April 24, 2023

Tom Sterner, Author of “It’s Just a Thought: Emotional Freedom Through Deliberate Thinking,” Founder & CEO of the Practicing Mind Institute, Professional Coach

Dana Bernardino

Practicing Mind Institute
1Huddle Podcast Episode #99

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Tom Sterner, CEO of The Practicing Mind Institute and author of the books The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process, Fully Engaged: Using the Practicing Mind in Daily Life, and his most recent book, It’s Just a Thought, Emotional Freedom Through Deliberate Thinking.

On this episode of Bring It In season four, Tom sat down with Sam and discussed why our thoughts do not make up what we are, the effects of too much screen time, and why AI can’t replace everything,

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


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

  • “You can’t learn and perform at the same time.”
  • “The thought is basically just an outline of what the feeling is going to be.”
  • “You can’t change what you’re not aware of.”

Sam: So, Tom, you’re not not new to talking on the podcast. 

Tom: Not at all. Not at all. 

Sam: I have my notes from our last session. Tom was podcast number six, Jaime. 

Jaime: That long ago? 

Sam: Well, let’s not age ourselves. Here are some of the notes. So we talked about Practicing Mind, which was your first book in this series. You talked about practice verse learning. We talked about the difference between correct practice and incorrect practice. We talked about present moment functioning. 

We’re not gonna rehash the whole podcast, but I was excited to talk to you that time about the concept of practice and skill development, and you have your new book out, It’s Just a Thought: Emotional Freedom Through Deliberate Thinking. So I guess jumping right in why this book? 

Tom: Well, when I wrote The Practicing Line and then the second book Fully Engaged, they were really about the process of understanding what correct practice is, and that really came down to centering on the process as opposed to being attached to the goal.

It’s Just a Thought, I spent two years researching that book, and it was really the culmination of exactly what is a thought. What is a thought, where does it come from? Do we have any control over that? Are we basically just victims of a thought process that we’re in? Or can we make choices as to which thoughts we’re gonna have?

And it took me quite a while to find that it’s a lot based on neuroscience and psychology. But without a knowledge of where your thoughts come from, then you’re basically just being thought. So that’s what I tell people. You’re either thinking, you’re either the thinker of the thought or you’re being thought by the thought. And that’s what the book goes into is understanding that  and gaining the freedom and the power that comes from being in charge of the process. 

Sam: I was reading the book through the lens of a person running a company and leading a team. What hope did you have that the impact of this book would have on maybe a reader like myself in the workforce with an organization? What kinda impact were you hoping for? 

Tom: Well, what I would like is to understand the relationship between the conscious mind and the subconscious mind, and to understand that the subconscious mind is constantly recording. It’s an elegant recording system. It doesn’t think, it has no sense of humor. It’s just listening to what you’re saying and what you’re feeling. It’s really the feeling is the language of the subconscious and then it records it and then when a certain circumstance comes up that is similar to that, it goes onto the hard drive, if you can call it that, pulls that reaction off, plays it out, and then you experience it.

Now if you’re not aware that that’s going on, and this could certainly infiltrate business decisions, how you interact with your employees, all these sorts of things. You know, like if you’re not aware that’s that that’s going on, then you’re not actually creating your reaction to situations. And I think one of the biggest things for a person, you’re in your position is what I’ll call authentic decision making. And what I find is that if you’re not aware of this, then what is happening is that your subconscious is making the decisions for you and you don’t even know that that’s happening. It feels normal. You’ve been doing it your whole life. And so you really have to get outside of that cycle to be able to be in control of exactly, what are your decisions, where are they coming from, and what is their impact on the company?

Sam: You say in the book that you can’t learn and perform at the same time. And that probably is the one, I mean, I highlighted a bunch of stuff in the book, obviously, but  that was one of the ones that I circled a bunch of times. I guess, can you talk a little bit about that?

Tom: Yeah. I mean, you have to give yourself, when you’re in the process of learning how to do something, you can’t be focused on the score. If you use something like golf, when you go out on the golf course, if you want to be in a learning mode and you say like, ‘well, look, I’m going to work on working the ball’, then you can’t be obsessed with what your score is because you can’t do both of ’em at the same time. You have to give yourself permission to be in learning mode, and then when you go out, if you wanna perform, then you have to say, ‘I’m no longer in learning mode now, today I’m working on scoring’. 

So, when you’re learning new skills, whether you’re running a company or something else, when you know the mechanics that you have to go through, you have to put yourself in a position. You have to give yourself permission to be in a learning mode, which means you’re gonna make mistakes. You’re gonna have to excuse yourself or feel comfortable being in that position. I think what happens is, we become very attached to a certain performance level, which is not attainable when you’re in a learning mood. And you also don’t enjoy the process of learning because you’re so attached to this level of performance. So I think you really have to make a conscious decision of which system are you on today? Are you learning or are you performing? Does that make sense? 

Sam: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s, again, a coach, manager in a position with people. I think it’s a profound concept because, let’s pick restaurants for example. Right now in the hospitality industry, you have so much turnover. You talk to restaurant leaders and they’re gonna tell you something like, ‘there’s a labor shortage. It’s real tough to find people’, which means that once they find them in their minds, they gotta get them… they’re almost in performance mode right away. And they may not give people the space to be in learning mode. So that was where my mind jumped to, is how that would have a direct impact on a frontline manager who’s thinking about, I have a new employee here, I wanna get them ready and succeeding and successful. But if I’m always keeping them in performance mode, what happens if you’re always trying to keep people in performing mode?

Tom: Well if you try to keep ’em and you’re gonna fail because there’s a certain amount of time that has to when you start out, they’re learning a new skill. And when you start a new skill, you start at zero skill and then you’re on this linear line of mastery. So you can’t start out at mastery. You have to start out at zero skill, and you have to recognize that. And so when you’re trying to bring somebody on board, you have to recognize the fact that this is where they’re at, and that their skill level will increase over time. But if you don’t give them time to do that, then you’re basically setting them up to fail, which is going to set you up to fail. 

Sam: Yeah. The other thing you say in the book is that, I think it’s in the heart math section, which is awesome, that was one of my favorite chapters really. There’s a lot of really great stuff throughout, but this point that the heart sends nine times more signals to the brain is that it’s sticky, and it makes you really consider how emotions play a part in your day-to-day when you go to work.

Tom: Right, the heart has its own form of nervous system and it stores memories and it would appear that what happens is that the heart creates the content for the thought. So the heart basically looks at the information, creates the reaction, then talks to the brain, and then the brain creates the thought to communicate it outward. So I think that’s a really important thing to understand because what it’s saying is that we’re really coming from a heart-centered position first before we get to the brain. 

So when you look at it from that perspective, you have to deal with employees from that perspective because that’s how they’re communicating. You know? That’s how they’re receiving the information, that’s how they’re communicating. They’re communicating their understanding back to you.

Sam: So would you say, and I haven’t thought about it this way, would you say that if you establish an environment where you can be in learning mode versus performance mode, and you’re in learning mode, would you make the argument that it’s about the heart connection? If you were a manager working with your workforce to create the best environment, maybe even more so than the content?

Tom: Absolutely, because what makes somebody want to work at a place? What makes ’em wanna stay at a place? What makes ’em wanna work for you? That’s a heart connection. There are people that can perform, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily make good performers. Like I can give you an example.

As a pilot, there are people that have the athletic skills and the book skills to get a pilot’s license and fly an airplane. But what they don’t have is the decision skills. They make bad decisions, and that’s an example of, they can perform, but they end up putting themselves in bad positions because they don’t make good decisions.

So that, to me, that’s kind of similar to that. Like if you’re excluding the heart perspective from the whole system of how do you get an employee from here to here, from raw start up to a high performance, you have to take and how do we learn, how do we take information in, and how do we process the information that’s coming in? 

In fact, it’s even being said that by the new science of consciousness that consciousness is really centered more in the heart. The heart talks to the brain. So when you look at it like that, then you have to be basically thinking that way when you’re making communications to your employees, 

Sam: It makes you wonder in a moment when all we’re talking about now is ChatGPT and AI for the moment, all these things are gonna take away all the repeatable tasks. It means that the human component or the coach or the manager around the worker, I mean, technology can’t replace the heart piece, can’t it? 

Tom: No, absolutely not. And it’s pure folly to think that. This is where that concept falls down to me because there are some decisions that need an emotional content behind them. They need some sort of an emotional perspective behind them and that is not something that you’re gonna get from AI, even if it’s simulated. 

Sam: Yeah. You do a lot of interviews on this book. You’ve been kind of on a tour on it. And we were talking before we started about the questions you get. What’s the question you don’t get that you wish you got? 

Tom: I wish that people would ask more about, Do I have responsibility for my thoughts? Because your thought energy is, and I do talk about this in the book, what we’re understanding now is that our thoughts are not our own.

I mean, our thoughts, the electromagnetic energy goes outside of our head. You’re no more inside of your brain than you are inside of your laptop. Let’s just say it that way. Your thought energy goes out, it goes out into the room, it goes out into the workspace. And so it’s impacting everybody around there.

And we can measure this with heart math. There is energy that goes outside of the body, at least in an eight foot sphere. And that energy has data in it. It has information in it, which is, how are you feeling? How do you think? All this sort of information, are you angry? It’s all in that sphere and if you think about it, these bubbles all around everybody in a room full of people working, that energy is all intermingling with each other. And what that, whether the success of the environment is gonna be determined by how aware you are, that that even exists, and how you can utilize it. Because you can utilize it as a strength or you can be ignorant to it and be a victim of it. 

Sam: What do you say to people that just say, you’re just talking about positive thinking?

Tom: We’re not talking about thinking cuz we’re talking about emotions and feeling, and feeling comes. The thought is basically just an outline of what the feeling is going to be. So, and I would also say, this is all peer review science. We’re not talking about at this point in time, in western empirical science, if you look at heart math, we’re over 30 years into that research, and continuing.

So this is not like some new, new age science. It’s stuff that has been proven and the people that are in it are very serious and very educated, and that’s just one area. But the neurosciences are looking at, how does the mind work? What is the interaction between the conscious mind and the subconscious?

And you have to understand that we’re talking about different aspects of one entity. It’s not like I can cut out a piece of your brain and say like, well, here’s the conscious mind. You know, we’re talking about an abstract part of ourselves, and there’s a lot of serious research that is going into this, and it’s way past the point where you can question it as being something that’s, I don’t know, foo foo, it isn’t really science, but yes, it is science and that’s really indisputable at this point.

Sam: Yeah. Tom, you also, for people that don’t know, do a lot of coaching. You coach the team at 1Huddle. You coach private patients, athletes. You have done it for a number of years. 

Tom: Over 20. 

Sam: What do you feel you spend the majority of your time talking about when you’re talking to the segment of that group that’s concerned with performance, whether it’s an athlete or an organization, where do you find that you spend the majority of your time today?

Tom: It’s always in the beginning. In the beginning, the very first thing that people have to understand is that they are not their thoughts, you know? And I tell them, look, I am not my thoughts. I have some thoughts and those thoughts I create. But most of the thoughts, and as neurosciences, about 95% of the thoughts that we have are just programs that we have installed, unintentionally, it’s not always intentionally, unintentionally into our subconscious. And so when the stimulus happens around us, in front of our eyes or we hear things, somebody walks in the room and it’s a trigger. The subconscious just says, what is the response to this? And it goes and plays that off. 

Now you can’t get control of that. You can’t be the thinker of the thought until you begin to reference yourself outside of that loop and you become the observer of the thoughts and that you have to get through some, what I’ll call thought awareness training.

You have to do some sort of meditation, which I teach, And you only need about 10 minutes a day. We’re not looking for some sort of an experience. What we’re looking for is an awareness that your mind thinks without your permission and you can’t change what it’s thinking if you’re in the thought, and which is where most people spend their day. So that to me is where I always start, and you spend the most time because that’s the key to the prison door. Once you get outside of that loop, now you have the privilege of noticing what your mind is doing and making a conscious creative choice to change it.

Sam: Which, given the amount of technology on our person today, has the adoption of mobile technology and multiple screens, has that made this the adoption of this type of science? Maybe has that sped up in your opinion? Do you feel the pain that maybe some of the new technologies that have been released have set an environment where this type of science you talk about that’s been around for a long time is more likely to get adopted now. Like, why didn’t you write this book 20 years ago?

Tom: Well, I didn’t know what I know 20 years ago for one, but I would say it’s really interesting because in some ways it’s at odds with the technology today because the constant exposure to screen time is speeding the brain up. Because what we’re doing is we’re asking the brain to process more information in the same amount of time, and the brain is complying with that.

But what we are losing, which is an important aspect of our cognitive abilities, is our ability to reel the mind in and focus on one particular thing for any length of time. That’s why people are finding it harder and harder to read books. I have seen people that even to sit still for 10 minutes just to do the meditation is a struggle for them because their mind is always in motion and their mind is always processing data and analyzing data. And that’s one of the reasons why they’re so fatigued at the end of the day. Their mind is being pulled in a lot of directions so that it’s very hard for them to be in one place at one time where their feet are, if you wanna say it that way.

And so from that perspective, the technology almost needs to be counterbalanced with this technology here because this technology is understanding how we work. The media and the screen time is really, in many ways working against that, and that’s why I tell people, you have to balance this thing that we are asking our brains to process at a run at a higher pace. You have to balance that with something that continues to maintain the faculty of focus and the ability to focus because in your job you have to focus. There’s times where you have to think about one thing at a time, for a long time, and you will lose that if you don’t work on the faculty.

Sam: And again, I just think about the fact that we live in a world now where the majority of workers are frontline workers. The majority of those workers are unfortunately low wage workers who are bringing to work all types of thoughts before they have to think about how they react to a guest or a customer who comes in.

And again, as I reflect on the book, I just think that the tools that either you are sharing or the tools you’re challenging your reader to consider that you may not even be sharing, but the ideas of creating systems to be more deliberate thinking is so urgent, so important.

Tom: I’m very firm on deliberate thinking because so much of our thinking is not deliberate. We’re not even part of the decisions of what thoughts we’re gonna have. We just have the thoughts. 

I ask people many times, when you feel yourself stressed or anxious or pressed for time, if you could stop that thought, would you? And of course they say yes. And I said, so you’re not the thought, the thought’s happening to you. And so you exist outside of that thought. You can’t change what you’re not aware of. And so you have to get to a place where you’re aware that you aren’t the thought, you’re the observer of the thought.

And when you do that, what happens is you not only disconnect from the thought, but you disconnect from the emotional content of the thought, which is very handy at times in situations because it frees you up to make better decisions. It frees you up to not feel anxiety. It frees you up to just be more where you are doing what you’re doing and to feel good about it.

Sam: What’s your next book? 

Tom: The next book I think is really going to deal more with the quantum physics element. And it’s gonna be talking about where our thoughts go after we have them. After we have the thoughts and the thoughts create the emotion, then where do they go? And then how does that impact us? How does that impact our life? How does it impact the company? 

Sam: I think that stuff is super important, super relevant. Last question for you. We’ll see if it changed from the last time we spoke a few years ago. Even from when we spoke the first time, we’ve gone from a great resignation moment to everybody’s quitting, to, we can’t find workers because the market’s tight to now we’re in a moment where there’s a lot of organizations during Covid who said that they were gonna stand by their workers or were letting them go and peeling back and out of fear of recession. So the labor market’s gone through its ups and downs during that time. What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Tom: Well, if I was completely honest, I would say my hope would be that they model themselves after 1Huddle, because I feel that working with 1Huddle as I have now for quite a while, and I’ve gotten to know everybody here from the CEO down. It’s a healing environment and as I work with the people, they love their job, they want to come, they want to perform, and they’re willing to try different things to perform at a higher level because it’s what they want to do. And I can tell you that as someone who has worked with many different companies, it’s an unusual environment and it’s an environment that really needs to be adopted across the board.

If we’re gonna save people, everybody has to work. Almost everybody has to work. And they spend so much time of their life in work, it should be something they want to do. It should be someplace they want to go. And because how they’re feeling during the day is impacting their mental health, the health of their family is because they bring all that stuff home.

And so I do think that, what my hope would be is that the manager’s, HR, all these places step back and realize squeezing blood out of a stone, it’s just an old technology and it doesn’t work. And that’s one of the reasons why so many people, once they got a taste of not having to go to work, didn’t want to go to work anymore because they felt like the physicality of not having the pressure of the workroom and the manager hanging over ’em and all these different things that would happen. They don’t have to be that way, but because it was that way for so long, as soon as they got the opportunity to experience what it would be like to not be there, they were like, I don’t wanna go back to that.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are options and as I said, what 1Huddle is offering its employees, to me, is really the model that should be followed. 

Sam: Appreciate that. Thanks Tom. 

Tom: Okay, great to be here.

Topics Discussed: Thought Process, Decision Making, Communication, Technology

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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