Harder to Breathe

The founding drummer of the band Maroon 5 Ryan Dusick visited my Wednesday NYU classes recently.

He’s a 45-year old former rock star who hit the depths of addiction and self-sabotage at the height of his career and clawed his way back via Betty Ford and 12-step programs to become a family counselor in LA.

So inspirational – let me share one of Dusick’s thoughts that really resonated.

Always have something to work toward – a lesson he learned after overcoming the addiction that made his childhood friend and Maroon 5 star Adam Levine kick him out of the band.

Ruminating on bad habits will not end well – finding new interests and pursuing them makes life rewarding.

Even the little things – especially, the little things.

Ryan said as strange as it sounds, after performing night after night at a high level, it becomes routine and being on all the time leaves no time for health (his passion), recovery and time to think.

My students read his book, Harder to Breathe – learning that life is good in little steps and the importance of healthy relationships.

We are emphasizing mental health issues and dealing with anxiety and depression at our NYU music business classes but the lessons affect all of us so I thought I would share.

Processing Criticism

Some of my college students are hyper concerned about how people view them – and like all of us, facing criticism is not a pretty thing.

That’s why I was fascinated to see what Apple CEO Tim Cook does to combat all the criticism he personally gets.

No matter what Cook has done (watches, AirPods, keeping Macs and phones popular, building a strong Apple ecosystem making it easy for users to use and even banking that is the silent killer ahead for Apple) – he is constantly compared with his bigger than life predecessor, Steve Jobs.

Cook is quoted as saying “I had to do was to be the best version of myself.”

So how does he process all that high profile criticism?

“I try very hard not to take things personal that I don’t think are meant to be personal.”

Even when criticism is offered subtly, it is hard to take.

So don’t – dismiss it as someone else’s opinion while you continue to follow your best instincts.

Lead, Don’t Follow

Each week I have my NYU stress class music business students choose mood music to reflect how they have been feeling all week – it’s included in their digital assignment package.  They love it and I love to listen to what they pick.

Everyone completes it and all explain why the track is meaningful at that moment.

But when it comes to sharing their music in class (again, they already submitted the work online), only a third of the class raise their hands.

Here’s a great way to build strength.

I said since you all did the work, I want to see all hands go up when I ask who wants to share.

To be honest, the usual third of the class raised their hands.

I thought I’d get cute and ask, “who doesn’t want to share their music today?” And no hands went up.

I said next week, I want to see everyone volunteer to share their mood music and when I did it, I got about half the students to raise their hands.  Not bad – better.

I said, everyone put your hand up – they all did – and I picked people randomly.

No one suffered, it wasn’t painful – it’s a main lesson in leadership.

Now they all jump to it.

When possible, be first to go first.


If you’re looking for an epidemic hardly anyone is talking about, listen for self-sabotage.

I hear it in academia, in work and as much as I hate to admit it – personally.

The art of taking something perfectly good and turning it into something perfectly bad.

Example from a student:  “I should have known better” but why would that be?  We are not soothsayers, we’re people.

“I overthink” – no, you saw sawdust and obsess but it’s not overthinking or else you would have soon realized that you became overly concerned.

“I can’t make friends” – well, in a post pandemic world, it’s not easy to get social again (and the solution is to break the ice because the other person will likely jump to your gesture of friendship).

“I feel like a failure” is a common one but it’s actually a compliment because most of the meaningful successes from people we admire confronted adversity.

To reduce stress, rethink the words that tend to hurt our self-esteem and put them together in ways that are authentic, positive and meaningful.

Stretching Exercises

In my NYU “Stress-free Living & Working in the Music Industry” class, we do stretching exercises – not the physical ones, the psychological type designed to build mental resilience.

One week we gave gratitude to someone important in our life in writing.

The assignment mandated that each student choose a person for whom they were grateful for something and then give some specific examples – this was then sent without further explanation.

The response was both expected and unexpected – the student “gratefuls” heard back with warm and even touching expressions of appreciation.

Why learn to express gratitude?

Gratitude is a building block of becoming more resilient.

Another week as I shared earlier, we gave up our phones and cut social media usage – the professor included and if there is one thing I learned, it is that I can control my digital devices, they don’t have to control me.

Another stretching exercise was to put into writing something that represents a pat on the back for something they did right – no negative talk allowed.

And next week, we will take a step toward learning how to forgive.

Living in a complicated age requires on the spot retraining of the brain – so if you’re interested, try one of our exercises then grade yourself. (I’ll give you an A for trying).

Phone Detox

I thought you be interested that I asked my NYU stress in the music industry class to give up their phones for a day and/or cutback on social media.

They were not happy with me – one student piped up and said “will you give your phone up, too, professor?” and after getting a commitment from 39 people to match me if I did, I agreed.

They admitted it was hard to do – to be fair, some weren’t ready.  I also found it difficult to get started but as with my students, I liked what I gained – and here it is.

I didn’t miss out on anything.  Felt more in control.  Did other things I’ve been missing.  Changed the behavior of those around me by becoming more present.

Our children get phones at too early an age – that’s not my observation, that’s psychologists and physicians.

Adults are just as bad – turning to phones for support, comfort and trying not to miss out.

One student said they wanted to keep the phone so they could call a parent who could help them when they had a problem.  Before phones, young folks had to develop resilience in lieu of a life line call.

The exercise was not to eliminate the use of phones but to regain control over them.

Then I drove out of the city, saw drivers on the Turnpike with phone in hand going 85 miles an hour and later read a story about a 9 year old girl near where I live who committed suicide because of bullying.

I also read an article about a teacher who was beaten up by a student when they took away the student’s phone.

Here’s what my students say they learned by tackling this drill:

We are capable of enjoying our digital devices with us in charge not the algorithm writers of Google, Facebook, TikTok and many others – that was universally empowering.

FOMO is a false fear – we gain time and improve our lives, we don’t miss out on anything.

If we want work/life balance, we can start by regaining control over how we spend our digital life.

Happy Days

Physicians who study mental health issues today have this advice.

Start every day with by saying “I’m happy to be alive today”.

It doesn’t take long to get inundated with problems, irritations and anxiety in the world in which we live.

But it’s still true – “I’m happy to be alive today”.

Ask a recovering cancer patient or someone given more time to live.

Just as football players break their huddle, clap hands and resist saying “Let’s lose”, we should start another day by saying out loud how happy we are to be here.

Driven to Distraction

People are smart and adaptive – we spend plenty of time trying to hold on to important relationships.

Turns out the key is not increasing the time spent interacting, but the amount of time focused on that person.

Quality over quantity.

Few need more time, they need more quality time.

There are a lot of distractions in our lives these days – some of them companies like Google and Facebook spend a lot of money on – we’re driven to distraction.

When preserving or nurturing a relationship, focus works better than time spent distracted.

When You Can Feel It

The coach of the lowly Philadelphia Flyers hockey team that has little to celebrate during their losing season said a mouthful when one of his young and hopefully future stars began to know when confidence kicked in.

John Tortorella said he couldn’t explain just how great it feels for a coach to not only see a young player take the next step but to see when they really know deep down inside that they are the talented person they hoped to be.

So, it is off the ice and in our world where pressure driven culture makes us often doubt our own abilities even when we are performing at a high level.

Look for it, recognize it and accept it – the last step in building confidence is when you are your best believer.

The Metrics of Happiness

The great guru of resilience and happiness, Dr. Amit Sood is an expert on the brain – as a physician at Mayo Clinic let’s say he knows a thing or two about how the brain can be retrained.

According to Dr. Sood:  Of the 100 events that typically surround us each day – only 4 are bad and 96 are good (you may want to re-read that line and yes, it is proofed for accuracy).

We need to zoom out and focus on what is right for life and not what is wrong.

The metrics favor what is right.

Social media, society, our digital world, covid – you name it – makes us obsess on what is wrong and what makes us unhappy.

So, try it today and see if it makes a difference:  go to the numbers, they don’t lie – only 4 bad things will typically happen today so retrain your brain to start appreciating the 96 that are good.