May 10, 2021

How to Make Better Goals and Practice to Our Fullest Potential with Tom Sterner

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #38

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Tom Sterner the founder and CEO of “The Practicing Mind Institute: Teaching the Power of the Present Moment,” and he’s the author of the popular book The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process. Before he founded the Practicing Mind Institute, Tom served as the Chief Concert Piano Technician for a major performing arts center where he prepared instruments for the most demanding performances. During his 25 year tenure, he personally worked for industry giants like I don’t know, Pavarotti, Fleetwood Mac, X,Y, Z. Heard of any of those?

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Tom sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci and talked about a bunch of stuff like how we can make better goals and practice to our fullest potential, to what it really means to operate at our highest levels.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Tom shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “The problem we have when we make goals without accurate data is that we make assumptions on our performance based on false information.”
  • “The Practicing Mind to me is about learning to be in the process and enjoy the process.”
  • “When you’re in the present moment of something and you’re totally engrossed in that moment, you’re operating at your highest performance level…when you set a goal and you attach yourself to this moment and this achievement, you put yourself at war with the process of achieving it, and that’s kind of a caveat.”
  • “It’s learning to understand, I’m not my thoughts, I have thoughts. Some of them I intend because I have to problem-solve, but most of the thoughts I have throughout the day are thoughts that my mindsets off without my permission and even my awareness.”
  • “Struggle is an interesting word, it’s just a feeling but we attach judgment that it’s a bad thing.”


Sam: I listened to another podcast that you were on Tom and mentioned that you sold everything you had to write a Practicing Mind. So as an entrepreneur why’d you do that? 

Tom: I realized that the business model that I had when I was younger, just wasn’t a very good one. In other words, when I started the service business, I worked for a dollar to make a dollar and when I started it, I thought, well, the problem is I don’t have enough clients. If I just had enough clients, then I would be busy all the time and I’d be making a lot of money. Let’s just say that there were a thousand clients in my database that I needed to stay busy at my optimum workload. Once I passed that I couldn’t get to the money. I had 2000 people, then 3000 people and I wasn’t making any more money. I was working 70 hours a week and I said, this is not a good model. I didn’t have anybody in my family that was a business person.  I had no real mentor or modeling there to look at. I decided I need something where it can grow, it’s scalable. For example, I started a publishing company to publish the Practicing Mind. I self-published it at first and it got taken over by a major publisher, but because my thinking was, if Amazon says we need another 500 books, I don’t have to write each book before I send it to them. I just send them a couple of boxes, they can get as big as it wants and that’s what happened. It was just basically a survival thing and looking at how I can make more money, but work less. That was really the impetus that started it. I have to say it didn’t start out. There’s a chapter in my second book in Fully Engaged called, set your goals with accurate data and I did not have any accurate data. I thought, well, geez, I’ll write the book. When I sold everything I had, I was cash rich because I sold two business properties, a hundred thousand dollars in tooling, a client base and I just launched into publishing this book and producing the audio version and the studio and all of that. I’m thinking in my head, well, there’s hundreds of millions of people on the internet. I started up a website, I put the book out there and sat back and watched the money roll in and nobody knew who I was. They didn’t know what the book was about.  I found I was making about $17 a week in book sales and hemorrhaging cash. Things did turn around and I think it’s a very important point to make, because if somebody had said to me, the problem that we have when we make goals without accurate data, is that we make assumptions on our performance based on false information.So an analogy that I give people is if I said, I want to lose 30 pounds, that’s going to take me five days. Well, we all know that’s ridiculous, but if you didn’t know, that was ridiculous, what would happen? You start out on the goal, you’re dieting, you’re exercising and you’re getting on the scale and you’re going, this isn’t happening. I must not be very good at this and you start stressing out and your confidence goes down and you start doubting yourself. If someone had said to me, Tom, it’s going to take about two years for this thing to manifest and for you to get to a point where you’re comfortable financially in six months I wouldn’t have thought anything about it. I thought, well, it’s only been six months. I’m not really supposed to be there for another year and a half. That’s why it’s so important to have as much information as you can, but also to accept that you may not be able to have all the information when you start because the information just isn’t available until you get further into the process.

Sam: Tom, your, your book is one of the books I can’t lend to anybody anymore because I’ve written all over the place on it and marked it up and obliterated in a lot of ways. But for everybody listening, what is the Practicing Mind? What does it mean?

Tom: The practicing mind to me is about learning to be in the process and enjoy the process. For example, people say, well, is the practicing mind a mindfulness? And my, my response to that is mindfulness is in the practicing mind. But the practicing mind is not mindfulness because the practicing mind is about learning to enjoy the process of achieving whatever it is that you’re achieving. There are two different things that do encompass mindfulness, but mindfulness is just being mindful. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re enjoying learning to become mindful as a skill. As you develop that skill, any skill, everything we do is a skill. Whether it’s running a business, expanding a business, being in a relationship. From the time we’re born, we’re learning skills. We’re learning how to walk, how to button a shirt. It just goes through our whole life. If you can learn how to enjoy the process of learning the skill and having a mind that is totally present in that process, you move at the fastest pace. You don’t experience the stress and you have access to all of your cognitive skills,  abilities, and your decision-making and the whole experience is one that’s more blissful and so much less stressful. We know this from sports psychology and peak performance in neuroscience, that when you’re in the process when you’re in the present moment of doing something and you’re totally engrossed in that, you’re operating at your highest performance level and you don’t even really notice it because you’re not attached to this point out here. When you set a goal, when you attach yourself to this moment when you achieve it, then you put yourself at war with the process of achieving it and that’s kind of the caveat there, the spin that has to happen. 

Sam: When you’re talking about when we’re practicing correctly, we’re unaware. 

Tom: When you’re practicing correctly, there is no sense of time. Your mind is totally absorbed in what it’s doing, which means that all of your energy, all of your thought energy, all of your cognitive energy is going into fulfilling this process so you are operating at your highest level. You don’t have this sense of, I’m not where I want to be because you know, you are where you want to be. The stress really drops away to what the documentation is there. The science is there when you’re in the present moment and you are working at that level, you are working at the highest level that you can possibly do. There is nothing else that is the highest level that we can work at. It’s not something that’s debatable. So I’m not based on science. It’s learning to understand what it feels like to be in the present moment. There’s a really big difference. Most of us are led around by our thoughts during the day, and we don’t even know it because we’re living, as they say. Neuroscientists say about 95% of our day, we’re basically living on programs. Things are happening all around us and our subconscious mind is basically like a hard drive. It’s going to the hard drive and saying, what is our reaction to this visual cue or to this verbal cue? What is our reaction to that? And then it plays it out and you’re in that behavior. You don’t even know you’re in it because it happens so quickly. An example I gave to somebody one time that I’ve used is, I was having a client session with somebody and he said, I don’t believe that  and I said, well, just shut up until I finish my sentence and he reacted. I said, you see, that was just a reaction. There was no cognitive thinking about,  I’m not going to let this guy touch my inner peace. I’m going to think about this. How do I want to react? One of the things that I work on with people is getting them to see what it feels like to be the observer of the thought and not in the thought there are two different places and it’s a skill. That’s all it is. It’s a skill. It takes training and not a whole lot of training, but it does take training. Repeat the mechanics, and do it with non-judgment and then learn the skill as efficiently as you can is a skill itself. To me, it’s learning to understand I’m not my thoughts. I have thoughts. Some of them I intend to because I have to solve, but most of the thoughts that I have during the day are thoughts that my mindsets off without my permission and even my awareness. 

Sam: Is there a difference between practice and learning? 

Tom: Yes there is because practice is intentional. In the context of this discussion, when we practice, practice to me is the intentional repetition of a specific task with a conscious effort to learn something and to accomplish something. Learning something you can grow up in a house where everybody’s screaming at each other and you’ll just learn that. You can be around people that are never in the present moment that is always attached to the goal and you learn that. You learn that without being aware that you’re learning it, and then it becomes a program that just plays itself and now you’re stuck in that loop. Practicing has a consciousness to it and a very intentional idea of what am I trying to accomplish.

Sam: We deal with a lot of HR leaders and talent leaders across the country who struggle every day with how do you get the most out of people? We live in an environment at times where struggle in the hard stuff is not always easy, but might be critical to maybe effective practice or getting the most out of others. How do you think about struggle and talking about being in the present moment, but sometimes being in that moment is the practice that you’re going through is tough. I can imagine even learning  a sport or learning a skill. What do you think about struggle in the equation? 

Tom: The struggle is an interesting word because we attach the judgment to it.. It’s just a feeling we attach to the judgment of it’s a bad thing, but what is struggle really telling you? What it’s telling you is that you’re in the process of learning a skill and you haven’t mastered it. That’s all it’s telling you. It’s just data. An example I’ve used is if you go to learn a musical instrument and you go on the very first day of the thing and you don’t know anything about music and the teacher shows you a piece of sheet music, and it’s got notes on staff lines and there you’ve got this keyboard in front of you and you don’t know any of it. Where are you at that moment? You’re struggling. Why? Because you are up against your skill threshold. When you learn something at a skill, we always start from no skill, and then we move along this line of mastery. In that situation, you have no skill. Well, let’s jump ahead. Like five years now, you’re playing some classical piece or some jazz piece. How do you feel inside? You feel the same as you did on the very first day of the thing? Why? Because, because you’re up against your threshold here. Your skill is always moving, but your skill always puts you up against where your threshold is with that skill and then it gives you this feeling. The feeling is not a bad thing. It’s just letting you know you haven’t mastered this point. There are so many things we do all day long, whether it’s in our job or just walking across the room, you don’t think about that. You don’t think about buttoning your shirt, but that was a skill you had to learn and when you first started learning, it was difficult. Now you do it without thinking about it, you drive your car and you’re having a conversation with somebody. It’s the same thing in work, dealing with stressful situations, dealing with learning a new skill, or pushing forward is a skill itself. Interpretation creates experience, if you interpret that feeling as that we’re labeling a struggle, as you interpret it as just information, then what you’ll find is that your experience of it because you’ve interpreted differently changes. That’s one of the things that can happen by the way, if you’re in the reaction. If you’re in their reaction, then you’re just, this is hard. This is struggling. I’m stressed out. That’s being in the behavior and the reaction. That’s what you’ve told your subconscious thousands and thousands of times when I’m doing this and I’m in this position, this is how I want you to make me feel. The sense of the subconscious doesn’t have a sense of humor. It just tries to give you what it thinks you want. 

Sam: I know you do a lot with coaches and managers and business owners. What do you tell to managers or leaders or coaches on how you coach your people through that, to love the process and be okay with it? 

Tom: The first thing you have to do, Sam is you have to spend 10, 15 minutes a day on what I’m going to call thought awareness training. If you are in your thoughts, you have no power and you have to get out of that and you have to see what it feels like to be the observer of the thought because once you’re the observer of the thought, now that’s the key to the prison door. You have the opportunity to change your experience in a situation. Before that, you don’t have the opportunity because you’re just a puppet of whatever thoughts your mind is producing. I would tell people that, you can call it semantics, you can call it meditation. I don’t care what you call it. We’re not looking for a religious experience here. We’re just looking for awareness that my mind thinks without my permission and I need to get outside of that. I give people some files that they can use. But if you sit in a comfortable position, you can also get on your knees on a pad if you want. What you basically want is to be in a position where you’re upright, your back is upright, so you don’t fall asleep and your body doesn’t become a distraction because it’s uncomfortable. Then you close your eyes and you work on watching your body breathe, or you can say a short phrase, something positive. What will happen there very quickly because many people have tried this and this is where they fall. The mind gets bored with that very quickly and so what we’ll do is it’ll just run off and start looking for a problem to solve. Our mind is a problem-solving machine. That’s what it does. If you don’t give it a problem, it’ll go looking for one. When you say the reason you pick either watching your breath or a single phrase because you want to give your mind a point of relativity. You want to give your mind one task to do just one single task. You’re saying to your mind, we’re just going to watch ourselves breathe, or we’re going to say this phrase, the mind gets bored and 15 seconds, if it takes that long and it takes off and it starts thinking about this and that, and each thought creates another thought. Then the next thing you know, you wake up and you’re working on a report that you got to get done later in the day. It’s in that moment that everything happens because you basically wake up and realize that your mind has taken control again and that it’s doing what it wants, not what you’ve told it to do. What do you do then, you pull it back into whichever task you’ve chosen, and when you do that, you basically have woken up and anchored yourself in the observer of the mind. You’ve also strengthened your will to be able to pull the mind back. Sometimes your mind is busy and it runs and you’re stressed out and it’s trying to solve all these problems. Sometimes if you do it right when you get up in the morning, then your mind is relatively still, you may find it’s fairly placid and you don’t feel that way. It’s like exercising each time you do that, each time you pull it back, it’s a repetition and it’s all normal. Whatever your experience is there, you can’t do it wrong. And there are no bad meditators. This is what the experience is, but what’s amazing and I’ve been meditating for about 45 years and I’ve studied under different people and tried different methods. You can’t stop this from happening and you don’t have to try to make it happen. It just happens on its own. You will begin to get ahead of your thoughts. You will start to notice that your mind is producing an impatient thought. That your mind is producing an anxious thought, and you’ll be like, I’m not anxious. I’m noticing I’m having an anxious thought. My mind is producing that and that’s telling me that this circumstance is a circumstance that I’ve told my subconscious mind, go get this thought when I’m in this circumstance and then you have the opportunity. That’s one of the things I work on, but you have the opportunity to reprogram that. When that happens you’re at a fork in the road there, and the pole is very strong to go down, the habitual behavior and the thought process that you’ve done so many times and when that happens, it gains strength, and then you’re sucked into the whole emotional content of it and you just get farther and farther down that road. That’s the single you cannot do anything if you do not learn. To get out of the mind and realize I use my mind.I don’t allow my mind to use me and that’s where most people are during the day. They’re so easily manipulated with visuals or something somebody says to them and they’re very efficient at being anxious and fearful and impatient. They’re very efficient at it because they’ve practiced it so much.

Sam: I can’t tell you how many calls I’m on. It’s the question I wouldn’t throw out to you to rap about since you work from home. Your book is almost more important than ever because the skills you’re talking about are more important than ever because I’m on calls all day long, where you just know when people’s eyes are checking emails and other stuff around the screen. People are going from zoom to zoom, to zoom, to zoom and you talk about chasing your mind. I just think that this is more important than ever. 

Tom: I think that one of the things that are happening is in our culture today and in the world today, the media has a connection with us 24/7 and because of that, our mind gets an awful lot of momentum. We don’t know, know how to be still. The kids don’t know how to be still, if you took their phone away, they go crazy. I have done things with high schoolers where I’ll say, look, we’re going to sit still for two minutes, just two minutes. I want you to shut your eyes and stop thinking. What happens is at the end of it, they wait, they go, Whoa, I can’t believe I could do it. I was in the cafeteria. I was doing it. That means you’re not in control. You’re sitting there telling your mind, stop thinking and it’s saying, no, I’m going to do what I want and you’re going to go with me. That’s why people are so easily manipulated because this psychology is so well known. This is the base. This is the thing that has really changed with sports psychology and all of this neuroscience. Everybody knows how the mind works and the people that want to use that to their benefit can use it and manipulate you if you’re not aware that’s actually happening. I’ve seen in golf, because I’ve worked a lot with athletes, in golf where they’ve said, If you’re not in control of your mind, then you are just basically a puppet of whatever’s going on, whatever stimulus is going on outside of you. The problem Sam is that it feels normal because we’re there all the time. It feels like we are making decisions when we’re really not. I did a presentation one time called 5% thinking because that’s what they say. It’s only about 5% of our day where we are actually consciously thinking and making decisions. The rest of the time, we’re just experiencing stuff coming off a hard drive but it feels like we’re thinking then that’s what you start to learn. You really start to learn to notice that when you begin thought awareness training and it’s pointed out to you. When I have sessions with people, I just let them talk and then I’ll show them, you see what happened there and initially they don’t see it, then they begin to understand. I see one on one I’m in my thoughts and when I’m the master of my thoughts. Of course, your thoughts are your emotions. The very first thing that happens is you have a thought that thought is translated immediately in microseconds into hormones, which create the feeling. So I usually tell people to try to pay attention to their feelings because the thoughts happen so quickly. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to stay up with that. For example, I had a young man who had to choose between three jobs and he was angsting over these jobs. I said to him, you’re acting like there’s one job that’s perfect and the other two are terrible. It’s like a game show and you don’t want to pick the wrong one. I said, but if, but based on what you’ve described to me, this job offers this, but it doesn’t offer what this job offers that, but it doesn’t offer this. I said, have you asked yourself, what job do you want? And he hadn’t done that. He was so wrapped up in this thought process of anxiety and I don’t want to make a mistake here. I don’t want to choose the wrong one and wasn’t seeing it from a much more objective, analytical point of view. I tell people you need to learn to stop that process right after analysis because we always have to now analyze something before we judge it. The judging has really no value. The judging is always, it’s a relative thing. Some people go, I cannot get in front of people and talk and some other people can’t wait to do it.  It’s just talking in front of people, but this person experiences it as a horrible experience and this person’s interpretation is that it’s fun. So it’s to learn, to be more analytical, and then stop after that and not allow the judgment to flow because that’s always based on past experiences and stuff but usually not hard data. 

Sam: Thomas. This has been great. I have to ask you just because during COVID my daughter got ahold of my phone and figured out how to play music and she’s four, her name is Nico, and she fell in love with Pavarotti. Maybe it’s the Italian heritage, but she fell in love with Pavarotti and I was reading about your career and working with musicians and at the highest levels. Anything that you noticed as you looked and worked with musicians that are at the mastery level of their skill?

Tom: For one, they rejoice in the fact that their skilled development is an endless expansion. In other words, they never feel like, and they don’t want to feel like I’m as good as I’m going to get, because that means they have this endless room to expand. I remember one time when I was studying jazz piano, the guy that I was studying with was very well-known and extremely competent. At the end of one of my lessons, I’m packing up my books and he just starts doodling around on the piano and improvising and I just stopped. I said, if I could play like that, it’s all I would do all day. I would just sit and listen to myself play and he laughed. And he said, you know, I said that exact same thing to my instructor. He said, but when you can play like this, you’ll want to play like that guy over there and that’s what I saw over and over again. The best musicians in the world, I sat in the green room with him, I sat in the dressing room, I sat up next, next to him on the piano and it was everything from classical musicians to jazz, pop country, all these people. They were always like, you know, I got so much to do, I’m not as good as I should be. They always have that, but that goes back to what I told you. They’re always up against their threshold, they’re way better than all these other people, but their interpretation of this feeling inside is that I’m struggling. It’s similar to a video game. When you look at kids with video games, I’ve asked, college kids. I said, what do you do with the video game when you master it? And they said get rid of it. And I said that’s right. I said you want it right at that threshold where sometimes you can beat it and sometimes you can’t. I said, when it gets to where you can beat it every time I said, there’s just no reason to do it anymore. This is what we hunger as human beings and that goes all the way through whether it’s being better at business, being better at managing people. All those things are skills and to be able to do that at the highest level and enjoy the experience of becoming that person. That’s what the practicing mind is about.

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Future of Work, Practice, Learning, Education, Development, Engagement, Mindfulness

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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