it. Oh, now you’ve got my attention. I’m still waiting, so maybe he sold me a bill of goods.

Tim Ferriss: I think you just solved a major branding problem for mindfulness. You’ve just got to sell it as full-body orgasm and you’ll have people around the block. Let’s take a left turn. You mentioned the importance of fighting earlier.

I’m taking it out of context, but it brings me back to the Seahawks insomuch as I’ve heard, and this is not as someone who knows a lot about football, but that the Seahawk organization allows their players to resolve conflicts, to sort out their differences on the sidelines, amongst themselves on a regular basis. I don’t know if that’s true. This is just something I’ve heard. Is that true?

Michael Gervais: The statement was that the Seahawks allow athletes to work out their conflicts.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, if there’s a conflict between players.

Michael Gervais: I think it was recently there was – I’ll unpack the story surrounding it.

Tim Ferriss: This is just me repeating something I heard.

Michael Gervais: So go back to the principle that Coach Carroll set up that this is a relationship-based organization. When relationships matter, there’s intensity around emotions. What happened just recently, this year, one athlete was angry.

He was pissed. He threw his helmet. He was in a fit of rage. There’s a couple courses that would take place, a couple predictable things that could take place. People would be like, whoa, that’s too much now, stay away. Or they can come up and become aggressive with him and jump in his face and say that’s not okay. What most people do in most organizations when somebody’s raging, and I mean raging, full of testosterone and strength, is that they back up because it’s dangerous for them. Even though destruction is taking place.

When one person – football is a beautiful team environment. When one person’s off, the whole thing is working to try to help that person. That’s what teams and tribes do. They really help. So what happened on this particular occasion this year is that one athlete confronted him. The athlete that was overrun with emotions wanted nothing to do with it.

Another athlete stepped right in, literally right next to him. This is not orchestrated. No one knows that this is going to happen ever. Steps right in, grabs his attention. The first athlete wants nothing to do with it. A third person, a fourth and a fifth. They literally lined up. It was this amazing experience. The athlete was so overwhelmed with emotion, he wanted nothing to do with his best friends. And so there’s a picture, an image I have in my mind where one of the athletes is pulling on the said athlete’s hair. Like come on now, get back in here. It was radical. I’m watching going, this is unbelievable.

Then, all of a sudden, the entire defensive part of the – it was almost everybody – just started jumping, like a tribal experience. Getting them back in a rhythm almost like these large animals that were hunting together and they’re kind of in their tribal moment, and they brought him back into the fold. They met him with the intensity, with the care to say you are one of us, stay with us.

It was unbelievable. The leadership to do that, it was Earl Thomas, our safety, was right there. Kam Chancellor, our strong safety, was right there. Bobby Wagner, these men that just showed up to say come on now, let’s go. It was beautiful. It was wonderful. Now, if you have a controlling environment or if you’re afraid of emotions, that could never happen, can’t happen. That’s not okay, it can’t happen. But that’s how far you want to be able to push to the edge, to explore potential. To explore capacity. Those moments, as you’ll well understand that word and appreciate that word, I hope, is that’s a capacity-building moment for everybody involved.

Tim Ferriss: You’ve worked with a number of fighters. The fighting has both the consequences and you have a duration of time, right? You could have puncher’s chance, ten seconds in, somebody gets knocked out.

Michael Gervais: That’s right.

Tim Ferriss: But you could also have a 15-minute battle on your hands.

Michael Gervais: For a championship fight.

Tim Ferriss: Exactly. What are some of the most important types of work or practices that you’ve implemented with fighters?

Michael Gervais: Again, it doesn’t differ that much from others. I truly believe that – I have no evidence for what I’m about to say – but the craft matters less than the ability to access the craft. My approach doesn’t change that much between sport A and sport B. But when there are set consequences, it feels like the needing to want to do the work is amplified. So the person wants to do the work, I want to do the work, so there is more intensity in the work because their ass is on the line. First things first. What is your ideal competitive mindset?

How do you talk about it? What does it feel like? Let’s see if we can create that as a target. So that’s the first part of the work is what is it like inside of you when you’re at your best? If you haven’t done that work, that’s a really important thing to be able to do. Because if you don’t do that work, what ends up happening is we get overrun by external stimulus telling us how we should look, how we should think, how we should. That should-ing all over oneself creates shame and smallness. It becomes problematic for express, artistic expression even. The first is like, what is your ideal competitive mindset?

The second is, what are the strategies that you employ to turn that on? Once we get to sorting those two things out, then we backfill into we need to increase our awareness of those thoughts, of those circumstances, so that you can dictate that more often.

Tim Ferriss: Dictate what?

Michael Gervais: The ideal competitive mindset. That’s the fighter’s responsibility. Because it’s dangerous and it’s rugged and it’s real that there’s another human that could do complete damage and change you forever. So we need to know what the ideal competitive mindset is, and then we back into great awareness so that you can pivot and adjust and you’ve got the skills to be able to adjust accordingly to either erroneous thoughts or real consequences that are taking place. I think that you would recognize that the steps into the cage, those steps if not prepared properly become problematic for people.

Tough on the concrete and some people, as soon as they get into the cage, it’s a different experience. Some people light up as soon as they’re in there. No work is needed. It’s amazing. Lights are on, cage door closes, and the grin on their face is the real deal.

Tim Ferriss: To give you guys a quick tip that I learned recently, if you want to be less addicted to using your smartphone or whatever it might be, set the screen to grayscale. There’s actually some pretty interesting data to suggest that you’ll use apps in a less compulsive fashion if you change it to a black-and-white screen. If that’s where you want to go.

Michael Gervais: Real quickly on that thing, the challenge that we’re having from smartphones is that I’d also say compete. Get around your buddies, your boys, whatever it might be and compete. If you guys go to dinner with whomever, put your cellphones on the table. So when you put your cellphones on the table, it decreases attention. We know that. Put your cellphone on the table and whoever picks that thing up first, they’re paying the bill. So level up on some competition.

Tim Ferriss: That’s good. I like that.

Michael Gervais: So then there’s a consequence to grabbing that thing instead of getting the dopamine and the hit, the rush that we get. The last piece on the external stimulus for our attention.

It is deconditioning SOA from being present. Not lost on anyone here. That’s a real problem for the next generation. It really is. I’m hopeful that we’ll figure out ways that they’re going to show us how to be better than we are. I’m nervous because we know that flow state, the most optimal state a human being can be in, flow follows focus. Not just any kind of focus, but deep focus. So think about that for a moment, the gravity of that. If we’re detraining ourselves by multi-tasking and not training deep focus, we’re decreasing our frequency of dropping into flow state, the most optimal state a human can be in. We’ve got problems – productivity, sense of awe and wonder. Those challenges come around the corner for us.

Tim Ferriss: Yes, indeed. Just wait until we’re all wearing VR headsets. That’ll be curious.

I suppose this is a decent segue. Jeffrey Neuman, where are you? There we are. “Do you have your own therapist or counselor or other performance coach you turn to personally? If so, what is it they give you in terms of perspective that you can’t give yourself?”

Michael Gervais: Why would I need a therapist? No, yes. I’ll tell you, that’s a great question. There’s a story that goes with it. Two stories. The first was that going through graduate training, one of the requirements that the school provided was you have to go sit in the other chair. You have to feel what it feels like to understand that level of vulnerability and the process of being authentic and saying difficult things. So that was my first exposure to it. I don’t see myself doing therapy. That’s not what I do. But I’m invested in relationships to strengthen the assets of other people. I sat in that chair, and I was like, wow, this is heavy.

It is just sweating in chairs. It’s just another human being asking me questions. I could say no. I could say whatever I want, but I’m sweating with tension. That was my first experience with it. The second was my wife, seven years into our relationship, said, “You’ve got to go.” We got married really young; high school sweethearts. We got married really young and we hadn’t found ourselves yet. She said, “I love you. You’re wonderful, but I don’t know how to be me and I don’t know how to be me around you.” The strength to say that.

I was in panic mode. I was like, what, who, what do I do? We didn’t talk for some time. I said, “Hey, listen,” I was already doing what I do. I said, “Hey, listen, let’s go talk to somebody.” She’s like, “Fine.” She’s Latin and she’s wonderful and she says to me with all the flair you can imagine, “But it’s not gonna work.”

I said, “Okay.” So we go to therapy. It wasn’t manufactured. It was real and it was on. I was about to lose something that was so dear and tender to me and that I had created the problem basically, right? It was rad. And yes, yes, yes, if you haven’t done the work yet, get your ass in a chair and be real and sort it out with somebody. It is unbelievable. We dated. We ended up doing that work for two years. We dated. We’ve been married now for 20-something years. It’s rad. It’s rad.

I work with adults. It’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing. There’s no trickery. So it has to work from sturdy and robust practices that will test and be weathered in rugged environments. That’s why I say there’s no tricks, there’s no hacks.

I don’t know how you feel about hacks because it’s talked about a lot. But I have a reaction to it. There is no shortcut.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I don’t like the word. I don’t like the word. I think it implies too many things to too many people in different ways. It’s nebulous. It can be interpreted in a very expedient, Band-Aid type of fashion in the form of a shortcut. I think looking for elegant, not obvious solutions is interesting. Sometimes those do end up being faster. I don’t like to think of them as hacks. On this point though, with your experience at this conference, the fighters and so on, assuming that the clients (a) are going to do the work – they’re there and they will do the work; (b) they have the budget. Are there any types of clients you no longer work with? That you say no to?

Michael Gervais: Yes.

Tim Ferriss: What types?

Michael Gervais: People that have incredible influence and have low regard for others.

Tim Ferriss: I was wondering why you stopped returning my phone calls. Just kidding. How do you suss those people out?

Michael Gervais: It comes out in the first 15 minutes of a phone call. That’s like my screening process is there’s a couple gates to get through for both of us. One is the sniff test for both of us. Like, will you do the work? Does this guy know what he’s talking about? Some questions. I don’t have a set of questions, but it’s an organic feel. Then I’d say I’m probably shooting 85 percent from that first 15-minute conversation. Then when we show up in person, I know almost right away. You can feel that. What I’ve learned in between now is to get, with permission from that person, are there a couple people that I could call to learn a little bit more about you before we make a final decision?

Then I’ll make a couple calls and do some due diligence. It feels awful to take money from somebody who had incredible influence and is going to harm other people, not for a noble cause. Not for something that’s right. So if people are A-holes and they want to be more powerful, it doesn’t feel good.

Tim Ferriss: Just on a process standpoint, one thing I’m really interested in is if the person who wants to work with you is giving you three names, it’s kind of like interviewing anyone for a job, they’re going to give you references who are going to say nice things, generally. So you’re going into it knowing that these people are probably going to want to praise.

Michael Gervais: They don’t know why I’m asking though. They don’t know why I’m asking. They don’t know if I’m trying to suss out if they’re a jerk or not or have low regard for other humans.

Tim Ferriss: No understanding?

Michael Gervais: Right. Now they do.

Tim Ferriss: Now they do. Don’t worry.

Michael Gervais: No one’s watching.

Tim Ferriss: No one’s watching; it’s just us. It brought to mind an approach that I thought was very clever. I’m going to ask about your questions, what you do on the phone. A very clever approach that I heard from someone who is in charge of hiring at a fast-growing company. They knew, at least in the State of California, you can get yourself in a lot of trouble as a reference if you start [inaudible] someone. It can come back at you in a really nasty legal way. How do you get someone to admit that the person they’re supposed to be a reference for isn’t a 10 out of 10?

So what this person would do is they would just call and they would deliberately call at a time they’d get voicemail and they would say – “If this person is a 10 out of 10 and you would recommend them with all their heart, call me back.” If they didn’t get a call back, they got their answer, without the other person incriminating themselves.

Michael Gervais: Cool.

Tim Ferriss: They had plausible deniability. That’s pretty clever, right?

Michael Gervais: That’s good, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: So when you call this person, friend of person X, what do you say? What do you ask?

Michael Gervais: I just thank them for taking the call. I have a little chitchat about how they know each other. Then I’ll start to feel it out. I don’t have a system for this. It’s a conversation. The things that I do like to think about with them are, have you ever been embarrassed around them? So people will say yes or no or whatever. But it’s the hesitation that’s important in that. So I’m just feeling the hesitation out. I ask them about how they tip. That tells a lot. I ask them, are you going to work with them again in the future? Usually they’re agents or managers or people that they send as a referral. Those are some of the things.

It’s just a feel. I don’t know how to do it more systematically over the phone. I’m not in the hiring game, so I’m not as good at that. It’s like a screening, I would say is the way I use it.

Tim Ferriss: So tipping? I worked in restaurants for a long time. What are your rules for tipping? What’s your system? I have one. What’s yours?

Michael Gervais: I just kind of do the same thing unless they’re exceptional or awful. So it’s 20 percent and that’s kind of what I’ll do for everyone. If they’re exceptional, what does that mean? It’s like it just feels good to be at dinner. Like they’ve somehow created to the environment and the experience of joy with people and food. That’s what I’m looking for. Right down the middle, most people aren’t exceptional at their jobs, which I think is a bold statement, but I think that’s accurate. So 20 percent, thank you, it’s good. It’s fine. Then the other experience when people are awful, I don’t want to leave anything. It’s really aggressive, but I usually tell people.

Tim Ferriss: I’m very similar. I mean, having worked in hard restaurant environments and busted my ass to earn tips, I’m just like, “Dude, you’re just mailing it in. You’re not even trying.”

Michael Gervais: So, Robert, the reason I wanted somebody to read is because I would bet – what I wanted to ask you, did your heart rate come up just asking a simple, little question? Yeah. So how many of you – can I do this?

Tim Ferriss: Go for it.

Michael Gervais: How many of you here have a philosophy that you could say in 20 words or less? Hands up. That’s not enough. That is not enough. How many of you could come down and say it with Tim and I right now. We got some bold ones. Good, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: We got some self-selection going on coming to the show.

Michael Gervais: And then, for Robert, how many of you have those experiences where just saying your name at a table of strangers, your heart starts to pound?

Tim Ferriss: That’s interesting.

Michael Gervais: Right? So those are great moments because it’s teaching you something about your psychological framework.

That what they think of you is now too important because your body is saying, “Is this a sabretooth?” That’s why that system’s turned on. Or “Is this some other kind of threat that I don’t know what to do with?” Those are great moments. As often as we can find those moments to put ourselves in, that’s how we build capacity to be able to one day express artistically.

Tim Ferriss: Capacity is a really important term. I want to build on a few things that you said. The first about the mindfulness, the present state awareness, my experience – I live in San Francisco. People are always on their phones. L.A. has a different thing. This isn’t everybody, but I had this experience. I went to a party and this woman had just moved to L.A. and she said, “Yeah, it’s really difficult here because people will be talking to you and looking over each shoulder; looking for a bigger and better option.” Somebody who’s walking around. I was at this party and my phone had died and I was also a drinking a fair number of gin and sodas.

I was talking to people and they’re like, “I feel like you’re really listening to me.” I’m like, “Yeah, because I’m just looking into your eyes and listening to you.” It doesn’t take much. It was like a super power. It was unbelievable. The bar right now is pretty low in general. (A) It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of work; (B) this piece on when did being on stage and worrying about people think become a threat? I think it ties in very nicely to something you mentioned earlier, which is this systematic desensitization.

Not to totally nerd out, but I will for a second. Stoicism, once again. We have a gent named Cato. Cato was considered by many, including Seneca, to be the perfect Stoic. Now, no one’s perfect, but he lived the principles better than many or most. One of the things Cato would do is routinely purposefully do things that would get him ridiculed.

But on a surface level. So he would wear different colored tunic, for instance, than was customary at the time, so that he would get ridiculed by people who were around him. He trained himself to be regularly not embarrassed or to condition himself to not be embarrassed so that he could reserve being embarrassed for only those things that are worth being embarrassed about. In doing so, he became very emboldened to share popular opinions because he built up that tolerance. Just like building up a base tan going into the sun.

You can’t just jump out for two hours in the sun, looking as pale as I do especially, and expect that mind over matter you’re suddenly going to tan really well. You’re going to get turned into a lobster. Psychologically, the same thing is true. You can train yourself. I have these pants, I’m not wearing them right now, I call them party pants. They’re the most disgusting, ugly, floral pattern, Grandma couch pants you’ve ever seen.

I have a few things that I do like that, borrowed from somebody who lived more than 2,000 years ago, that are just as applicable today. That’s also something you can regularly train.

Michael Gervais: It’s really important, I think, to honor that the same way you can train your body, you can train your mind. Systematically desensitizing yourself to what other people think of you at a surface level? Fantastic. Brilliant. Many of the concepts that we would talk about are not new. Grandma told them to you. Science will back them up in some kind of way, but they’ve been practiced for thousands of years. The science is nice because you don’t have to rely on story-telling. You can rely on some evidence or theoretical evidence at least.

Tim Ferriss: The next question is from Facebook. This is from Jimmy Suta.

Michael Gervais: What’s up, Jimmy?

Tim Ferriss: What’s up, Jimmy? Ask what techniques they use when visualizing – dark room and music? Do they meditate? Hypnosis? What are best practices for visualization?

Michael Gervais: Let’s use the word, instead of visualization, use the word imagery. Visualization is just with one sense. Imagery conjures up the idea that we’re going to light up our brain with as many senses as we can. Is the question where? Is that the question?

Tim Ferriss: It seems to be across the board. Should I do it when it’s light out? In a dark room? Should I wear an eye mask? Listen to music or no music? Silence? I think just the general guidelines.

Michael Gervais: The answer would be to play with it. The science is not great for imagery, but the practice is pretty well understood. Music or no music, let’s address that. My experience has been better with no music. Some athletes like music. I feel like it’s a distraction to the objective. The objective is to create such a lifelike experience that your body believes that it could be real and it might just be.

So there’s a switching on or an animation that happens within you when you create an image that is crisp and has color and sound and smell and taste. You can manipulate it in such a way that you’re putting yourself in an electrically charging situation. That’s imagery in a nutshell. Can you be so skilled? That takes time to activate those senses. It’s relatively easy to do color. It’s much harder to have color and control it and move it. Can you add the other variables of the other senses on top of it as you go? Again, this is a skill of focus as well. So when your mind wanders, can you refocus?

Again, there’s a stitching to mindfulness in here, but the aim is different. Mindfulness is about insight and wisdom. The aim of imagery is enhanced performance. They’re different in that vector.

What else would you want to know about it? Like we all know it works. Why don’t we do it more often is the question.

Tim Ferriss: I never really put this together before, but one thing that struck me is that perhaps one way to train that ability, given how you defined it using imagery, would be something that fascinated me – still fascinates me, in fact – fascinated me for a very long time. That was training yourself to use mnemonic devices. For instance, there’s something called the memory palace. It’s also been called the loci technique. Cicero used it.

Many people in the Roman Senate used it to memorize long speeches, where you’re taking objects and placing them in a familiar location. Great book that talks about memory athlete competitions, specifically. Called Moonwalking with Einstein. It features a friend of mine named Ed Cook, who trained somebody in a year to go from nothing to national memory champion. It’s incredible to look at how this works.

But it’s embracing and learning to manipulate all the things you just mentioned, with a very clear objective and also a reward. So you can do things like learn to memorize the serial numbers on five different bills someone gives you and then two weeks later you could give those serial numbers to them, indicating which bill it was on, like a $5, a $10 or a $20. Or do them backwards. You can train yourself to do that in two or three days. That could be interesting for people to pursue, potentially. If you’re nerdy and you like that kind of stuff.

Michael Gervais: I want to go back to fighting and imagery for just a moment and stitch those two concepts together. Rickson Gracie?

Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah.

Michael Gervais: Rickson Gracie is a legend in the fight world. He and I did an interview probably 15 years ago, where I was asking him about imagery. With a partner, I was creating The Champion Mind Fighter DVD. It was back when those DVDs – this is before it was on Spike TV, before it was a thing.

It was always a thing to fighters. I asked him about imagery. “Do you do it?” He says, “Oh, yeah.” He says, “I do it.” I said, “What’s it like?” He just kind of gathers himself and he says, “It’s the most beautiful movie and every time I relive it, I create images and nuances that I want to experience. So he called it – think about the care that you would have that you will spend time to enhance your imagination and use your imagination to create the most beautiful movie. That tells you something about the way he’s fundamentally orientated his life.

Just doing a couple interviews here and there or, I don’t know, four days before you’re going to go give a speech? That’s not enough. That’s a hack. That’s taking good science, but not really living it.

Tim Ferriss: When you think of the word “successful,” who or what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Michael Gervais: I think about success as a life of inner peace.

A life that has meaning and is adding to the wellness of the global community. That’s how I think about it. I could pull out the word “global” and make that not necessarily the world, but one’s own ecosystem, like the family unit. So a sense of peace, exploring the giving and making something better than you left it. There’s a gentleman by the name of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Tim Ferriss: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Is that it?

Michael Gervais: What’s up, Jon? Yeah, he’s unbelievable. I don’t know him the way that it might sound I know him, but I feel like I feel him and I understand him and I love what he stands for. I love how I feel around him. He has done a tremendous gift to modern times to embrace the science of mindfulness. I think he has an inner peace about him and he’s worked at it. I think he is a person who encapsulates it the best for me.

Tim Ferriss: You mention an author that I’m fond of. Are there any books that you’ve given most as gifts? If you give books as gifts.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, I do. I like to give poems. On one page with great writing, there’s so much in there.

Tim Ferriss: What types of poets or poetry?

Michael Gervais: One of my favorites is Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

Tim Ferriss: Oriah.

Michael Gervais: Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

Tim Ferriss: How do you spell Oriah?

Michael Gervais: O-R-I-A-H, Mountain Dreamer.

Tim Ferriss: Got it.

Michael Gervais: Just beautiful prose. That’s one. “I am me” by Virginia Satir. That’s pretty powerful as well. And then the book I think I spend a lot of time gifting is – it’s a great applied book – Jerry Lynch wrote it with a co-author. It’s called The Way of the Champion.

Tim Ferriss: The Way of the Champion.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, very applied. Meets me right where, at the most simple concept. It’s a book that you do, rather than just read. It’s great. I pass it out like it’s candy in locker rooms.

Tim Ferriss: Do you have any favorite movies or documentaries?

Michael Gervais: I love documentaries. I really do. I think documentaries – I’m much more interested in non-fiction than fiction; just the way that I think about things. I can’t remember a documentary that I said, “That’s a bad documentary.” Because usually people that are shooting documentaries love it too. It comes through the work. It translates some kind of way. I love documentaries. Favorite movie? Star Wars. I was captivated by it when I was eight. It just kind of keeps coming back to me. But as far as titles of documentaries? You know what was good was Amy.

Tim Ferriss: Amy? That was very good.

Michael Gervais: It was really good. The beauty and tragedy of an artistic genius.

Tim Ferriss: So heart-wrenching.

Michael Gervais: That was captivating.

Tim Ferriss: If I say $100 or less purchase that has significantly, positively impacted your life, does anything come to mind? It doesn’t have to be recent, but it could be recent.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, two things pop up. One is this $11.99 book that my wife bought my son and he won’t put it down. I have an eight-year-old son. What’s up, Grayson? Any little book that I give my son feels like the greatest gift in the world because he becomes mesmerized by the imagination and the stories inside of it. That’s been really good.

Tim Ferriss: Do you remember the title?

Michael Gervais: It’s something about Pokémon. I think it’s the something-Pokémon whatever. He’s all about it. So that’s been really good. Then I’d say not for my would be soft tissue work.

Tim Ferriss: Soft tissue work.

Michael Gervais: Massage and soft tissue work. I think it’s an incredible gift for all of us, for alignment. If you feel tension in your muscular system.

Tim Ferriss: If you had to give a TED Talk or just a very high-profile 20-minute speech on nothing that you’re known for, nothing you’ve spoken on before? It could be a weekend obsession, it could be Star Wars. But what would you choose?

Michael Gervais: What kind of question is that?

Tim Ferriss: It’s a curveball question.

Michael Gervais: Yeah. What are –

Tim Ferriss: Where are we trying to go with that?

Michael Gervais: Yeah, what are we trying to sort out?

Tim Ferriss: We’re not trying to sort out anything in particular. I’m not solving climate change here. I’ll tell you where this comes from. Where it comes from is I was having a conversation with a gentleman named Marc Andreessen. Marc Andreessen created the first popular graphical web browser or co-authored it. Mosaic. He is a serial billionaire. One of the most successful investors on the planet. An incredible writer. The guy’s a real polymath. One of the many ways that he finds opportunities is he asks what are the nerds doing on the weekends or in the evenings? What are they spending their time on?

Michael Gervais: Did you just call me a nerd?

Tim Ferriss: No. Although that would be a compliment. You did just mention Star Wars. I mean, let’s be fair.

Michael Gervais: And Pokémon.

Tim Ferriss: And Pokémon. So what I’m trying to suss out is any side obsessions that you have.

Michael Gervais: I don’t think I have a great answer for that. Like what do I think – surfing would be the thing that I try to fit in the best way I possibly can, which is tough to do. Would I give a talk on surfing? Probably not. I don’t know. I spend so much time thinking about the human experience, it would have to be something outside of the human experience. So I don’t know where to go.

Tim Ferriss: Well here, I’ll give you one. What is the hardest challenge that you are currently working on yourself?

Michael Gervais: Hardest challenge? I think it’s always authenticity. I think that’s always it. Then moving as deep as I can to places that are uncomfortable. What would that be? It’s saying the thing that I find difficult to say because it requires this fear that I have that if I say this thing that I feel like is true and pure, and it hurts another person, then that tension becomes really challenging in the relationship. I’m significantly better because I practice a lot, but that thing is, I think, really hard for people. For me, I should say. That would be one of them. And then business. I’m building a business right now with Coach Carroll and figuring out entrepreneurship in that frame.

Tim Ferriss: Is this Win Forever?

Michael Gervais: Yeah. This is a consulting model where we have taken his intellectual property and mine – his on culture building and mine on mindset training – and put them together where we think we’ve captured and we’re on to something about how to share that with people that are not in sport.

It’s landing in the business world on how to shape cultures that are meaningful and then train the people, really the capital inside of our workforces, to be their very best. That sounds wonderful. How do you actually create a business that has scale and meaning? I love it. It’s hard, but I love it.

Tim Ferriss: That is a challenge. What is the worst advice that you hear often in your field? I’ll let you define field however you want.

Michael Gervais: The field would be squarely within psychology, in the facets of human performance, that’s the field. Particularly from the invisible standpoint. But the worst advice is advice. That’s it. Advice is awful. It’s just like saying stuff that – you should, why don’t you, how come, that’s what you should do. That’s the stuff. But I’d say more specifically than the general answer would be that you too can be everything you want to be.

Not necessarily. Maybe in some kind of make-believe world that everybody is going to be amazing. I don’t see people putting in the work to do it. Motivation? I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know anything about motivation because the people I work with don’t need it. They’re driven. They’re fully committed to a particular way of living. So this idea that we need motivation? We don’t need motivation. We need to find ourselves and what is true and honest. When it matters to us? I know this to be true for me, I’ll do whatever it takes. I think that’s what we want to help people find. That stuff. Sorry for a little soapbox moment there.

Tim Ferriss: Soapbox on.

Do you have – and I’ll explain what this means – do you have any favorite failures? What I mean by that is a failure or failures that in hindsight actually set you up for future successes. I know we’ve talked about how we can semantically drill down on that, but I think you get what I mean.

Michael Gervais: Yeah. I think I’ve shared them with you already, which is the love of my life saying that this isn’t working anymore. Both of us co-created that relationship. But that was unbelievably painful to go through that journey. So many of us have done it. That was what was an incredible gift of strength that she demonstrated for me and for us. I think that was a big one. I was an absolute selfish, craft-obsessed human being that was not watering and loving properly the people that mattered the most. That thing is real. That’s an incredible gift. Fundamentally altered in my life.

Tim Ferriss: Excluding that – this is leading to the next question – what is one of the most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? I’ll explain what I mean by that. It could be money, time, energy, anything else. I’ll give you an example. There’s a woman named Amelia Boone. She’s the most decorated obstacle course racer of all time. Three-time World’s Toughest Mudder Champion. Just an incredible athlete. Her answer was, the $450.00 for her first entrance fee into one of these competitions. It was a real stretch for her at the time, but having taken that step, it opened up an entire world of possibility for her. What would your answer or one of your answers be?

Michael Gervais: What was the first question?

Tim Ferriss: One of the most worthwhile investments of time, energy, [inaudible].

Michael Gervais: Time is all we get. That is what we’re competing for and with right now. It’s the greatest thing we’re trying to suss out, I think, is how can we be here now? So the easy one is time. Investment in understanding how to be here now and be on time, I feel like is the gift that I’m trying to help others find as well. But more concretely, there was a moment when I had just graduated my Ph.D. program and there was one of two ways that I could go. The two ways – one was I could get licensed and the other was I could not get licensed. So licensed as a psychologist means that you’ve gotten certain privileges and restrictions, but you are part of the club that can do psychological services and medical services.

I had a moment when I was back to when I was really young. If I don’t take the test – I had all these reasons – if I don’t go get licensed, I’ll be able to build a business and I’ll be fine. Because you don’t have to be licensed to do some of the work that we’re talking about. But so it was like this personal decision. Do I go and get tested or do I not? It was one of these really cool moments where I was like, you know what? I’m letting it rip.

I can remember getting the results back. I was in the first home that I bought with my wife and getting that thing back and the results back after six weeks of waiting, I was jumping up and down. That was a moment of test that was meaningful for me and it created a lot of freedom for other tests.

Tim Ferriss: After all of your experiences with the SATs and so on and hating tests, what was the self-talk to make that decision?

Michael Gervais: To go for that test?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Michael Gervais: I would be a phony. I really did want it. This goes back to surfing. I really did want it, but I couldn’t do it. I was afraid to do it. I was afraid to put myself out there to not be good enough.

That was the model that others were going to determine if I was good enough. So I was right on the cusp of it during this test-taking thing. I could go and build a business the other way, or I could go and get tested. It was really just for me.

Tim Ferriss: So being honest with yourself?

Michael Gervais: Yeah, I was being honest.

Tim Ferriss: Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Michael Gervais.

Michael Gervais: All right. Thank you, guys.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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