Scott Simon’s work is grounded in positive psychology and the belief that a growth mindset, coupled with intentional action, leads to greater optimism, life satisfaction, well-being, gratitude, forgiveness, energy, and self-confidence. On the WBI/JCC Positive Psychology Hour last month, he spoke about founding of the Scare Your Soul courage movement, and shared how we can take small, boundary-pushing actions to build our “courage muscles” and live a more audacious, courageous, meaningful, and connected life.
Highlights from the Conversation
Caroline Kohles: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome. My name is Caroline Kohles, and I’m the Senior Director of Health and Wellness at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and your host today, on the Positive Psychology Hour. We are going to be talking with Scott Simon, about Scare Your Soul: Learning to Harness Our Fears and Lead Our Most Courageous Lives. We all know that joy, resilience, meaning, growth, and connection lead us to a happier life. But a courage practice is the key that unlocks them all. Like a muscle, courage grows stronger the more we exercise it. The Scare Your Soul movement, rooted deeply in the tenets of positive psychology, is a powerful guide to taking small boundary-pushing actions to expand your comfort zone. Scott is going to invite us today to consider practical ways to be courageous every single day, and help others to do so as well. And in doing this, we’re going to be able to live a more audacious, courageous, meaningful, and connected life.
A little bit about Scott. He’s a happiness intrapreneur, entrepreneur, speaker, and founder of the Scare Your Soul movement, which is a movement that inspires individuals and individual and global change through small acts of courage. He has spoken around the world, motivated people at schools and companies, given a TEDx Talk, cofounded a happiness incubator, and studied and worked with international thought leaders in the areas of courage and happiness. He’s a high-performance coach, focusing primarily on creating flourishing lives post-divorce, leads mindfulness meditations, and has served as an officiant of numerous weddings. Scott earned his BA from Skidmore College, his MA from Case Western Reserve University, and he has certificates in positive psychology from Wholebeing Institute. He’s also the proud father of two children. And when not out fulfilling his sense of wanderlust, he lives where he is calling in from today, in Cleveland, Ohio. Scott, welcome to the call. This is an exciting time because the pub date for your book was last Tuesday, you said?
That experience of meeting Tal for that weekend, finding this beautiful, beautiful practice of what does it actually mean to be happy in our lives? What does it mean to study the interventions that exist that can make us happier in life? Who are these tremendous people, these incredible academic heavyweights that are doing this? And could I somehow play a role in this in my life? I left completely jazz, changed, then ended up coming back and doing the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology program with Wholebeing Institute and with Tal. He is a mentor of mine, he actually wrote a beautiful endorsement for the book, which was one of the happiest parts of this whole experience, having him read the book and provide this beautiful quote. So that was my very surprising initiation to positive psychology.
I’d like to just give you a little metaphor as we begin our conversation today. There’s a wonderful book out, just came out fairly recently, called From Strength to Strength, which is Arthur Brooks’ new book, and in one of his chapters, he talks about the concept of Eastern approaches to art and Western approaches to art. And in the Western approach to art, which I’m very familiar with, you walk into your local museum, and you walk down the hallway and you see a sculpture at the end of the hallway. And it’s a beautiful sculpture and the sun is glinting off of it, and you you walk up to it, and you appreciate it for its beauty and its majesty. In the Eastern approach to art, there is a focus on the block of stone that existed before the sculpture was even created, that that sculpture exists within that block of stone already. It’s fully formed inside the block of stone, and it’s the sculptor’s job to chip away the stone to reveal the sculpture that already exists inside. In many ways, as I have followed this incredible journey of positive psychology and courage, leading to an upward spiral of joy and freedom and self-expression, I really see our lives very much the same way. Like we each have inside of us this life that is vibrant and vulnerable and brave and adventurous and an embracing of awe and transcendency, gratitude and forgiveness. And our job, our sacred quest, is to chip away at the stone that that has built up around that sculpture. In my mind, that stone has has been created through past experiences, as I said, traumas, our sense of fear of shame, or rejection, the kinds of things that build up around it. And our goal, therefore, is to chip away at it, revealing this vibrant life where we’re connecting and adventuring and living our most flourishing lives. That to me is this essential quest that we are all on. And to me, the instrument to chip away that stone is courage. And I will get to why I believe that and how courage and fear interrelate. And then I’d like to tell you a couple of stories from the book that I hope will illuminate some of this, and maybe even reflect something from your own life.
I’d like to begin just by telling you a little bit about me and why this became such a powerful experience for me. I grew up here, in Cleveland, Ohio, the shortest, shyest kid in my grade. I was really impacted by two bullies that lived on my street that had a really, really strong impact on me. As you all know, if you’ve been bullied in your past or have had a child or grandchild that has been bullied, it is very insidious, mainly because bullying creates a sense of shame. Those of us who have been bullied often don’t share with anybody what is happening to us. And I can tell you, when I was in elementary school, I didn’t. I kept all of that to myself. I kept my bruises, both my physical bruises and my emotional bruises, to myself, I didn’t tell my family, didn’t tell anybody. But what it did was really make my life small. I really wanted my life to be almost invisible, because when you’re invisible, you don’t get hurt. No one punches you when they don’t notice you. And so most for my childhood, I remained in this box of near invisibility.
After I graduated from college, I was working in a record store and although I had graduated with a degree in English literature from a great school, I had no plan, I did not know what to do with my life. And I still was operating under this sense of feeling small and needing to feel small. And I was given an opportunity. It was a shot in the dark, but I was given the opportunity to travel overseas to teach English to Holocaust survivors in Israel for a year. And something inside of me said, Take this opportunity. And I accepted. And I remember it like it was yesterday. I packed up a big backpack and I flew from Cleveland to JFK. And I was waiting for my flight and I bought a little Mead spiral notebook. I don’t know if any of you remember those Mead spiral notebooks that we all had in school. And I put it in my backpack and I got on this flight from JFK to to Ben Gurion Airport in in Israel. And as the plane took off, I had a panic attack. I thought to myself, There is no way that I can do this. I don’t know the language. I don’t know the family that I’m living with. I’m unprepared in every possible way. And I started to sweat and my heart started to pound. And I was already thinking about how could I get off the plane and turn around and come back.
I want to step back for one second and tell you about one episode of my childhood and then something that I did about it that created what is now called Scare Your Soul. And I want you to think about as you’re listening to me, maybe a similar experience that you had with an authority figure when you were in school. So when I was in fourth grade, I was in our school choir, and we were preparing for our school’s holiday concert. And of course, I was the shortest one, so when there was a line of kids, they would always line up the kids tallest first and I was always last because I was the shortest kid. And the extravaganza of this choir concert was singing “76 Trombones” from “The Music Man,” and I was given one solo line in this song. And every time the class would start our practice and singing the song, and every time that they came around to me, I flubbed the line. My throat closed up, and I couldn’t sing it. And each time, the substitute choir director would start over from the beginning. So the entire grade had to start over because of me. By the third time that I messed up this line, when I could barely even speak or sing, he got angry. And he kind of moved towards me and he was wearing this Hawaiian shirt—I remember this red Hawaiian shirt with these big palm trees on it, even though it was December in Ohio and freezing cold—and he ran towards me almost and said, “You! You cannot sing! Why don’t you just mouth the words from now on.” And I can tell you that that was one of the most defining moments of my childhood. I turned bright red, I couldn’t move, I felt like a statue. And for 35 years I never sang again.
After meeting Tal, after experiencing the beauties and complexities of positive psychology, I decided that I was going to tackle that demon that had arrived that day in fourth grade. My way of doing that was to sing in front of a busy restaurant with a line of people waiting out in front, and to do so on a busy brunch Sunday morning. I brought my guitar. And I opened it up. And I started singing in front of a line of strangers who are lined up in front of this very, very busy and popular restaurant. And I assure you, I was awful. Absolutely terrible. I have an atrocious singing voice. But that wasn’t the point. The point was how I felt afterwards, even though people first started to feel kind of annoyed. Why is this guy singing and He’s terrible. They started to kind of rally behind me, they knew that I was trying. And I remember a young kid crumpled up a one-dollar bill and threw it into my guitar case. And everybody laughed and, and my sister who was there, who has a beautiful voice, came and joined me in singing. And that feeling that I had afterwards, as I put my guitar back in my case and grabbed it and started to walk back to my car, it was almost like I wanted to levitate back to my car. I felt free and powerful and joyous. That feeling to me is what Scare Your Soul is all about—that feeling of stepping into discomfort in a way that it unlocks something inside of you that needs to be unlocked. I came back, I wrote a single Facebook post about my experience, back when Facebook was a little friendlier. And I posted it, assuming maybe that some friends would want to do what I had just done. And instead the post went viral. It was shared around the world. I had people from multiple countries, email me, text me, DM me, saying, I want to do my thing. Next weekend, what can I do? What can I do to push my comfort zone? And that began what is now Scare Your Soul, which is a very organic, free, positive psychology–based courage movement that is basically challenging people every week to push their comfort zone in some way. We send out an email every Wednesday. And we have ambassadors now who are all volunteers, who want to push forward this very positive psychology–centric message of, if you step consistently into discomfort, you will do two things. One, you will fail—when we try new things, it doesn’t always work out exactly the way that we want. It’s very important that it’s not about the outcome, that it’s about the action. But that also, you’re going to experience things on the other side of it that will change your life. You will achieve levels of connection of growth, of creativity, of innovation, of forgiveness, of gratitude, of mind-body enhancement. Each chapter of my book talks about how to push comfort zones in those different areas of life.
So all of a sudden, Scare Your Soul took off, and people from around the world started to do our challenges. And then they started to say to me, “You know, I just started my own business for the first time” or “I had a tough conversation with a loved one.” I got a I got a phone call one time from one of our ambassadors who lives in Long Beach, California, who told me that she had a son, that she was pushing a stroller. And in the stroller was a Scare Your Soul baby. So I said, I have no idea what you mean by that. Could you please explain what a Scare Your Soul baby is? And she told me that one of our challenges was to have a tough conversation with a loved one. She decided to have a tough conversation with the man who was then her husband. And the tough conversation was, It’s just not working. All of the therapy and marital work that they had done was not working and it was time for them to separate. She had been putting it off and she finally decided to have it. He actually agreed and they had a separation and then got divorced and it was a hard time. But one of the people who showed up in her life to help her through this hard time was her old high school boyfriend who had moved to Long Beach. They reconnected and you can probably guess what happened? Yes, they ended up getting married and had a baby—her Scare Your Soul baby, a result of that tough conversation that she had chosen to have. And sometimes in life, all we need is that little push. I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the entire world. I get to help other people tackle courageous acts in their own lives.
In December of 2020, I was about to lead an online meditation cland I was in an empty yoga studio. It was all dark except for me and my computer. And an email popped up on my phone as I was about to begin, saying, Hi, Scott. My name is Nana Twumasi. I am a VP and editor at Hachette Books. I have found your website and think what you are doing is really important. Would you be interested in writing a book? Now, I’m going to be very honest: I deleted that email because I thought it was spam. Three days later, something in the back of my head said, Pull out that email and see what that is. So I went into my trash folder and I found it and sent it to a friend of mine, an author, and she said to me, “You dummy, that is one of the greatest publishing houses in the entire world. And that is their new VP and editor of all of their self-help and wellness books. If you don’t respond in 30 seconds, I’m coming over and responding for you.” That led to discussions with Nana, and Hachette signing a book contract, spending seven months writing 70,000 words all about courage, positive psychology, love connection, growth, forgiveness. That’s a whole ‘nother webinar in itself about what it is like to write—I’m sure many people on this webinar have either written [a book] or have written short form. It probably has been the greatest challenge in my life. But now I’m happy to say, as of this past Tuesday, I walked into a Barnes and Noble and there it was on the shelf. So miracles do happen and dreams do come true. And when you plug into your passion, amazing things happen.
So that’s a little bit of my story. I hope it wasn’t too long for all of you, but it gives you a sense of what how much positive psychology has played a role in my work and the work of Scare Your Soul, which is an evolving and vibrant place for people to participate, to do our challenges, to share ideas to become ambassadors. We have WhatsApp groups, where for two-week stretches, people around the world share one thing they did that day that was courageous with everybody else in the WhatsApp group. That’s it, just one thing that they did that day, and it is one of the most inspiring things that you could ever imagine. Imagine a gratitude practice except with courage. So I encourage you, if you’re interested to just go to ScareYourSoul.com, I’d love to have you be one of our free members. And then I’d like to tell you, very quickly, three short stories from the book that I hope for you will be a takeaway, so that when we end our hour together, you feel like you are empowered to tackle things in your life that maybe are sitting on the periphery, sitting under the rug, sitting in the zone of procrastination or fear. And maybe there’s a place for you to step into that. So the first story that I’d like to tell you is about Johanna. Johanna was born in Beverly Hills. She grew up in a very vibrant household. Her dad was an agent, and her mom was a writer. And she was a born performer. She loved to tumble and dance and tell jokes—literally, adults wanted her at every party because she just made people laugh. And her dad was a big basketball fan. So he would take her to Lakers games, and he would sit there watching the team, of course, as everybody else was, but the person that wasn’t watching the team was Johanna because the people she loved to watch were the cheerleaders. She loved cheerleaders, their athleticism, their vibrance, their performance, their ability to entertain, and she would even create little play-by-plays in her mind as they were jumping. And I will tell you on this call that Johanna did not have the body type growing up, as she would describe it, that was acceptable in her school to be a cheerleader. She ended up leaving that school, went to another school that didn’t have a cheerleading program. So her entire childhood, she was never able to fulfill that dream. When I met Johanna, she was 53. Divorced, a mother of three. And she was reeling from a bout of cancer that was in remission, but she was exhausted. She was working as a nurse, helping people who were living in horrendous life situations. And using, by the way, much of her own resources to buy items to help her patients, on her own with her own money. And she came to me and said, Scare Your Soul sounds amazing, could I do a challenge? And I said, Of course you can. We all want to encourage each other to step into a moment of courage. So she called me back freaking out, because she had called and left a message for the athletic director of a local high school, a big one, and said on this message, “My name is Johanna. I’m 53. And I was wondering if you would allow me to be a cheerleader for a day.”
My second story from the book is about a woman named Carly. I received an email one day, about seven years ago, saying, Hi, Scott, my name is Carly, you don’t know me. But I’d like to come to your house this Saturday night at 10 o’clock and talk to you, would that be okay? Okay, how do you deal with that? Who is this person? I did not know her. She wants to come over to my house at 10 pm. What is going to happen? And I went again on our beloved Facebook and I found out that indeed Carly does exist. She, from what I could tell, was a happy married mom of three kids. And I thought to myself, You know what? I have a degree in positive psychology. I have a growth mindset. I want to push myself into an area of discomfort. So I said yes and that next Saturday night, Carly knocked on my front door, and I opened it up. And there she was beautiful, long blonde hair, she had tattoos kind of trailing down both arms, and she was wearing ripped jeans and a white t-shirt. And she came in and sat on my couch, and said to me that she was not that happy person that I thought I had seen on social media. She was in the middle of a divorce. She was deeply, deeply unhappy. Her youngest son was at NIH. At that point, she thought that he might be suffering from a terminal illness. She was distraught. And she said to me, “I know that you did this positive psychology thing. I know you did this happiness thing. I know you run a courage movement. I need to talk to you. I want to feel better. I want to feel happier.” We talked for three hours on my couch. We became soul brother and sister that night. And as she was leaving my house, she said to me, “You know, this is going to be a hell of a week for me. It’s going to be really hard.” We had talked all about gratitude, by the way, and many of you who are positive psychology aficionados know the power of gratitude. And I have talked about gratitude in our discussion. And she said, “Would you send me five gratitudes just by text for the next week? And I’ll do the same. You send me five, I’ll send you five each night this week, and we can’t repeat.” And I said, “Sure, absolutely. I know the power of gratitude. I’m happy to.” So we did. And for that first week, we shared five gratitudes every night by text before bedtime. And I loved it so much. It made me become what Tal Ben-Shahar and the other positive psychologists call a benefit finder. Some of you may be familiar with that phrase, benefit finding. When you write in a gratitude journal or have a gratitude practice, you actually spend your days looking for gratitude, and it changes your entire mindset. We did those five gratitudes that didn’t repeat every night that week, and at the end of it, she said, “Would you want to do it another week?” And I said, “Sure, why not?” To date, we have been sending five gratitudes to each other, each night for seven years. We have sent each other 13,000 individual gratitudes, which I’m sure you can imagine has changed my entire life. Why do I tell you this story? The power of consistent action. It is like running a marathon or a triathlon. Jumping into a pool and swimming or going for a run is a great thing. But it will not help you compete a marathon or triathlon. In my mind it is our small acts of positive, consistent action. In my relationship with Carly, it’s all about gratitude. What I have come to learn is when you have a courage practice, when you do one thing every day that scares you, just like I wrote in that Mead spiral notebook that I put in my backpack, you start to achieve shifts in your life. When you have a post-it note that you put on your mirror in the morning that says, Do one thing today that scares you, you start leading your life like a benefit finder, you start looking for those little moments in life where you feel that sense of butterflies in your stomach, a little sense of tightness, right? We all know that in positive psychology—focus on the mind/body is so important. Where do you feel those moments of tightness? Where do you feel like, Gosh, I want to ask that person out to lunch, but they intimidate me or I want to do something for this person, but I feel uncomfortable. I want to share this new idea at work, but I’m afraid people will laugh at me. All of those moments, if we can just step into one, just one, every single day, think about what life looks like on the other side. So that’s what I call my Carly moment. Can we engage in small, consistent actions where we push our comfort zone? And what does life look like afterwards?
My third story is a story about a woman named Jen. As I mentioned before, I am divorced. I have two children, and a number of years ago, I went on a dating app and met a wonderful, wonderful woman named Jen. She was a realtor who split her time between Florida and Ohio where I live. And she was a wine lover and a just a fun, interesting person. We connected and decided to meet at a wine bar. And it was a colossal series of disasters. I got lost on the way to the wine bar. I couldn’t find a parking space. I had to run eight blocks to get to the bar. So I was sweating. I was late. I was stressed. And by the time I got there she was sitting on a barstool, unhappy, I’m sure. And when she slid off of the barstool, I’m about five-eight on a good day, and she was about six-one. So I kind of looked up at her and said, “Oh my gosh, you know, like, everything about this date is unexpected and is not going well.” And so we ended up having what I would consider to be a superficial conversation for a couple of hours. I know I was thinking to myself, I just want this to end, and I think she was, too. But at the end, there was a little crack. She told me that she was in Cleveland, our hometown, because she had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and that she was in treatment and wanted to be near her family. We both softened a little bit and gave each other a hug. And I thought as we walked out, I would never see her again. Two weeks later, our Scare Your Soul Challenge of the Week was to do Arthur Aaron’s 36 questions. I’m assuming many of you have heard of Arthur Aaron and his 36 famous questions that increase intimacy between two people. If you haven’t, please google it and do the 36 questions with somebody. Our challenge was to do 36 questions with a stranger, someone you did not know well, and I called Jen. She brought a bottle of wine to my house and we did the 36 questions. And in one hour we were bonded, just like Carly and me, for life. My takeaway from that experience was, two hours of superficial conversation gave us almost nothing, but one hour of deep, vulnerable, connected conversation bonded us as friends. When my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a couple of weeks following that that experience, she went into overdrive looking for ideas for holistic treatments for my dad. When I was diagnosed with tinnitus, she went into overdrive looking for ways to help me lessen it. She was so giving in the middle of all of her treatments, I’m very sad to say that she passed away about two years ago. But her memory reminds me that when we have the chance to go deep, when we have the chance to be vulnerable, when we have the chance to be courageous in our connection with other human beings in our lives, do it, do it. And you will reap rewards far beyond what you can imagine.
So, those are three stories. The book, which I’m so proud of, is a mix of stories, reflections, there’s space for writing in the book itself. It’s almost like Daring Greatly and The Artist’s Way had a baby. I’m being very immodest by saying that, but that’s my hope, is that this is the baby. We have a special online journal where you can do all the reflections and challenges, and the book gives you practical applications each and every day to push your comfort zones in your body, your mind, your sense of gratitude, your sense of forgiveness, your sense of curiosity. It has been honestly an honor of a lifetime to delve deeply into this world. What I didn’t talk about on this call is how our fear response works in our bodies and why it’s so hard for us to overcome that, but that when we do it, when we do it with each other in community, when we do it with an accountability partner who supports us, when we do it with our choir—those people who surround you and support you—when we do it with our choir supporting us, we can lead that vibrant, fascinating, adventurous life. That statue inside the block of stone exists within all of us right now, and with consistent action, every single day, micro action, stepping into discomfort, we can chip away that stone and reveal that beautiful statue that’s inside of all of us. So with that, I’ll say thank you very much for listening to my long explanation of why I’m so passionate about this. And what’s what this book is hopefully unlocking for people. It’s a path forward not by jumping out of airplanes or quitting jobs and moving to another city, but just by taking small, active steps into discomfort.
Don’t miss Scott when he returns on January 24 for the WBI/JCC webinar Diving Deeper: Harnessing Fear, Flight, and Failure. Scott will offer practical strategies for overcoming fear and stepping out of your comfort zones, to lead a more audacious and flourishing life. As part of the JCC’s Books That Changed My Life Festival, Scott will discuss how he was influenced by Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. Register here.
Scott Simon is a happiness entrepreneur, founder of the Scare Your Soul courage movement, and author of Scare Your Soul: 7 Powerful Principles for Harnessing Fear and Living Your Most Courageous Life. Before launching Scare Your Soul, Scott was co-founder of Thrive, a “happiness incubator” for which he gave a TEDx Talk in 2013. Scott is a sought-after speaker, meditation leader, and high-performance life coach, focusing primarily on creating flourishing lives after major changes such as divorce. He is a graduate of WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology and Positive Psychology Coaching Certification.