Emotional Fitness and Cognitive Flexibility w/ Carl Paoli

Emotional Fitness is the ability to be agile with your emotions. Can you go from empathic to focused to calm? The same way we approach our physical bodies, we can leverage our cognitive abilities to reach our goals without unnecessary ‘wear and tear.’ Carl Paoli is a teacher and NYT best-selling author of Free+Style. We talk about pursuing a curiosity, 3 different forms of empathy, and stages of skill acquisition.

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    Show Notes:

    ·        (9:05) – Examples of Substances people don’t think of

    ·        (15:48) – Medications/Prescriptions Athletes need to know

    ·        (17:55) – Bigger picture

    ·        (20:48) – CBD Oil

    ·        (25:26) – Alcohol

    ·        (27:56) – Getting caught years later

    ·        (30:47) – Doping scandals

    ·        (34:10) – Gaining every little advantage you can

    ·        (38:21) – Slight edge

    ·        (49:54) – Sleep

    ·        (51:50) – Workaholic culture


    Podcast Transcript:

    Misbah (00:30):

    Carl, welcome to the show.

    Carl (00:32):

    Thank you for having me.

    Misbah (00:34):

    Yeah, it’s been a couple of years since you’ve been on. And I remember back to our last conversation. It was one of the more thoughtful episodes that I got to do. It left me asking, I think, more and better questions. I’m excited to continue that conversation and just hear what you’ve been up to. Congratulations on becoming Grandpa Carl. I saw the photo on Instagram, and you look very full of joy. So, share with us anything that you’re noticing that you can pass on to us.

    Carl (01:10):

    Yeah. What an experience. Little did I know at the age of 38, I’m about to turn 39 and I would be a grandfather. That was unexpected. But I guess the biggest part is the fact that you can fall in love with someone, like this little baby, in a split second. And it’s just a game over after that. So, I’m overjoyed. I don’t have a lot of words to express what it means. It’s the culmination of a rollercoaster of a ride. First, we became foster parents tonight, and then we adopted her as a teenager. And now she’s 22 and becoming a mother and it’s all kind of coming full circle. My wife put it really well. 

    What’s changed and revolved?

    Carl (01:10):

    She said, holding this baby is like getting a chance to hold tonight as a baby, which we didn’t get to do. So it’s this full-circle moment that it’s hard to express in words. I’m just full of awe.

    Misbah (02:23):

    And dude, I’m sure we all want to be like Grandpa Carl in the sense that you can still do handstands, your body is limber. Tell me what’s changed with your movement practice over the years. Because I think even last time we chatted, we talked a little bit about your experience with B-boying a little bit, and what you were exploring at that time. I remember reading freestyle connection, the book. So, years later now looking back, what’s changed and evolved from that standpoint for you.

    Carl (02:55):

    Yeah. I think the user has changed, meaning the current version of my expression has changed. What that means is that the way that I am in a relationship with my training and my practice is different than it used to be. And if we just rewind seven years back, I was doing CrossFit, I was about to publish the book that you just mentioned, and something that I saw the other day reminded me of this. But after each workout, I would have a panic attack. I just didn’t know it was a panic attack and felt short of breath, in a way that wasn’t short of breath from the workout per se, but kind of like chest compression. I felt lightheaded. 

    From a different perspective.

    Carl (02:55):

    I felt panicked like I wanted to go somewhere and didn’t know where to go. And I realized that the way that I was training and practising then was a product of my conditioning from the environment that I was in and the audience that I was speaking to. Which was the audience that performs functional movements at high intensity.

    Carl (04:05):

    And since, I have gone through several iterations of frustration, but I was welcomed by my friend Angel Oroscoe, who owns Telegraph CrossFit here in San Francisco. He welcomed me and my wife into taking classes. He said, come in, no pressure, just move that’s all. And that helped me start to see my movement practice within CrossFit from a different perspective. And then that led to the pandemic, then in the pandemic, I started practising handstands. And handstands now have become the core of everything that I do. All I focus on is just hand balancing, hand balancing, hand balancing, specifically two arms, one arm, and some basic entries and in and out of the hand handstand. And that’s the practice. It’s a mechanism for continuing to develop my emotional and cognitive fitness.

    Olympic Weightlifting.

    Misbah (05:22):

    I want to bookmark the handstands and we’ll dive deeper into that, but something I was curious about, I know for me, coming from the same CrossFit background, then kind of specializing in Olympic weightlifting a little bit, and remembering the level that I would push my body and then still try to live a normal life. I definitely felt it, right? Especially with the things, I found kind of important to me, like podcasting, doing standup. My body and my mind needed to be fresh and recovered. That was a weird, evolutionary period for me, where it felt like I was tied to a certain identity. And I don’t know if that’s a selfish way to look at it, but something was changing. 

    Misbah (05:22):

    I’m just curious if you had any points like that because you’ve had a very long career in fitness and wellness and movement and it’s evolved. Did you ever feel stuck at any point, as you were evolving? Or like, “Oh man, I’m breaking away from this identity.”

    Be intense to get results.

    Carl (06:37):

    All the time. Yeah. I was stuck all the time and I was stuck because I was trying to do what the world was telling me to do rather than doing what my heart was really telling me. And my heart was telling me to play, to have a good time. And everybody would tell me to do the opposite. You have to be serious, you have to be committed. You have to be disciplined and everything has to be intense. If it’s not intense, you’re not going to produce results. The moment I let go of that, everything started to flow and that’s kind of where I’m at right now. And it’s funny that I say flow because I’m standing in a static position, but I feel like I’m flowing.

    Misbah (07:21):

    Yeah. I do remember you had a very heavy influence in the gymnastics world. So now, you were mentioning, the purpose of your relationship to a movement practice is for the emotional and cognitive benefits. How do handstands tie into that for you? And why did you choose that as the focal point right now?


    Carl (07:52):

    Well, there are several reasons, but handstands are such a simple position, such a simple movement, that it’s a no-brainer. You don’t have to think, you just do. The other side is that handstands were something that I had in my back pocket from gymnastics that I could do. And it just felt like I was accomplishing something. That was important. Now it’s a representation of the balance of calibration, of coherence, alignment, and playing with a very simple shape that not only is basic but also is inverted, meaning that I’m looking at it from a completely different perspective. It’s very metaphoric in that sense. But that’s the shift that I needed physically in order to be able to see my thoughts and my emotions from a completely different perspective, literally upside down.

    Misbah (08:52):

    Yeah. You are teaching a workshop called Interface, that’s coming up soon and there’s movement, writing, meditation, a lot of different things involved from a movement perspective. Are handstands in the mix? How are you making it accessible to people who don’t move like Grandpa Carl, just yet?

    Do what you want to do.

    Carl (09:16):

    Yeah. That’s a great question. The movement practice within the Interface workshop is by choice. You choose whatever you want to do. I don’t tell you what to do. So, let’s say you choose a handstand, then great, you’ll be doing handstands. If you choose to run, you’ll run. If you choose to work on mobility, it’s mobility. You choose your movement practice. That being said, we approach it as a skill and a skill, having a progression and a progression, knowing that it’s not linear, we’ll be able to elicit a couple of things if you are willing to push to the edges. All I do through the Interface is help people make the best adjustments to the way that they’re practising.

    Misbah (10:01):

    Yeah. I feel like from a movement perspective, obviously there’s a lot to learn, but even outside of that, I’m a heavy believer in the fact that skills can be developed and that they can be refined. And if you care enough about it, you can figure out the nuts and bolts. Right? Do you feel like, being somebody who kind of grew up in gymnastics and still exploring different variations of it to this day, do you view things outside of movement as skills? Because I find it helpful the way you’re talking progression, it’s nonlinear, it’s a great analogy for developing other things that you care about. Have you seen that transfer over into life for you?

    Skill Development!

    Carl (10:53):

    Yeah. 100%. I don’t even pay attention to my movement progression necessarily. All I’m looking at is how am I and how are other people developing other skills, like communication, producing a podcast, programming software, writing a book, singing, anything that is an expression has a skillset. So, I’m constantly looking, how are people approaching it? And those who are doing the best job, in my opinion, are the ones who are able to curate their skill development experience in a way that when they present it to the world, it seems accessible, it seems relatable. And it also reflects that which one needs to see in themselves in order to pursue learning, developing and other areas of their lives.

    Misbah (11:59):

    Yeah. I want to hear your definition of lifestyle design. Because when I think of it for myself, it kind of seems like there are so many definitions out there. But for me it feels like, things that are of high value or high priority to me, being able to protect the time, energy, money needed to give those things space. So, whether that’s spending time with family, podcasting, performing, having that, and being able to kind of make trade-offs to really prioritize that thing. We talked about how movement fits into this, like Olympic lifting at a really high level was not really aligned with my values. 

    Get up and do it!

    Misbah (11:59):

    I was up on stage at 1:00 AM and I couldn’t get up at 6:00 AM and train the best that I wanted to. And so I needed another practice that would help me and serve kind of the podcasting and standup and things I cared about. So, it’s a value system and, for me, trying to set up the day-to-day to have the highest impact on those things I care about. But you’ve studied this and explored it and experienced it. What’s your take on lifestyle design and a definition that may make us think about it in an interesting way?

    Carl (13:33):

    Instead of giving you a definition, I guess I’ll just break it down. Lifestyle design is life is the game, style is the way, and the design is how you practice, how you play the game. So, that’s the way that I think about it and this, whether you take life seriously or not, allows you to notice that the style is unique to the individual. There is no one way and are as many ways as people here and every single person around approaching their life has a numerous number of options for pursuing that. And the work, the design itself has to start with the courage, the willingness, the ability to choose. Because when you design, you have to choose. Yes, you may be looking for functionality, you may be looking for aesthetics, you may be looking for value. Depending on how you’re prioritizing, you have to choose.

    Choose wisely

    Carl (14:41):

    And the mindset of many is the one that if we choose, we lose. In other words, if we choose one thing we’re saying no to these other things. If we say yes here, we’re saying no there. But in reality, when you choose and you fully commit, you triple down, then eventually that one starts to fractionalize, so to speak, it starts to branch out into all other choices that you wanted to make originally. It’s being able to see that and trust that when you make the choice in your design of lifestyle. If somebody is listening right now and wondering, “how do I do that?” Well, you start with that which you are curious about. Start with that. And then you’ll notice that maybe when you pursue that which you’re curious about, there are some repercussions that come with it.

    Carl (15:35):

    Maybe you pursued that which you were curious about so much that you start neglecting your family. Your family will say, “Hey, where are you?” You’re like, “well, I’m doing this thing that I’m curious about. Carl said that that’s how you design the thing.” And this is when you’re faced with, how does curiosity balances that which keeps me connected and engaged here. And then all of a sudden, the practice of that which you’re curious about starts to mould into a new iteration, a new variation. This is where a lot of people get scared and they think, “Oh my goodness, if I do less of that, which I love so much, which I think is important, I’m going to be regressing. I’m going to be lowering the speed of progression.” 

    Family or Friends!

    Carl (15:35):

    But that is only a limited type of thinking and belief system. That’s a mindset of scarcity. And what you’ll notice is that when you have gotten the wheels into motion and at the same time you can couple that with that which is a value, like maybe your family, your friends where you contribute and where you really belong, this thing that you’re curious about accelerates because they support it.

    Misbah (16:50):

    Yes. And it gives you extra energy.

    Carl (16:52):

    Yeah. It becomes this quickly accelerating snowball effect over time.

    Misbah (17:02):

    You know, that feels like a tough pattern to break out of. For me, let’s look back at when I was training hard in Olympic lifting, we would train the Olympic lifts every day, Bulgarian style. And you push through the pain and you enter the dark zone.

    Carl (17:22):

    Yeah. The dark ages. Yeah. I’m familiar.

    Doing a Stand-Up!!

    Misbah (17:26):

    If you think about it in stand-up comedy, in our world, there is that similar mindset of like, “Hey, how many sets are you doing per night, per week?” And you’re out every single night, the grind is really appreciated. What I noticed this past year was when all the stage time evaporated for a little bit and everyone had to kind of step back, people who had been performing every single night, seven days a week, myself being in that like four to six nights per week and feeling how it takes away from some other things. How you sacrifice certain dinners and events or whatever it might be. Getting to have that back in my life, I think you’re right. When I went back out to perform, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to bomb tonight.”

    Misbah (18:17):

    I haven’t been up in months. This is going to be really crazy. But if I had good energy, that affected how my set would go, or how a training session would go. So, if you are putting in the grind but you’re miserable because of all these other things you’re maybe deficient in, vitamins, love, or whatever it might be, people can feel that I think, and it affects you and people around you too. So, how do you balance that? The grind and the discipline and the hustle part of it, and then the explore, being curious but being engaged in the here and now.

    Balance your Lifestyle.

    Carl (19:03):

    Yeah. I think the answer is you don’t balance it. You allow for it, the lifestyle, to balance you. And this is where, let’s say as a comedian, you’re on set every night and you’re just trying to get as many reps in as possible. Over time, you’re going to burn out. So, the game of balance is noticing, wait a second, what is it that I need that is making me feel this way? How can I get that need met? And that’s when saying, okay, what is the dose going to be? Is the dose taking one night off? Is the dose instead of three sets that night, just doing one? What is it that I’m looking for? 

    Carl (19:03):

    Is it maybe my body just needs more recovery or I need to be a little bit more in shape. Maybe I need to start training. And this being the act of balancing, it’s noticing, it’s awareness first.

    Misbah (19:59):

    Yeah. I love that. There’s this one post I saw where you were talking about empathy, and I think different types of empathy. And my girlfriend bought this book called The Compassionate Achiever, and she has the print version and she wanted to get it on Audible too. And when we want to get books that are in two different versions, it must be good. Something in here is worth it. So, I was flipping through her highlights. One of the ones that I saw was there was this study that was done talking about the difference between being compassionate and having empathy, and how having empathy at times can lead to burnout because exercising is channelling brain pathways of possibly pain versus compassion is channelling the pathways of love. 

    Empathy and Compassion!

    Misbah (19:59):

    The difference was the definition with being compassionate is being ready to act to help the other person versus maybe just feeling it. I don’t know the exact definition or the understanding of that, but I want to hear your version of it and your understanding of empathy and compassion, how they co-relate, how are they different?

    Carl (21:17):

    Yeah, for sure. So my take on it is pretty simple. If we take the definition of empathy, which is the ability and understanding to be able to share other people’s feelings. First and foremost, empathy, if it’s an ability, it’s a skill. If it’s a skill, there’s a progression, I can practice it. And what is it that I’m practising? I’m sharing other people’s feelings. Okay. What are feelings? Feelings are the mental models that we create of the human experience. And there are different variations of that. Emotion, on the other hand, is the embodiment of that feeling. So, it’s what I’m experiencing through a feeling. Empathy is the ability to share and understand other people’s feelings. So it’s more cognitive. But within empathy, there are a couple of different types of empathies. These are three of the main ones.

    What is cognitive Empathy?

    Carl (22:16):

    The number one type of empathy is cognitive empathy. This is also known as sympathy. Sympathy is being able to intellectually understand what somebody else is feeling. The problem with cognitive empathy is that there’s no connection. There’s more dismissal. Somebody who talks about cognitive empathy or sympathy in a very interesting way as Brene Brown, when she talks about vulnerability, and specifically when she talks about it in relation to somebody else. She says, “sympathy sounds like a sentence that starts with at least.” Let’s say, you told me, “Hey my girl and I were breaking up,” and I, instead of me saying, “Oh, I hear you. That must suck,” or “tell me more” or be curious, I would say, “well, at least you’re healthy.”

    Carl (23:09):

    I’m completely dismissing that. And I’m saying, I hear that and I can see the feeling, but at least this is good in your life, which takes away from that, which is causing you pain, right? Then you have emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is being able to embody somebody else’s feelings. This is something that happens when you are watching a good movie. If you’re watching a good movie and it’s scary, you embody fear. If you’re watching a good movie and somebody is crying and you start to cry, you’re embodying that. So, you’re exercising empathy, but at an emotional level. The problem here is that emotional empathy means that you are in the same state as they are. And thus, you can’t serve as a contrast in order for them to see the balance that exists or the clarity that you can create from that emotion.

    Compassionate Empathy!

    Carl (23:59):

    And then finally you have compassionate empathy, which is I’m going to feel what you’re feeling, cognitively. I am going to recognize physically what you’re experiencing, but I’m not going to succumb to that. I’m not going to allow myself to go on the roller coaster. And i’m going to create separation. And the separation is, I am here, you are there. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, watching a movie with someone where all of a sudden you have this urge to cry and you hold back the tears? The moment you hold back the tears, sometimes it’s expressed in your throat like, “Oh my God, I have so much tension here.” Or if you’ve done it in a very like Zen fashion, maybe even have been able to put that feeling outside of your body and then extract that physical emotion outside of you.

    Carl (24:46):

    And all of a sudden you can hold space for the sadness or the fear or whatever it may be, without having a reaction. This is now becoming responsive. So, compassion is being able to be responsive in your exercise of empathy and this being the foundation of it. And what’s cool about empathy is that empathy is what allows us to connect with others but also with ourselves. When we can connect, not only with others, but also with ourselves, we are regulating ourselves. We are regulating others and it’s affecting our affect, our mood, and the mood being the lens through which we see the world. And the more compassionate we are, the clearer we see and the more accurate our mood is. 

    Strong Emotional Fitness.

    Carl (24:46):

    And this is because that’s what our brain is designed to do. And the reason this is important is when we are in an emotional state, we can make really poor decisions. But if we have a strong emotional fitness, then our emotions are actually guiding us in the right direction and making us make the right choices at a practical level too.

    Misbah (26:01):

    That really clarifies what I was saying about how empathy, to some degree if exercised in one of those levels, could lead to burnout or just an overwhelming sense. But the last one, that reminds me of something, my therapist said was, “Is this my bathwater? Or is this that person’s bathwater?” Because if you imagine the feeling of getting in this person’s tub in their dirty bathwater, it gives you a feeling that’s like, okay, I get it right. I can still be there and can see what’s happening. But there’s a separation that you’re talking about.

    Carl (26:45):

    Yeah, yeah. What you were kind of addressing there was what’s known as compassion fatigue. It’s when you’re constantly putting out and working and working and working on exercising compassion. Imagine you had to hold back tears your whole life. You’re going to get fatigued. So, sometimes you have to embody the emotion to clean yourself up.

    Suppress the emotions.

    Misbah (27:07):

    Yes. Emotions are like waves, so they have an end to them. And I guess if you give it space, it will go through the wave that it kind of needs to, in a more natural way than if you were to suppress it in some way.

    Carl (27:23):

    Yeah. Which it sucks to hear when you’re feeling crappy. Somebody says, “well, this too shall pass.” And you’re like, “I don’t care right now. I feel super crappy. Just leave me alone. Don’t try to fix me.” Yeah.

    Misbah (27:36):

    How about language? Do you have language that, in these types of situations, you found to work well?

    Carl (27:43):

    The cliche one is “I hear you.” And just silence. It’s called holding space. I am definitely not the therapist or an expert in that realm, but energetically, I can sense it. What has worked best for me has always just been there and said, “Here for you. I’m just a message away.” Or “you talk, I’m not going to fix, go.” Yeah. And just until there’s a question my way, I don’t say anything. Just let it all out.

    Holding Space.

    Misbah (28:21):

    I love that. You mentioned mental models briefly, and I wanted to hear how you view mental models and how that fits and if there’s any connection to the workshop with Interface. How I discovered that term was the book Peak with Eric Anderson and it took a long time to really understand it mentally and see how the game would fit in and what my mental model really was. But something about it made sense to me instantly, which was if you can recognize what the game is and see how the components are like are built, you’ll have more fun going through it. Because you’re like, “Oh, okay. I’m winning, I’m hitting this item. That’s contributing. And it connects to my model in a certain way.” 

    Misbah (28:21):

    So, I guess it’s a way to organize your brain to some degree. How would you describe it and how does it connect to the Interface workshop?

    Interface Workshop

    Carl (29:24):

    Yeah, I think your description was perfect. So a mental model is simply a model of a reality that lives in your brain that allows you to make sense of what you’re experiencing. That being said, a mental model is a concept. A concept is something that has been conceived, the question is who conceived it? Maybe it’s something that has been nurtured that you’ve studied and all of a sudden you have a made sense of, or it’s something that you have created yourself, or it’s a combination of both of those. As long as you know that, you also know that you can change them. Mental models are supposed to be plastic, flexible, adaptive.

    Misbah (30:08):

    Yeah. I like that. For somebody who likes structure, it really gives you enough structure. And then also enough freedom, I think, to explore within those mental models.

    Enough Structure

    Carl (30:20):

    Yeah. It’s simply a framework and here’s the beauty, a framework is like a method. A method is like a technique. A technique is something that you would practice. For example, when it’s a movement practice, I practice a handstand and there’s a certain technique. That being said, I’m constantly challenging that technique in order to help myself adapt to it. In other words, I am moulding to the technique, and in the process of moulding to the technique, to the vessel, so to speak, I am learning about myself and not only learning, but I’m also having to bend, change, adapt my models, my belief systems. That’s really powerful. And that act of trying to interface with the technique, the method, the concept, is the practice that I’m constantly helping people move through. 

    Carl (30:20):

    And I do this through, as you said earlier, through writing, meditation, a little bit of breathwork, movement, and creativity. These all being methods techniques for assisting you in noticing, first of all, what your concepts are, what your mental models are, what your belief systems are, and then helping you adapt them in a way that reveals what is true and who you are at an essential level, so to speak.

    Misbah (31:45):

    Yeah. And tell me about some details on what the workshop now looks like. So, it’s four weeks long. You mentioned a couple of the components that will go into it. Who do you think this would be a really good fit for? And the person that would get a lot out of this.

    Keep Experimenting!

    Carl (32:07):

    Yeah. It’s a good fit for anybody, but it’s mostly a good fit for somebody who is in transition right now. So if you’re in between jobs, or you’re thinking about getting a new job, or you’re tired with this practice and you want to get into this other one, this is just a great way of catalyzing a little bit of clarity to help you make that choice. And the four stages that we go through are first, expression, second, experimentation, third, integration, and then fourth is transcendence. This means that first, you’re just going to do. And then you’re going to deliberately do, that’s your experimentation, you’re experimenting. Then you’re going to learn some things that what you’re learning, you’re going to integrate. You’re going to make it part of your habits, the way that you do things.

    Carl (32:52):

    And then once they are integrated, you’re going to say, see you later. I am going beyond that. The beauty is that, when you have integrated a lesson or an understanding, you can move on without the worry of those lessons disappearing, they become permanent. Now, you can go back in time, you can go back in your practice and change what you’ve integrated. That’s actually part of the transcendence too. And how does it happen? You start again and you go expression, experimentation, integration, transcendence, and you just continue to go through those stages, which when I speak about them, they look linear, but they’re all happening at once. I’m simply rationalizing and intellectualizing practice, which is truthfully kind of bullshit, but our pea brains, our little rational minds, they need that to make sense of that which is so subtle, that’s happening behind the scenes.

    To find out?

    Misbah (33:52):

    Totally. Okay. Where can people get more details? Where can they follow along with what you’re up to?

    Carl (33:59):

    Yeah, the best way to do that is to simply follow me right now on social media. So, Carl Paoli on any social media outlet that’s where you’ll find more information about the Interface. Eventually, it will live on my website, but for now, I’m kind of doing it underground style. 

    Misbah (34:16):

    And what’s the date or the deadline?

    Carl (34:20):

    The last day to sign-up would be March 1st. And it starts on March 2nd at 11:00 AM Pacific Standard Time. And it goes for four weeks.

    Misbah (34:30):

    And is it the format of it? Is it online?

    Carl (34:35):

    Yeah. We have a call every Tuesday. It’s one hour, it gets recorded. I give a little talk, I share some information, and then I give people assignments. We take questions and then everybody’s off to the races. We stay connected via a messaging system. Everybody gets to talk to each other, ask me questions. And then we repeat that for 28 days.

    Misbah (34:57):

    I love that. That sounds really fun. Well thank you so much, Carl, for taking the time and coming on, this was a really fun conversation. I’m a big fan of some of the topics we were able to cover and some of the clarity you brought to me. So, if anybody’s interested, definitely go check out more of what Carl is up to. 


    Amazing. Thank you.

    Connect w/ Carl:

    Instagram: @carlpaoli

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