What do Weight Watchers, ballroom dancing, marathon running, and TEDx Talks have in common? For Tamsen Webster, the answer is, “Me.” For Tamsen’s clients and audiences, the answer is the Red Thread™—the universal tie between how people see the world and what they do in it. Part keynote speaker, part message strategist, and full-time “Idea Whisperer”, Tamsen uses her proprietary Red Thread method to help audiences, organizations, and individuals build and tell the story of their big ideas and create real, transformative change.
Tamsen’s own Red Thread is woven through more than 20 years as a brand and message strategist. She holds an MBA in Management Communications and Organizational Behavior, an MA in Arts Administration, and bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and Marketing—but Tamsen believes she learned the most about inspiring change in her 13 years as a Weight Watchers leader. As Executive Producer of TEDx Cambridge, one of the largest and longest-running TEDx Talks in the world, Tamsen coached everyone from a 10-year old sartorialist to a pervasive roboticist to a bioethics pioneer to build their RedThreads™ into Ideas Worth Spreading.
Now she’s a globe-hopping keynote speaker on storytelling, branding, change management, and idea development, and a go-to consultant for enterprise companies like Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, and State Street Bank who want their big ideas to have an even bigger impact. When she’s not in the spotlight—or helping others own theirs—Tamsen pursues ballroom dancing and runs the occasional marathon. She lives in Boston with her other half and two amazing boys with big ideas all their own.
Bryan Wish: Tamsen, welcome to the One Away show.
Tamsen Webster: I am thrilled to be here, Bryan. Thank you so much for having me.
Bryan Wish: Well it’s great to have you here. So what is the One Away moment that you want to share with us today?
Tamsen Webster: You know, there was a few that came through, but I think that the one that spoke to me, as you said before we started recording, the one that called, was actually one that happened really early on in my career. So I think I had to be about 22, 23. It was really my first big job after grad school. At the time I was a management consultant or a research associate, which is what they call the bottom rung folks. And as with most things, it was an opportunity that I really cared about out. I like to do a good job. I like to have an effect. And it was an organization where I was really excited to work because they were about really big ideas and it felt like a place that I could really be part of that. And by and large it felt like I had an opportunity to do that.
And one day we had, I had my performance review, and I remember this so distinctly, because I remember the woman who gave it, I remember what she looked like, I remember one of the distinct things about her that her eyebrows were tattooed on, they’d faded and so they were purple. She proceeded to say things like I had been doing a good job and my contributions were valuable and all of that kind stuff. So I was just, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” In inside I’m like, “Yay, this is going so well.” And then she says to me two things that really stuck with me, one is she says, “But the problem is, Tamsen, you’re cheeky.” And she didn’t mean it in a good way. And the second thing that she said was, “Have you considered losing weight?” Right.?I know. She said, “You really need to do your hair and wear more lipstick.” That was the other thing she said. So I was like, “Whoa, whoa.”
Bryan Wish: Wow.
Tamsen Webster: So it was a lot to do take in all at once. But I would say that is one of those moments because just so much about all of that was this complete just dichotomy of message, of expectation, of just what is right and professional in the world. All of that. Something like that happening actually so early in my career ended up being really important to me because it gave me… Sometimes the worst experiences can teach you the best lessons. So it taught me so much. Because one of the first things was my reaction to being described as cheeky, and I remember, like I said, she did not mean it in a positive way, but I remember thinking, “But I actually like that about myself. I like the fact that I’m a little bit irreverent and that kind of thing.” And I was like, “Well, do I want to work in a place that doesn’t want me to be that?” And that was one thing.
And then the whole consider losing weight, do your hair, wear more lipstick, I should note that at the time I was in fact 50 pounds heavier than I am right now. This was not the reason I lost weight, was not because of her. It kind of was the opposite. I was like, “Oh, [inaudible 00:03:56] you. I don’t need to lose weight.” And I don’t think people need to lose weight period unless they really feel like that’s what they want to do for their health and whatever. So just this one, two punch of that, quote-unquote, “performance review”, again, in the context of, “Your job is great but let’s tell you about all this other stuff.” Just really helped me get a quick, fast, hard centering on what some of the values were that I wanted to make sure that I was living going forward.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. Wow. What a discouraging experience. And also thinking you were in an empowering environment, but then realizing you couldn’t even be yourself. They didn’t even accept you for who you were. So like why [crosstalk 00:04:41]?
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t stay there much longer after that. And what was so funny was that when I decided when I decided to leave, which was not that… And I mean left. So prior to taking that job and going to grad school I had this big dream for a lot of growing up that I wanted to work in art museums. And then when I was getting my MBA, which I did pretty young, I started my MBA program when I was 21, you get very lured into the salaries that they can pay you as a managing consultant. So I did that. But I think in a lot of ways, it was exactly the kick in the pants that I needed to go, “This is not your path. This is an opportunity for you to decide if something means more to you than money. Respect, being yourself, all of this. Okay. Here it is, Tamsen, here’s your opportunity to choose what kind of person you’re going to be.”
And when I decided to leave… And like I said, I left. I left management consulting. I went to go work in a museum after that, I moved from Texas back to Boston. And so it really was what I needed. And so it was funny because even though in the moment it was tragic and, as you say, discouraging, in a lot of ways, it was encouraging to be reminded about what was actually important. And like I said, in a lot of ways, I’m really glad I had that experience because it made it a lot easier for me to recognize in future situations when that alignment was off. I had a later boss who was like, “Well, Tamsen, you’re a lone wolf.” I’m like, “Well, no shit, Sherlock”. I’m sorry, can I curse?
Bryan Wish: Yeah, yeah. Be yourself. You can be your full self here I can promise.
Tamsen Webster: I forgot to ask. And because I was like, “That’s why you hired me. That’s what I do. You hired me to take on this whole project to take over this arm. That’s what you hired me for.” And they’re like, “Well, yes, but you’re a lone wolf.” And I’m like, “This should not be a surprise to you. But thanks for giving me a name for it, so now I know the next time I go to work someplace, I am going to look for a place that supports lone wolfness.” I’m like, “I want to be my full lone wolfiness.” And eventually I just work for myself. And that is the ultimate job for the lone wolf. So there you go.
Bryan Wish: Wow. Wow. What a journey. I think you said was so important about the alignment, and that experience give you a gift to maybe realize where you’re off center from what you’re meant to supposed to be doing. And then maybe the development of awareness around it. So really, really interesting. I think so many people, they just go in to the next job or the next relationship, and while you did take the consulting side in art museum, like realizing, “Hey…” You found your way back home to yourself. So very cool. Something I’m just curious about as you were talking is you started out at this job where clearly wasn’t a fit, didn’t accept you for who you were, prior to taking that first job who were you in the college years or high school years, in the sense of what you thought your life was going to be and what you wanted for yourself? What did that look like? And maybe how does that contrast?
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, I lived, and I do live, I still live. And this definitely started in high school. I live my life between two worlds. So in high school, I was a very much an arts kid, I was in chorus, did the musicals, visual art, written, creative writing awards, those kinds of things. But I also really loved the other aspect of stuff, I always liked to be able to understand different groups of people and what made them tick. So I was also the manager of the varsity boys baseball team. And to this day, I’m very proud to say that I can hand score baseball game and I can still work a 3-6-3 double play. I’m very excited about this. I’m very proud of this. Nobody uses these skills anymore, but I still have them. It’s great. Because I was just always really fascinated by in groups, out groups, us, them, how did these two worlds work?
And like I said, I love the arts, but I also knew that I did not have the hustle to be a full-time artist of any kind. And I don’t mean that I’m not somebody who works hard, but I had the gift of a couple people in my friend group, inclusive of my sister, by the way, who were just clearly so dedicated to their art. My sister’s a screenwriter, she still is. Emmy Award winning, Writer’s Guild of America Award winning screenwriter. She loved it, loved writing. And I had a friend who loved acting, and I had a friend who loved singing. And these are people who to this day are professional singers, professional actors. And like I said, my sister does what she does and wins awards for it.
Bryan Wish: What’s her name? What’s her name so I can [crosstalk 00:10:15].
Tamsen Webster: Oh, she is Kira Snyder. She won her awards for writing for The Handmaid’s Tale.
Bryan Wish: Oh wow.
Tamsen Webster: And she’s now the show runner for JJ Abram’s new HBO series called Demimonde. So yeah, she’s the hot ticket, my sister.
So I had these examples of people who had that, who were willing really to sacrifice anything for their art. And I was like, “I love you people. I do not have that.” But what I did understand was, “Why does it have to be such a sacrifice? Why does it have to be so hard for people to pursue their art and for other people to get it? Why does that have to be the case?” And so if I imagined myself… I can remember this in high school, I was like, “Someday I want to run artists salons.” That’s what I wanted. Just make it easier for artists to make art.But I also wanted to be employed. This is what I mean, I just didn’t have the hustle
So I just decided to study marketing in college and I promptly got bored with it and still stuck with it, but I added another degree. I added in American studies and art history, so I could balance it out. So now I was living in two worlds, literally, in college because I was in the business school and I was in the liberal arts college. And so both of them. And again, I could see how… With the American studies degree, my whole point was like, “I want to be able to understand the culture to which I’m going to market. And if I’m going to be in marketing, doesn’t it make sense to understand people a little bit better than just what business school will tell you?” And I can tell you, yes, it can.
And I just kept doing it and I went right from undergrad to grad school. I did the same thing. I did double degree in grad school. So same thing, I got an MBA in organizational behavior, and I also got a masters in arts administration. Because, again, I thought at that point my path to helping artists is to run a museum or something like that. And then I got sidetracked to management consulting and then found my way back. But even then I was just always in between. When I went to go work for the museum, I was meant to bridge the marketing and the fundraising departments. And then after that I went and worked at the Boston Conservatory here in Boston, a performing arts college. So I was still with the arts, still my love.
But then now my job was to be in between the school and its audience. How do you get people in there? And how do you get parents to pony up $40-50,000 a year to send their kid to an art school? Just all of that. And then from there I went to Harvard Medical School and I was doing the fundraising communications. So I keep hopping between worlds. And even now my job, it’s to help people translate between worlds. So yeah, that’s me. I’ve come to call myself an English-to-English translator and it really does come back to even back from high school, just sitting in between two worlds and going, “Oh, I get what you’re both about. Let me help you understand each other.” That was a really long answer.
Bryan Wish: Yeah, like an individual to the world translator.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, I’m a human Rosetta Stone. That’s it.
Bryan Wish: That’s great. It’s taking a lot of your own experiences to synthesize them and maybe… Like your book, Find the Red Thread, you’ve had to thread your own journey together, take these experiences and accumulate it around something that’s meaningful and that matters, and then, “Okay, I can do that for others.” And you may have all these divergent experiences, seems like there’s actually a lot of interconnection and you just have to find your pocket to thrive within.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. I think a lot of times we go looking for the meaning of something. We try to figure out what is the plan that all of this is building towards? And I take an opposite approach. It’s not my own, I just was able to put a name on it. It was a great book by an author named Viktor Frankl called Man’s Search for Meaning, and one of the big things that I took away from that book was this idea of, instead of saying, “What’s my purpose? What is the plan? What is this supposed to mean? And why haven’t I figured out this grander plan?” What I really took from, and what I take from Frankl’s work is okay, in any given situation, I have an opportunity to take the meaning from it. I get to decide what is the lesson I’m going to learn from this.
And so what I think happens, particularly early in our lives and our careers is we follow a lot of other people’s plans. I certainly did with going into management consulting. We follow a lot of other people’s plans. And it makes sense because a lot of times those are fairly well tried plans and they’re safe and whatever. And there’s these little signs that maybe they’re not the right plan for us and all of that. And what I’ve found over time is it really is you are building the contents of your container. Everything you do is shaping who you are and what you’re putting out into the world. And one of the most powerful things you can do is just find a way to describe that container. Rather than try to fit yourself into some other container, find the way to describe your own. Because you really don’t have any other option. You’re building it anyway Everything that you’re doing is building it anyway.
So either you can try to force fit and lap things off and tack things on to try to kind of fit in this other thing that people say you should be doing. Or you can say, “Well, here’s what I am doing, and I’m going to find…” I’m adapting Frankl a little bit, “I’m going to find the value in that. And I’m going to find a because it has value to me. Or else why would I be doing it?” That’s how I come to it. “I keep doing this English-to-English translation thing, so there must be value in it. I can’t be the only person who sees this.” And then I was like, “Well, let me just, to some extent, take a flyer on it, see how many other people need this work.”
And it turns out people need that work. They need that help of figuring out, “How do I get my stuff to make sense to those people? And how can I understand what those people?Who are those people? So I can understand how I can better serve them.” And I really believe to my core that each of us has something like that, because we all live out patterns all the time, unconscious and not. And really it’s just about surfacing that pattern and giving it a name.
Bryan Wish: Yeah, I want to expand on three things, but two things within that, you talked about those signs that if you’re [inaudible 00:17:24] you might be able figure out something’s not right. But you’re following a script. This guy said to me in Seattle, two months ago, or three months ago, he said to me, he said, “Paths are predetermined and quests are undetermined.” And that really stuck for me. And for yourself, you realized that predetermined path maybe wasn’t where you fit in. And then Frankl’s work, just to build on everything you just said, I read it five years ago and I was blown away. And I’m reading a book right now called Emotional Agility and-
Tamsen Webster: Oh, Susan David. I know her.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. And there she talks about his work and how there’s a gray area between the stimulus and the action.
Tamsen Webster: The response, yeah.
Bryan Wish: The response and how to work within that. And you said something like, “I felt there was a sign like that was a little off.” And you paid attention to it. And so I think it’s cool, through this journey that you went on, just to come back to it, you kept giving yourself that the awareness developing of what wasn’t right for you and listening to that voice. So really cool. Just wanted to hit those points home.
Tamsen Webster: Well, thanks. Yeah, my body didn’t give me much of a choice in that. So again, a gift in tortured clothing. I had a panic disorder pretty severe for 17 years. Really the first time I had it was 16. It was the first time I got taken to an emergency room with a panic attack was when I was 16. The last one I had was when I was 34. Well, something like that. 17 years from the 16, whatever that is. 35. And I say it was a gift because the offness oftentimes would set off a panic attack. And so when I started to reverse engineer, I was like, “Okay, well, I feel this lack of alignment either with my beliefs or with my intentions, or values, whether it’s where I’m working or people that I’m with or whatever.” It would literally create such dissonance in me that my body would react to it. I would react to it almost unconsciously.
And so it was hell while I lived with it, but I’m really honestly grateful for it because it led me to be fairly ruthless in eliminating those kinds of gaps, eliminating those times when something didn’t feel right. Because in the beginning it was because I didn’t want it to evolve into a panic state, but one of the things I always said about my panic disorder was, “I thought my way in, so I can think my way out.” And once I thought my way out there still some lessons that were useful to me, and that was one of them, which was there are signs all around you all the time however spiritual or universal or woo-woo you want to be. But if you pay attention, there’s always signs about how something feels to you.
I have two boys and we’ve been doing a lot of pandemic comfort watching of TV. And one of the series that we loved and actually have loved enough that now that we’ve watched it twice all the way through is the series called The Good Place. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, it was Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. It’s Michael Schur, he’s the person who did Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Rec. And by the way, this is a great show. It is essentially, I would say, a college level course in ethics and moral philosophy hiding as a sitcom.
And there’s this one moment where Kristen Bell’s character… And I’m not totally spoiling this, because you can read anything about this and you’ll know this, it’s all about this group of people who think they’re in heaven and it turns out that actually in hell. So like they’re people who were not good enough to make it into heaven. But their torture is that they think that they are when the series first starts. And then by the end of the first season they realize, “Oh no, no, no, we’re not in the good place, we’re in the bad place.” And there’s this moment where Kristen Bell’s character says that… There was this little voice that whenever she did something that was bad or that was wrong or whatever, she would hear this little voice. And one of the things that she learned over the time of trying to be a better person in the good place was that voice went away.
And I remember watching that and saying that’s such a great that I think all of us, whether it shows up as a voice or as a physical feeling or whatever, it’s there. We have a reaction to everything that we do. And just starting to listen to that reaction, whether it comes in the form of a voice or a feeling or whatever can be really powerful.
Bryan Wish: Wow. It seems like you… First, that show sounds fascinating.
Tamsen Webster: It’s so good. I love it. Seriously go watch it.
Bryan Wish: [crosstalk 00:22:55] you’ve depicted it. And then just how present you are to those things around you, that are maybe setting the compass in a certain direction because you’re tuning in properly. And we’ll get to your career in a minute. Not your career, what you’re doing today. You’ve had a great career. What I wanted to ask you is once you maybe felt that you were locking in on the right path, have the frequency of those panic moments and attacks subsided?
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. Because, I don’t know, I always I think about it as a pendulum. I remember in early days of dating, I remember even thinking of it then, maybe you’ve had the experience or maybe it’s just me, I always thought as you’re trying to find the right person to be with, you tend to swing from relationship to relationship with this like crazy pendulum. You go out with someone who’s a complete wild child and you’re like, “That didn’t work.” So you go out with someone like really straight lace and like every time you’re like, “Okay, I like that piece but let me balance it out.” And it’s kind of like this pendulum that starts really wide and it eventually settles into the right thing.
And I would say that describes how I feel about finding that alignment for myself as well. It took a lot of paying attention to, whether it was in my career or whether it was in my personal life, paying a lot of attention to, “Okay, that part I didn’t like. So I don’t do that again. Okay, what’s the opposite of that? Okay. All right. So keep this, lose that, keep this, lose that, keep this, lose that.” Until I get to a point where I’m like, “All right, let’s try to stay within…” Again, not tight. But, “These guardrails seem to be good ones, and these are the values that seem to be the ones that speak to me and that work for me over time.”
And so, yeah, a I feel that a lot less because I’ve learned by establishing my own guidelines, “Oh, okay, well, Tamsen, you’re somebody who doesn’t leave a gap between what you do and what you say as much as you can.” And so if I do discover that I have left that kind of gap open, then I try to fix it. So a lot of it’s by understanding I avoid the situations for them to occur in the first place. And I’ll tell you, I’m 100% in the midst of one of these moments right now of going, “Okay. Out of alignment, time to fix things out.” I’m much more attuned to when things are off. So just for a number of reasons, I keep describing this as, “I’ve got one more thing on my plate than I can actually handle.” And depending on what time of day it is the thing that it is changes.
But what it has meant is going, “Okay. I don’t like how I’m feeling. It’s not in this case a violation of deep values, but it is a violation of how I want to feel day-to-day, energy level, control, et cetera.” And so it’s been a lot of renegotiation. It’s basically saying, “Okay, I’m going to put this project off.” It’s saying to someone who was like, “Hey, let’s do this blog.” And I’m like, “Hey, sounds great. Can’t do it this quarter.” “Oh you sure I can’t talk you…” I’m like, “Really. Can’t do it this quarter, so no.” Just really being able to go, “Okay. Yeah. I know how I want to feel. What needs to happen for me to feel that way?” Classic therapy move. But I found that some of the things you learn in therapy apply to the rest of your life. Go figure.
Bryan Wish: Right, isn’t that the beauty of it? Well, it seems like the journey you’ve really gone down just getting super comfortable with yourself and owning who you are. And obviously it’s a process and you talked about getting all these experiences to really understand what to sift out, what to add to and what to work through, to a degree. So, yeah, I just appreciate you sharing your journey because it gives so much color and context to how you found your path professionally, which I think we’re at a good transition point to.
You came out with a book recently called The Red Thread about the work you do. But take us back to maybe down this winding, circuitous path you found a home within the space that you’re in today.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. Well, some of it was that pendulum swing I talked about. So I figured out early, as you can tell, that I liked being between two worlds. I really liked that. I really liked being able to have the insider outsider perspective simultaneously, because it always kind of made me feel like a super secret special agent. I was like a Bond girl all the time. Because it meant that like, “Oh, I can be part of this group and understand but bring the awareness and knowledge of another group.” And I chose even from an undergrad, so I said, I got a business degree in undergrad, marketing was what I majored in. And I did that intentionally because it felt like the most creative form of business. So it was the way I could still remain creative and be employed.
But marketing is really about big ideas. It’s about communicating the power of big ideas and commuting the power of an organization or an idea or whatever to an outside market. And the more that I did that work, the more that I realized also marketers are translators. They’re not just translating an organization out to the market, they’re translating the market back to the organization so, in a really strategic organization, the organization can respond to that. So it’s not just, “Hey, take this thing and push it out to the world.” It’s like, “Oh, the world is looking for X. How does that affect how we are doing what we do?” And so actually marketing communications and branding was a really good fit because it was creative for me, it allowed me to help people find their power, help get that exposed. It helped me sit between two worlds and be that translator that I like to be.
And as you can hear, I hopped around a bit. I wanted to get a lot of different context. I started in museums and then I was like, “Well, let me add performing arts, because if I want to be in the arts, let me do that.” And then I still felt like I wanted to be in nonprofits, but if I wanted to be in nonprofits, then I needed to know more about fundraising. So that’s where I ended up at Harvard Medical School because then I was doing fundraising communications and that got science in there. So that had added another world. And then I hopped the fence from being in organizations to being an agency. So I worked for a brand strategy agency and then I worked at an advertising agency and then I worked for sales messaging agency. Again, just to get the context.
But it was also the product of going, “There is a big part of marketing that I really just don’t like.” What I found by doing all that was I loved the initial message part, “What the idea? What’s the powerful part of the idea? How do we articulate that?” And then after that point, I’d get super bored with it. So it is a little bit why I hopped a bit. I think the longest, other than now running my job and other than my business and the 13 years I spent moonlighting as a Weight Watchers leader, that’s a whole other story, the longest I ever spent in a job was four and a half years. Which was kind of long, but everything else is two to three years because I’d be like, “Okay, yeah, got this one figured out. Time to go. Okay. I’ve learned what I’ve got to learn. Yeah, okay. Time to go.”
And I just discovered that I really don’t like keeping up on the marketing channels. I don’t like figuring out what needs to go where. I don’t like measurement. I don’t like any of that. I just really like the idea part. So every job, just finding the right partner was that. I moved to agencies because I was like, “I don’t like staying in organization that doesn’t… Organizations move too slow, so if I was in an agency, then I can work with a bunch of different people and do this piece over and over and over again.” And then the type of work, going from brand strategy to actual application at the advertising agency, to sales messaging, just like, “Okay, how does this work when you actually have to sell things?”
And the sales messaging thing was the last thing I did before I went out on my own. Because at that point I was like, “All of this comes down to figuring out the idea and nobody’s doing that work or very few people are doing that work. And that’s the work I love, so let me just do that. Let me build a business on this.” Because I think all the other problems that people are trying to solve in marketing and presentation, because I do a lot of work with TEDx as well, and giving presentations and pitches because I work with startups, all of it. Almost all of it, any problems that people have in their marketing actually can be traced back to some fundamental issue in the idea in the first place.
And so I was like, “Well, this just makes it easy. Let’s just go here.” And so that was really the process of just, much like finding a partner, I just found a partner professionally as well. Meaning, “What did I like? What didn’t I like?” And every time I moved or went someplace else with my career, it was in an attempt to change the ratio of the things that I liked to do and the things that I didn’t. And so then I got to a point where I could build my business around the things that I not only liked to do, but knew I could do because I had done them over and over and over again in other organizations.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. I feel like there’s a deeper insight here that’s really interesting and don’t want to project, but it’s like you you had to shed so much of yourself to find your true north.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah.
Bryan Wish: Yet the work you do, you’re having to… Again, my take is, you have to shed so much of someone else’s thoughts and ideas to get to the true north of that idea.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Bryan Wish: You’ve had to do it for yourself all these years. It’s like you can strip away the fat around someone else’s idea and passions and say, “Hey, here’s the big idea within.”
Tamsen Webster: Yeah.
Bryan Wish: I just find that really, really interesting. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it like that, but it’s interesting.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. Well, I have articulated it in the way that I say that I think fundamentally any entrepreneur, any innovator usually is just coming up and just solving their own problems. It’s like a physician heal thyself kind of thing. And so, yeah, I think that a big reason why I liked sitting between two worlds, even back to high school days, was because I felt unheard in a lot of ways. So I was like, “Well, this way I can just double the populations in which I might be heard.” And just what I could observe and what I learned from school and work and whatever, it’s just a lot of going unheard can be solved with understanding communications and persuasion and human nature and change and just cognitive behavior. Like, “How do we do decide and do the things that we do?”
And in order to solve all my own issues, of which there were plenty, I accrued a lot of this information and I was like, “Well, I’m not the only person who has felt this way. I’m not the only person who struggled with this. These are the muscles that I’ve built that are strong. Why wouldn’t I continue to put them to work?” One of the core values that has risen to the top for me over my life is to be useful, to be of use. I have never met a single person who is not made better by feeling validated and seen and appreciated and having someone in their corner saying, “You’ve got something of power. Let’s figure it out.” I know I always wanted that person. So if the way that I can be of use is to take what I’ve done and be that person for somebody else, damn skippy I’m going to do it. Because, I said, it’s not hard for me, not because I have some kind of special gift, it’s just I’ve just lived it over and over and over again. So I’ve built those muscles. They’re what I walk on, so they’re strong.
Bryan Wish: Totally. Story makes so much sense of how you’ve built into where you are today. And one thing I want to lean in on is something you said, and then want to dive into the work itself that you do and the book, you’ve talked about being unheard in high school and just communication being a way to make yourself be heard, and that connecting back to what you’re doing with people, helping them be heard around the singular message and idea. What about your high school experience? Where did you feel unheard?
Tamsen Webster: Well, it was high school. I mean, I’m not going to throw my family under the bus. I think everybody feels like, “Nobody listens to me.” But more specifically in high school, it was less being unheard, the unheard piece really kind of came into sharper focus when I started working. And I think that’s something that a lot of young people feel when you’re there. And like I said, I was often the youngest person in the room. I skipped first grade. So every grade after that, I was always younger than everybody by a year. And then I went to grad school right out of undergrad. Everybody else in business school is 28 and older and here I’m like, “Hey, I’m 21. Woo.” And so I think a lot of people experience that as well, when you are the youngest or one of the younger people in the room, a lot of times people dismiss you because they’re like, “Oh, what do you know?”
And the thing is, it doesn’t mean you don’t have great ideas. All of us have experienced that. We just haven’t had a chance to put them into practice yet. And so there’s this massive catch-22 of like, “Okay, you’re not listening to me because I haven’t had a chance to put my ideas into practice. Well, how am I going to put them into practice if you don’t listen to me about my ideas?” So a lot of particularly the work that I do now really root rooted in that, those experiences in early jobs where it’s just like, “I know I have a good answer for this and no, I haven’t had enough years on this earth to have put it into practice.” But I really wanted to figure out how do I get people to be open to an idea no matter where it comes from. And combine that with the experience that did come from high school, which was, I really struggled to articulate what I was thinking well, particularly when put on the spot.
And so I just remember like in English class, Bat Masterson, that was our nickname for her, but she loved it, she was our English teacher, she was strong, powerful woman. And she was terrifying. And she would ask a question and I just remember stumbling on… Again, I knew what I was trying to get across and I just couldn’t get it out. And that was wildly frustrating. So getting back to physician heal thyself, part of the reason why the work I’ve done with The Red Thread, which is the approach that’s in my book, was that, honestly, it gives me, if nothing else, it gives me a mental framework to always fall back to. So if someone asks me something I can say, “I can formulate an answer to this that’s going to be clear. And I can do it in a split second.”
And I don’t have to feel that feeling of A, not knowing how to articulate this thing that I feel passionately about and want to get across. And B, I know that because of the work that I put into that structure, that framework, that it’s much more likely to be heard and understood and to create an openness in other people to that idea, even if they don’t act on it, I’m always happy just to be heard. Again, who wants that? I think most people want that. And being heard is the first step to acting on it. So let me just win that little battle. And there’s a direct line from both of those feelings to the work that I do now with The Red Thread and why it is what it is and why I’m passionate about it.
Bryan Wish: Totally. Well, two things, it sounds like the script to society that you were following or trying to follow or fit into, it just never really worked for you the more you tried to fit into it.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, that’s fair.
Bryan Wish: And so in time you just said, “Hey, got to do it on my own way.” But then okay, finding your own voice and sense of this home for yourself to be who you are and communicate that, now you get to do it for others. What a fulfilling way to move through the world, because now you’re helping other people be heard.
Tamsen Webster: Oh my gosh, it’s the best. I love my work. I love my work. And again, that continuing focus, it gets sharper and sharper. The folks that I work with one on one are experts. That’s who I work with, not people who are trying to figure out their idea, but who know the idea and are struggling with how to articulate it. It’s not that I can’t help somebody who’s looking for their idea. It’s lovely. It’s just I really love the work where someone already has it. And the people who I most like to work with are people who those are big, world old changing ideas. So I do a lot of work with founders who are in clean energy and in mobility and in equity and access and sustainability, because these are ideas that are of use to the world. In a lot of ways, it’s very self-serving. I’d 100% agree with that. But it is enormously fulfilling because it’s just everything has an impact and that’s a great way to spend a day feeling like you’re like, “Hey, today I help people save the world. That’s kind of awesome.”
Bryan Wish: Totally. And I think it’s good at self-serving because it allows you to help show up in your fullest capacity for others. You got to love what you do for yourself. You should be selfish in that pursuit, right? Because you can help others be selfish in that pursuit themselves. So in terms of work with these global world-changers and people saving the world and humanity, if you can share whatever you’re willing and able to, what have been some of your favorite projects or favorite success stories or favorite maybe moments you felt most alive in your work [crosstalk 00:42:10]?
Tamsen Webster: Oh, so many.
Bryan Wish: Okay.
Tamsen Webster: It’s like asking me to pick a favorite child.
Bryan Wish: Okay. Well, it’s a loaded question. Just strip it away and pick the ones that come to you.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. Honestly, one of the first ones that came to me was I do a lot of work with a startup accelerator that’s based in Oahu and in the Bay Area, called Elemental, and they work with impact startups. And so a lot of the things that come to mind are those kinds of things. But funnily enough, one of them was this one company is about getting people to eat more breadfruit, which is a staple starch in the whole islands. I just love that. So it doesn’t always have to be this huge scale, right? It’s about getting people to understand that there’s ways to add variety to and be an adventurous eater, but also support sustainable farming and all of that. So that was a great thing.
A lot of the work that I do with TEDxCambridge speakers is really exciting to me. So there’s a researcher that we’re still doing postproduction on the videos, but he studies mitochondria and particularly the mitochondria’s role in the mind body connection, which he has discovered that they do play a very clear role. In fact, the mitochondria may be the key to the mind body connection that a lot of people sense is there, but Western medicine has typically poo-pooed because they’re like, “Oh, there’s no there’s no support for it. We don’t see any evidence of it.” And he’s like, “Yeah, actually here. Actually, we can see it.” Because what they pay attention to, what he’s studying is mitochondria, because they’re derived from bacteria, frankly, they’re almost like these independent agents in our body. They’re not just the powerhouse of the cell. They’re actually the communication path of the cell.
And what he’s discovered is that your mood on one day will affect the hormones that your mitochondria release into your body the next day. So in other words, if you’re feeling really good, then the next day your mitochondria operate at peak performance and they’re releasing all sorts of good stuff. But if you are not feeling great, then the next stay your mitochondria are like… And this it’s not a two-way street. It’s what you feel affects how your body performs, which then has this looping effect. And I just think that’s so fascinating to think about it that way.
Bryan Wish: Completely.
Tamsen Webster: And then another of the speakers is talking about how some folks keep looking for like, “When is the singularity going to happen? When are we going to mind and machine and computers all meld into one?” And his argument, very convincing by the way, is that it happened 100,000 years ago when we first started creating information. That as much as humans are human and we have this microbiome, he argues that we are as much a product of our information that we have created as anything else. So we have this longstanding symbiotic relationship with information where we’re on the precipice of losing the battle.
And those are just three that come to mind. And it’s just really fascinating just to see.. Each one of them just gives me personally a different way to think about myself, the world, different ways to solve problems. It’s endlessly fascinating. And the fact that my some of my clients are in wastewater treatment, which ends up being a lot more important than you’d think, but with all the pandemic, I have such a deeper appreciation now for… Actually, wastewater treatment plants are in the news all the time now as ways of detecting surges, when they’re happening and when they’re going away, because it shows up in the wastewater first. So anyway, I just love all that stuff because it just gives me new things to think about. And I love having new things to think about.
Bryan Wish: New perspectives and I think what’s so interesting about your work is where most people go to a job and they show up, then they go home and there’s that separation between home and life, you get to learn all these perspectives in a deep way from individuals and help shape them. And then, okay, you can show up and talk about them and it’s almost like it compounds into everything else that you do. You’re probably one of the most interesting people in the world so-
Tamsen Webster: Oh my gosh. I don’t think so. One thing I know to be true is that the more you learn, the more you can learn. Some of that’s based in Carol Dweck’s growth mindset stuff. But in my mind, to me, your brain, anybody’s brain, it’s like a beautiful quilt and everything that you learn gets attached to that quilt and then you’ve got another edge to add onto. And you don’t lose that stuff. That’s the coolest thing. The more that you get exposed to across different areas… That’s the thing I think that I love most about my work now, and it’s certainly part of what I was trying to get to when I moved from working in organizations to working from agencies was being able to see things in a bunch of different areas at the same time.
And when you start to see things in a bunch of different areas at the same time, you start to see just amazing connections between things that you just wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And you’re able to bring in… I might be talking to somebody about, “How do we build resilience in team members at a company?” And I’m like, “Well, actually let’s talk about mitochondria. It’s very similar.” And it’s just all of a sudden you’re able to see these amazing connections and you start to see how it does all connect in these really fascinating and powerful ways. And yeah, I haven’t thought about it that way, about how… Yeah, there’s no separation between my work and life and not just in business, but actually in the ideas.
Bryan Wish: Right. Yeah, it’s fascinating.
Tamsen Webster: It’s like I get to go to school every day. And for some people that would be torture and for me it is bliss. I love it.
Bryan Wish: Some people need that intellectual stimulation daily or they get bored in life. Maybe we’re two of this same people. And I also love what you said about the mind being a quilt and just you get to add on layers and patches and make your own form. And the more squares you have on that quilt, the more diverse, and you can show up chameleon in different environments. So, super cool. So I shed some light on your recent book that you published. What compelled you to write it? What’s been your experience publishing? Just take us down that journey as a published author. Congratulations.
Tamsen Webster: Well, thanks. Yeah, I wrote it because I wanted to be able to… Ooh, my dog just hit off my desk. You all right, bud?
There’s only one in me, and I knew after five years of using this process that I built with people one on one, I knew it worked, it’d been tested like every which way and all sorts of different applications with all sorts of different kinds of people, all sorts of different kinds of ideas. Again, be of us. I want to be of use to more people. And so by getting it into book form, it was able to get it to more people in a way that I alone could not do it. The journey to get there was long. Not because once I started writing the book that I ended up writing that that took a long time, that actually was actually quite straightforward. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to write like a giant Malcolm Gladwellian, Dan Pinkian treatise on this beautiful, big idea. Which is lovely, and I love both of them. But I think a lot of times when we think about publishing a book or particularly a business book or something along those lines, we’ve kind of been trained into that’s what a great business book looks like.
And then one of my dear friends and mentors, a woman named Anne Handley wrote a great book called Everybody Writes, I was talking to her about how I just was having such mental block against writing this book. And she told me, “Tamsen, write the book that’s easiest to write.” And I was like, “Oh, well, the easiest book to write for me is the how to.” Just like how to do this. Not the big whys and the wherefores and why this is so important. It’s just like, “Well, here’s what it is. Here’s what I do. Here’s how I do it. Here you go.” So once I decided that what I wanted to write was essentially like you had a Tamsen in your pocket to recreate and book form, as much as possible, what it was like to work with me one on one, well then became actually quite straightforward.
And so I set aside every weekday morning from 9:00 to 10:00 and just knocked out a chapter basically every two weeks and wrote it in the first summer of the pandemic and published with Page Two, which is a wonderful hybrid press out of Vancouver, mostly because I was fairly sure that traditional publishers wouldn’t be interested in it because it wasn’t a Gladwellian, Pinkian big idea in that form. And I said, “Well, as long as it does what I want it to do, which is give people a way to do this thing, I’m good with it.” And it’s done that. And I couldn’t be happier. And then it’s been fun because then traditional publishers, in this case audio publishers, have come after the fact like, “Could we do the audio book for it?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” So that’ll come out. I’m recording that later this month. So I think the audio book will probably come out about a year after the print version.
But yeah, once I took the expectations off of it, it became a lot easier. And I was very lucky to have a great partner in Page Two, because their definition of partnership is, “We work together on this as an equal exchange of expertise.” Which I love. Meaning they respect what their authors bring to the table and the expertise that their authors have, and they bring theirs and their job they really see it is not to dominate and say, “We know more than you.” It’s to say, “What are you trying to achieve and how do we get there together?” And I’m very thankful for that. I’m also thankful that there’s not a typo in the book, at least nothing that anyone has pointed out to me after… I’m like, “I’ve got about 10 more months for someone to find a typo.” So far, no. So I think I’m clear on that. So I was very happy about that.
Bryan Wish: Well, I appreciate you sharing your journey and how far you’ve come since writing it, finding good partners or [inaudible 00:53:40] Page Two, heard phenomenal things, and then also tribe in someone like Anne to assist you in your writing blocks. There was something she wrote in a newsletter the other day about how to share a good metaphor. And it’s just-
Tamsen Webster: Oh, yes. I’ve got that one flagged to share in my swipe file. That newsletter was so good.
Bryan Wish: Oh, yeah. It was great.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, metaphors and analogies.
Bryan Wish: It was great. But I feel like you’re quite like resourceful in that way. And it’s phenomenal just to hear. And also you said be useful, maybe for the people who can’t afford you or for the people who want to get to execution faster, you’re like, “Here’s a book that has [crosstalk 00:54:22].”
Tamsen Webster: [crosstalk 00:54:22] “Here’s a book. There you go.”
Bryan Wish: I hope it changes your life. And I just think it’s interesting to write a book out of the blue and say, “Here you go.” It’s like, no, it was built off a whole body of experience and expertise and another way for you to make an impact. So what an amazing journey for you. Last question, and then we’ll tell people were to find you and the book and all the places. When you kind of look down on the journey or vision of your life, I know it’s circuitous and will continue to be unpredictable, but let’s just say 10, 15, 20 years out, what are some of the things that you see for yourself or can think that adding to your quilt would make for an intentional and beautiful life?
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. Well, one of the things I want to make sure I hold onto is being able to work with big ideas. That’s really important to me. And I’d really love to be able to expand the group of people that think that same way and can do that same way. So I’m trying to build the framework for that now to train other people and the approach so that there’s more people out there thinking of this way and doing this way. I have a call to continue to learn and to continue to teach. So I wouldn’t be surprised if particularly on the closer to the 10 to 15, your end of if I found my way into academia. I think I’m an academic at heart. I really am. But once you get four degrees by the time you’re 23, you kind of tell yourself, “You need to slow down for a bit.” So yeah, I have toyed with the idea of getting a PhD. It’s something I’ve been looking into for a while now. I think realistically it’s still a ways off.
It’s not really a movement. I hope that this becomes part of the lexicon of how to get ideas out there and how to think about talking with other people. Seth Godin was kind enough to endorse my book, he’s got a quote on the back cover of it. And it’s funny because what he talks about is that it’s all about how to create change with empathy. And what I loved about what he said about that, I don’t mention empathy anywhere in the book, but it is 100% a foundational concept of it, and particularly the idea of cognitive empathy, understanding what other people are thinking so you can have a better understanding of what they’re feeling. And if there’s some even small shift I can make in the world, it’s just so that we can do that a little bit better. And it’s to help give people the skills to see through other people’s eyes so that we can reduce the differences that we think we see. Because I don’t think there as many as it appears on the outside.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. Well what a beautiful interview.
Tamsen Webster: Thank you.
Bryan Wish: Love Seth’s point. I’ll kind of finish to validate what he said, not that really needs validation. We were talking to an executive coach yesterday for our team and he said to me the way he works with leaders is a lot of them are like, “Yeah, in my head I’m like I’m going to go raise this. I’m going to go do this.” But I ask, “Well, how are you feeling?” And more of the empathetic side and really get in there. And I think you’re right, deciphering how someone’s feeling by what they’re thinking, what a profound statement. So the fact that your work elucidates that I think is super special. And yeah, excited to watch your journey unfold.
Tamsen Webster: Thanks, Bryan.
Bryan Wish: It seems like going to be a really interesting path. Where can people buy your book, find your website, do all the things to contact you?
Tamsen Webster: All things, they can find the things or find the paths to the things all at tamsenwebster.com. If they want to go straight to the book, they can just go to redthreadbook.com, but it’s available anywhere online that books are sold.
Bryan Wish: Awesome.
Tamsen Webster: Whether that’s Porchlight for independent bookstores or Barnes & Noble or Amazon or however you want to find it. But you can find all of those links at redthreadbook.com or at tamsenwebster.com.
Bryan Wish: Cool. Well thank you.
Tamsen Webster: My pleasure.
Bryan Wish: What a great interview and a great hour that we spent together.
Tamsen Webster: Well, thanks so much, Bryan. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.