Psychology: Dr Susan David

Dr Susan David (M. Psychology (Clinical) 2005, PhD 2005) is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award winning Harvard Medical School psychologist whose recent book, Emotional Agility, was Wall Street Journal’s number one bestseller.

Susan is also the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, a Cofounder of the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School/McLean affiliate), and on the Scientific Advisory Boards of Thrive Global and Virgin Pulse. Susan is also core faculty of the global Homeward Bound, an all-women leadership program that culminates in an expedition to Antarctica and aims at increasing the influence and impact of women in the sciences.

What are your strongest memories of your time at the University of Melbourne?

My overarching experience of the University of Melbourne was really a place in which my interest and autonomy were supported. What I mean by that is I came to the School of Psychological Sciences, and I wanted to pursue a topic that wasn’t necessarily a stream being actively pursued at the University. But what I experienced was a strong sense of openness and support and that people were believing in me, which went very far in both establishing my program of work but also gave me the freedom to make connections that were helpful and would extend my work out of Australia and into the international arena.

I came to the University as an immigrant, as an older student, and as someone who had previously dropping out of a degree and so with a chequered experience in the University setting. What struck me was that the University was prepared to give someone a shot if they worked hard and if they stuck to what they were trying to do. There was a true sense of openness. So that was a personally positive experience because I wasn’t someone who had grown up through Australian universities.

Who and what motivated you at University? 

There’s always a range of people who motivate us, including our family. In my university career I have come across multiple different individuals who saw capacity in me that I maybe didn’t see in myself and who were prepared to encourage me. That didn’t come from just one person but many.

Something else that motivated me was the focus of my work. It asks one key question: What does it take internally – psychologically - in the way we deal with our thoughts, emotions and stories, that enable us to thrive?

So, really what I’m looking at is, what are the psychological components of thriving in a world that is complex, changing, can be stressful, and is politically instable? What aspects of our inner world hold us back or drive us forward?

Finding a topic that for me both had real world applications and that I thought was exciting and interesting was what motivated me. At the end of the day you can have lots of people believing in but you won’t be effective unless you can hold on to a topic or idea that you find intrinsically motivating and interesting.

What motivates you now?

The same questions of psychological thriving still motivate me. It’s always about answering these questions and thinking about them not just from a research perspective, but also how research, evidence and ideas apply in pragmatic ways in everyday life for the person grieving, who is stressed at work, stuck in their career, or trying to raise resilient children. It was the impetus for me to write my book Emotional Agility, which takes those ideas and makes it practical.

What drew you to your area of expertise and what do you love about it?

I started to recognising that so much of what is out there in popular psychology – ‘choose happiness’, ‘think positive’ – can actually be at odds with our wellbeing.

I grew up in South Africa, which is a complex country. When I was a teen my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before and after he died people said, ‘just be positive’ and ‘you’ll be fine’. But it wasn’t ‘fine’. So, from an early age this interest was sparked within me in what we are told about resilience and thriving in the popular press and then what the actual reality of human experience and resilience is.

So, my work is really informed by my experiences, and the experiences that many of us have in life. The reality is that life is fragile and complex, so how do we navigate that complexity?

What are some of the highlights of your career so far?

There are the milestone highlights: publishing my book Emotional Agility; it hitting number one on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list; and, being invited to speak at TEDWomen which is in early November this year.

Then there are the slower, steady highlights, such as being given the opportunity by the University of Melbourne to go overseas on a fellowship and do my post-doctorate at Yale University. This ultimately enabled me to develop my connections with Harvard Medical School, and co-found the Institute of Coaching.

I still really value the strong ties that I have with the University of Melbourne. I come back four or five times a year so there is this ongoing relationship.

What is good health to you?

I see good health as actively making values-aligned choices in everyday behaviour. Psychologically, value-aligned choices may be something that scares us but helps us to go forward and is important to our growth. Values-aligned choices when it comes to our family are recognising that we might have habits that are not consistent, presence is important.

The same applies physically, not being so caught up in stress and busyness, or even in life, that you struggle to be present and to make intentional choices on the ground.

It doesn’t mean that I’m perfect at this stuff but being connected to what is important to me helps me in my life.

What books, texts or thinkers inspire you in your profession?

One of the most inspiring books for me is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. It is not an academic psychology text but Frankl talks about his experience in the concentration camps and his profound and important insights from these experiences. He speaks to our capacity to make choices - not white washing ‘think positive’ choices - but our power to make choices in our life and that in those choices is our growth and freedom. It has been incredibly helpful to me.

One of the academic authors that I love is John Bolby who wrote a lot about attachment theory. This is really interesting to me because what he explores is how our early interactions can set patterns for our lives but that individuals, even in the context of those patterns, can be resilient and thrive.

I am also very grateful to the work of Professor Peter Salovey, who is the President of Yale University. I did my post-doctorate with him. He was one of the most prominent thinks to start challenging the idea that emotions are disruptive, ‘bad’ and illogical. He talks instead about the fact that emotions are critical and can help us to shape our environments.

Another prominent thinker that has inspired me is Professor Stephen Hayes. He has pushed the boundaries recently of our psychological understanding of internal acceptance and compassion and how powerful that is in our lives.

Then there’s poetry. I love Yeats and E. E. Cummings. Poetry is very powerful because it is not about sugar-coated human experiences but instead it conveys the more complex, and rich reality of life.

What excites you most about the future?

I am not one of those people who asks themselves: ‘where do I want to be in five or ten years’ time?’. But what excites me about my future is that I know I will continue to find ideas, projects, and pursuits that I am enthusiastic about.

In the broader future, what excites me is that humans are constantly evolving, inventing and reinventing and that is just a remarkable thing. There’s this constant quest for knowledge, evolution, growth and discovery.

What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever had was given to me relatively recently in relation to my own work. I was talking with my agent about what I should do now after having launched my book Emotional Agility. She said you’ve got to remember that often when you feel like you’re on a plateau and ready to give up, that in fact you’re near a tipping point and need to continue. I had this conversation with her in January this year and it has really stuck in my mind. She was telling me to stick with the book because I had invested so much in it. I did. I wasn’t aiming for bestseller status per se, rather just getting the book out there as broadly as possible, but just weeks later the book went to number one on the Wall Street Journal. I know that if I hadn’t stuck with it, and turned down the opportunities for interviews etcetera, then that tipping point would never have happened.

What advice do you have for current students?

Taking that previous advice into account, focus on making music not applause. We become so focused on the outcome: “Are people going to like it?” “Am I going to win prizes?” When we get caught up in what other people are going to think the goal becomes extrinsic and we become demotivated. Find something important to you, that connects with your values, and that you have a chance of success at, and then do your best work. That doesn’t mean never quitting because if it ends up being something that does not align with your values then sometimes quitting is helpful. But in essence, focus on making your music – in whatever field or endeavour that is - and don’t worry too much about the imaginary audience or judge out there.