Mike Robbins on Authenticity

I had the good fortune to participate in a Mike Robbins workshop on authenticity a few weeks ago. Mike is a Stanford graduate and a former pro baseball player who injured his pitching arm in his first year in the Kansas City Royals’ farm team. He turned his bad luck into good luck for the rest of us. Now, he’s an author and an inspiring, energizing speaker. His website has loads of resources, including a blog, a podcast, and links to other things like a free meditation audio and a 4-part class on authenticity.


Emotional intelligence and the growth mindset

We all know by now that emotional intelligence is just as important as intellect in determining success. It involves self-awareness and social awareness; the ability to manage relationships with other people.

  • One component is the growth mindset that Carol Dweck identified and wrote about: when faced with a problem or challenge, you are curious and engaged and work hard to figure it out (as opposed to a fixed mindset where you want to get the answer fast, and if it’s hard you assume you just weren’t born with the right abilities). Dweck recently updated her 2006 book on the subject because she found people were misusing the concept; see this Dec. 2016 Atlantic article on the difference between a true growth mindset and praise for effort as a consolation prize.
  • When bad things happen, our first reaction might be to ask “why is this happening to me?” This is a dangerous, insidious question that makes us a victim. Mike says a better question is “why is this happening for me?” which shifts your perspective and gives you more power. In other words, what can I learn from this? How will this make me better and stronger?
  • Accept things the way they are. It’s the first step in having the power to change. When you argue with reality, you lose.
  • Communication is the bedrock of relationships. Each person in a conversation may be having a different kind of conversation. Listening is harder than you think – Mike had us pair up and just listen to each other without interruption or comment or thinking about how we’d respond; it was really difficult. But if you can figure out how to pay attention it makes the other person communicate better – those people who just ramble on are usually doing it because no one is actually listening to them.
    • Be present – the first level is attention to what’s being said, the information. Notice when you check out of the conversation; you’ll be surprised at how often you get distracted and miss part of it. Try admitting it to the other person.
    • Look for and feel underlying emotion with empathy – the second level is listening to what’s not being said, like how the other person is feeling, where they’re coming from. Notice the triggers that get you to stop paying attention.
    • Let go of negative judgments – the third level is noticing your own filters and upgrading them. We all have filters we listen through. To upgrade your filter, deal with the issue directly until it gets resolved, or let it go – really let it go, don’t just act that way.


It takes trust and courage to be authentic. Mike views it as a continuum, from being a complete phony at one end, through honesty in the middle, with authentic at the far end beyond honesty:

honest – self-righteous + vulnerable = authentic

Inauthenticity shows up because of social norms, or when we don’t know or understand something (but we pretend we do), and when we’re having a difficult conversation. Often, what stands between you and authenticity is a 10-minute sweaty palmed conversation. It takes mental gymnastics to be inauthentic, because you have to keep remembering what level of honesty you have with each person.

Self-righteousness is having opinions and knowing you’re right; thinking your opinions are facts. It fundamentally separates you from other people. We react to others’ self-righteousness with defensiveness. You might win the argument, but you damage the relationship. There may be other ways to see things.

A key driver in human relationships is trust, which requires vulnerability. The natural human response to vulnerability is empathy. A growth mindset requires vulnerability: you have to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing. Ask for help! Everyone loves to help, although nobody likes to ask. If you compare yourself to an iceberg, with the greater part hidden from public view, it turns out that the further down you go on the iceberg, the more universal the experience.

Mike said at one point in his life when he was down, one of his mentors told him:

“You live your life like you want to survive it, but nobody ever has.” 

Summing up: Ways to practice authenticity

  • When something happens that you don’t like, ask why is this happening for me?
  • Focus on the things you can control (your attitude, perspective, and effort)
  • Give people your undivided attention – don’t multitask
  • Use email, text, etc. for idea/info sharing, not conflict resolution and problem solving
  • Admit when you don’t know something, need help, or make a mistake – be real
  • Ask for support from others in a genuine way
  • Address challenges directly; don’t let things fester
  • Challenge yourself to take yourself out of your comfort zone and take bold action
  • Lower the waterline on your iceberg – allow yourself to be vulnerable to others

A lot of things about this workshop resonated with me, but the one thing I want to make a priority is that idea of self-righteousness. Especially now, after the divisive election season and with everything that’s going on with the new president, I see things several times a day that push my buttons. I intend to do better at examining my own opinions and reactions, and work harder to find common ground with the people who, for one reason or another, see things differently than I do. As Mike put it in a blog post on his website, “The challenge I’m sitting with personally at the moment is how to speak up for what I believe to be true and important, and at the same time do so in a way that brings me closer to those who may disagree with me?”

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments.



Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.