007 – How to Laugh at Fear with Marty Wilson

In this episode, I chat with Marty Wilson, an award-winning comedian, speaker, and author. Marty shares his thoughts on why we fear change and some tips on how to laugh at fear.

[00:00:52] Mission and vision
[00:04:44] Hardwired to fear
[00:07:04] Consequence of giving into fear
[00:09:59] Laugh at fear
[00:17:24] “But I’m not funny”
[00:20:57] Empathy during times of change
[00:26:26] Face your stuff
[00:30:04] ROI of soft skills

Resources mentioned:
Marty’s Twitter
Marty’s Facebook
What I Wish I Knew series
Take Funny Seriously (Marty’s TEDx Talk)
Pursuit of Happiness (Barbara Fredrickson)
More Funny, More Money

Note: Some of the resources above may be affiliate links, meaning I’d get a commission if you use that link to make a purchase (at no cost to you).


Welcome to LIFT, a podcast for you – the entrepreneur, the leader, the creative – who leads change with heart. If you don’t have it all together, you’re in the right place. I’m your host, Sharlene Sobrepeña.

In today’s episode, I chat with Marty Wilson, an author, award-winning comedian, and change management speaker. We talk about why many people are afraid of change, the consequences of giving into our fears, and how to laugh at fear. My biggest takeaway is that we become better problem solvers after a good laugh. Let’s get to it!

Sharlene: So, to start the interview off, I’d like to ask you a couple of big questions.

Marty: Sure.

Sharlene: Ready? Number one, what is your mission with your work and what is your vision for the world?

Marty: Wow, okay. The mission for my work can probably be summed up by – so many of us have this little voice that pops into our head at two o’clock in the morning, when something wakes us up and we’re lying there in bed. And they have a little voice that says, ‘Why don’t you try doing this’, ‘You’ve always wanted to do that’, ‘You know you’d love to have a go at it’. Then, we wake up in the morning and the day happens and we forget about it because it’s a little bit scary, so we run away from it. And then later on, two nights later, five nights later, a month later, we get woken up in the nighttime again and that little voice says, ‘Hey, it’s me again. Remember I suggested that you have a go at this? Why don’t you have a crack at that? You’ve always wanted to try this’. And most people let busyness ignore that. Let busyness help them put aside that thing because they’re really a bit scared of it. And the thing that I really love, because I have a keynote called “Change Without Fear” – that is my main, sort of signature keynote that I do when I speak at conferences – and the main thing I love when people come up to me afterwards is say, “Look, I heard you two years ago. And I started doing this, and now I’m a full-timer doing that. And I absolutely love my life.” So, that’s probably the biggest thing that I really want when people see me, is just, they listen to that little voice because I’ve got a book series out there called “What I Wish I knew”, where I ask people if you could go back and give your younger self one bit of advice about whatever that book’s about – there’s one on depression, there’s one on motherhood, there’s one on love, there’s one on health and fitness. And when you ask that many people, over a thousand people I’ve asked for that book series now – “How to do life well” – the idea of sitting on my 80th birthday, I want to look back on my life and say, ‘You know what? I listened to that voice all my life. I had a crack. I lived a slightly larger life than some of the people I knew because I let that little voice guide me and I didn’t let fear get in the way.’ So that’s what my work, when I do my keynotes and my workshops and that sort of thing, is all about. And I guess my vision for the world in these troubled times, when we have so many voices around us that, for wanting to direct our attention –  everything from Facebook to the media, to all these things where they’re all desperately vying for our attention and their business. Facebook has thousands of engineers whose job it is to write code to get and keep our attention. And they know all these – Google and Facebook, and everything, from the various news outlets and everything – they know one of the biggest things that gets people’s attention is fear. And so, we have fear pumped at as again and again and again. I guess if my work has any lasting impact, it would be that we learn how to get through that fear that we’re constantly bombarded with from all around the world and all of our sensory inputs, and instead, listen to our deeper values and our deeper intuition. So, if I can play some little role in encouraging the world to be a bit more fearless and a bit less driven by instincts, and scripting and that sort of stuff. And I would be really, really happy.

Sharlene: Thank you for sharing.

Marty: No problem.

Sharlene: So, what holds people back? Why are many people scared of change, for instance? I know you’ve studied change a lot. A lot of your talks revolve around change. What have you learned?

Marty: It basically comes down to our evolution. Your brain and my brain, our brains evolved to cope with life about 10-20,000 years ago. Our civilization has evolved so fast that our brains haven’t been able to evolve fast enough. The pace of life is pretty slow. The pace of change in life is pretty slow 10-20,000 years ago. And basically, your brain evolved to keep your physical body alive long enough for you to find a partner, have kids pass on your genes; and that’s it. Your brain evolved to keep you withdrawing from things that it found to be different because they might be a threat long enough for you to pass on your genes. That’s why the human race became so dominant on the planet, because our brains got really good at that. We got really good at keeping our physical body safe long enough – other stuff as well, obviously, but the whole thing about living in communities works really well – but the main thing is, your brain evolved to keep your physical body alive long enough to pass on your kids. Now, 10-20,000 years ago, that was a really great survival mechanism. But now, it just makes you live a smaller life because all the things that you perceive to be different are things where you’re really just out of your comfort zone. Your physical safety isn’t at risk anymore. It’s more just, at the job you’re at they’ve asked you to take on a new role that you have never tried before. And so that brings about a bit of anxiety and you withdraw from, going, ‘Ohhh no.’ Or that little voice that I talked about before, at 2am, is asking you to be an entrepreneur – I know a lot of your audience they’re entrepreneurs and creative people – asking you to. ‘Go and launch your business. Try this new idea that you’ve always had.’ And your brain is hardwired to make that really hard for you, to make you really scared of that. And so, we end up just living a smaller life because of these impulses that are buried in that really old part of our brain that just aren’t relevant in modern society anymore. And that’s such a shame.

Sharlene: What are the consequences of holding on to our fears?

Marty: Scientists have worked out that, psychologists have worked out that when we’re scared, and this is particularly appropriate for creative people – I know a lot of your audience are creative people – when you’re scared or when you are overwhelmed in any way, when you’re feeling a little bit too much stress – not that good stress when you’re a bit challenged that they call eustress, but feeling a bit overwhelmed, then our brains very quickly flick back into what worked before to make me feel comfortable, what worked before to make me feel safe. And so, for those in the creative industries listening to this – I was an advertising copywriter for about four or five years and you got to know in the industry down here in Australia, very quickly, you’re going to see, ‘Yeah that’s a Dave Droga ad, that’s a Dan Gregory ad.’ These guys, they have ads that sort of fit with their personality. And in creative fields, if you feel overwhelmed, you’ve got too many things on at the same time, your brain very quickly clicks back into, ‘How did I solve this problem last time?,’ just to get that stress out of your system very quickly. And that is not a great way to be a creative or to be an entrepreneur because when you’re trying to make a living from thinking about new ways to do things, whether it’d be a creative or whether it’d be an entrepreneur, so trying to solve a technological problem or a business problem or something like that, quite often the best solution is one that isn’t how it’s ever been done before, if that makes sense. And the other thing it does is when we’re fearful, it also makes us be terrified of making mistakes. It makes us be terrified of other people’s judgment of our work. And so, we end up not wanting to put ourselves and our creative output, or our business output for entrepreneurs, out there for judgment. Whereas, if you speak to all the successful entrepreneurs, if they talk about if your business idea was perfect then you waited too long to launch it. You should launch it and then very quickly get feedback from the market, work out where it’s absolute rubbish, then put out a version 2.0, then a version 3.0, then a version 4.0. So, the way to be a successful creative and a successful entrepreneur is to keep shipping it and let the market give you feedback rather than keep it down in your basement and keep tinkering away until you think it’s perfect, and then ship it because the market will give you very quick feedback that it’s not, anyway. So, when we’re fearful, we revert back to what worked last time to get me through this stressful time and also makes us very terrified of mistakes, which are two things that are really not great when you’re trying to be a successful entrepreneur or a successful creative.

Sharlene: What are some ways we can quiet our fear?

Marty: There’s my favorite – and there are things like meditation and that sort of thing which I’m happy to talk about for ages. I was very lucky that an old boss paid for anyone who wanted to, in the advertising agency, to learn mediation when I was 28, and it made such a massive difference to my life. But my favorite one – so, I’m a former Australian Comic of the Year. I was a standup comic in the U.K. for eight years. My favorite one is humor. My favorite way of laughing at stress, my favorite way of laughing at fear – of getting through fear and getting through particularly a fear of change – is to laugh at it, make fun of it. And the great thing is that there are oodles and oodles, 25 years of scientific research based on this. My TEDx Talk is all about, “Take Funny Seriously”, where I talk about the scientific evidence behind deliberately choosing to laugh at things that are stressing you out. So, if you deliberately choose to laugh at your stressors, it’s like it flicks a switch in the back of your head that says to your brain, ‘I must be bigger than that if I can laugh at it. If I can make fun of this thing, I must have control over it’. And so, reading through some of the scientific evidence, laughing at your fears helps you reappraise threats and reduce stress. It increases your personal resilience. It facilitates psychological wellbeing and gives you greater positive affect. That’s the psychological term just for happier and more cheerful. And who doesn’t want that, particularly through times of change? And so, partly just, it floods your brain with feel-good neurotransmitters. Having a good old laugh, deliberately choosing to laugh, makes you feel really good. And that gets rid of the cortisol floating around in your body and makes your body feel good and literally lightens your load. But the other part of it is that when, quite often when somebody tells you a joke, there’s a little puzzle wrapped up inside the joke where you have to work out what you thought was happening in the joke actually isn’t happening and – I’m really stuck. I’m trying to think of a joke off the top of my head now and I can’t think of a joke to explain what I mean – quite often, jokes are about misdirection. The setup for the joke makes you think that this is happening, but then when you hear the punch line, you’re like, ‘Haha, that wasn’t actually what was happening at all.’ And so, your brain has to solve a little puzzle to get the joke. When you do that, different parts of your brain fire up. There’s the logic centers in your brain, there’s the language centers in your brain. If it involves a story, there’s the imagination centers, where you create the images of what’s going on in the story in your brain. So, different parts of your brain fire up and that actually encourages your brain to realize there are lots of different ways to solve a problem. There’s actually a wonderful study done by Barbara Fredrickson, who’s one of the founders of Positive Psychology and she got people to solve a problem. Half the group, she got to solve the problem just cold and the other half, she got them to watch two episodes of a comedy show. I think it was Seinfeld, on TV. This was a while ago. And the people who watched the comedy show first were twice as likely to solve the problem. Just getting your brain to deliberately choose to laugh, it actually makes you far greater at problem solving, which now again coming back to your audience of entrepreneurs and creatives, is a wonderful skill to have. It gets you out of fear mode, where I was saying before about gets you into, ‘What worked last time that made me feel safe? What worked last time to solve this problem?’ Deliberately choosing to laugh, deliberately creating funny moments or deliberately watching something that you know will make you laugh helps you solve problems.

Sharlene: How do we laugh at fear when – say we’re in a professional setting and you have to deal with this problem, and we just can’t think of something that will make us laugh. It just seems so counterintuitive, is what I’m saying. Do you have any tips?

Marty: Yeah. Quite often, because I train speakers and train business people to use humor in their business, in their business presentations. I’ve got this book out there called “More Funny, More Money” because – see how I casually slide a little plug into your podcast like the selfish mongrel that I am – and one of the things that I talk about in that, is that one of the things people get wrong in the corporate sense is the targets of the laughter. Quite often, people come into work and they hear that being funny when you’re presenting your work is really great. So, they get up there and make fun of their boss or they make fun of the people below them in the room, or they make fun of a client who happens to be sitting in the room. When you’re trying to bring about humor in a situation at work, there are three targets you can always use to create humor and everyone will always find it okay to laugh at. One is shared frustrations; so, for example, if you’re in an industry that is highly regulated, you can make fun of the regulations in your industry. Common enemies; so, for example, you can make fun of the commute to work. You can make fun of the software that was used to organize the meeting. So, things that people in the room would also find frustrating. But the last thing, of course, is make fun of yourself. You can always make fun of yourself, but the one caveat from that is, don’t make fun of your abilities to do the job you’re in that room to do. So, if you’re an accountant, you don’t go, ‘Oh, geez I’m hopeless with numbers, mate’, and that sort of thing. Make fun of yourself as a dad. Make fun of yourself as a mom. Make fun of yourself as a commuter. Make fun of yourself as a member of a group that people in that room are also members of, if that makes sense. So, make fun of things, make fun of yourself as something that people in the room will relate to. That’s how you can deliberately choose to create a bit of humor. Or search on the Internet. Say you’re talking with Toyota about trying to sell them about something, an advertising campaign or a new entrepreneurial solution or some software, or something like that – search the Internet for funny car videos and see if there’s any videos that you can play at the start of your presentation, car industry bloopers or car bloopers, or car epic fail – and have a think about that. Have a think about how – you don’t even have to create the humor. As long as it’s sort of slightly targeted to the meeting or the situation you are in, you can just tap into some of the stuff that’s already out there. Does that make sense?

Sharlene: What if we’re not naturally funny?

Marty: I have a theory. Firstly, you can use some of the videos that I talked about. There’s even memes. If you’re doing a slideshow in a meeting, you can bring up some memes that are related to the emotions in that room. If it’s a stressful situation or just search for stress memes, or something like that on the Internet and use some photos like that. And then find some videos like that, stressful situations on YouTube and pull up something like that, ‘Who in the room is feeling like this?’, and just show some of that sort of stuff. People say that they’re not naturally funny, but I have a theory that everyone has two or three people in their life that they are naturally funny in front of. But some people are so confronted by the idea of trying to be funny in the workplace, that they shut that down. And they’re so terrified of just having a go that they shut those natural thoughts that come up in their brain when they’re with their bestie or their mom, or their sister or someone in their life they are open to having a bit of a joke with, then they shut that down. But I would suggest – and research backs this up – that even just having a go at lightening the situation is incredibly charismatic. There’s a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, you go on eHarmony or RSVP, or those online websites. What’s the one thing that everybody says their perspective partner simply must have? The thing that everybody says their perspective partner must have is GSOH – good sense of humor. So, firstly we need to accept that we really do all like a bit of funny. But sometimes, these barriers come down and we think we shouldn’t in the workplace, so we don’t. But, the reason that everybody says – psychologists discovered that the reason that everybody says – they would like to be with someone who has a good sense of humor, is that someone who laughs a lot and particularly someone who is okay with laughing at themselves, that is a real concrete indicator to me that that person is healthy psychologically, that they’ve got a fair bit of inner peace going on and they’re pretty comfortable in their own skin. So, straightaway, I know, like, and trust them. I feel comfortable in their presence. So, trying to make some humor in the workplace – as long as that humor has acceptable targets and you’re not trying to put somebody else down, you’re not trying to raise your status by putting other people down – then the study they did showed that, even if only 20% of the people in the room laugh, just hearing laughter in the room makes you more charismatic and makes your perceived leadership capabilities rise. So, people see you as more in control of the situation just because you had a go at trying to be funny. It doesn’t even matter if it really works. Just as long as you have a go and you’re the sort of person who, in a tense situation, you have the ability or the confidence to try and laugh, and try and make people laugh, to put them at their ease, that in itself is incredibly charismatic and worth trying.

Sharlene: So, you shared some techniques on how to use humor in, say, presentations and tense situations. How would we use humor in times of change?

Marty: Yeah. I guess probably the biggest thing that I always say when leaders leading people through times of change, the number one thing they can, and should, do really early on is show that they empathize with the people in the room’s natural fear. I have this quote I say, “Leading your people through new systems, new software, or new anything without addressing their fear of change is like painting over an unprepared wall. Soon, the cracks will appear.” Because you can’t train people who are terrified. There’s actually a couple of different pathways in our brain that when stimulus comes into our brain, there’s a part of our brain called the sensory thalamus that very quickly decides whether that stimulus indicates there is a threat around us or not. If it doesn’t, then it pumps it up to our prefrontal cortex, which is the thinking part of your brain behind your forehead. That’s where we consciously choose our responses. Whereas if the sensory thalamus decides that there is a threat, then it shoots it across to the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is a very old part of the brain that sends signals to the adrenal gland to start pumping out adrenaline and cortisol, and the whole “fight or flight” thing comes out. So, the first thing you need to do when you are leading people through change is to show them that you understand that they are scared, that, “This will be bringing up some fear for you. I totally get that and I empathize with that.” It’s terrible, isn’t it? That in 2019, we have to encourage leaders the benefits of empathizing. But I find when I’m talking with business leaders, that sometimes we really do. You have to understand that if you don’t help them through their fear first – because you know the people you are getting to bring about the change in your industry or the target that you are talking to, they’re people; people with hearts and minds, doubts and fears. They’re human beings whose brains have evolved to not like change. You need them to see that you understand and you’re going to help them through that. Indicate to them, “I understand that you’re scared and we are going to take steps to talk about that and work through that fear because we know that will help you adopt this change much better.” And so, showing them that you understand how they feel is such a powerful first step.

Sharlene: Have you seen the results of people applying this? Has anybody shared their stories with you?

Marty: Yeah, they have. I did some work with a big building company over here in Australia. And it’s funny how some of the things that people get really resistant to.  They were moving from everybody having their own desk and cubicles to going to hotdesking, when you come in you can sit anywhere or you’re at least within your department or your section, “You guys have that bit, we have this bit over here.” The resistance that we were getting from people because people like to have, a friend of mine calls it, “their own little shrine,” at their desk where they’ve got their kid’s photo, they’ve got their partner’s photo. They’ve got their own little waving cat, their lucky waving cat or those sorts of things. People have their own four or five little things and, “This is my space!” People were incredibly resistant to that. What I got them to do, I got them to reach out – because there was one particular section that were the most resistant. I got them to work with them, and get them to be the people who lead the change, who lead the change towards this and say to them, look we think you’re the most emotionally intelligent group of people. We want you – we’re going to work with you to help you get through your fears about this first. Then we want you to be the shining light that shows everybody else how fantastic the system can be. So, they did that and that worked incredibly well. And the other thing that I get people to do when I’m working with them through change is as quickly as you can, start rounding up stories of why the new situation is working better and disseminate those stories as early as you can. So, they’ve got the people who had been the most resistant to keep sending in emails, keep stopping the leadership in the corridor and saying, “Now we’ve got this working better. This is working much better now.” Getting people to share stories really early, of “Why the new situation is actually better for us,” is a really powerful thing to do, as well.

Sharlene: Do people have the tendency to default to past behaviors or are sharing stories enough to move them to the new behavior?

Marty: Anyone who has ever tried to wake up on New Year’s Eve and say, “This is the year. I’m getting healthy this year,” anyone who’s ever tried any type of behavior change, we’ve all stumbled and fallen. We’ve all reverted back to things that we’ve done. The psychological term for these things is avoidant coping strategies, they call it. So, when we feel something that we consider “bad” or “negative”, we tend to start doing something that will very quickly make us feel “good”. So, I’m talking about things like eating, drinking, smoking, shopping, sex, gambling, Facebook-ing; any sort of getting at your phone and reading the headlines on your phone or that sort of stuff, or browsing Facebook or Instagram, or getting on LinkedIn seeing if there’s someone you can see. That’s probably my biggest vice, because I’m on social media a fair bit for my job, I kid myself that I really need to do it for my business. But what I’m really doing is, maybe I’ve got a deadline for an article or something like that and I haven’t quite polished it up enough. And so, that feeling of tension of not having finished is a feeling my brain sees as “bad”. So, I very quickly, ‘Oh I better check my Facebook, better check my LinkedIn and see if someone’s contact me,’ or something like that. So, these things called avoidant coping strategies are something that all our brains do to avoid that fear of change. They’re something so we go away and quickly try and do something. The really bad thing about that is that these things don’t solve the problem in the first place and when left to their own devices, can actually build up their own problems. I’m sure you understand – the eating, drinking, smoking, shopping, gambling, those sorts of things that we very quickly do, they can cause their own problems which actually raise our stress even further. Please, my wife doesn’t mind me talking about this so, don’t feel icky about it. But when my wife was growing up, she grew up in quite an abusive household and she was bulimic for many years. So, her thing was she would eat when she felt bad and there was stress in the household, she would eat and then purge to get rid of that food. She has a saying now, and it’s pretty brutal but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s called, “Face your stuff, don’t stuff your face.” When you’re feeling those bad feelings, that times of change, the way to handle it isn’t “run away” – and I don’t mean stuff your face just with food. I mean with eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, shopping, doing those things that avoid the fear that you’ve got. The key to it is turning around and looking that big hairy, scary monster right in the face and saying, ‘I don’t like how I feel. How can I reach out for help or how can I deal with this myself? How can I deal with these feelings myself?’ Admit what is really going on and don’t run away from it because if we run away from it, that’s when we revert back to the bad behaviors that we were probably trying to solve in the first place.

Sharlene: I definitely agree with that, deal with the feelings.

Marty: Yeah.

Sharlene: So, I think I want to end with one more question. During times of change, a lot of organizations push their employees, “Suck it up, do more, do it faster. What are the benefits of taking a different approach and getting your teammates, your co-workers, the people underneath your care, to take care of themselves?

Marty: Yeah. That’s a great question and quite often, when I’m being put forward for a conference, the head honcho or the head honcho-ess who’s looking to be the person who signs off on me and everything, “Yeah okay, but what’s the ROI of these “soft skills”? – I’m making quotation marks in the air while I say that. They call all the resilient stuff, the soft skills. But thankfully, thanks to about sort of 20 years of businesses like Zappos and those sorts of places that have wonderful cultures doing really well and also “The Great Place to Work” survey that happens every year. It’s all around the world. They interview a vertical range of employees and ask them everything, questions about the culture in the business, about how much time you are given to work on yourself; even things like, “Does your manager have a sense of humor?,” and things like that. They’ve found out that the businesses that come at the top of “The Great Place to Work” surveys outperform the Dow Jones by a factor of two. And another study found that for businesses that spend money on resilience, there was every dollar spent on resilience training, it returned $2.1 back in terms of greater productivity, let alone staff retention. Staff retention is absolutely over the moon when it comes to an expense on a business. If you’re just driving your people harder and just trying to get more blood out of a stone, and that sort of thing, when one person leaves, it costs you half their annual salary to replace them at least. When you’re driving people out the door, that’s costing you enormous amounts of money. So, even if you just have to look at it from that point of view, let alone that motivated and happy employees work harder and earn you more, and that sort of thing; but even just if it’s staff retention, even just that. I could send you through some studies that sort of get more into the nitty-gritty and the nuts and bolts of this, if your listeners would like to get in touch. I’m happy to send those out. But just to search for “Great Place to Work survey” and have a look at the conclusions of that. You make more money if you spend time creating a culture that helps your people work on themselves, work on their values, work on their inner lives as much as just cracking the whip and forcing them to work harder and earn more money.

Sharlene: That is great. I really like that and I hope a lot of our listeners take that to heart. So, thank you Marty. And where can people find you and what projects do you want to share that you’re working on?

Marty: Sure. If you have an event on and you’d like me to come in and speak about resilience through times of change, because I used to be a stand-up comic, the two slots that I get the most on a program are sort of on first on day one, to get people out of fear mode and get them to open up into the nuts and bolts training that’s coming after me. Or after dinner, if you’ve got a dinner on and you’d like to have a very, very funny after-dinner speak that also shares some real concrete insights on resilience, please go to martinwilson.com. If you would like to learn to use humor in your presenting or your speaking or if you’re a new sales team or something like that and you’d like to learn to use humor to build rapport more quickly, please go to morefunnymoremoney.com. They’re the two places where you can find me. Of course, just search for ‘Funny Marty Wilson’ on all the profiles, on all the social media platforms and I’m there too.

Sharlene: Great. Thanks Marty.

Marty: Pleasure, absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me, Sharlene. It was great.

Thank you for sharing your time with me and listening to LIFT. If this episode resonated with you, I’d appreciate it if you would take a moment to leave a review. That way, more people can discover this resource, and together, we can accelerate good change in the world. Thanks so much. Until next time.