Humility, with Stuart Taylor

November 20, 2019 Kim Forrester Season 4 Episode 5
Humility, with Stuart Taylor
Humility, with Stuart Taylor
Nov 20, 2019 Season 4 Episode 5
Kim Forrester

Stuart Taylor is the CEO and founder of Springfox, previously known as The Resilience Institute in Australia. He is also a respected keynote speaker, and author of Assertive Humility: Emerging from the ego trap. On this episode, Kim Forrester and Stuart discuss how a diagnosis of brain cancer helped him unravel his attitude toward life, and enabled him to discover the importance of 'assertive humility'. 

Show Notes Transcript

Stuart Taylor is the CEO and founder of Springfox, previously known as The Resilience Institute in Australia. He is also a respected keynote speaker, and author of Assertive Humility: Emerging from the ego trap. On this episode, Kim Forrester and Stuart discuss how a diagnosis of brain cancer helped him unravel his attitude toward life, and enabled him to discover the importance of 'assertive humility'. 

Intro:   0:02
Welcome to Eudaemonia, the podcast that is all about flourishing. Plug in, relax and get ready for the goodness as we explore the traits and practices that can help you thrive in life ... with your host, Kim Forrester. Forrester.

Kim Forrester:   0:22
If we're to claim our personal power and find our place in the world, how do we do so while maintaining a healthy dose of humility? Stuart Taylor is the CEO and founder of Springfox, previously known as the Resilience Institute in Australia, and he is the author of Assertive Humility: Emerging from the Ego Trap. In 2002, in the midst of an incredible career that spread across aerospace engineering, IT, finance and psychology, Stuart received a potentially devastating diagnosis of brain cancer, which led him on a personal journey back to physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual health. Stuart was on the Eudaemonia podcast early this year, discussing resilience, and it's my absolute pleasure to welcome him back today to talk about the true power of assertive humility. Stuart Taylor, welcome back to the Eudaemonia podcast. It's a delight to have you back here again. How are things in Melbourne today?

Stuart Taylor:   1:21
It's a great day here in Melbourne, Kim, and wonderful to be back with your programme.

Kim Forrester:   1:25
Now you have authored the book Assertive Humility, and in that book you're very careful to reference what you call 'assertive humility'. So I think we should start the discussion there. Before we begin to unpack what assertive humility actually means, perhaps you can explain why you don't refer to standard, everyday humility. Is there something in striving to be humble, as we've come to understand it, that is actually detrimental to us?

Stuart Taylor:   1:53
I think over time the use of the word 'humility' has changed and, in Western society today, it tends to be a meek and mild view of life. I don't think it originally was that. But in a Western society, I think, to emphasise that this isn't about 'meek and mild'. It's actually about having that strength to use that humility for the greater good and make a difference in our world. And that's the assertive aspect that I'm talking about. So it really isn't a withdrawal and an almost apologetic position. It's a much stronger position of, not about me, but it is about, 'How do I seek to make that difference in the world?'

Kim Forrester:   2:47
Now I'm from New Zealand where standard humility - that apologetic type of humility that you reference there - it's highly valued, to the point where I think most Kiwis shy away from boasting about their abilities at all, or even owning their capabilities. In your view, is it okay - so, is it healthy - for us to claim our talents and abilities; to know them, and own them, and have a willingness to tell others about them to some respect?

Stuart Taylor:   3:16
Look, I don't think that's what this concept is talking about it all. And if you're not careful, as soon as you get the word 'assertive' into this conversation, it can very quickly become a narcissistic conversation, which can take you to a point of arrogance and 'how great am I?' - almost like the selfie syndrome that we've got into. Again, I think the word humility truly does say, 'It's actually not about me. And the fact that I do have skills and talents, as everybody does, I seek to use those skills and talents for the greater good.' But it's not about trumpeting those skills or talents. It is about focusing on that outcome for others.

Kim Forrester:   4:09
So, it's not about being apologetic about who we are, or the skills and abilities we have. It's not about boasting about them or showing them off. It must be a nice balance in between, this assertive humility? 

Stuart Taylor:   4:21
Yeah, and I'm not sure that's an easy thing to do. And I think the messages that we receive in our childhood, from our parents, from our schools, and then through media - and particularly the generations coming through, with social media part of their lives - it's, I think, a very tricky line to travel. Everything seems to be exactly the opposite around, 'What do I do? How do I do it? What do I dress like? Am I accepted?' All of these things take us further and further away from this concept.

Kim Forrester:   5:02
I think, overwhelming, what I found in your book is that assertive humility is tricky; it is complex. And therefore the steps that we take in order to discover assertive humility, or start to claim it, are actually quite deep and complex as well. So, you write that in order for us to embody assertive humility, we have to move out of ego-based behaviours. Correct? That's sort of the underlying premise of your book. And I think many people would be surprised at the different ways that our ego manifests itself. Can you explain the different ways that ego can drive our behaviour? You do outline four particular facets of our personality that can come out in different ways.

Stuart Taylor:   5:44
I think the misunderstanding around ego - and again it is more and more misunderstood in this world of shopping centres and selfies - but it does, for me, come to light when we over care about self, when we under care about self, when we over care about others, or when we under care about others. And so those four aspects of over caring and under caring really sum up this idea of, 'Am I protecting this Teflon coating that I'm trying to wear, such that I do stay safe and strong in my world?' And probably the most common of all of those is the over caring about others. And when I say that, I mean the views of others, to the point where we're continually checking in with, 'Am I saying doing, owning, experiencing the right thing in the eyes of others?' And I think the research could not be more clear that this is the quickest way to destroy your own resilience because it's in the hands of an external party, rather than coming from within.

Kim Forrester:   7:10
That's certainly be my modus operandi in the past; the over caring about others; that desire to be liked. But interestingly, there are also ways that we can under care to our detriment. And I think when we talk about a lack of humility, most people would understand this sort of sense of under caring about what others think of us, which can manifest itself in forms of narcissism or apathy. But under caring about ourselves is also a very destructive way that the ego can present itself. Tell me more about under caring about ourselves.

Stuart Taylor:   7:46
So, I think the issue, in terms of under caring about self, in a way can be created from over caring about others. In so far as we're pushing so hard to achieve praise, promotion, dollars, respect from others, that we actually then neglect investment in self that allows us to be living that healthy, happy life - where we do use our strengths and skills; however, we are also taking that rest opportunity or that holiday that makes it a sustainable encounter. And so this trap that we get into where we can't, for the life of us, you know, not be switched on the whole time and available the whole time in case we miss something, means we don't build in that time for ourselves that allows us to be healthy human beings.

Kim Forrester:   8:50
You define this particular behaviour - the under caring about self - as the 'me last' behaviour. And I find it really interesting, Stuart, because I think for many people, being selfless is something to be celebrated. But there's obviously a sense of martyrdom, and certainly a sense of self destruction, if we do not place self somewhere in the picture. Has that been your experience?

Stuart Taylor:   9:12
It's where it's got to start. And I think it's often a confusion between two words that are somewhere in the mix of a certain humility. The first word is 'compassion', which I see as pretty well synonymous with the term assertive humility. You know, I care so much about others, and I care so much about me, that I take this strong position and do and say things that are going to achieve a better outcome. The less optimal view off the word compassion is called sympathy. And when I'm in sympathy, you know, it is much more of a pity party and, in a way, a disempowering view. And when it's applied to others, it absolutely kills trust, respect and doesn't really solve - or help them solve - any issues. When it's applied to me, that is that martyrdom that you talk about, and I'm the one that ends up getting carted out on a stretcher because I've taken that carer's syndrome on, and I'm the one that ends up suffering.

Kim Forrester:   10:24
Let's come back to, you were talking about compassion there. Because, overwhelmingly, I found your book to be about balance, particularly the balance of ego with humility, as we've come to know it. And one of the many concepts that you balance in your book is the idea that it's equally is important to show compassion for others as it is to take good care of ourselves - as you were describing there. But how do we go about balancing those needs and why does that actually matter that we do so?

Stuart Taylor:   10:50
I think, you use the word balance. I would probably add to that and say it's about prioritisation, and by priortisation I mean, when I get out of bed each morning, what do I do that attends to self in terms of exercise stretching, meditation, good breakfast, having had a good investment in sleep, taking time on the weekend to do something other than work that rejuvenates the soul? But all of these items or investments are very much a priortisation that allows me to then be there for others. And so, sure, its balance, but is actually a prioritisation. You know, did I do some exercise this morning? Did I, yes or no? Did I brush my teeth this morning? Well, yes, I tend to do that because I think it's important. Well, then why didn't I do that ... why didn't go for that run? Obviously, I haven't rated it as important. Yet, over time, it will actually make it impossible for me to be there for others.

Kim Forrester:   11:58
And on the flip side, those who aren't quite so used to being there for others would actually benefit from learning to prioritise work, or family members, or friends at times through their day.

Stuart Taylor:   12:11
Yes, it's very true, isn't it. And so this all lands somewhere on a spectrum, doesn't it? And the extent to which I spend two hours in the gym each day, you'd have to say, 'Well, okay, where does that ... What is missing, who is missing out in that life that could be attended to?' But you know, there's no judgement here, I guess is the important thing as well. So, each of us are on that journey. I think the question is, 'Is it actually landing in a way where lives around me, including my own, are being improved? Or is it going the other way?' And when you look at the research into organisations, you can see we're not doing this well at all. We're operating with huge levels of busyness, intensity, burnout, mental illness. We've seen this even in our own research at Springfox. It's just an untenable position and needs to be addressed at that basic 'duty of care' level, let alone 'How do we be much more in this space of enjoying life?'

Kim Forrester:   13:21
Like many amazing factors in well-being and health, what you say there - learning to prioritise others and ourselves - it's very simple, but it's not effortless, is it? That's the important thing, I think, for people understand. Now, before we move on, I want to ask you about fabricated futures. You wrote about this in your book. What is a fabricated future, Stuart? And how does this concept undermine our ability to enable assertive humility?

Stuart Taylor:   13:50
Look, I take a very strong view here. Human beings, we are so smart, we are dumb. I have two dogs, their names are Monty and Carlo, and you know what? They are the happiest animals on this planet. They're fed. They're watered. They've lots of love. But they don't think that much about what's going on. In fact, their life pretty well is spent in the present. As human beings, we have this amazing extra brainpower to wonder what's going to happen to me in the next minute, in the next hour, in the next, you know, whatever you want to put on that scale. And it's out of this future interrogation where we start to come up with scenarios that perhaps aren't looking so great. And, you know, 'I've just been asked to go in and do presentation to the executive team.' Well, what does that do in my brain? For many of us, it takes us into this scenario - again, ego based - that says, 'Oh, I'm going to stuff this up, and people are going to notice and they won't think much of me anymore.' And hence a fear response, or a panic response, or a worry response is the result. And I think this is both the challenge, but the opportunity to say, 'If I want to master stress, the starting point is to know that: one, my brain has gone into the future to create an image of a negative outcome; and then two, start to  dispute, reframe, bring myself back to the present, get some assistance, get some training'. Do something other than the natural choice that many of us take, which is to panic or do something of that kind. And the more that we are spending time in the future rather than the present, it's just a recipe for elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol which, over time, reduces our serotonin and happiness. And you know it's not for a happy life.

Kim Forrester:   15:50
You had opportunity, Stuart, to confront the way that you were living your life, and that came through a brain cancer diagnosis. I would hope that most people don't have to experience something quite that drastic in order to facilitate change. In your experience, what are some of the more subtle signs that we're living out unhealthy or destructive patterns?

Stuart Taylor:   16:12
Look, it certainly was a big journey for myself, and for my family and friends. And I would certainly not advocate it as a pathway. But you know what? There's nothing like an enormous 'mirror test' to ask those bigger questions. I think there are both macro and more micro ways to lean into that learning. I think one of the macro ways  -and it is something that a society we seem to have done our best to eliminate - and that is, what is our spiritual reflection that we might have on a daily or weekly basis? Because, statistically, we know that conventional religion has plummeted. So investment of time in Sunday attendance, or whatever that might be, has disappeared for many people. It doesn't have to be religion but, 'What might I be doing to take time to ask some of the bigger questions on a semi regular basis?' Or do we just fill our day and our week with busyness, and pleasure, and entertainment, which really gives you no opportunity to do that. So I think that is one of the elements. In terms of understanding when I am, perhaps, not in an optimal place there's a model that we've developed that actually tries to articulate that - this downward spiral. And it does start at a pretty basic level, called the confusion level. And it's at this level where I am saying to myself quite often, 'I'm so busy. I've got so much to do. I don't even know where to start.' And our research would suggest that there is a significant percentage of the population which is living in that confusion level of the spiral, and, by association, their organisations. And the ripple effect of that is, if you like, just gets bigger and bigger rather than a point of recovery. And so, when it does get bigger, what you end up with is a place of cognitive dysfunction, where the brain just can't even think. It's almost like you're driving home at night, you don't even remember how you got home - that sort of cognitive check out. Or maybe you're talking to that loved one at home and you haven't heard a word that they've said. We all have this experience. But it's one of those signs that says, you know, 'Am I actually living or am I, sort of, kind of, checked out', before heading down to a much more dramatic levels such as withdrawal, physical vulnerability - where the immune system's crashing - and then down to some of the mental illnesses. And to be able to be tuning into that journey earlier rather than later is, I think, fundamental for anyone that is not investing in their resilience - rather than waiting to the point where your neurosurgeon gives you some really, really bad news.

Kim Forrester:   19:17
So you covered there, obviously, the need for self awareness - particularly of our emotional state and our physical endurance. You're also very open about the unhealthy traits that you adopted at various points in your life. So, the behaviours such as perfectionism, over caring, arrogance. But that's obviously done with the benefit of hindsight. You can look back now I go, 'Oh, look at who I was. Look at how I was behaving at that point.' It can be really, really difficult, Stuart, to notice unhealthy traits and behaviours in ourselves as and when we are actually displaying them. Can you advise of a simple, effective way that we can actually recognise this ego based behaviours at the time that we're displaying them?

Stuart Taylor:   20:03
I would suggest at least two ways; I'm sure there's many more. Number one, who are hanging out with? And the extent to which you are hanging out with people that, in a way, mirror and amplify that behaviour, then it will seem very normal. And I think the idea of having a mentor in life who is much more of that assertive humility will just make that such a stark comparison. So, I think that is fundamental. The other, is what I somewhat alluded to earlier. And that is: can you bed down a daily meditation practice where there is opportunity to reflect; to check in; understand the emotions that are experienced; what has been the impact that I have had on others? You know, part of that can be a gratitude exercise where you are linking back into 'the positive I'm having on others' and the extent to which internal chit-chat is that of arrogance and personal success. It becomes more obverse, more quickly. The starting point of all of that, though, has got to be a willingness to go on that journey.

Kim Forrester:   21:20
I want to clarify, though, when we go on these inner journeys - when we begin a meditation practice, for instance, or a little bit more mindfulness - not everybody is necessarily going to find arrogance over caring there. And I want to clarify that because I don't want people to sort of go, 'Oh, well, I don't find any arrogance.' But what you might find is the under caring of self.

Stuart Taylor:   21:39
More common. If we were to look at this spectrum or continuum that I mentioned earlier, it's much more at that end than it is the arrogance level. I absolutely would say that that is the case. And it's been talked about in many research areas, from impostor syndrome to ... you name it ... that combination of perfectionism, fear of failure is so prevalent. Right up to CEOs in organisations. We see this time and again when we're running executive programmes, and you'll have this quiet chat on the side with a CEO who says, 'I really do need to do some work on my self confidence.' And you go 'wow'. ln the first instance you go, 'I can't believe that that's the case.' But then you think more about it and you go, 'Well, actually, we're always working on our self confidence as we take on new challenges in life, and grow as individuals.' So that's okay. It's a question of, 'Am I open to going on that journey?' And you're right. That is absolutely a fundamental area that is far more common. I think the related aspect of all of this - and it's almost in the word 'humility' -  is that of humour. And being able to have a laugh at ourselves is so key to implementing the concept of assertive humility. Because it does start with a premise that I'm not perfect. And actually, I don't need to be perfect and it's okay to get out there and have a crack at life, and be confident that it will be a growth opportunity

Kim Forrester:   23:19
Stuart, you regard courage and vulnerability as being important enablers that can bring us out of our ego and into assertive humility. Being vulnerable is really, really scary for many of us. What would you say is the first step we can take in embracing our vulnerabilities?

Stuart Taylor:   23:39
I think, it's something that I've explored more and more over the last couple of years in particular. And, you know, aren't we seeing it coming out in every walk of life at the moment? Be it in the banking sector, be it in challenges in the church frameworks, sport ... this topic around trust is so fundamental. At the end of the day, we are - as human beings - we are still animals, and we just happen to be tribal animals. And the extent to which we feel safe enough to be vulnerable, is a starting point. I mentioned cortisol before - it's that stress hormone - and serotonin is the happiness 'kick'.  Well, oxytocin is the trust hormone, and the extent to which we are in an environment which we have nurtured, or has been nurturing, to build these bonds then we are more likely and open to being vulnerable. And that's where growth happens. It doesn't happen when you're watching your Ps and Qs, and you're not able to use that, you know, that sense of free flowing conversation and humour. It's going to be very limiting. And so establishing an environment of trust, I think, is the prerequisite for any of this being able to happen. And you see this in terms of courage, as you mentioned. Courage isn't easy. In fact, it's quite uncomfortable. It's less uncomfortable if you're doing it within a more trusted environment.

Kim Forrester:   25:13
I think it comes down to, once again, being cognizant of who we're surrounding ourselves with and also taking responsibility for the environment we are creating through our own actions and choices. Correct? If we want to be in a trusting and trustworthy environment, then we need to make sure that we're both trusting and trustworthy.

Stuart Taylor:   25:30
It just works both ways. You're so right. And we've taken this concept even further - this part of the work we do at Springfox - to say it's actually about 'trust in action'. So it's not about do I look at you, Kim, and say, 'Ah, yeah. I really think Kim is trustworthy.' It's more about, am I open to taking a risk knowing that Kim is trustworthy, because that's where the test actually happens. Will I actually do something and expose myself knowing that I think how Kim will react to that, and that she will do that in a compassionate and supportive way? It's a complex idea. Not that it hasn't been ... not that it's new. But it is something that we can be working on in our environments - and particularly the role for leaders, there, is huge; to create that environment where trust is nurtured in both directions.

Kim Forrester:   26:29
Very deep, very complex. Just like I found your book to be, Stuart.  Since your experience with cancer, your life and your outlook on life has changed in remarkable ways. Overall, how has recognising and striving for assertive humility allowed you to flourish?

Stuart Taylor:   26:48
Oh, that is a big question. I think the word I would use is, creating a sense of 'freedom'. The extent to which you are hemmed in by this cloak called ego is very limiting. The extent to which you're able to shed that cloak and be who you are, just opens up so many opportunities to be part of life. And I think that is, for me, the fundamental aspect of that. And therefore you say, 'Well, you know what? What might I do now? What I want to try now? How might I participate there?' You're less likely to put a constraint on that; you're more likely to go and play. And I think even using the word play is interesting. When you look at young kids who play in the backyard with absolute wild abandon in their imaginary play, they're not wondering what people think of them. They have that freedom to go and achieve that flow, and flourish - as you use that word.

Kim Forrester:   28:01
That sounds particularly inviting, I must say. Freedom and play, Stuart. May we all find a little bit more of that in our life. My final question is one that I ask every guest on the Eudaemonia podcast. Can you recommend a morning reminder - so this might be a daily ritual, a practice, perhaps even an affirmation - that can help my listeners rise above ego based behaviours and enable greater assertive humility.

Stuart Taylor:   28:26
Yeah, look in a way I've stolen my thunder when I mentioned this earlier, but the must fundamental investment one can make at a self level is that position - or that practice of - meditation. I don't necessarily see that as a 'sit there and get your breathing settled' and, you know, zone out. Sometimes it can be that, but it is a practice where you can actually play around with the concepts of assertive humility within that meditation. There's lots of supporting apps that are out there that'll have meditations such as loving kindness, for example, or gratitude, or forgiveness, or being calm. And so I just think it's such a rich space, to practise these concepts within a safe meditation environment, to then go and implement them in the real world environment.

Kim Forrester:   29:34
That sounds just fantastic. Stuart Taylor, how can people find out more about you? Where can they go?

Stuart Taylor:   29:40
I think the easiest place would be to our website. That's Spring Fox, which is

Kim Forrester:   29:48
And the book is called Assertive Humility.

Stuart Taylor:   29:52
It's called Assertive Humility: Emerging from the ego trap.

Kim Forrester:   29:56
And it is a great read. Very deep, very thoughtful, very insightful. Stuart Taylor, thank you for once again joining me here on the Eudaemonia podcast. I wish you a fabulous day in Melbourne.

Stuart Taylor:   30:06
Thanks so much.

Kim Forrester:   30:08
As the author David Rico wrote, 'Humility means accepting reality with no attempt to outsmart it.' You've been listening to the Eudaemonia podcast. If you'd like to learn more about how to live a truly flourishing life, please subscribe and check out for more inspiring episodes. I'm Kim Forrester until next time, be well, be kind to yourself and find happiness in true humility.