Blog - Interview with Jan Mühlfeit

Interview with Jan Mühlfeit

During the interview, Jan drew diagrams, gave world history highlights, insights into brain chemistry, and even made us practice drinking water mindfully. His holistic presentation cannot merely be called an interview because it was immeasurably larger than that. It was a valuable and well-balanced experience that I will do my best to share with you.


DP: As a former Microsoft Europe Chairman, what qualities do you think people need to have in order to get to and stay on the top?

JM: I’ve been studying optimal performance of human beings for a few years now. It seems that whatever discipline of life one might be pursuing, whether it’s sports, art or science, you need talent for it. That’s number one. And then you need to be mentally tough. Mental toughness is the ability to produce good results even under tough conditions.


At Microsoft, I studied what it takes to create great teams. First, it is important to find people’s strengths, then help to create team synergy. I learned that leaders need to know how to inspire. Inspiration is different from motivation. Inspiration is possible only if a leader has a vision. Vision is a picture of the world that does not exist yet but is worth the journey, then other people will start following that vision.


DP: What mindset strategies did you have to study most then and now to lead the best performers?

JM: I studied flow. I learned that the people who perform the best are also the ones who know how to be in “the zone”. (Here he began to draw a diagram). It’s important to learn how to control your mind. Part of it is controlling the amygdala – the section of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events, as well as other emotions. I call it “the internal monkey” that is never praising. You need to learn to keep it under control. Everything is more effective when you are learning in the flow. When you are in the flow state, your body is producing more endorphin, which is a natural form of pain killer. Roger Federer, Ronaldo, and other great athletes spend around 80-90% of the time playing in flow. “The internal monkey” is always trying to write a negative code in your mind that you need to actively work to reframe so it does not affect you negatively in the future.


DP: What did your learning curve look like with regards to controlling this internal monkey?

JM: For four years I was announced as the best performing manager in Microsoft worldwide. It’s like winning the Olympics four times in a row. My journey at Microsoft was truly a learning curve. A tough one.  In 2012 I spent three months in a mental hospital with very bad depression, looking forward to death. I went from an absolute pinnacle of my life to the very bottom, partly because I didn’t know how to control “the internal monkey” at the time.

Only after that experience, I learned about the brain. Subconsciousness, in other words, our computer, is fast. The logical part of the brain – slow. The Amygdala section of the brain or, “the monkey” is what causes trouble when we let it run loose. When you have a positive idea, the monkey is sleeping. But when you have a negative idea, the monkey is getting up and trying to create a negative story. We have past, present, and future. Even though we know that we can change the future only in the present moment, the internal monkey wants us to believe that the past defines our present and will certainly be projected into the future. And it also tells you that it’s your fault.

If you are depressed – you only have negative energy, you start believing that story about yourself, it creates a vicious cycle. All the good chemicals are gone. The bad cortisol and adrenaline prevail and dominate.


DP: How did you manage stress? What were the tools you used to keep going?

JM: Stress was the same 100,000 years ago as it is now. It’s a battle between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. When we are stressed, we have shallow breathing, that blocks our diaphragm, we are in the “fight or flight” mode, blood is going out from the brain into the limbs. You are being prepared to fight or run away. The brain needs blood to be effective. It is a suboptimal environment as regards to using subconsciousness effectively. It is important to run on alpha and theta waves while learning and managing life. Then we can be effective. It is also important to unblock the diaphragm, and there are various exercises for it that many athletes already use. Last year in Stanford they did a small experiment with ten students. Before the exam, five students were asked to sit upright, while the other five were asked to bend over. The students who sat upright got 30% better results on the test. Winners are winning in the mind before the competition has started. It takes visualizing winning in the mind and constantly cutting off “the internal monkey” in training and competition. Living and training on alpha and theta brain waves also help fight stress. All that together is what I call, the TMT – total mental training. (Here Jan asked us to take a sip of water, then asked again, what we were thinking while we were drinking it.) You can learn to be mindful about everything. It’s also a great skill. (At this point the next athlete was already in line waiting for Jan’s coaching lesson, as the line seemed to be endless and daily)

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Jan Mühlfeit