Using Data Over Emotions: Finding the Truer Story

One of my favorite podcasts is by a guy named Rob Bell. He typically talks about spirituality but, in one of his recent episodes, he spoke about how everything seems to be going wrong—how he’s frustrated with his friends, how the house isn’t clean, how some of his colleagues aren’t doing what he thinks they need to be doing.

At some point, his wife asked him a simple question:
“Rob, are you tired?”

To which he responded,
“Yeah, why?”

He then recounts their conversation, mainly about how—when Rob is tired—he has a tendency to make a mountain out of a molehill and feels like everything is tough and impossible and nothing goes well.

Rob later comes back and says, “Sometimes, we’re just tired. And that’s very much okay.”

I found myself doing something similar while I was on the road for GAN’s Momentum Tour. It was a wild seven weeks on the road, traveling every other week to somewhere else around the globe. During this travel, it’s not like all of my normal life stopped; everything with my family, with our company, and with my friends kept going. There were bills that needed to be paid, things that needed scheduling with my wife, and issues that needed to be addressed with our staff.

And I found myself getting abnormally frustrated with things. Where I would normally keep a clear head, I kept jumping from zero to 100 emotionally.

Those emotions felt very real. I was very angry a few times on the trip—often for valid reasons—but also many times for reasons that weren’t. As I reflected on this, I realized that my exhaustion led me to feel things in a more elevated (and frequent) way than I typically would if I had been more well-rested. Things that would usually be considered “business as normal” turned into telling my wife, “It just feels like the wheels are falling off the bus.”

And you know what? She turned back to me and said exactly what Rob’s wife had:
“I think you may be tired.”

And then a light went off.

Grounding Our Responses in Data

One of my favorite principles comes from social psychology. The basic gist is:

A thought leads to a feeling, which leads to a behavior.

As an example, when I notice I’m in danger of being attacked by a tiger (a thought), I become scared (a feeling), which will compel me to run (a behavior).

What I’ve really been focusing on lately, though, is the first part—”thoughts lead to feelings.”

While on the Momentum Tour, I heard that a client might be leaving GAN. It really doesn’t happen often. But instead of realizing that, my brain immediately went to all of the worst-case scenarios. I wondered who else might want to leave and what was wrong with the company, which led to me feeling like things were totally out of control and falling apart.

The problem, though, was that my feelings weren’t backed up by actual data. They were based on one data point, rather than an analysis of what was really going on.

And that, right there, is the issue most of us deal with on a regular basis. Sadness, confusion, anger, and all of the other heightened negative emotions we experience aren’t backed up with data and, especially when we’re tired, it can get a lot worse. Rather than looking at metrics or insights of some kind, we typically just believe whatever emotions and stories first come to mind. Just like I was experiencing, of course, those emotions are almost always the worst-case scenario.

But what if, instead of focusing on just this one instance, I looked at what we’re measuring as a company as a way to be curious? Is something bigger going on, or is this a singular occurrence that has nothing to do with the bigger story I’m making out of it? What if this one instance was a dot and not a line?

The good news is, at GAN, we actually have a dashboard with the most important metrics for our company. This dashboard helps us nearly immediately get a sense of the health of our organization. (Thanks, Traction!) Right now, that dashboard looks incredible. We’re hitting our goals and moving in the right direction.

Even though my head was questioning everything, our dashboard told me that one client leaving isn’t an indicator that we’re falling apart. It’s just an indicator that they just can’t work with us at the moment. It’s likely not personal. It likely says nothing about us and more about their particular needs, right now.

When I saw this, all of my feelings of confusion, stress, and worry went away.

Looking Beyond This Moment

I know there’s a good chance you’ll read all of this and think that not following your emotions will mean that you’re not being authentic to who you are—that, in order to be authentic, you have to act on your emotions. But being authentic doesn’t mean we have to be constantly guided by our strongest feelings in the moment.

That “in the moment” part is really the key. (Again, lines not dots.)

I’ve been so exhausted from the several weeks I’ve spent traveling that many of my emotions are telling me things are too hard. That I should stop. That things are utterly falling apart.

But, those are just emotions and they’re real right now, but they might not tell the whole story.

In Seth Godin’s book, This is Marketing, he has a quote I can’t stop thinking about:

“We don’t do this work because we feel like it in the moment. We do this work, this draining emotional labor, because we’re professionals, and because we want to make change happen.”

We obviously want to be increasingly authentic people. But sometimes you won’t feel like getting up and doing what you’re doing today. Sometimes, especially when we’re really tired, we can’t just trust our emotions. If we’re doing something worth doing in the world, it isn’t always going to feel great. It isn’t always going to be easy. Regardless, if we want to “make change happen,” we have to fight through our emotions at any given moment. More importantly, we have to look at our metrics (personally and professionally) and base our responses on those instead. Because if we don’t, we’ll be blown by any wind that comes our way.

Looking at our dashboard has helped me keep my emotions in check. As a CEO, it helps me sort through the myriad random inputs that arise every day. And, it keeps me from going home to my wife and saying, “Things are totally falling apart.” It very well may feel that way, and those feelings are entirely valid. But I’d much rather have data that leads my thoughts in much more productive ways—ways that not only help me know when things really are problems, but that also help me act out of curiosity (based on verifiable insights) and not out of fear. Because it’s far too easy to operate out of fear as a founder. It’s just that fear isn’t what drives a great business, or a great life.