Mel Robbins: Life Lessons From a CNN Commentator

The CNN commentator and author, who will speak at next month's PCMA Education Conference, knows what’s holding you back: you. And she knows how to get you where you want to be. (Hint: FOMO is your friend.)


Mel Robbins is not one to pull her punches. From the title of her viral-going talk at TEDxSF in 2011 (“How to Stop Screwing Yourself Over”) to her sunny greeting at the start of a recent interview (“How you doin’, hon?”), she’s all in. You can also see that bold sensibility in the zigs and zags of her career, which have taken her from criminal-defense attorney to career coach to popular CNN commentator, author (Stop Saying You’re Fine: The No-BS Guide to Getting What You Want), and speaker. At this month’s PCMA Education Conference, she’ll present a Closing General Session on “Breakthrough Performance: The New Principles of Success in the Information Age” — and based on our interview, we’re pretty sure she won’t sugarcoat anything.


So how do most people end up screwing themselves over?

Well, we’re all our own worst enemies in the way that most of us screw ourselves over if we actually don’t act on the great ideas that we have. We delay in making the phone call, we talk ourselves out of pitching a brave, cold, new, out-of-the-box idea. And so we are our worst enemies if we screw ourselves over, because [it’s a] habit that most of us have developed, that stops us from growing and taking action.

Is it a question of confidence, or maybe a lack of imagination?

There are two invisible forces that are holding you back, that you don’t even realize that you fight against every single day and lose. One of the invisible forces is how life in modern society is shutting down your higher-brain functioning and shutting down your impulse for action. And the second thing that’s an invisible force that is stopping you is fear. We’re going to be going through some really incredibly cool interactive exercises [at the Education Conference] that are going to get people out of their comfort zone and get them to really see how fear — particularly for people who are successful — is actually a major obstacle in you changing, in you innovating, in you reaching your greatest potential.

Is it fear of failure? Or fear of what other people think?

We all think that there are like a gajillion fears out there — that you have fear of failure, fear of success, fear of intimacy, fear of disappointing people, fear of spiders, fear of snakes, fear of elevators. Actually, no, you only have two fears. The first fear is the fear of death itself. Now, let me unpack that a little bit for you, because the fear of death is a hard-wired, biologically driven kind of fear that paralyzes you. But what it actually is, is simply the fear that something unknown is about to happen and you’re afraid you can’t survive it. You’re fearing that if you took a risk, if you went out and swung for the fences and tried something crazy, different, new, exciting at your next event that you’re putting on, you fear that it could be wrong. So you get paralyzed and you don’t do it.

And there’s another fear that we’re going to discuss that’s actually the good fear; it’s the fear you want. It’s called FOMO — the fear of missing out. And it’s what drives every single social network.

FOMO sounds like something you could really take advantage of to attract people to your meeting or conference.

Absolutely. In fact, if you really think about it, what is the psychological driving force of Facebook, of Twitter, of Snapchat, of Meerkat, of Periscope — of all of these things? The driving force is the fear of missing out. That’s why everybody is logging on to these things; it’s fundamental. Your conferences need to be so awesome, in your opinion, that people would be morons not to go because it’s going to be such an incredible opportunity. And the truth is, if you as an organizer don’t feel that way, then there’s a great opportunity to raise your game so that you’re so excited by the stuff you’re putting on, that you really and truly feel that way.

You’ve had an unorthodox career path. Are there any key moments when these fears clearly came into play for you?

You know, every single flash point or tipping point in my career, where there was this moment where I kind of switched gears, it was a moment where you could’ve either been paralyzed by fear or you could’ve let your curiosity and the fear of missing out take over.

And I was lucky. I was a public defender, doing violent-felony criminal-defense work for the city of New York, and I probably would still be doing it if my husband hadn’t gotten into business school. But we moved to Boston and I wasn’t licensed, so I went to work for a big law firm because I couldn’t do trial work, and I hated it.

It was one of these moments where I was either going to die a slow death like a lot of my friends from law school and just show up and punch the clock, or I was going to motivate and switch gears because I was afraid of missing out on happiness or doing something that I actually enjoyed.

What’s one takeaway that you’d like your audience at the Education Conference to go home with?

One takeaway for sure is a shortcut that I developed for dealing with your brain called the “five-second rule.” We’re going to explain it deeply during the conference, but the bottom line is, remember the five-second rule that we all grew up with: You drop food on the ground, you have five seconds to eat it before it’s contaminated. Well, there’s a very similar rule that is extraordinarily effective in life, and that is that you’ve got five seconds to act on any impulse that you have, because if you don’t, your brain will kill the idea. And after hearing part of my speech, what you will understand are the four ways in which your brain tricks you into killing the idea.

I want every person in that audience to be reminded just how remarkable they are. And I want them to feel inspired again about the opportunity that it is and how cool it is to get to plan events that can change the course of people’s careers.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.