Great Work Podcast

The Great Work Podcast

Should You Embrace your Dark Side? With Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

Should You Embrace your Dark Side? With Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

upside-your-dark-sideWe’ve had Todd Kashdan on before talking about his book, Curious. We’ve had Robert Biswas-Diener on before talking about his book, The Courage Quotient. But somehow, without me really noticing, these guys got together, paired up, and have written a new book which I really enjoyed. It’s called The Upside of Your Dark Side.

In this Great Work Podcast, I sit down with Todd and Robert to discuss:

  • Why happiness may not be all it’s cracked up to be
  • What stress and anxiety may be telling you
  • How to be less “Darth Vadar-y”and use manipulation for the power of good
  • Why we need to use different sides of our personality

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Full Transcript

Michael:  So today we have two guests. Actually, returning guests. We’ve had Todd Kashdan on before talking about his fantastic book, Curious. We’ve had Robert Biswas-Diener on before talking about his fantastic book, The Courage Quotient. But somehow, without me really noticing, these guys got together, paired up, and have written a really—a book that really—I think it’s fantastic. I really enjoyed it. It’s called The Upside of Your Dark Side.

And here’s one way of pitching this: Two guys known for their commitment to positive psychology turn their back on happiness. Betray the very things they stand for and start ranting against happiness and saying it’s way overrated! But that’s a slight sensational approach to this. But we’re going to get into why this book is—takes it away from the normal and ever-growing number of books on happiness that are out there. And, you know, when I first picked up this book I was reminded of a book called, Debbie Ford, Chasing the Dark Side, or Chasing the Light Side, or something like that. It’s all about connecting to your dark side, and I actually loved it, except it was kind of fluffy; it was a kind of Californian therapy, very kind of pastel hugsy coloured thing but it was really profound for me when I read the book. The Dark Side of the Light Chasers is what it’s called.

And I was kind of thinking it would be a book similar to that but this is a book rich with research and science and great insights about why happiness may not be all it’s cracked up to be. So we’re going to jump into that. So Todd, let me put the first question out to you. What—well, actually, I’ll start with you, again, Todd, I want to ask you, why did you decide to co-author a book rather than doing the locked-in-a-lonely-garret-writing-a-book-by-yourself type of route that we’ve all taken before?

Todd:  Oh, I’m so glad you asked that because I had made a commitment to never write even a solo-authored article again. I think the older you get, you just realize how little you know and how important it is for someone to just tear your whole body and your first layer of flesh off for you to create work that’s meaningful and, like, makes you vulnerable and makes sure that you really speak your truth.

And Robert is that amazing friend. He doesn’t like to hug. He’s not very touchy, but if I say something stupid or write something that’s inane he will tear me a new orifice. I have many of them over the course of writing the book with him.

Michael: You’re not actually making a very strong case for co-authoring with anybody at this stage, I’ll say that.

Todd: Many people might not want to be friends, yeah.

Michael: Well, not want to be friends with Robert anyway. What about you, Robert? What brought you to a realization about partnership and co-authoring?

Robert: Yeah. First of all, I commend your question. I think it’s a fantastic question and it’s pretty provocative. I think that for everyone—we have this sort of love affair with the maverick individual genius. You know, Steve Jobs out there changing the world just based on the power of his own radical thinking. And I’m of the opinion that some of the best ideas are the brain children of multiple people, and I’ve certainly found that to be true in the case in collaborating with Todd, both on academic articles and then on this book.

The things that come out of our conversations, simply put, are of higher quality than what I can produce myself on my own.

Michael: And what did you learn, Rob, about collaboration that perhaps surprised you that you weren’t expecting?

Robert: Well, I’ve collaborated on other books besides this one and I think that it’s a delicate process. You know, you just have to like the other person, frankly. Because there’s going to be times when you’re going to step on each other’s toes, there are times when you’re going to have to have a sensitive conversation like, “Is it possible for us to remove this entire chapter you just wrote?” Or things like that.

But I think that if you just kind of enjoy that person, then the process itself, it becomes more than the product, right? The book isn’t the only thing; it’s the year or two years that you spend working with this person, having these great conversations.

Michael: And is there anything that you know, Todd, now that you are kind of surprised at or you feel like you’ve added to your layer of wisdom in terms of through the experience of collaborating with Robert here?

Todd:  Is this for me, Michael?

Michael: That is for you. Sorry, Todd.

Todd: I think I just have a profound appreciation for the fact that Robert is a fantastic storyteller. We’ve given talks together around the world; we just got back from South Korea. I sit in awe even having heard these stories before. Just the way he’s able just to …  emotionally evoke personally meaningful events in other people’s lives by telling a story from his own life. It’s just—it’s such a beautiful skill. And it evokes envy, it evokes anxiety and it evokes desire to kind of have him near me by my side. So I can really say, you know, listen, “He’s part of my tribe and I get to write books with him.” And I think he’s so compassionate. If I get upset over someone trolling me on the internet or just that, people will often not ask questions about some of the favourite things that I wrote about in the book, Robert really is a great listener. We gave birth in a non-homo erotic relationship together, and so, even our spouses can’t understand the deep affection we have between us for this material.

Michael: So let’s jump into this material, and one of the chapters that caught my attention was about the rising tide of anxiety. And connected to that is around avoiding anxiety. You talk about avoidance being the tectonic issue of our time, which is a nicely turned phrase. But, honestly, what’s wrong with avoiding anxiety? Robert, let me ask you this: why—I mean, to me, honestly, anxiety sounds like the perfect thing to try and avoid. So why would I step—why wouldn’t I step away from that if I had the opportunity.

Robert: Yeah. I think a great question. And I think that it’s not actually even specific to anxiety. I think with all of the icky emotions, whether that’s anger or guilt or anxiety, there is a very, very natural propensity to want to avoid them. Why feel crappy if you can avoid feeling crappy?

And so I think that’s what people more often than not do, especially if we have things like a television that can help distract us or a bottle of wine that can help mellow us. And those tend to be go-to strategies that people have for avoidance.  I think, in that, is perhaps a profound misunderstanding of what emotions are and their very nature, which is more than anything, mood is information. It’s just a tracking signal telling you how life is going, and oftentimes, it’s not perfectly accurate but it’s pretty accurate. And so for most people it does a pretty good job of telling you when you’re under threat, when events are going differently than you planned, when you should conserve your resources, and those types of things.

So, you know, stress is kind of giving you a signal that I think you should pay attention to. And to pay attention to it, it means experience it. “What is this anxiety telling me? It’s telling me maybe I’m in too deep. I’ve got too many balls in the air.” Use the metaphor you like.

But it’s telling you something about your ability comparable to the workload ahead of you or the challenge you’re facing.

Michael: Well, that’s interesting because, you know, it’s easy for us to put emotions and feelings, kind of, into good, bad categories. I mean, I always think there are five, I think, main emotions. That’s how I remember it anyway. Mad, sad, glad, ashamed and afraid. And, you know, four of those you could label “bad” and one of those, gladness, you’d label “good.” But you’re sort of saying that emotions are neutral; they’re just the thing that shows up.

Robert: Yeah. And I compare it to the ends of a battery, right? We call one end “positive” and one end “negative” but without any kind of value judgment. I mean, you probably don’t have a preference for one end or the other of the battery. And that’s how I kind of think of emotions. We do categorize them. We call them “positive emotions” and “negative emotions,” but the truth is I see emotions as being functional, as being worth listening to.

Michael: And, Todd, let me ask you this question: Are people therefore somehow collapsing a sense of trying to avoid stress with actually trying to avoid the feeling that arises from a situation or maybe trying to avoid a situation versus trying to avoid the feelings attached or that arise from that situation?

Todd: I think both. I think in the modern age we live in, which is very different from our grandparents, it’s so easy to acquire comfort in a given moment. I mean I’ve got seats that heat up in my car. So even on a fall afternoon where it’s only 59 degrees Fahrenheit and yet I think, “Well, why wouldn’t I massage my tush while we’re going to work?” It’s not enough that it’s leather seats but I can warm myself.

And the idea that I can go on campus, in my job as a professor, and I can self-select everyone that I spend more than 3 minutes with. I can walk around the hallway and pick out from 50 offices of who’s going to go out to lunch with me and who I’m going to sit outside with on a sunny day and go for a walk to get some—a protein smoothie. And my ability to self-select my moments in my life basically prevents me from having contact with discomfort such that I lose the ability to actually experience discomfort in a way that doesn’t flummox me, where I forget that if my heart rate goes up 15 beats per minute and my hands get sweaty, this does not mean I’m an anxious person and I’m losing control and everyone can notice this.

You forget what it’s like to be distressed if you’re constantly pursuing comfort. And so in some ways, we become psychologically weaker by our dependence on comforts. And I’m not suggesting we should get harder pillows and I’m not suggesting we should sleep on the floor as opposed to our beds and I’m not suggesting that we should choose spouses that argue with us because only then will we be able to tolerate more strength.

What I suggest though is by voluntarily promoting regular contact with this discomfort on purpose, we are better able to handle life’s slings and arrows when they do come because someone is going to tell you you’re an idiot after you give a talk and a student is going to go onto Facebook while you’re talking about an amazing important point in your lecture and your kids are going to tell you that they hate you because they’re 8 years old, and that’s what 8 year olds do, and your neighbour is going to put their garbage on the side of the street and it’s going to spill over onto your property and it’s probably going to be the sour milk.

You know, not something that’s more mundane than that. And can you be able to handle those stresses and get the best possible outcome and converse with your neighbour in a way that’s assertive but keeps the healthy relationship alive? And talk to your kids and express your anger that they are listening to you but in a way that’s sensitive to understanding their point of view. And that comes from being able to better tolerate the stress and negative emotions.

Michael: So, Robert, let me ask you.  I hear what you’re saying I think, which is avoiding anxiety somehow weakens us and it’s not about needlessly, you know, putting yourself through suffering but the ability to sit with discomfort, to face anxiety gives you a degree of building resilience, and also I think experience a more complete sense of yourself and a more complete sense of life.

But, Robert, what tactics or strategies would you suggest to the folks listening in to say here’s how you start doing that? If you build a pattern… habits around avoiding discomfort, you know, moving to distraction, moving to comfort wherever possible. Give me some tactics and specific ways that I might step back and start building up that muscle to improve my ability to be with the discomfort that arises.

Robert: Sure. I’ll give you a few. I think that the first thing to do is sort of a basic emotional intelligence training which is can you label the emotion or the emotions with an “s” that you’re currently experiencing and can you understand what they’re telling you? Can you understand that the fact that you’re feeling guilty right now is a signal that you violated your own ethics code and that you need a course correction? So, just appreciating this almost from an intellectual angle. Just saying, “What is going on in this emotional process right now?”

The next thing is to sort of experience the emotion. That is, just take stock of it. How does it actually feel? “Do I feel rapid heartbeat? Do I feel that kind of sweating or clamminess that Todd was just referring to? What is it I’m actually feeling? How distressing does it feel to me?” And doing that without adding a bunch of narrative in your head, right? Without saying, “Well, yeah, I’m mad, I’m mad, because I can’t believe my supervisor said that to me. I’m a victim here.”

And all that kind of storytelling that we do in our head just serves to fuel the emotion or to exacerbate the emotion and you don’t need to do that. It’s good enough just to say, “This emotion I’m feeling clearly is irritation. What is it that I’m associating that irritation with? I think it’s what the supervisor said to me.” So those are two sort of ways to think about emotion that can help you tolerate it. But I also want to say the caveat that I’m not just a glutton for punishment and I don’t think that people should just sit around trying to grin and bear it, you know, regardless of how painful or distressing the emotion is.

Michael: Right. Let me shift it away from the emotions that you’re feeling, that sort of sitting with anxiety. I think it’s a really powerful conversation for people to reflect on, but one of the bits I liked about the book was towards one of the later chapters, you started talking about, more along the lines of kind of am I a bad person? Am I a manipulative person? Do I use my powers for evil?

I mean, when you say—the title of the book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, of course, one version of the dark side is the Darth Vader in us all. You know, sweeping along corridors with black cloaks and choking people and the like. So where do you stand on this? Shouldn’t we just kind of put away our manipulating, controlling, fascistic side or are you saying something else? I mean, Todd, let me throw that ball in your court.

Todd: Sure. Of course. So it’s important for me to give the caveat up front which is we are not suggesting people become psychopathic, narcissistic, Machiavellian creatures.

Michael: Okay.

Todd: So we’re not saying it as a personality trait. We’re saying it as we get rid of half of our psychological toolkit for handling the difficulties and challenges for everyday life because they don’t feel good or they are socially inappropriate. And we would ask the question, who says that they’re socially inappropriate in all situations? And there’s  a mean that we feel strongly about which is  be kind but be selective. And it doesn’t mean that you want to push someone off the boat so that you have fewer people on the cruise and you can have a better time with your family.

What we’re suggesting is that there’s only so many people in your life that can be your true confidants, that know all of your vulnerabilities about you and you would share difficulties with your deepest romantic partner and your insecurities. And if you’re nice to everybody, it has no social value. And we should err on the side of being nice and compassionate to everyone. And then some people are more deserving, and because we have invested in that relationship, they’re invested in our relationship, and we are tied together in a collaborative way. And sometimes we need to deviate from kindness to get the best possible outcome in a situation.

And,  just as an example, one thing in the workplace is, it’s often hard when you have communal kitchens to keep it clean because who’s going to clean, the Thai food that’s been sitting there for three and a half weeks? And the mould is now a new creature that’s been added to the fauna and flora in the world. We know that people clean the office place specifically when the most people are present, and that has a contagious effect such that other people are more likely to put in the effort when you’re not there to clean the office place.

So there’s a timing issue. It’s “I am engaging in manipulation. I’m strategically choosing the time to clean the kitchen when other people are there so that—so, one, that they can realize that I am part of the team and two is because it’s something I value, that people have a healthy physical climate that we live and work in.” And we do this all the time. You know, we do household chores when we know that our romantic partner is there. We turn on the washing machine when we know they’re there. We mow the lawn when we know “Oh, this is about the time where my wife’s come home with the kids from school and they can see us with the sweat on our brow and, you know, wiping it.”

Michael:  Todd, just to be clear, there is actually research on this or is this just a self-justifying rant?

Todd: Thousands of unpublished research points to this conclusion. But we do suggest that you be genuine, you be honest, you share when you feel out of your body and uncomfortable with yourself. And the strongest bonds of intimacy come when we share pain that we experience, so we realize other people see us as human. But a lot of strategies that are useful in the moment end up deviating from being kind and being compassionate, and it’s important not to rule them out because we have—Marcus Aurelius used to say, “When you wake up in the morning, just say ‘Today I’m going to meet ungrateful, violent, annoying, obnoxious and unsociable people,” and by doing that as emperor of Rome he felt, and visualizing all these annoying, obnoxious people, he went into the day appreciating every positive interaction he had because he wasn’t planning or expecting them to come.

Michael: Okay. Well, look, Rob, let me ask you this because I’m listening to Todd and he feels like he’s prevaricating for me. On the one hand, he’s saying, you know, be manipulative; on the other hand, he’s really saying just be extra nice to some people and mostly nice to other people. But I’m wondering where you stand on this. I mean, how far can you kind of push your inner manipulator, your inner narcissist, your inner Machiavellianesque persona?

Robert: Yeah. It’s a good question and I think that you do both. So, I don’t think that that’s necessarily a conflict. I think you switch flexibly back and forth between sort of these two states, if you will.

All of us manipulate and I know that that word is so emotionally charged for people. But when I receive a solicitation to a very worthwhile charity on the very day that the media reports ghastly images of earthquake damage, for example, I know that I am being manipulated. That is, someone is—knows I’m having an emotional experience and knows that if they put their hand out, I’m more likely to give money to charity. That’s essentially manipulation for a good cause, and you can just swap out that word “manipulation” for “influence.”

Michael: Right.

Robert: And so I think that it becomes less Darth Vadery if you do that. So, we all, to some extent, do a little bit of flattery or a little bit of complimenting, use a little bit of entitlement to take risks or to create new products. And I think that generally those are employed in the service of good rather than trying to best people or gain power over others. So I think it’s okay to do both.

Michael: And it’s interesting, there’s this piece around, perhaps, what’s the bigger game you’re playing? What’s the greater good that this serves? And, you know, one of the books that I like but I know it’s a little controversial, I think it’s called The Art of Power, and it’s, you know, 40—Robert Green and 42 ways, or The Laws of Power, perhaps, 42 ways that you manipulate power and it’s very explicit about, you know, different ways of being Machiavellian or manipulating the situation around you. But his point is and I think you’re making the same, along the same lines, is, you know, these are tools that can be used for good, they can be used for bad. You’re always manipulating, you’re always influencing, so be mindful about it and make your choices. Being nice to everybody just doesn’t work that well.

Robert: Well, Michael, I mean, imagine this. I mean, you have—you’ve interviewed so many people in the business world that have written great books about doing great work. If you want to be an innovator and you want to be creative, you’re talking about toppling the social order. You’re talking about disagreeing with the status quo and if you are extreme on kindness and agreeableness, I mean, what do you do with that? Because essentially by—to cause positive disruption to make the world a better place and to challenge the status quo you have to be willing to absorb the friction that comes with people that are going to say, “That’s not how you do things. You’re stepping out of line. You aren’t chosen. You don’t have the right degree. You don’t have the right years of experience.” And you say, “These ideas will speak for themselves.” And you can persuade people with that disagreeable, argumentative, and then kind of very, you know, very dominant side of your personality and it’s important to have that. If you use it periodically, it has value. If you use regularly, people tune you out.

Michael: Right. And, you know, one of the things that we say when we talk about great work is, “If everybody’s happy, you’re probably doing a lot of good work. But if there are people who are a bit let down, confused, betrayed, pissed off, then it means that you’re probably doing great work because you’ve been able to say, “I need to say yes to this, therefore I have to say no to that.” And it’s in saying no to that that you draw your boundaries.

Robert: Absolutely.

Michael: So, our time is all about up and, you know, before we started recording this I was, like, you know, we are barely going to scratch the surface of this book because it’s such a robust piece of research and it’s written in such a beautiful way. So let me give you a chance to do… I want to ask you, you know, what’s the thing in the book that we didn’t get to that you’d like to mention briefly? So, Robert, can I start with you? Is there something that you wished we’d covered in this interview that you’d love the people listening in to actually just take away from the book or know about from the book?

Robert: Yeah. I think people have a tendency to have dichotomous thinking. They think about life like a light switch, on and off, and I think about it a little bit more like a dimmer switch —that’s a whole continuum. So, all of these things are about flexibility. You shouldn’t just be happy. Happiness is wonderful but you should also have the capacity for anger and guilt. You shouldn’t just be mindful. You should also have the capacity for mindless daydreaming. So it’s about being flexible and shifting between states.

Michael: I love that. I love your general commitment to “I’m helping people stay dim.” That’s perfect. And Todd, how about you? Is there something here as a kind of key message or even a specific thing that you’d like to mention from the book to give people a sense of what we haven’t covered?

Todd: Yeah. And I appreciate you giving us that final word. I think—the main message we want to give is our goal as scientists and also as people trying to help people optimize their lives is to see human beings as they are and not as you hope or want them to be. And I think there’s been a big push to see people as universally positive, universally optimistic and universally kind, and we’re getting away from those universals and saying that we are these really multifaceted personalities with a cadre of strengths and a number of weaknesses, and the way to leverage the difficulties and challenges in an uncertain world is being able to use different sides of your personality as the situation demands and being comfortable with parts of your personality that actually feel uncomfortable.

Michael: I love that. You know, as a way of just finishing this off, I remember reading a quote from Jung a long time ago saying, I think this is the quote: “I’d rather be whole than be good.” And I think, really, that’s the essence of what you’ve said but I think it’s the subtitle of the book. By being your whole self, not just your good self, drives success and fulfillment.

So, great talking to the two of you. It always is. For people who are wanting to find the book I’m going to guess that it’s at a good bookstore near your or at least a good online bookstore near you but if—Todd, if people wanted to find more about you and your work, where should they go?

Todd: So just my name dot com,, and I give away a ton of free articles. You don’t have to even email me but you could just click on the links.

Michael: Perfect. So Todd with two D’s kashdan. And, Robert, where would people find more about you and your work?

Robert: They can find me at, and, like Todd, you can find and download all of my research and so forth at that site.

Michael: Perfect. Guys, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for your time.

Todd: We love talking to you. Thanks.

Robert: Thank you.

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