Thriving vs. Surviving: Actionable Insights From Emmanuel Acho

John Whyte, MD; Emmanuel Acho


March 15, 2022

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JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD.

Today, I want to spend some time talking about resilience. We're all stressed -- stressed over COVID and what's happening next, and maybe reopening. We're stressed over world events, personal lives, professional lives. How do we cope? Better yet, how do we thrive?

Do we need to have some type of logical approach? Or as my guest today suggests, we need to be illogical. Joining me is Emmanuel Acho. He is a former NFL linebacker. He is a bestselling author, and he's the host of a video series called "Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man." Emmanuel, thanks for taking time today.

EMMANUEL ACHO: John, it's a pleasure, my friend. I'm excited about this topic.

WHYTE: Got to start off: Are we going to have an uncomfortable conversation?

ACHO: Not this time around, John. Not this time around.

WHYTE: If you want to be -- we can be uncomfortable. That's OK. I'm OK with that. Just letting you know.

I want to start off with -- and the reason why I wanted to talk to you is we're really pivoting to talk about the mental health tsunami that we have upon us. You've been talking a little bit about mental health in sports. And I want to ask you: How is it different for professional athletes when it comes to addressing issues of not their physical health, but their mental health?

ACHO: Well in sports, we are all taught to be gladiators. We are all taught to be soldiers. You are given no room for mental injuries, because mental injuries you quite literally cannot see. Even chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, what became a very big thing in about 2015, that cannot be diagnosed until death if you're diagnosing it most accurately.

So mental health, the eyes cannot see. But I like to say, if all you see is what you see, then you do not see all there is to be seen. And we don't give enough credence to mental health because unlike a fractured arm, unlike a torn ligament, you can't see the injury. And as a result, we just aren't far enough advanced, emotionally, to give mental health the respect it deserves.

I was talking to a neuroscientist. I spent 2 years taking a deep dive into mental health. And Dr. Kristen Willeumier told me: We are with mental health where we were with our understanding of the heart and heart disease in the 1960s. And so we just don't even know, John, what we don't know, to a large degree.

WHYTE: We have a long way to go. And we have to normalize the conversations around mental health. We've been following you on Twitter, and you posted recently a line I want to read and ask you about. You said you can't call for attention and then hang up. What does that mean? Walk us through that.

ACHO: In my opinion, this is the hardest age that humans have ever had to live. This is the hardest. Now, I understand we have more resources than ever, but resources aren't everything. Why is this the most difficult age to live in? Because you have to deal with everyone's opinion. Social media has now opened up a door --

WHYTE: This is more difficult than the turn of the century?

ACHO: Hear me out. Again, I've spent -- I have spent months in villages of Nigeria. My parents were born and raised in Nigeria. And I have spent -- honestly, I was in Nigeria over Christmas, this past Christmas, for the burial of my grandmother. And I was in a village where we did not have hot water. I was in a village where we did not have functioning electricity, and I was in a village where we literally had nothing.

However, it's harder, or it is more emotionally taxing, to live in America than it is to live in a village of Nigeria, because in the village of Nigeria, you are happy and content with everything you have. Whereas in America, you could have a million-dollar home and still be discontent, because a person on social media is flaunting their $10 million home.

WHYTE: Right.

ACHO: So I think it is more emotionally taxing to exist now than it ever has been to exist. So I say that you can't call for attention and hang up because we live in a society where everything is for attention. We post for attention. We tweet for attention. We Snapchat for attention. Well, with the good also comes the bad.

And for every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Please understand with the praise will also criticism. Criticism is the cost of praise. And that was why I say, you can't call for attention, and then when it's negative attention, just try to hang up.

WHYTE: And we all want to live our best lives. We all want to be resilient. You've got your book behind you, your new book, Illogical: Saying Yes to a Life Without Limits. You say in the book -- it's kind of harsh, I'm going to be honest. You say goals are dumb.

ACHO: Goals are dumb, John. Goals are dumb.

WHYTE: Aren't we all supposed to have goals, right?

ACHO: That's what I thought.

WHYTE: Five-year plans.

ACHO: Of course.

WHYTE: Short-term, long-term goals? Goals are in football, too, right?

ACHO: Of course.

WHYTE: You're saying goals are dumb. What do you mean by that?

ACHO: Let me break this down. I got my master's degree in sports psychology, and I took a deep dive into goals, and theory, and personal experience. A goal -- a goal is an end towards which energy is aimed. A goal -- at best if you reach a goal, imagine what else you could have done. And at worst, if you don't reach a goal, it will have a negative impact on your self-esteem and self-efficacy.

So at best, a goal limits you from what you could have accomplished, and at worst it ruins and undermined your self-esteem and self-efficacy. So what should you do instead? Have an objective with no limitations. Because an objective is essentially energy put towards something.

A goal is an end toward which energy is aimed. So a goal, by its pure definition, is talking about an end in mind. See, John, I say: Why aim for something when you could have anything? See, an archer is simply is trying to hit a very small target. And rather than hitting a small target, I want to make a mass impact.

I have personal experience. I wanted to go to the NFL, the National Football League, early. After my junior year, John, my brother had gone to the National Football League, and I submitted to the NFL, hey, where will I be drafted? There are seven rounds in the NFL draft, for all of our viewers and listeners.

They said Emmanuel, you will be drafted between the fourth and the seventh round. I was like ain't no way, fourth or seventh round? I printed it out, John. I highlighted, Emmanuel, you will be drafted between the fourth and seventh round, and I hung it above my bed. Every night before I went to sleep, I read it. And every night, every morning when I woke up, I looked at it. And I was like, nope, I'm going back my senior year. And I'm going to get drafted in the first three rounds.

WHYTE: Why is that not good enough? Why is that not good enough? That's not settling. That is very successful.

ACHO: Fourth through seventh round?

WHYTE: That's still --

ACHO: Being successful.

WHYTE: Think how many people don't get drafted at all.

ACHO: Sure. But I was a top-rated linebacker in Texas. I was an All-American at the University of Texas.

WHYTE: You wanted it. You wanted it.

ACHO: Of course. That was my goal. Well, I went to the NFL draft and I tore my quad muscle. I ripped it off the bone. I was running, and as I was running, I heard, “boom, boom, boom.”

WHYTE: Never a good sound.

ACHO: Ever. Ever. I tore my quad off the bone. I ended up getting drafted in the sixth round. At that point in time, I said, “What am I? Who am I? Why am I?” Self-esteem, self-efficacy, everything was ruined because John, I had set a goal of being drafted in the first three rounds, and I failed to meet my goal.

And it completely hurt me. So I said, if you don't set a goal, you'll never fail. Because rather than chasing an end, I am chasing greatness. See, if I set a goal, then what happens when I hit that goal? Rather than setting the goal, I just have an objective. If I'm going to push all of my energy towards greatness, and then regardless, I will be pleased with where I land.

WHYTE: So your new book is talking about how do we live a life without limits, right? And really, we're entering for many people a new phase. Not necessarily returning to what life was like pre-pandemic, normal. What I've been saying: What's the next normal? What's the new normal? So Emmanuel, how do people thrive? How do they succeed? And what's illogical about it? What do we need to do?

ACHO: We all have to figure out how to survive, how to thrive instead of just survive. And so many people are just trying to stay afloat instead of really thrive. Let me say it like this: Our greatest accomplishments in life come on the other side of our logic. For nearly 2,000 years, John, no person had ever run a mile in under 4 minutes, no one ever.

Scientists submitted that it was physically impossible to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Well May 2, 1956, a person by the name of Roger Bannister, he for the first time believed against all belief. And he ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59 seconds. Here's the crazy part. Within the next 2 years, 10 people ran a mile in under 4 minutes. Why?

Because they saw one person do it. See, logic or conventional wisdom is what keeps us from accomplishing our greatest feats in life, individually and collectively as a society. The most dangerous phrase you could ever utter is, “That's the way it's always been done.” It's the most dangerous phrase you can ever utter. And the reason that we don't ever actually live out our truest of callings is because it's the way it's always been done.

Nobody can run a mile in under 4 minutes. Nobody's ever done it. Build an airplane? Imagine if the Wright brothers would have believed what everybody else thought conventionally. An airplane? That can't exist. Imagine if Steve Jobs wouldn't have hoped against all hope. But that very word “impossible,” it says, “I'm possible.” And I just believe that our logic -- logic being conventional wisdom -- our logic stands in the way of our leaps and our bounds towards greatness.

WHYTE: People thought Galileo was wrong, and he had to rally against that. But for listeners today, they say, “Hey Emmanuel, what can I do differently, starting today?”

ACHO: Yeah. The very first thing you can do is change your speech. Because your speech follows your thoughts, so you change your thoughts, and then you change your speech. What do I mean? Whatever follows “I am” is who you will become today.

So if you say I am smart, I am wise, I am brilliant, I am beautiful, I am bold, I am courageous, I am a creative, I am an artist. Or if you say, I'm no good, I'm worthless, I'm not smart enough, I'm not kind, I'm not, I could never. Whatever follows “I am” is who you will become. So the very first thing, change your thoughts.

And after you change your thoughts, change your speech, and watch your actions change as well. And I think the second thing, just as important. Pick up your call. John, the most common question I get asked: “Emanuel, how can I find my calling?” And after thinking for a while, John, I said your calling will call you. Just pick up.

Your calling will call you, just pick up. True story: I started the video series “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man.” It was my first book. It was what won me the Emmy. Five days after this video series, which received 25 million views in 5 days, I got a call from a no-caller ID number. I pick it up.

WHYTE: You're not supposed to answer those.

ACHO: You're not. You are not, by the way. But I pick it up, and I hear this on the other end. I hear, “Acho, McConaughey speaking, I want to have a conversation.” I was like, McConaughey? Like Matthew McConaughey?

WHYTE: How'd you get my number?

ACHO: Exactly. Five days after that, I got another call, no caller ID number. Like John said: You're not supposed to pick it up. But I pick it up. “Hi, Emmanuel. Oprah Winfrey speaking.”

WHYTE: Not expecting Oprah to call you.

ACHO: I got another no-caller ID call, John. It was a month later, and it was from the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell. Like, “Hey, Emmanuel, I want to have a conversation.” I say all this to say: My calling literally called me.

But your calling will figuratively call you. And so what's the one thing that someone can do today? Pick up that call. Figuratively speaking, what is that natural desire to be? What's that natural hobby that you love to do in your free time? Paint, draw, babysit. And what do you have a natural tendency just to be better at than your peers?

Your calling will call you. Just pick it up. And so in a logical, I just encourage people how to find their calling. And then after you find your calling, how can you develop your calling?

WHYTE: Simple, yet powerful. Emmanuel, I want to thank you for taking the time, for showing us how we can be illogical in many ways, and still thrive. So thanks for all that you're doing.

ACHO: Thanks, John. 

This interview originally appeared on WebMD on March 15, 2022

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