ReThinking with Adam Grant
Soccer star Abby Wambach on being good enough
February 7, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking: my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is soccer superstar Abby Wambach. She's widely regarded as one of the greatest, possibly the greatest of all time. She won two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup, was the leading US scorer in two Olympics and two World Cups, and was named US Soccer Athlete of the Year six times. Even if you're not a soccer fan, you've probably marveled at her diving catches and her excellence under pressure.
Abby's most recent book is Wolf Pack, and with her wife Glennon Doyle, she hosts the podcast We Can Do Hard Things.
[00:00:53] Abby Wambach:
[00:00:54] Adam Grant:
Hey Abby. Little did we know we were becoming professional podcasters here.
[00:00:58] Abby Wambach:
I know. I think about that so often now. I'm like, “Man, who would've ever thought seven years ago when I was at Penn, and you're interviewing me post-career and not in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that I'd be a podcast host and that would be the most lucrative form of any business I would ever involve myself in.” And also rewarding. More than that, it's, it's just been the most amazing thing.
[00:01:25] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I feel like somebody should have told you, like, you don't have to do all this running around, no more diving headers. You can just talk.
[00:01:31] Abby Wambach:
I've said this to Glenn at a bunch and I, I watched some of the current players that are older playing on the national team, and I just keep thinking, “Oh my God, you guys, it gets so much better. Like, just have the courage to walk away.” And so many people experience this with all of their jobs, right? I was actually really afraid. I didn't know how I was gonna earn money. That was like, one of my biggest concerns.
I didn't know how I was gonna support myself. I put all of my eggs into the soccer basket. But what I didn't realize is through the decades of doing the soccer, I actually learned a lot about the world and what I like and what I don't like, and that really informed so many of the decisions I was able to make post-retirement.
I'm lucky to have met Glennon when I did because she was able to help me so much, set the intention of what I really wanted to create with my life. But yeah, when I look at some of the athletes, I'm like… It’s, it is so hard to be an athlete because there's this, this monomaniacal focus you have to have in order to do that thing at that level.
And so so many other things in my life suffer and suffered for decades because of it. And so now I'm able to explore all of those areas that I had to sacrifice in order to do soccer for so long at that level.
[00:02:52] Adam Grant:
Oh, Abby. I actually wanted to talk to you about the courage to walk away, because sometimes it bothers me when people have that courage, especially when, when you can see that, that people are still great. You don't want them to abandon it. How did you decide that it was time for you to walk away? Because I, I felt like you were still at the peak of your soccer game.
[00:03:09] Abby Wambach:
I think that's a really good question, and I think what I would do before I answer it, because a lot of us have this feeling when we are watching greatness… Some of these veteran great athletes that are on the precipice of maybe walking away, they maybe decide to retire and we feel sad, right?
And the truth is, is that their retirement, in terms of their decisions, have nothing in to do with us personally. Like, we have to understand that when we watch these athletes, they are gifting us with enjoyment, experience, the idea that, “Oh my gosh, there are superhumans in the world.” But when I see some of these athletes heading into their retirement years deciding to retire, I literally say out loud, “Good for you.” Because I know the struggle that an athlete goes through at the end of their career.
When is the right time? Do I go out on top? What is this gonna do to my lifestyle, to my family? And women athletes have a different mindset, I think, around this than men athletes, because of the resources that they've been given throughout the whole of their careers are vastly different, right? And so, you see a lot more women athletes more concerned, probably holding on a little bit longer than maybe they, they, quote-unquote “should have” based on their statistical output because they're scared, right? They don't have the hundreds of millions or even millions of dollars in their bank accounts to invest or to rely on for the rest of the, of their lives.
People forget athletes’ careers are short in terms of the whole of the average person's life expectancy. And so, an athlete retiring at an old age, at 35… I was 35 when I retired. That is a baby. You know, that's basically midlife. That's just about to get to midlife as a human being in terms of the length of my life.
And so, when I was retiring, I was… I was stressed. I didn't know how I was gonna get healthcare. I didn't have any benefits. You know, I didn't have a 401K plan that I had been adding to over the years with US soccer. That's now actually just started with the new CBA with the team. Um, and so I was actually really concerned how I was gonna actually pay the mortgage that I had, that I was requiring, you know, needing to pay every month.
And then of course, when you're talking about the lifestyle, it's amazing to be a professional athlete. And there's so many outrageous things that are part of it. You know, whether it's fame, you're in circles that not many people would ever in their wildest dreams expect to be in. You get to meet incredible, incredible people.
You're in meetings with CEOs of Fortune 100, Fortune 10 companies. Like, there are incredible opportunities that I was able to experience, and the lifestyle piece of it is really kind of hard. You have to build a full person, right? Like I said earlier, it's really easy to be an athlete if you're good, and you can make it into the professional world because all you really need to focus on is that one thing.
And, if I were to go back and do it over again, I definitely would've focused more on the broader parts of my life. Like how to make a schedule, how to—literally I didn't even know how to calendar. I didn't know how to use my calendar app. I just had somebody coming to me. I had a team of people around me that was my support team, and that was amazing.
But when I left the game, I wanted to, but I had to, by necessity, to figure out how to be a person. And so part of the, the stress of retiring is knowing that that was looming, is knowing that I had to like, figure out and, and cultivate these new parts of myself that I had never done. You know, I was a 35-year-old baby when it comes to the real world. I didn't know how to take care of myself. I had all these other people around me doing it. So, when I do watch some of these aging athletes take that step into their retirement, you know, of course we love watching the Serenas. Of course we love watching Michael Jordan, but nothing lasts forever. Right?
And as a fan it's sad. But from, from a person who's been there, I am always so excited for those folks. Honestly, when I retired, I, I called everybody like, “What, what is this like?” And everybody's experience is different because the way that they, they went by their actual craft of sport was different.
I put all of my eggs in that basket. I didn't think about anything else. Every relationship I ever had suffered, you know. I didn't go home a lot. I didn't see my parents enough, like all of these things, when the first couple years of my retirement, I remember feeling like, oh, “Oh, I need to slow everything down and I need to rethink and reimagine a whole new life.” And I do think the best of us that retire, the ones that make the best transitions, are the ones that can have the strong sense of self and the egolessness.
You know, you see players retire and they come outta retirement and it's just like this unwillingness to let go of that former self or that old lifestyle or whatever. Maybe it's even financial reasons, who knows? But the ones that I think that do it the best are the ones that either have a plan going into the retirement or they just, like, for me, I just turn my back on me being an athlete and I just threw myself into me being a person. And it took me years, it took me many years to, like, get my feet under myself and, and to understand what a, a retirement, a good retirement can look like.
[00:09:06] Adam Grant:
Well, you just touched on something that psychologists have shown multiple times now, which is it can be hard to detach from an old identity, but if you have a new identity that you're stepping into, that can actually be a sign of growth.
And I like the idea of becoming a whole person as a new identity. It seems like, though, a lot of people get stuck in the old identity. They have a very hard time. I mean, you, you were defined by soccer, Abby, right? Everyone knew you as the GOAT. Not so easy to let go of that. How did you decide it was time?
[00:09:36] Abby Wambach:
You, you bring up a great point ‘cause identity as a thing, right? A thing that you put on. I had to get really honest with myself about number one: did I like that identity, right? And, and what did it serve me? And I had to figure out a way in my retirement to not just shed that identity, but also create a new identity that was unbreaking.
My wife, when I met her, she said something so valuable to me, and I'll never forget it. She said, “Abby, you think that soccer makes you special.” She said, “But what I see is that you are special, and you made soccer special, and you get to bring yourself everywhere you go.”
I did wonderful things playing, playing soccer. I won championships. I was one of the best in the world, and that brought me a lot of confidence. And so over the last seven years of my retirement, my main focus, and this is true, is how do I build self-esteem without the accolades, without the championships? Like, what are the small things?
I've actually realized, winning World Cups and being given the Player of the Year awards and US Soccer Player of the Year awards, that never gave me actual confidence. I knew that I was worthy of those awards. I knew that our team was worthy of, of those championships. It was all of the very little minutia things that allowed those things as byproducts to come along. Right? So it was the everyday dedication that gave me confidence, and so I can actually use that form of dedication.
It might not be training for soccer. It's just doing the small things that bring me the self-esteem that inevitably will bring that next championship, whatever it might look like, you know, if it's a podcast or a professional speaking career or parenting, my freaking God, like parenting. It's one of the most humbling and amazing experiences of my life.
But I had no idea how important being of self and, and having a center was to be a good, stable, grounded force for the three children that we have. It's been incredible. So to me, I think self-esteem has been one of the most important things in terms of building a new identity as just person, as just like human being here on planet Earth.
‘Cause, because you know what I've, what I've also promised myself to do was not build a, a, an identity for myself that can ever be taken away from me again or ever, I would ever lose again. Because then I have to do this whole process over and over and over and that's just not something I'm interested in.
[00:12:27] Adam Grant:
So I guess this means you won't be making a comeback?
[00:12:29] Abby Wambach:
I have no interest. I love being a fan of the team now. I love watching women's soccer. I love it so much, but I look at them and I think, “No way.” I feel like I had a certain personality during that mindset, during that, like, finite focused like that, that person was different.
And I've just kind of transferred all of the positive things that made me so good at soccer, and I try to implement the things that, that gave me… I don't know if it's an edge or gave me, I, I really do think it comes back to self-esteem to be able to walk through every single day of my life, but, you know, it is hard to shed that, that identity.
I'm not gonna lie; like, it's not an easy process. For a long time, I just thought suffering is the way to feeling good about yourself. And so for the last couple of years, I ran the New York City Marathon in 2021. And that was a great process, but I realized that I attached suffering and, and quote-unquote “endurance” to self-esteem for the whole of my life.
And so for the last year of my life, I have been working really hard at trying to build self-esteem in myself without needing to suffer physically, right? So I walk and I lift weights and I, I surf and I play golf, and I do things that are hard, that are physically challenging at times, but not at that level. My brain, I think, was so predisposed to like, “Oh, I've gotta be in the fifth percentile for a certain amount of minutes every week in order to feel like I've done something,” and that, that's a professional athlete's mindset.
I'm not a professional athlete anymore. I don't have to suffer. Right? Going deep into what made me tick as an athlete and really getting honest about why I was able to do it for so long… It really wasn't even about the winning. I have a, a very big willpower and being able to transfer that into my retirement life has been important and, and I just think that building self-esteem is something that all of us can do.
Not all of us can be pro athletes and play for our country. I understand that. Every single one of us can figure out what are the things that make us feel good about ourselves. People might be surprised by this, but, like, I work out for one hour. I lift one hour every day, every weekday. And physical fitness is something that I, I loathe. I hate it, but I know that it gives me self-esteem, and it makes me feel good about myself.
And so those are the non-negotiables that I have, and I implement into my everyday life. You know, I wake up, I try to get it done before noon every single day, and then the rest of the day is golden. So what are those little things that you can find in a life, in your life that make you feel good about yourself?
And, and don't wait for that motivation to come. Because by the way, that's one huge thing I learned with professional sports. Motivation is a fallacy. Pro athletes wake up. Sore, pulled hamstring, turned ankle, whatever it is. And you don't wanna go out and train every day, but you do ‘cause that's your job. Right?
And so you have to figure out what those things to build self, self-esteem are inside of your life and do them like they're your job.
[00:16:01] Adam Grant:
I, I like your, your distinction that you're making here between you don't have to suffer, but you do have to be willing to struggle—
[00:16:09] Abby Wambach:
[00:16:09] Adam Grant:
—If you wanna keep moving forward.
[00:16:11] Abby Wambach:
[00:16:16] Adam Grant:
Let’s go to a lightning round.
[00:16:17] Abby Wambach:
[00:16:17] Adam Grant:
Are you ready?
[00:16:18] Abby Wambach:
[00:16:19] Adam Grant:
What is the worst advice you've ever gotten?
[00:16:22] Abby Wambach:
You can do anything.
[00:16:25] Adam Grant:
Hm. I hate that advice too.
[00:16:25] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. I, I don't think that human beings can do anything. You know, like I think that this is the, the worst thing you can say to a child, right? Like, if you want something and you work for it, there might be a much higher probability that you can succeed at it. But nothing is certain in this life. And, and I also think fairness is bullshit. I don't think that life is fair. I think that's something we also have to stop teaching our kids.
[00:16:52] Adam Grant:
Well, that's a dose of realistic optimism.
[00:16:54] Abby Wambach:
[00:16:54] Adam Grant:
I like it.
[00:16:55] Abby Wambach:
[00:16:56] Adam Grant:
[00:16:57] Abby Wambach:
[00:16:57] Adam Grant:
Okay. What is something you've rethought in the past year?
[00:16:59] Abby Wambach:
I don't really believe in, like, New Year's resolutions. We believe in intentions and living into them, and then re—and reassessing them halfway through the year and then reassessing them at the end of the year. My 2023 intention is on flexibility, right? And so flexibility in all things: mind, body, and spirit.
And so I've been, as an athlete, ironically, I'm, I'm like the least flexible human being on the planet. I just focused on strength and power, and that's really what it was. And I've been surfing over the last year since living in Southern California, and I realized it's super limiting to being a surfer.
I'm not able to pop up as, as great ‘cause my ankle flexibility and mobility and my knees, my hips—that matters for being able to pop up and surf. So I've been working a lot on physical flexibility, but then it, it's kind of gotten me thinking about some of the things in my life that I'm less flexible in. I'm a perfectionist in some ways, and that really… It limits my relations with my kids and my, my wife because for an example, something I'm working on. When they, um, put their dishes in the sink, they don't wash the, the, the stuff down the drain. And that is so annoying to me. And I'm like, “Why is that so annoying to me? Why, why does that bother me?” So I'm working through the flexibilities of my life right now. That's, that's kind of what I'm bringing into the new year.
[00:18:25] Adam Grant:
Going through a few of your favorite principles, what's your favorite way to make failure your fuel?
[00:18:28] Abby Wambach:
If you can be really honest about the failures of your life, you will be able to figure out what went wrong, how to not replicate it so that it can inform future decisions.
[00:18:42] Adam Grant:
Leading from the bench: the most effective way to do that?
[00:18:46] Abby Wambach:
I used to be an, uh, an obsessive talker, and I think one of the best forms of leading from the bench is listening; that is something I'm trying to really cultivate in myself. I wanna talk, I wanna add, but I think that leadership is really about learning how to listen and have conversations with people and really hearing them. I think that that's really important.
[00:19:14] Adam Grant:
There was a men's World Cup recently. There was a big debate about whether Messi is the GOAT. Where do you come down?
[00:19:21] Abby Wambach:
Yeah, for sure. Messi’s the GOAT; he's won all the big championships, and he scored tons of goals. I like to look at the trajectory of an athlete, not just by their statistics, but how much their teammates love them, how much their teammates respect them. Uh, and so for me, for sure, Messi. Messi for sure, for me right now, in this day and age, you know, as sports and as they modernize, it gets harder. It gets harder and harder. And so, um, Messi is amazing. Really happy for him.
[00:19:54] Adam Grant:
I thought that was, that was obviously the high point of, uh, a messy World Cup, no pun intended. The lowest point was losing Grant Wahl, who was a friend of mine and who I know, uh, you were deeply affected by. Talk to me a little bit about what Grant meant to you and soccer.
[00:20:11] Abby Wambach:
Well, not many people know this, but Grant Wahl has been the voice of soccer in this country. Period. He's been around since the mid-nineties, since when the MLS started, since the ‘94 World Cup. He has gone about—god, it's so weird. I, you gotta talk about him in past tense. I don't like that. Like he wrote the future of this game 20 years ago.
And you know, I, I, I, obviously it was, it's devastating to his family. We're just the people that knew him tangentially and through interviews and whatnot. But to know somebody who dedicated themselves to this game and won't be able to see how much of an impact he made, it's just hard. It's, you know, I'm, I'm not an expert at death.
I don't know how to do this, but he'll for sure be missed. He just was the most, he just wrote truth. He wrote the truth, and he wasn't trying to do it for clickbait. He was doing it because he had integrity. And I think that, you know, the game is gonna miss him for sure. And, uh, yeah. It’s just devastating for sure, for the, for the whole soccer community.
[00:21:28] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I don't think I've ever seen athletes speak so consistently and powerfully about how generous a reporter was to them, how much he went out his, out of his way to be a champion for women in, you know, in a game that too often shined, was shining the spotlight on men. And I think it just speaks volumes about his character.
[00:21:44] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. And it also, you know, I wrote this to his wife after we heard about the passing but it makes me know that he had a really strong woman in his life, the way that he went about writing about the women's game and making sure he was, you know, he was, he was seeing the game through the lens of everybody that was watching it.
He wasn't just white male, you know? He happened to be a white guy, but he made sure to have a voice for those of us that, that played the game as, as marginalized people
[00:22:24] Adam Grant:
On a lighter note, I think maybe my most consistent laugh when I open Instagram is when Glennon posts something about “the soccer”. It just cracks me up.
What have you learned about teamwork about sport, about coaching? Any lessons from, you know, Glennon being such an extreme outsider to, to the game?
[00:22:47] Abby Wambach:
It's been actually really amazing because when we first met, and we started watching the sports, you know, she would be watching the sports. It happens even now.
[00:22:57] Adam Grant:
It happens even now. It’s so funny.
[00:22:57] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. She would be watching in a totally different way, and I didn't understand it. I was watching for, um, big plays and amazing magical moments, and she was, she was looking at it from a relationship perspective, and so she's actually broadened my, the way in which I consume sport. We don't sit down and just like, pop on a game; like, we actually search out teams to have more meaning behind what we're doing.
We don't want it just to be about the Bulls playing the Miami Heat. It's like, who's on this team and does it matter? You know, it's like seeing something for the first time and trying to get back to the essence of, of really what we're doing here. And of course, it's just funny and, and, and she has such a beautiful way of, of bringing out the, the comedy and also making sure that it still has meaning.
I keep telling her, I'm like, “If I were some sort of broadcasting company, I would offer you a commentating gig.” Because if you could actually listen to her, she's like, “Oh, what happened? Oh gosh, the ball's out. Now what?” You know, it's like this hilarious thing.
And so many women who follow Glennon are like, “Yeah, me too. I have no idea why, why we're doing this.” But it brings, it brings them into this experience that would otherwise be just like, you know, husband sitting on the couch, or sporty person sitting on the couch and wife just sitting there like, “I don't know what the hell is going on here.” So it's, it's been hilarious.
[00:24:32] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I, I would pitch that as Glennon with, is it Bob Manary or is it Menery? His, his commentary plus hers I think would be gold.
[00:24:40] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. I doubt she would accept a platform to share with Bob Menery, yeah. They might be a little bit too opposite.
[00:24:46] Adam Grant:
Maybe, but it would be highly entertaining. I want to pick up on a phrase you used a little while ago. You talked about being stable and grounded. This is, I think, one of the things that I admire most about you. It's obviously something that, that distinguished you as a soccer player, right? You were so calm and collected under pressure, and you often played your best when a game was on the line.
It's also something I've seen in you off the field. When you get on a stage, you are as chill as anyone I've ever met. I look at that, and I think a lot about something Glennon talks about, which is, you know, so often an unwanted emotion sort of arrives as a package, right? And she says you get to choose whether you wanna accept the package or send it back.
Well, we receive a lot of emotional packages we would like to send back, but we don't know how. And I've never asked you before, like, how do you regulate emotions? Um, like when your team was behind a goal and the clock is ticking, like what did you feel? How did you manage that?
[00:25:43] Abby Wambach:
Um, there is something about my spirit. It's, it's one of my greatest strengths. And I also think one of my greatest weaknesses. I am an eternal optimist. So when a ball is out on the wing, right? And I'm in box and I'm, I'm waiting for a cross in the box, it doesn't matter who the player is. I believe in every fiber of my being that that ball is gonna come to me. Because of that belief system that it's not, has, has nothing to do with the player or even me, but I believe that there is going to be an opportunity no matter what, right?
And so the player on the ball, they're gonna take a touch. That touch is a cue for me to start my run or to get to a certain spot. I look at my defenders; I'm doing a calculus of where I can run to have the best opportunity. High risk, right? High reward to score a goal. Knowing the player on the ball, do they like to serve it short sometimes? What is their average? Right? Where are they on average, most likely gonna serve this ball? Because everything is, is a crapshoot. You have no idea where the ball's gonna go. You're just playing. You're just playing the odds, like, “Okay, practice this week. She pulled her left hamstring or she's got a tight hip flexor.”
These are like instant calculations that are happening. Every single moment of every single play, I’m optimistically feeling like the ball is going to either come to me or it will bounce over the defender's head or, or, or foot and we're gonna get a chance. And I think soccer is such an interesting game because there's fewer set plays than like in basketball or in football where so-and-so's gonna run five yards and then they're gonna make a post-run or a flag run, whatever it might be.
Soccer has this fluidity to it that the energy exchange between two people matters, right? The relationship I have with that teammate, how much I know about them, how much I've studied their, their body mechanics and their movements, all of that stuff matters. Now, that eternal optimism also has a shadow side.
Drive, it drives my wife crazy at times because she's just like, “The world is just not that good. There are really horrible things that are happening.” And I'm always freaking brightsiding situations. She's, and she just says, “Can you just not brightside for a minute? I just want to vent.” And I'm like, yes.
So to couple this, this optimism that I have, I'm also a problem solver. And like in the game of soccer, that worked out really well because every single moment there was like a little problem to solve. And having those two kind of personality traits I do think allows for a kind of person like myself to achieve in, in sport and, and also in life in some ways. In terms of the bigger macro question of like how I—
[00:28:49] Adam Grant:
Wait, before you go to the bigger question, Abby, I just, I wanna react to that for a second, which is this coupling of optimism and problem-solving is really interesting. I see a lot of people who are cynical and say “There's a problem, but they don't wanna solve it,” or who are pessimistic and say “There's a problem, but we can't solve it.”
As an optimist, what you do is you say, “I see a problem. I believe we can solve it,” but you're going further and saying, “Wait, I want to take responsibility and initiative. We have a problem, here's what I'm gonna do to solve it.”
[00:29:18] Abby Wambach:
That's really smart. You're always really smart. Adam, I appreciate you. I do feel like in leadership, when we talk about people who are sitting at the head of big corporations or the, you know, the head of schools or the head of governments, I do think that that is a, a trait that kind of persists, uh, among leaders. Now, do all leaders harness this trait for good? No.
I do think you can get into a little bit of narcissism when somebody's like, “Hey. There's a problem, and I can fix it, and only I can fix it.” I do believe that, that some of the best leaders in the world have that ability to understand and have the awareness, the self-awareness that, like, I couldn't be on the corner. I couldn't be on the wing crossing that ball to myself. Somebody else has to be a part of this circumstance. And that is a metaphor for life. We are never, we are never alone in trying to solve the problems of the world, right? We are never alone. And that is both amazing to hear and also terrifying for so many people, right?
For folks who might actually have the best idea, but it doesn't matter if your idea is the best, it matters how that idea is going to infiltrate and play amongst everybody in the group. One thing that I really get frustrated about when folks talk about pro athletes as superhuman… I don't believe in superhuman. We are all human, right?
And I believe some of the best leaders in the world seem superhuman because they're able to get their own sense of self in check. That they don't need every accolade, that they don't need to feel good about themselves. Right? Here we go back again to, to self-esteem. I think when we talk about any kind of group and getting a leader and trying to understand and organize and make sure we can all be on the same team, it is hard to get a group of people to all buy into a similar idea, right? Like let's break it down into the soccer framework. Everybody on that team, there's 11 players on the field. They have to agree—a lot of it's happening instantly, silently—that the person on the ball has the confidence, has the ability to make the play that they're about to make.
And then I also have to agree that there is a form of uncertainty to this play. I have to believe that that player is going to do her job and everybody else on the team also has to believe in it. Otherwise, you know, it'd be chaos, it'd be mayhem, and I don't believe we give enough respect to the people around us.
And by the way, I think that our world has taken kind of a, a, a left turn somewhere. That we have to all agree that we believe in the same shit, that we all wanna do the same kind of life, that we all came from the same home, and we are people that are so different. And I think the best leaders understand that differences are what make us unique, and the uniqueness is what makes magic happen. I'm fascinated with groupthink right now. I'm fascinated with leadership. I'm fascinated with trying to figure out the minutiae of what makes a team and thrive. What makes a team fall?
Um, because every single team is completely different. It's like starting with a new slate. And I wanna get back to like how I regulate my emotions… I grew up in a pretty busy household. I'm the youngest of seven children, and so there was always kind of chaos and mayhem happening around me from the time I was an infant, right? And so I think because I had that experience as a child, I'm able to handle external stimulation really well.
My nervous system doesn't get heightened as much as maybe it, it does for my wife, who's a highly sensitive person. I think sometimes it’s just, is something wrong with me because you know, loud noises, like, it scares my family and I just am, like, almost dead inside. And I think that also really works well in my marriage because I'm able to stay really grounded and I don't get too heightened about much.
[00:34:14] Adam Grant:
I, I'm definitely not as calm as you are. But I, I do have a similar tendency that when other people are freaking out, I actually get more relaxed. And sometimes that has a, an unintended consequence. It's similar, I think, to what you were describing in your marriage, which is sometimes it leaves people feeling invalidated in their emotions.
[00:34:33] Abby Wambach:
[00:34:34] Adam Grant:
Like, I find myself saying like, you don't have to feel that. Like, what, what is, like, what's the consequence of this situation? Like, why is this an emotional event in the first place? Um, and then they feel uns—um, and unsupported.
[00:34:46] Abby Wambach:
[00:34:46] Adam Grant:
How have you learned to navigate that? Because I need some help.
[00:34:49] Abby Wambach:
I actually just had this conversation with Glennon the other day. It's interesting, the, the difference between empathy and sympathy. I don't take on somebody else's emotion. I can sympathize with them, like, “Oh, that really sucks,” but I'm not an empathetic person. Whereas Glennon, she's an empath, so she, she takes on so much of the world’s energy as her own and, and I think that that's a trait that can be learned, believing somebody else's experience. Because the truth is, I think one of the things that prevents us from wanting to do that, for lack of a better word, it's a drama, like somebody else's problem is something to have to solve. Something to have to deal with.
[00:35:34] Adam Grant:
[00:35:35] Abby Wambach:
Something to have to manage. And it is actually, if you were to get really honest with yourself, it's really vulnerable because there's really nothing you can do. Hearing somebody tell you about their problem, if you believe them, then what you do is you're taking on responsibility of helping them sort through it. And that's time, that's effort, that's energy.
And so I think that sometimes it's easier for some of us to just be like, “What the hell is wrong with you? Like, why are you reacting so big to this?” I would challenge those listening who might fall in that category to say, “Okay, why do I… why am I so resistant to that? What is the, what is underneath that for me? Is it because it scares me a little bit because I don't know that emotion?” I don't even wanna learn that emotion in my life because the world has told you your whole life, well, that makes you, that makes you weak, right?
So if, if you're out there, challenge yourself, like, “Why do I not believe my wife in this circumstance? Why is her response to this situation annoying to me?” And I bet that intimacy, I bet that vulnerability are, are kind of at the bottom at the root of that.
[00:36:50] Adam Grant:
I struggle with a different aspect of this, which is, like, when someone comes to me with a problem, like, I would only ever bring someone a problem if I wanted their solution to it. And, like, not everyone wants a solution, and I have to constantly remind myself, like, I cannot force someone else to want to feel better. It's not my job always to make them feel better. It's to make them feel understood.
[00:37:14] Abby Wambach:
[00:37:15] Adam Grant:
I’ve been reading some, some research on this that that shows that what most people want more than a solution or more than a perspective is just that understanding and validation.
[00:37:24] Abby Wambach:
[00:37:24] Adam Grant:
And I guess I'm just not most people then.
[00:37:27] Abby Wambach:
We have teenage kids right now. They come to us with, uh, a grievance, a problem, something, and, and we have to literally respond to them like this” Are you ready for a solution or you just wanna vent? And 90—
[00:37:44] Adam Grant:
Such a good question to ask.
[00:37:45] Abby Wambach:
99% of the time it's “No, I just wanna vent.” And so that's kind of what we, we try to do. And I think that Glennon actually has to do that with me a lot because I, I immediately go into “I wanna fix it”. And I think that that's really helpful because it's the truth. Like, when I was going through my divorce, I remember people giving me all this advice and I didn't ask for that.
I just, I was sad and I needed to get my sadness out and I don't want you to fix it. And Glennon has talked a lot about this. If you jump in and try to solve this problem, what you're doing is you're stealing my work. We all have issues that come up, right, and people are there, but for the most part, we have to figure this stuff out ourselves.
Like, the problem exists for you personally to figure out. If somebody else comes in and swoops in, they're taking the learning from you and the problem will continue to persist. So we have to—
[00:38:47] Adam Grant:
Oh, that's such a good reframe for me.
[00:38:48] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. We have to do the personal work ourselves. Otherwise, I mean, how many of us out there keep running into the same damn problem over and over and over again. Think about why that problem continues to persist, and it's probably ‘cause you haven't learned everything that you need to learn so that the problem doesn't keep happening.
[00:39:05] Adam Grant:
Abby, last thing before we wrap. You mentioned earlier that you've become fascinated with leadership and teamwork, and obviously those are favorite topics of mine as an organizational psychologist. So I'm gonna give you the podcast host role for a second: what do you wanna ask me?
[00:39:21] Abby Wambach:
I love this. How do you ensure a, a winning team? How do you create a winning team?
[00:39:29] Adam Grant:
I mean, you did it. I just study it. But I'll tell you maybe my favorite framework, uh, which we can talk about more later. I had the great fortune of learning from the world's leading expert on teams, Richard Hackman.
He was the first organizational psychologist I ever met. I took his class when I was a junior in college and I was hooked, and Richard wrote a book called Leading Teams where he tried to unpack everything he knew about making a team great over half a century. And basically what it boiled down to was number one, you need a real team.
We're not just a group. We're interdependent. We rely on each other to achieve a common mission that's greater than ourselves. Two was a compelling direction. We need a, a purpose that, that we all believe in. Three was what, what he would consider a, an effective system of roles so that you know, each person was able to use their individual talents for the benefit of the group. Four was a supportive context. And then the last piece was some expert coaching, when you needed education, motivation, consultation, somebody from the outside who could step in and make the team more than the sum of its parts. And I like that framework a lot.
I think the part that I've been most interested in personally is the question of how do we set a compelling direction. Because in, in most teams, like there isn't that immediate resonance of “We wanna win a championship.” I think that's a built-in feature to sports. Everyone wants to win. In life, it’s a lot harder to figure out what does winning mean. And how do you make that meaningful to each person? And I don't know. I would love to read your next book about that.
[00:40:56] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. I know. I’m obsessed right now with the whole concept of what enough is. You know, everybody is searching for happiness. Well, that's just so stupid. I, I think that happiness comes in moments. I have a beautiful life. But how do you determine that? You know, as a middle-aged person now, heading towards the third act or whatever people want to call it, defining “enough”?
And I think that that's really important to figure out what's the common drive, where are we headed? That is why I think our Women's National Team is so successful is because it is an unwavering understanding that the pursuit of excellence and winning are, are, are the main priority. And how we all get there might be different, but that is unquestionable. At least it was for, for the teams that I played on.
[00:41:50] Adam Grant:
That's a question we should all ask ourselves. What is enough?
[00:41:55] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. I’m daily thinking about it. Okay. What is enough?
[00:41:59] Adam Grant:
Well, when you, when you get to the bottom of it, let me know ‘cayse I would really like to know the answer.
[00:42:03] Abby Wambach:
But it, what is enough for me is gonna be totally different than what is enough for you, you know? And making sure that we're siphoning this idea through all of the parts of ourselves, like the greed. I mean, greed is a really enticing thing, and it's something that we're all looking at every single day on our social media, right? Like, oh, that person has this thing. It's like keeping up on the Joneses.
Like that is a sense and a forcing of greed. And so keeping all of these, what I call shadow sides of ourselves in check like, oh, my ego or greed or, or all of these things. I also think it's gonna always evolve. Like enough for me right now is gonna be different than enough for me in 5, 10, 15 years.
[00:42:54] Adam Grant:
Abby really got my brain firing with this question of what counts as enough. I think it applies to everything that matters to us. What counts as enough productivity, enough creativity, enough money, enough struggle. I don't have any answers, but I think it's a question that we should reflect on regularly, and my guess is that most of us set the bar for what counts as enough, much higher than we should, and that leads us often to take on too much. I don't know about you, but I would rather commit to too little than too much.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.
Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
[00:43:58] Abby Wambach:
I think that the only thing that freaks me out is, like, candles in my house. For some reason, I'm so afraid the house is gonna burn down. It's a legitimate fear.
[00:44:06] Adam Grant:
It’s a legitimate fear.
[00:44:06] Abby Wambach:
Yeah. I mean, I think that they're, that you're right. Fire is, is something to get worked up about.