In this RisingADs book review, Washington Director of Athletics Jen Cohen and SMU Director of Athletics Rick Hart give insight on personal application of key concepts from Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday. The book touches on the importance for leaders to strive for stillness in thought, contemplation, and life. These things will lead to clarity of thought when making decisions, building relationships, productivity, and developing good habits among other things.
Slow Down and Think Deeply
Holiday defines Satori as an illuminating insight when the inscrutable is revealed, when an essential truth becomes obvious and inescapable.
Well, no one gets to satori going a million miles a minute. No one gets there by focusing on what’s obvious, or by sticking with the first thought that pops into their head. To see what matters, you really have to look. To understand it, you have to really think. It takes real work to grasp what is invisible to just about everyone else.
1. Throughout your career, what methods have you used to slow down and think deeply about all of the pressure points that come along with being a leader, and being a leader in college athletics?
Jen Cohen (JC): The fast paced, noisy and competitive nature of our work often times is our biggest trap for making poor decisions and limiting our full potential as leaders. Some of the biggest mistakes I have made in my career have come from “quick trigger” to make a decision only from my perspective, and letting outside noise dictate timing of decisions. It’s been through those mistakes that I have learned strategies for slowing down and thinking deeply. I have 4 go-to’s that have helped me along the way:
• Dedicated time each morning for journaling, reflection, affirmations, reading allows for emotional and mental focus/strength/optimism
• Movement/Nature just for the pure sake of enjoyment- taking a couple walks each day with music, or in silence fosters my creativity and allows for deeper thinking and awareness
• A deep connection with others – learning, respecting and really hearing other perspectives
• Rigorous exercise on most work days helps fuel physical energy/endurance
Rick Hart (RH): Among the methods I’ve used to slow down and think deeply: physical exercise, reading, and quiet time outside (preferably by the water). Setting aside time to think, getting thoughts onto paper, exploring industry best practices and comparing notes with peers and mentors have all proven to be effective strategies for me over the years.
2. Of course in college athletics, there isn’t always time for in-depth thought for some high pressure pertinent decisions. How do you process information that may require more contemplation than time allows?
JC: For me, when I follow the rituals listed above consistently, I find myself best prepared for any and all crises. It’s just an opportunity that you have been already working towards. Also, I think having a growth mindset really helps prepare you for these moments. Not only do you embrace them, but you also have been curious enough about the work, aware of what’s happening around you, etc. to move at the pace you need when obstacles are thrown your way.
RH: Decisions shouldn’t be rushed; however, there are times when urgent circumstances require swift action. At such times, we rely upon our established mission and values to ensure that our response to the situation is aligned with our expectations and standards. While we may learn new or additional information later that may have better informed our decision, we can go forward knowing that we acted with the student-athlete and university’s best interests as the focal point.
Limit Your Inputs
In order to think clearly, it is essential that each of us figures out how to filter out the inconsequential from the essential. It’s not enough to be inclined toward deep thought and sober analysis; a leader must create time and space for it.
Categorizing his inputs helped him organize his staff around what was important versus what seemed urgent, allowed them to be strategic rather than reactive, a mile deep on what mattered rather than an inch on too many things.
Knowing what not to think about. What to ignore and not to do. It’s your first and most important job.
3. Do you have methods for controlling your inputs?
JC: Oh, I love this topic so much! We are living at a time where there is way too much information! Let me first answer this by sharing a little story about having my first-born son Tyson. When we brought him home from the hospital he had feeding and sleeping issues. As a first-time parent, it’s overwhelming. You want answers, you want an easy fix. So, I started seeking advice from other parents, and from so many books. At one point, it hit me how contradicting so much of the advice was, and how overloaded and stressed I was just from all that information. I learned from that experience how to tune-out. How to love and care for my son based on my own heart, values, experiences. I share this because parenting is leadership. And in leadership you must limit your inputs. A few methods that help me do so:
• I don’t spend ANY time on social media. I delegate that to others. There is just very little value for me to grow as a leader in this space.
• Practice empathy- feeling where someone else is coming from allows for me to determine what is really valuable to our organization
• Delegate! Allow others talents to manage other inputs
• Practice organizational essentialism – limit priority to one major focus every 6-12 months
RH: Controlling inputs starts with developing and installing a strategic plan – vision, mission, values, goals – to clearly define the organization’s standards and expectations. Our strategic plan, The SMU Advantage, establishes our priorities and provides a roadmap which empowers our talented coaches and staff to operate autonomously to identify and act on opportunities and challenges. Simply put, if an “input” doesn’t align with our plan, it’s neither urgent nor important and should be categorized as something “not to think about.”
4. As someone is growing within their career, the process of understanding which inputs are important to give attention to may not be clear. How did you discern what was important as you were progressing through your career?
JC: This is another area I made so many mistakes because of my lack of awareness and understanding. Growing in my career I spent way too much time pleasing vs serving. Pleasing is all about your ego. It gives you a false sense of self and worth, and at times clouds your judgement and commitment to the greater good. I spent a lot of energy wanting to be liked, and let’s face it, that puts you on an emotional roller coaster at times. With experience, I adjusted my inputs to be more service based vs ego based. This process is a bit too long to share here, but the key is looking inward to truly develop an authentic approach to your life. Who are you? What really matters to you? What impact do you want to make? The shift from external praise and approval to inner understanding and awareness has been the key for me leading at this level.
RH: As I was growing in my career, I used a combination of resources to discern what was important, including, but not limited to: the formal evaluation and goal setting process, the strategic plan, individual and group meetings, and industry gatherings and relationships.
5. Do you have any advice for those coming up through the ranks now on filtering inputs to allow strategic thinking rather than reactive thinking?
JC: I think the first thing is going through the exercise of really figuring yourself out, and spending time every day doing that vs numbing yourself with all the distractions that exist in our world. The second is practicing essentialism within your work and organization is how you move the needle. In our department we pick one thing, and one thing only that is most important for us for a 6-12-month period. We work objectives off of that priority, and of course, do other work, but we really keep our focus on this rallying cry. At times, this requires us to say no to other things. Our work can stretch us where we are doing A LOT but not making any progress (reacting). You have to find ways individually and collectively to simplify and align around something while letting other things go.
RH: My advice on filtering inputs to allow for proactive, strategic thinking is:
• Schedule time to think and/or engage in activities that promote creativity and make it a priority
• Read good books
• Prioritize your projects and tasks daily – what are the most urgent/important things that must be moved forward/accomplished today?
• Engage with colleagues, peers and mentors
Build a Routine
When we not only automate and routinize the trivial parts of life, but also make automatic good and virtuous decisions, we free up resources to do important and meaningful exploration. We buy room for peace and stillness, and thus make good work and good thoughts accessible and inevitable.
6. Automatic routines help prevent decision fatigue and other phenomena. Are there aspects of your daily or weekly routine that have become automatic? If so, how do they help you free up mental space for clarity of thought and actions?
JC: I am a big believer in routines as long as they don’t create rigidity in your life that limits your overall growth. For me, there are a few, some I have shared like reflection/Journaling in the morning and exercise. Sleep is also critically important and it’s something I have struggled with my whole life. I have found that a nighttime routine that includes no phone or TV in room, reading, prayer/breath-work and a cup of tea quite useful for better sleep when I stick to it! These are all musts for my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual balance.
RH: Routines are critical to establishing a sense of calm and control in a fluid and ever-evolving environment. Throughout the week, I regularly schedule intervals of time for exercise, reading, lunch with colleagues, family activities and attending team practices. Generally, Fridays are spent working on priority projects and checking in with coaches and staff on “their turf.” Sundays are reserved for family, faith and my personal “to do” list.
7. For rising professionals in college athletics, if you could identify one key learning point from Stillness is Key that is a non-negotiable for success in leadership, what would it be?
JC: All is one. The understanding that no one is alone in suffering or in joy. That we learn to limit this idea of our own exceptionalism. That everyone is necessary. To understand all is to forgive all. To love all is to be at peace with all, especially. Leaders need more perspective. This concept really helps give it, and allows you to connect and inspire others.
RH: Stillness is the Key is among my favorite books I’ve read in the last couple of years. In fact, it’s one of the few books I have re-read in its entirety – pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. Because my perspective had shifted from the first reading to the second reading, certain passages took on new value. The book contains many great lessons for rising professionals (and veterans) in college athletics; however, one key learning point that is non-negotiable for success in leadership is “seek wisdom.”
“Find people you admire and ask how they got where they are. Seek book recommendations. Add experience and experimentation on top of this. Put yourself in tough situations. Accept challenges. Familiarize yourself with the unfamiliar. The wise are still because they have seen it all. They know what to expect because they have been through so much. They’ve made mistakes and learned from them. And so must you.”