When I first put out the call for recommendations for extraordinary business books, Gay Hendricks’s The Big Leap was one of the titles that just kept coming up. When I read it I understood what all the fuss was about. The two central concepts – the ‘Zone of Genius’ and ‘upper-limiting problems’ – are immediately recognizable to any entrepreneur or business leader, and taken together they become a blueprint for understanding ourselves better and putting an end to self-sabotage.
In this interview – recorded in September 2015 – Gay Hendricks reveals how the book came into being, his writing habits, and his unorthodox approach to structure.
Alison Jones: Tell me a little bit about the motivation for writing The Big Leap in the first place and also, did that change as you actually got into the writing of it?
Gay Hendricks: Well, that particular book, The Big Leap, it really did take me thirty years to write it because I started thinking about the two big issues that I cover in The Big Leap. Number one, being the upper limit problem, our tendency to sabotage ourselves when things are going well and number two, the zone of genius and how to occupy more of your own inner genius. I started thinking about that when I was still a Ph D student at Stanford in 1973 and ’74.
I remember particularly because my daughter was in the first grade at the time, she was six years old at the time and I happen to remember because some of the ideas I saw from sitting in her first grade classroom. I saw that these little kids had these areas of genius that they had. That one of them was really good at one thing and one of them was really good at something else, but they didn’t get much of a chance to develop that area of themselves, so that’s really what got me thinking about it and of course, when I started working with adults I began thinking about it, too.
The Big Leap, it all crystallized five or six years ago when I suddenly realized one day, “Okay, I’ve been thinking about this for thirty-five years now. I finally got to sit down and write the book about it,” and so I finally …
Alison Jones: Tell me more about that because obviously you could have said to yourself ‘I’ve been writing this book for twenty-eight years’, but you didn’t, it was that. What happened? What was the trigger at that point?
Gay Hendricks: Well, I think one thing is that I took a vow just between me and the universe when I first started my career, way back. 1968 was really when I saw my first client as a therapist in a school for delinquent boys. Later on I got my PhD and went onto a university career and all that, but it actually started in 1968, so I guess that’s been forty-five or fifty years since I first started thinking about these kinds of things.
I made this vow. I decided to quit working for money basically. I saw my friends in private practice, and they were all consumed with their mortgage payments, and they were consumed with their Mercedes Benz payments, and I saw these people go from being kind of interesting, fun to be around PhD students at Stanford to being in private practice a few years later and, “Oh, I’m just being consumed by real estate and trying to get ahead.”
I thought, “I don’t want my life to be about that.” I decided that I wasn’t going to work for money; I was going to do something very different. I took this vow. I said, “I’m going to quit working for money. I’m going to put my attention on expressing everything I know and writing about all the interesting things I think there are about human beings, but it’s not going to necessarily be what the field of psychiatry or psychology thinks is interesting. I’m going to forge my own path.” I began doing that.
I wrote my first little book, which was called The Centering Book, which was about that experience in my daughter’s first grade classroom. That little book came out in 1975 and became an instant hit with teachers. It was a book of relaxation and centering activities for teachers to use in the classroom to help kids stay more calm, and at ease, and that kind of thing, especially before tests to keep them clear and sharp before you gave them a test or something.
Anyway, that book took off and became a nice little best seller. I was instantly rewarded for this idea that I’d had, “Okay, I’m going to quit working for money. I’m just going to put my attention to what needs to be done, what I really want to do.” I figured the first time out the gate… so the publisher came to me and said, “Would you write a second Centering book?” I did some work and out came the second Centering book.
Ever since I made that vow, and took that idea on of I’m just going to express as best I can through my writings what I really feel is important, and then let’s see if that brings back a wave of popularity, and abundance, and that kind of thing, and so far it’s been working like a charm for the last forty years, so I have no plans to give up that way of doing things.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting. I mean, I used to be a scholarly publisher, so I know very much that the track that you normally go on as the academic and it’s a mill, isn’t it? The publications, the review articles, the finding of the areas of the field where it’s popular, and attractive to write in, where people are going to celebrate you in that little niche, and so I can see the mental shift, the deliberate shift that you took to get out of that.
Gay Hendricks: Yeah, and I’m one of those people, too, that the way my mind works is if I see something, I try it on for myself and run it out in the future. When I tried this idea of being in private practice, and having to see forty clients a week to make a living, and what all my colleagues and friends were doing, that just wasn’t for me because I have a real high priority on the quality of life, too. I like to go to the gym and work out three times a week, so I don’t ever want my life to get so busy that I can’t do that. The quality of life is so important.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting as well, you’re in that space, that happy space it’s really hard to hit between trade, and professional, and scholarly. There’s a flavour of all three in there.
Gay Hendricks: Well, I started out, my first publications were in scholarly publications in peer reviewed journals. That’s what you had to do to get a counselling psychology degree, back then anyway.
Alison Jones: It still is.
Gay Hendricks: It probably still is and so that was the first thing I did, but I’ll tell you, here’s an interesting thing that I shifted also that you might be interested in. I was originally trained as a research psychologist as well as a counselling psychologist because the program I went to you couldn’t just learn how to be a counselling and clinical psychologist there. You also had to do research about it and it was a very rigorous programme because you not only had to do the people stuff, but you had to do the data stuff, too, at the same time.
Alison Jones: This was at Stanford.
Gay Hendricks: Yeah, yeah, at Stanford where I was trained. That has a great advantage to it. I don’t want to knock the medical model, or the scientific model, or anything like that because it’s responsible for great things, but what I realized was that I wanted to do the kind of research where I could see the results on the person’s face.
Alison Jones: That’s a great phrase.
Gay Hendricks: I didn’t want to just have to comb through a bunch of numbers. I knew how to do statistical research and all of that, but to me, the real valuable thing is when you see a client or a group of people where they go from suddenly not getting something to, “Ah, I got it, I understand it down in my bones.”
Alison Jones: Brilliant, so going back to that question about motivation. You said there was that trigger at thirty-five years of thinking about it. What was it then that finally made you think,”You know what, I got to write this book,” because I agree, there are two almost quite separate concepts in there. It really struck me as I was reading it because if I was working with a client, I’d be like, “Actually, you might have two books here.”
Gay Hendricks: That’s really an interesting point you make there because I think that actually contributed to why I wrote the book when I was thirty-five. Suddenly I saw how those two things fit together and they fit together so beautifully because just think about the issue. The issue is human beings have some positive, we make some more money or we have some more love in our lives, and then we find a way to sabotage ourselves and knock ourselves back down to where we were before. I used to call that the Upper Limit Problem for many years. That was part of our live trainings. We trained many counsellors, and therapists, life coaches here at our institute and so we trained a whole generation of people in this whole issue of the Upper Limit Problem and how to deal with that.
Then suddenly one day I saw that that is really the issue that keeps people from developing their Zone Of Genius, because they start to do a little bit more in their Zone Of Genius and then they have an Upper Limit Problem that puts them back down to where they were before. I saw how those two things connected together. That was when the light went on for the book The Big Leap. Here’s something else interesting. I didn’t have a title for The Big Leap until I talked to my agent about it.
I was very excitedly describing to her and by the way, I have an agent who is just a genius at thinking up titles. Bonnie Solow is her name. She’s a very famous agent in the United States. Anyway, I was talking to Bonnie very excitedly on the phone about what this book was about. As you can tell, I tend to get a little passionate about what I’m talking about.
Alison Jones: I know, it’s great.
Gay Hendricks: Then we came to the end of the conversation and she said, “Well, what’s the title?” I said, “Well, I don’t really have a title for it yet. Do you have any ideas?” She said, “Well, what it really sounds like is that you’re helping people take their big leaps in life.” We both went, ahhhhh……
Alison Jones: That’ll do.
Gay Hendricks: Why not just call it The Big Leap? Then somebody came across that picture of the goldfish that’s on the front cover. Somebody at the publisher found that, which I just love that.
Alison Jones: It is wonderful, but it makes me quite anxious. I’m not sure he’s going to make it. That’s what I thought. I don’t know if that trajectory’s right, I don’t know.
Gay Hendricks: Somebody actually wrote me about that, some mathematician, analysed the trajectory and said it didn’t look good.
Alison Jones: It doesn’t look good for the fish. No, it is great and it does that thing that a really good title does, which is kind of saying everything, but also leaving space for questions.
Gay Hendricks: Yeah and also I wanted to give the impression of hope, too. There’s possibility here.
Alison Jones: There’s real movement there, a sense of …
Gay Hendricks: There’s the possibility that the fish is going to make it and the possibility that she won’t.
Alison Jones: That cognitive leap of these two things that had always been part of your mental furniture, always been part of what you talk to people about, suddenly realizing that the inextricable connection between them that you suddenly thought, “That’s the book. That’s the whole thing.”
Gay Hendricks: Yes and actually it was almost like the book wrote itself in the sense that once I sat down and started devoting the two hours every day that I write … By the way, I’m an early morning person. I get up early in the morning and I write for the first couple of hours. Then I do the rest of my life the rest of the day. I don’t try to write later on once the world wakes up. I get my two hours in usually between let’s say five and seven or five thirty to seven thirty in the morning. My wife likes to sleep in and so she wakes up around seven thirty, and so I try to coincide finishing my writing morning to go spend time with her. We have a ritual here. I always like to bring her her first cup of coffee in the morning.
Alison Jones: What a nice ritual.
Gay Hendricks: And I grind my own beans, and everything, so I finish writing, and then I go grind some coffee beans, and get back into the real world again.
Alison Jones: When you said it wrote itself, how far did you structure it in advance or did you just let it flow and then restructure it until after you’d finished?
Gay Hendricks: Well, people who like to do outlines should plug their ears and close their eyes right now because I got to tell you, I have never used an outline in my life since I had to do it in college. To me, here’s my outline. I get to the end of a sentence and then I think, “What is the very next thing that needs to be said?” And then, “What is the very next thing?” People tell me all the time that I think in paragraphs. I always tell people, I’ve done seminars on how to write and that kind of thing, and I always tell people if you can write a paragraph, you can write a book. All it takes is a bunch of paragraphs together.
For me, the book wrote itself because once I got the idea how they work together, it was almost like it was boom, boom, boom. Just what had to be expressed to help people really understand it. When I write, I’m not just after intellectual understanding, I want a whole-body understanding, so I use metaphors that aren’t just cognitive metaphors. I use a lot of body metaphors with breathing and movement because if you think about it, how big is the territory in the human brain that processes language? Well, it’s about maybe the size of, I don’t know what your coinage is over here, but a quarter or a fifty cent piece would be over here. What is that over there? A shilling or something?
Alison Jones: No, we have moved on a little bit since then. Yeah, it’s about a fifty pence piece, yeah.
Gay Hendricks: Fifty pence, that’s right, 50p. That’s right. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in England. That part of the brain is very small compared to the rest of us. In fact …
Alison Jones: It’s also quite a recent comer, isn’t it? Hasn’t got much power in the hierarchy of the brain.
Gay Hendricks: It hasn’t because if you think of the brain as being approximately the size of a grapefruit, the juicy part of the grapefruit is about the size of the limbic part of the brain, the emotional part of the brain, and the rind of the grapefruit is about the size of our new cortex that we’ve been …
Alison Jones: That just sits on top of this dinosaur brain.
Gay Hendricks: Yeah, yeah, and so we have this civilized person sitting on this reptilian brain that was there before any of that happened, so if you look at a crocodile, a crocodile doesn’t sit around and consider its emotions very much. Its emotions are all tied up in its very large jaw, whereas a human being really needs to learn how to consider our emotions, and be with our feelings, and particularly express them in a clear way because in an average relationship, marriage or whatever, a business relationship or whatever kind of relationship you’re in, there are going to be dozens of different feelings that occur during the course of the day.
You might feel excited, you might feel scared about something, you might feel happy, you might feel angry, but all of those feelings, they’re really ten second issues because if you know how to communicate your feelings you could just say, “I feel happy right now,” or, “I feel sad right now,” or, “I feel scared right now,” but if you don’t know how to communicate about your feelings, those things become very big deals. I know because I used to be not very good at communicating about things like that. In fact, before I met Katie I probably had half a dozen different girlfriends in my teens and twenties that would always say some version like, “You never say anything about yourself,” or, “You never talk about your feelings,” or, “How are you feeling right now?” I’ve always said, “What are you talking about? I’m here, aren’t I?” Now I understand what they were getting at.
Alison Jones: It’s so true isn’t it because when you name something, in a sense you make it separate from you, so even just being aware of a feeling, giving it a name makes you realize that actually this is not part of you. You are not angry, you are experiencing anger. It’s the sort of thing that’s separate from you, and that robs it of its power, doesn’t it?
Gay Hendricks: Yeah, once you depersonalized it. If you said to somebody, “One is feeling quite irritated right now.” It wouldn’t be the same as saying, “I’m angry.” Just a clear communication. That’s why I say it’s a ten-second problem. I’ve done a lot of corporate consulting where I go in and work with people in the corporate world, like coach CEOs or work particularly with a board that’s having a conflict with each other and I haven’t seen one yet that took longer than ten minutes to straighten out once people started communicating clearly about what was going on. I’m a big believer in having alignment between who we are inside of ourselves and what comes out of our mouth.
The moment we start concealing, hiding, all of that, then a whole host of problems start happening. I think it actually ultimately, if we’re not transparent with our emotions, it ultimately affects our physical health because you hide all those things inside down in there.
Alison Jones: Also people sense the dissonance. They know there isn’t an integrity there. They know something’s wrong, but they don’t quite know what.
Gay Hendricks: Yes, I appreciate your term dissonance there because it is. I think it sets up that rattle that then makes you sick ultimately.
Alison Jones: Just picking up on what you said about the coaching, and the consulting, and so on because that is one thing that I would really like to ask you about as well. I don’t know how conscious it was or whether you saw it as something separate, but when you were writing the book or after you published the book, how did you see it working with your business?
Gay Hendricks: Well, actually I write fiction and non-fiction, so in my hobby, my spare time, I like to write mystery stories about my Tibetan Buddhist sleuth in LA named Tenzing Norbu. His name is Ten for short and so all the book titles have ten in them, like The First Rule of Ten and The Second Rule of Ten…
Alison Jones: Nice, yes yes yes…
Gay Hendricks: …The Broken Rules of Ten, so when I’m writing about Ten I don’t really think about the commercial purposes of it. I’m just telling a story and I write mystery stories because I love to read mystery stories. I’ve probably read every great mystery author there is, including some of the great ones that you folks have spawned over there. My great hero, Arthur Conan Doyle. Anyway, the greats, all the English greats are right here on my bookshelf, but in the non-fiction realm, I write them for my own satisfaction so I can express something that’s important to me, but I always have in mind how those books are going to complement my business.
I would say that writing books here, book royalties is probably a distant third in our profit centres. Our main profit centre is training. We do trainings here and we do trainings for the general public in the area of relationships. We can have anywhere from fifty to five-hundred people in a group learning relationship materials, so that by far is our biggest profit centre here compared to book royalties, but without the books it wouldn’t feed that business.
Same thing with The Big Leap. We do a lot of corporate consulting here, particularly my wife. Yeah, I have a commercial purpose in mind, particularly with our non-fiction books. I knew immediately as I got into writing The Big Leap that it was going to be a tremendous service to people in the executive world particularly and also to entrepreneurs because entrepreneurs really have a lot of issues that I deal with in The Big Leap. I’m teaching a whole course for entrepreneurs right now as a matter of fact, an advanced course for entrepreneurs that just started a few weeks ago where I’ve got forty or fifty people, all virtual and some of them are scattered all over the world, but when I’m with them on video and everything, what I’m working with them on is how to deal with those upper limits that entrepreneurs face because they have a bunch of them in the early stages of the business.
Also you may have heard the saying that the most dangerous phase in any business is fast expansion, so one of the most dangerous things that happens in entrepreneur’s lives is that their business takes off, and they don’t have the structure to handle it, and particularly I want to point to where the real structure is that needs to be handling it, which is down inside ourselves because if you think about it, like I cover in The Big Leap, a number of people, like famous people, who had big upper limits problems. Like our great comedian John Bellushi who has the number one album, the number one TV show, the number one movie, and then dies of a drug overdose.
It’s a classic example of a person only being able to touch their Zone Of Genius for a few brief months really before they sabotage themselves. We have to start paying attention to that no matter what level of the game we’re at. I get some of the most satisfying email from Big Leap readers and it’s variable. I’ll get one email from somebody who’s just starting a business and then I’ll get another email from somebody who’s running a big business. It seems to hit people at where ever they are in the process. I’m very grateful to that. I did that by conscious intention, but I’m very grateful that the intention got realized.
Alison Jones: You’re absolutely right because it’s such a fundamental human principle – it’s not something that is applicable to single stage of your life, or your career, or anything. It’s going to manifest itself in different ways at different stages, but it’s the same principle.
Gay Hendricks: Yes, exactly the same principle because in relationships, in business, you’re always going to be pushing up against your upper limit. Whether you do that gracefully and move through that gracefully, that’s what I’m interested in because the upper limits are here to stay.
Alison Jones: One of my other questions was actually pulling up something you said earlier about writing fiction and non-fiction. What is it that writing does for you do you think? What is it about it that you love so much?
Gay Hendricks: Well, I hope it’s not too X-rated to say that when writing is going well, it’s as good as sex. I mean, it’s as good as the goodest feelings we have have. I’ve been a daily meditator since 1973, so I’ve meditated about forty-five minutes a day since 1973, so what’s that, about forty-some years now and at the end of meditation when I’m feeling that real clear, open, spacious, that’s one of the best feelings in the world. Also when you’re making love with your beloved, that’s one of the best feelings in the world. When writing is going well for me, it has that flow to it, it has that good feeling to it.
Actually, I use that good feeling as my barometer because if I stop feeling that, that’s time for me to stop for the day. As long as I keep that sweet, easy feeling going in my body while I’m working I figure I’ve got something good to say. I’m not one of those that’s going to sit there and write something like this because I know the output isn’t going to be good, so I like to have a good time while I’m doing it. If you watch me sitting here, this is my room that I write in, you’d see me breathing, and moving, and I have a flute over in the corner. You’d see me get up occasionally and play it a little bit. I’m no good at it, but I like to play. My cats, they come to visit and hang out with me, so it’s part for me of really feeling good while I’m writing. I think that that may be a different way of going about it. I have a lot of my writer colleagues that have to supplement with vodka or something like that to get the flow going
Alison Jones: That was Hemingway, wasn’t it? Hemingway’s great line, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I think what’s interesting is that does come across. Now I talk to you, it’s like I knew you already because you sound just like you sound in here. You’ve got the energy and the easy flow of it. I think a lot of the stories make that happen. It’s just like listening to somebody tell an anecdote and it works really beautifully. Imagine somebody reading this review whose always admired this book and who wants to write something that’s going to have the same impact on people in their field, what advice would you give to someone like that?
Gay Hendricks: Life unfolds one choice at a time. The life you create is the result of tiny little choices at tiny moments of time that didn’t maybe even seem like big choices at the time, but are. I think the best thing that we can do as a human being, as a writer, is get into the business of being more sensitive to those little choice points of life and making choices that further your authenticity, your deep connection with who you really are
It’s a tiny little choice, like if Katie comes in and she says, “How are you feeling right now?” It’s a tiny little choice for me to either tell the truth about it or conceal it. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is a big deal because one choice leads to another choice, so you got to get in the habit of making choices that favor your authenticity, which will ultimately contribute to your overall aliveness and your ability to amplify and bring forth your creativity, but it all starts with those tiny moments of choosing one thing over another.
I think that the one thing you really have to do is to keep making these choices that really further that authenticity, and aliveness, and inner creative spark.
Alison Jones: Thank you so much. It has been such a pleasure talking to you.
Gay Hendricks: Thanks for asking great questions.