My guest today is Kara Loewentheil, who has a B.A. from Yale and J.D. from Harvard Law. In the last three and a half years, she has pivoted from a legal career and is now a Master Certified Coach. She’s the host of the iTunes top-rated self-help podcast “Un-F Your Brain,” which has been downloaded over 5 million times, and she has been featured in outlets like Marie Claire, Mind Body Green, MSN.com, and The Huffington Post.
I love to occasionally have folks with a perspective outside of our education bubble come on the show to give us a broader perspective.
We recorded this prior to the pandemic, so you won’t hear us address that, however, I decided to run the episode this week because I think our conversation is going to be more relevant now than ever.
As we’re stuck inside for weeks on end with other humans, the concept of not being annoyed by personality differences takes on a whole new meaning, right? I hope this episode will be helpful to you not only in your work but in personal life, as well.
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ANGELA: I have gotten a lot of huge aha moments when listening to your podcast, but there was one episode in particular that was really transformative for me in basically every aspect of my life. It changed the way that I think about my own self-development and what I wish I could change about myself, it changed the way I think about my partner and what I wish was different about him, and it changed how I think about my family members, the folks I work with, basically everyone that I come into contact with on a regular basis.
Anyone whose little quirks and preferences drive me bonkers, what you shared on this podcast was just like a “Hallelujah Chorus” moment for me. I knew immediately I wanted to have you come on the show and talk to teachers because I think that this could do all of the above for them and transform the way they see their students and their students’ families.
So that is quite the buildup there, but I think it conveys how enthusiastic I am about this concept. Can you talk to us about your ideas around the human ecosystem?
KARA: Yes, I feel like now I’ve really got to deliver the goods now. If anyone’s mind isn’t blown, it’s your fault for telling them it would be!
So the human ecosystem is a concept that I came up with. There’s a lot of ideas out in the world and we all combine them in different ways, but basically, I think that the way that we think about things often is very impacted by what age of society we’re living in, and we’re still sort of in the industrial revolution. It has turned into the technological revolution, but we think about people kind of like machines that we can tinker with, right? Where we’re like, “Well, just this little thing is broken and I just want to like change that.”
I noticed this especially in my last relationship, although I’m sure I do it to my current partner also. It was like, “Well, I love X, Y, and Z about him. I love that he’s creative and I love our chemistry and I love that he’s interested in politics, but if I could just change that he’s always late and doesn’t like to communicate about his feelings, then it would be perfect.”
Right? If I could just change these three things … and that was, of course, a recipe for insanity because it’s hard enough when you want to change yourself. You for sure can’t change someone else. He was not even interested in changing those things about himself, and I was constantly fixated on how it would just be so perfect if he was different in these ways.
I notice also that we do it to ourselves, too. “I just want to change this about myself so I can finally be good enough. I just want to change this about myself so I can finally be happy. I just want to change this about myself, and then everything will be perfect.”
What I realized was that I was thinking about people in this mechanistic way of like, “Oh, if I could just change the pressure setting on that gauge, then everything would work perfectly,” but in fact, we’re much more like ecosystems.
Whatever my brain wanted to tell me that he should change or was wrong with him was a part of the whole humankind of system that was all interconnected and interrelated and interdependent. Even if I had all the magic in the world, if I tinkered with one thing, it would change everything else.
So maybe I love that he’s creative and I hate that he’s late, but maybe he’s late because he gets lost in thinking about creative things, right? If I turned on his ability to always be on time somehow by magic, maybe that would impact how creative he was, right?
The idea is that everything in an ecosystem is dependent on each other. So there’s no perfect climate system in the world, right? Even California. Beautiful weather, but often a decade of drought or earthquakes. We can’t have it be 75 with no humidity all year round. You can’t have the forest and the desert in the same place. You have to accept that everything is in balance. It’s almost like a yin-yang: Everything has its opposite and everything is in balance, so thinking about people as a whole human ecosystem for me makes it so much easier to appreciate both.
People may have things I love and things I don’t love as much, and the next step is to see how those things are related. Can I see the thing that I don’t like as actually being somehow related to a thing that I love?
You can’t always make that exact of a connection, but I don’t even think you have to for the idea to be helpful. Sometimes I also think about the chaos theory idea, the famous saying that’s like, “A butterfly flaps its wings in America and there’s a hurricane in Tokyo,” that one tiny change can change a whole system, can change the whole world.
So this is thinking about a person or yourself as a whole ecosystem, where there are things I like more than some other things, but it’s not possible to just turn up the parts I like and turn down the parts I don’t like. That’s not how humans work, and that’s not how I work.
When it comes to yourself, of course, you can change things if you want to, but so often we come from trying to change ourselves from a standpoint of, “I’m not good enough. This is bad. I need to hurry up and change it,” and we’re not really trying to understand ourselves. We’re just trying to force change so we can feel okay about ourselves.
I think when you consider yourself as a human ecosystem, you can see, for example, that if you’re the person who’s creative and late that maybe you do want to work on not being late all the time, but it helps you stop judging yourself in order to see it as, “Oh, this is part of something I do like about myself, or at least it’s just part of my whole being. I’m not just my flaws. I’m a whole system. “
I can come to it from appreciating the whole ecosystem and letting go of the idea that it’ll ever be completely perfect. It’ll never be 75, no humidity, sunny all the time.
Yes, exactly. We are human ecosystems. We’re not machines. One of the characteristics in me that I feel self-conscious about sometimes or that I want to change is getting anxiety when I can’t control things. So I’m a super big planner. If I have a trip coming up six months from now, I’m already thinking about what I will need to pack, where we’re going to go, and it drains me.
But then I remind myself, “Okay, I can’t change that one thing without also disrupting another part of me that I do like.” I love that I plan ahead. That’s part of why I’m so successful. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing in my work if I weren’t a planner, if I weren’t a systems thinker, if I wasn’t a big picture person who over-analyzes everything. I overanalyze things so other people don’t have to, kind of like you do actually! You do that big picture thinking about stuff and then convey it to people in simpler ways so that they can access it.
That’s part of what makes me, me, and that’s one of my beautiful traits. I can work on some of the over-planning and do some reframing around it, but ultimately do I want to change the “good” part of me in order to fix the part that I think is “bad”?
Yeah, totally. I think with ecosystems, we can see different ecosystems are beautiful in their own way. There’s a beauty to the desert, there’s a beauty to the jungle.
Just think about the planning piece — because my partner does not plan and I plan a lot — and it’s easy for me to be like, “Oh, well he should just plan like I plan. Then I wouldn’t have to do all the planning, or then I wouldn’t feel anxious when we don’t have plans,” and blame that on him.
But, of course, I love that he is really great at being present in the moment, whereas my brain is like, “What’s happening next Thursday?”
I don’t have to change either of us necessarily, right? I can just see, “Oh, these are two different ecosystems, and they actually kind of balance each other out.”
Often we choose partners, I think, who balance us out. Now, not all of the relationships in our lives are ones that we’ve chosen, but it’s the same concept as that.
What happens is that we default to thinking whatever we are like is the best way to be. Everybody else should be like me!
But when you think about an ecosystem, that’s not true. The world would be worse off if everywhere had the same exact climate and every place had the same ecosystem. We would have a lot less diversity of natural beauty and animals and culture.
So seeing them as just different ecosystems is helpful, and okay, maybe our ecosystems need to interact. How can we do that in a way that’s less stressful for us? That’s more helpful than, “Why aren’t you getting on board with my humidity level? That’s how it should be.”
Let’s talk about some situations where it’s not changing yourself. It’s not a partner, it’s not someone you picked, but maybe someone you’re sort of stuck with. When I think about the teachers listening, I think probably every single one of them has a student in their classroom that they just don’t click with. It’s just like oil and water.
So for me, when I was teaching — I taught for 11 years — and when I had kids whose personalities were very opposite of mine, they had a very different ecosystem, it was tough. The kids that were hardest for me were the kids who were loud, extroverted, really active, doing a lot of silly things to get attention, interrupting me a lot, not paying attention, that sort of thing.
For me, it would take twice the effort to not be impatient with that student, and I would have to work twice as hard to build that relationship and connect with them, particularly if my self-talk included things like, “This kid is so aggravating. I don’t know why he can’t just sit down. If he could just shut his mouth for three seconds, I could finally teach.” Those kinds of thoughts were not helpful!
I think the concept of a human ecosystem really invites empathy and leaves space for connection. So can you tell us about how to apply this principle to a situation where you are stuck in a room every day with a student who has lots of qualities that you wish could be changed?
I think one thing is to think about is, “What’s their ecosystem? Why are they doing that?” No 8-year-old or even 18-year-old goes into the world being like, “My whole goal in life is to make my teacher mad because I hate them.”
That’s not what’s happening, and kids are such an ecosystem in flux, right? But they’re showing up, so why is that kid acting out so much? Maybe they’re not getting attention at home. Maybe they have low self-esteem. Maybe they just really have a lot of energy and your school, unfortunately, got rid of recess, and you want to have them run around the classroom for two minutes at the beginning.
Whatever it is, when you can stop thinking they should do something, you open up space to see solutions. The whole problem is that we think people should be a certain way, and that way is always what we think would make our lives easier.
But nobody owes you that. Maybe YOU should be the way that would make that kid’s life easier, right? Your ecosystem is not better than theirs.
I think one thing you can do is think about, “Okay, why would this person be behaving this way?” Take away the option of thinking it’s because they’re horrible. That’s how we want to explain things. That’s not really an explanation. If you actually try to think about, like if you’re not allowed to just blame it on them having a bad character of some kind.
You have to imagine, what if this was someone I loved? If it was my own child or myself? Of course, we’re very harsh on those people too, but if I thought that this person had good intentions or they weren’t out to get me or I wasn’t allowed to just explain this away with, “Well, they’re just bad and wrong,” and I had to really think about what might be going on, I think that gives you access to try to imagine, “Okay, what’s the other side of this? What is the ecosystem? Why is this flower blooming right now? What’s happening that’s creating that?”
I liked your point about choosing different thoughts, and I know one thing that you teach a lot is that thoughts are optional. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Yeah. That’s a whole five-hour podcast by itself. I think the human ecosystem, what I like about it is that it’s a halfway house to that.
Yeah, the gateway drug. The truth is that all of our thoughts about other people are totally optional. We’re not right about them all. And what I like about the ecosystem is it sort of lets you hold onto your negative thoughts a little bit, but you just look for how to balance that out.
But ultimately, I believe that what we think often has very little to do with reality. We tend to just grow up believing, “Well, if I think something, then it’s true, right? The reason I think it is because it’s true,” and we don’t question that.
The truth is that your brain is kind of hallucinating your experience all the time when you get into the neurological side of things. All of the things that you’re thinking unconsciously or consciously — but that you haven’t chosen to think and just came up in your brain–are not necessarily true at all.
You had trouble with this extroverted kid, but you can imagine an extroverted teacher would really bond with that kid and have trouble with an introverted kid. “Why is this kid so quiet? Why do I have to draw them out? Why are they so shy? It’s so annoying!” It all totally depends on what you’re thinking.
I think the human ecosystem helps you see the other side of how you can at least start to look for different ways of thinking about someone, but ultimately, you can always choose what you want to think about someone. All these things are just subjective. What one person thinks is extroverted, another person thinks is painfully shy. You get to decide what to think.
I think especially when we feel like we don’t have a say in certain relationships, and that might be your students, it could be the principal, it could be your mother-in-law, father-in-law, whatever it is, that’s when we get really self-pitying and believe all of our own negative thoughts and feel trapped.
But the truth is we can decide what to think on purpose, and we can decide if we’re going to think thoughts that feel terrible, or we can decide to think thoughts that feel compassionate. That’s a big lifetime project, but that is available to us as something to work on.
Yeah, that is lifelong work for me for sure. It’s something I’m always conscious of, because one of the thoughts that I find myself believing a lot is that I need this other person to change in order for me to be happy. So for teachers, this might manifest like … I could enjoy teaching if I didn’t have this kid in my class or this kid didn’t act this way. I could enjoy my work a lot more if my coworker would be different than the way that they are, and that’s not really true. That’s not a helpful thought.
So one of the things that I think about is, even if a thought is true, is it helpful? Is it something that I WANT to think about? Is it going to lead me to constructive solutions? Thinking about how this person gets on my nerves or that I want them to change really isn’t serving me well. The truth is that I don’t need them to change in order to be happy.
Totally. I think one of the great ways to see that is to think about who would be thrilled to be in your situation, whatever it is.
I use this all the time with people who are upset about their appearance and who have body image stuff. Who would be thrilled that this part of their body worked this way if they were used to it not working at all? Or who would be thrilled that they looked this way?
They’re used to looking at it different way and being mean to themselves about that. But it’s all relative. This kind of shows your brain that our minds are used to looking for what’s wrong in any given situation, and we always think, “Oh, if the situation just changed that I’d be happy,” but a lot of us have actually changed the situation and then still we found something else to be upset about.
We’re still not happy.
Right. So sometimes it helps to imagine like, “Okay, this kid is rowdy in my class. Who would be thrilled to be teaching this class? Oh, maybe a teacher who’s teaching in a school that doesn’t have electricity would be really thrilled, or somebody who has 12 kids like this would be like, ‘Just one? That’s easy.'”
It’s not about some objective misfortune radar scale or anything, it’s just to help you play with the idea when your brain is in that kind of self-pity to think, “Whatever I’m dealing with now … somebody else right now thinks this would be their perfect situation.” These are all just optional thoughts.
The other thing that happens is your brain has mental habits just like your body has physical habits. So maybe you’ve trained your brain to criticize your coworkers or to think that a kid being loud means to think that the kids are in control of whether you can teach. We can give you a whole new set of coworkers and a whole new set of kids.
What’s your brain’s habit now? To still think that thought, right? Your brain has been trained to think a certain way. You’re the one training it unconsciously, so we can switch out who’s around, but you’re going to have the same thoughts.
Like when you listen to people who really believe all their negative thoughts, it’s like they’re constantly telling you the same story over several decades of everything else changing, right? It’s like, “Well, I switched schools four times, and every one shockingly had a bad principal.” Maybe. Maybe you are used to thinking that the principal’s always bad.
So if you were to apply the human ecosystem principle there, like, “I can never have a good principal. I’ve never had a good leader. None of these principals are supporting me in my job,” how could I apply some of these thought strategies and thought tools here?
Well, I think that depends. The human ecosystem is just one tool. I think it’s always useful to look for evidence of the opposite of whatever you believe. That’s kind of what the ecosystem does, right?
So if your thought is that your principal’s a terrible leader, well, okay. If you were someone who believed they were a great leader, can you find evidence of that? Or if you think the problem with their leadership is they don’t make decisions fast enough, okay, can you see that that’s tied to the fact that they really do care about what the teachers think, and that makes it hard for them to make a decision? I’m just making up examples.
No, that’s good.
I think one thing that’s important for your listeners to understand if this resonates with them is that the human ecosystem is just one tool in a whole library of tools of what we call “thought work”, which is working using the neuroplasticity of your brain to your advantage to change the way you think on purpose.
So depending on the situation, different tools will be helpful in different ways. I have a podcast, people have written books, there’s a lot of different ways to study this work. It’s not that the human ecosystem is the tool for every scenario. I think it depends, but that’s certainly one way to think about it.
What’s something that you wish that every teacher listening to this understood about getting along with people who are different from them and who feel like those differences are a source of frustration?
I think that every career I’ve ever heard of, the people in it are convinced that theirs is the worst. I’ve had the fortune of having coached thousands of women, and it’s like the architects want to tell me why architecture is the hardest. The teachers want to tell me why teaching is the hardest.
We all believe our stories, right? We have these deep stories about why in our particular profession is most difficult. The human brain wants to be right, so we want to be right that teaching is the hardest or coaching is the hardest or architecture is the hardest or being a doctor is the hardest or whatever.
But if you’re willing to be wrong, you can be so much happier than you imagine now.
I think this is important especially for teachers. It’s like you want to encourage your students to question their assumptions, to be willing to be wrong, to learn new things. What if you could bring that same curiosity and that same willingness to learn and grow and change and adapt to your own thinking about your job, your profession, your colleagues, whatever it is?
That’s so good. I want to throw out another question here … It’s just something that’s kind of occurring to me. What about differences in worldviews? The climate in the country right now is that things are very divided, and I think it’s going to get more and more heated as the year goes on. Are there helpful ways to think about those kinds of differences to keep those connections and build those relationships instead of just, “This person is wrong,” while also acknowledging the fact that sometimes people’s beliefs are harmful to other people?
Well, I think that’s a big can of worms, whether people’s beliefs are harmful to other people. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that I took so much philosophy in college, but ultimately humans have been debating what is the good life for thousands of years, and people don’t agree, right?
There’s no way for me to prove that being a progressive, radical feminist is the good way or is the good life. A lot of people disagree with that, and I think so much suffering in life comes from believing that everyone else should share our beliefs, and that something has gone wrong if they don’t.
I think there’s so much freedom in “allowing” other people to have their own beliefs. “Allowing” is in quotes because they’re already allowed to. They have human autonomy just like you do, right?
We get so myopic. We’re in a fight about a value or a principle or something, and we just only see that we think they’re wrong and need to agree with us. They think the exact same thing.
We cannot prove in any epistemological sense of which of us is right. So for me, I think part of what happens is it’s like people think the best way to change the world is to have a lot of fights with people who don’t agree with them, and often on Facebook.
Having been a social justice litigator (I was a reproductive rights litigator for 10 years), I have done my time in the social justice externally-focused world like that, and it’s not that effective fighting with other people, especially on Facebook.
I think burnout is such a huge issue in teaching and in social justice work because we are so emotionally resistant to what’s going on. I have a whole podcast episode called “What about sexism?”, but you can apply it to whatever you’re dealing with that talks about the difference between emotional and political resistance.
How can I show up to try to create the world I want to create without wasting all of my energy being angry that other people don’t agree with me?
Oh, that’s good. Anything else that you want to add to what we’ve talked about today?
I think that I know for me, learning that my thoughts are what create my feelings and that I can choose what to think on purpose just completely revolutionized my life and blew my mind. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy all the time to implement it, but it’s such a big issue.
I get a lot of teachers in my membership group, The Clutch. Teaching is a field a lot like law — which I was in — where part of the problem is everyone else agrees with you that your field is terrible, right? There’s a lot of “group think” about how terrible it is, so it can be an echo chamber.
It’s like you’re dealing with people’s big problems. You’re working inside a system you can’t control. The system is not designed the way you want it to be, right? There’s a lot of similarities, and I think so many people give up on social justice work and teaching and similar fields because they’re so emotionally burnt out, and it really doesn’t have to be that way.
I think like if I could give you one message, that’s it. It is actually possible to learn how to think in a different way so that you have the emotional resilience to keep doing what you wanted to do in the first place, which is … show up, love, and teach those kids and serve.
It really is possible to do that work without feeling exhausted and victimized all the time, and it’s just the best change that you can make for yourself or for the world.