The Happy Engineer Podcast

152: Biggest Lie Blocking Happiness is Everywhere with Eric Nehrlich | Chief of Staff @ Google

What do you do when your boss asks you to work overtime or work the weekend, and you don’t want to… but you feel like you have no choice? What is the biggest lie in engineering careers that is blocking your happiness?

In this episode, you’ll meet former Chief of Staff at Google, Eric Nehrlich. He used to be miserable.

An achiever who always exceeded expectations, he landed a dream job at Google. But a couple years later he was working 8am to midnight every day, including most weekends, drowning in emails and meetings.

Eric felt completely stuck, with no idea how his life was ever going to change. He burned out, and suffering burnout is no joke.

Today all that has turned around, his work is meaningful and inspiring, and he is happy. Eric spends quality time with his family, while still having time for his own pursuits.

What changed?

He realized he had a choice.

Now an Executive Coach to top technology leaders at companies like X (Twitter), Amazon, and of course Google, Eric authored the book, “You Have a Choice: Beyond Hard Work to Meaningful Impact”, to help you realize the same thing.

So press play and let’s chat… if you want to be happy and successful in your career, the choice is yours.

Join us in a live workshop for deeper training, career coaching 1:1, and an amazing community!  HAPPY HOUR Workshop Live with Zach!


The Happy Engineer Podcast

WATCH EPISODE 152: Achieving Success and Balance: Prioritization, Focus, and Saying No to Lesser Impactful Activities



LISTEN TO EPISODE 152: The Biggest Lie Blocking Happiness is Everywhere with Eric Nehrlich

Previous Episode 151: Forget Work-Life Balance If You Want to Be Happy | Master the Wheel of Life


The Top 3 Lies Blocking Happiness for Engineering Managers

In this episode of The Happy Engineer Podcast, Eric Nehrlich and I dive deep into the biggest lie blocking happiness. From experimenting with new choices to finding balance in work and life, we covered it all! Here are 3 key takeaways from our discussion.

1. Experimentation and challenging assumptions: We discussed the concept of running experiments to change behaviors and find new choices. By challenging assumptions and trying out different approaches, individuals can break free from constraints and discover new possibilities.

2. Prioritization and focus: Balancing work, family, physical health, and personal growth can be challenging. We highlighted the importance of prioritizing and saying no to lesser impactful activities to focus on what truly matters, leading to success and balance in different areas of life.

3. Taking ownership and responsibility: We emphasized the significance of self-reflection and honesty, encouraging listeners to take ownership and responsibility for contributing to their circumstances. By accepting consequences and believing in one’s power, individuals can trigger growth and transformation, even in tough environments.

To go deeper and build an action plan around these points and why all this matters, click the podcast link below and listen to the entire conversation!


Eric Nehrlich is an executive coach who draws on twenty years of experience in the tech industry to help leaders have more impact. He loves to identify and challenge mindsets and habits that hold his clients back from their next level of leadership. He published his first book this fall, You Have A Choice: Beyond Hard Work to Meaningful Impact, which he wrote to share what he’s learned in his career and his coaching with a wider audience.

Before becoming a coach, Eric spent ten years as an engineer and product manager across several startups before joining Google, eventually leading business strategy and operations for the Google Search Ads product team as Chief of Staff for six years.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: All right. Happy engineer. Welcome back. Glad you’re here. And with me today, Eric, dude, I’m pumped for this conversation, getting ready for this chat. I even said it before we hit record today. It’s like we’re cut from the same cloth, talking to the same people all day, every day. Couldn’t be more excited. Welcome to the podcast, man. Thanks for making time to be here. 

[00:00:20] Eric Nehrlich: Thanks Zach. I’m really excited to have this conversation and yeah, vibe with each other. Let’s see where this goes.

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:25] Zach White: Yeah. Let’s jam. See where, where it takes us. Eric, before we talk about your career and your work now, you played volleyball at MIT.

[00:00:33] Is that correct? Mm. Yeah. Okay. So, so back in episode 85 of this podcast, we had another MIT guy, Mark Hirschberg came on. We talked about ballroom dancing at MIT and, and it’s one of these weird things. MIT has an incredibly good ballroom dance team, which makes no sense. It’s like a small school and they’re awesome.

[00:00:52] And I did ballroom at Purdue and MIT would crush us like they were so good. And so I’m kind of curious. Is volleyball like dancing at MIT? Do you have an incredible volleyball team too? Or is it just like intramural? Not so 

[00:01:07] Eric Nehrlich: amazing. It it’s, I mean, there’s division three, but it’s definitely, yeah, we were not, uh, incredible at that.

[00:01:12] No, uh, MIT is really good at the obscure sports. Somebody once joked that MIT is good at the pirate sports. So fencing, pistol, uh, sailing. 

[00:01:22] Zach White: No way. The pirate sports. That’s super fun. Uh, I wouldn’t have put dancing in the pirate sports category, but fencing and what is pistol? How do you compete in pistol? I don’t 

[00:01:33] Eric Nehrlich: know.

[00:01:34] I wasn’t on the team. I just know that we had a pretty good team. But I think, I think the thing these all have in common is they’re kind of also nerd sports. They’re not physical contact. They don’t require huge physical, uh, you don’t have to be like dramatically different physically to succeed at them.

[00:01:47] It’s about precision. It’s about timing. It’s ballroom dancing. These are the things that appeal to nerds. So that’d be, that would be my guess as to where we do well. 

[00:01:56] Zach White: Well, I am proudly a dancing nerd, Eric. And so, um, So, were you like a jock on campus then, playing volleyball? Does that make you the tough guy?

[00:02:06] No, 

[00:02:06] Eric Nehrlich: I was definitely not a jock. I mean, I mean, I guess, but you know, relative to others, I guess I was, I’m six foot three, 200 pounds. Like I was not for MIT. It was a big guy. but, uh, yeah, actually I didn’t play volleyball before I got to MIT. I actually started off playing intramural volleyball my freshman year.

[00:02:22] And then just hung out in the gym all the time and played all the time. And then by the senior year, my senior year, I was on the varsity team. So that gives you an idea of how not great the team was that I could go from not playing at all to making the team by senior year. That’s pretty 

[00:02:36] Zach White: awesome. Well, thanks for sharing that.

[00:02:38] I find that really fun and fascinating how people’s journey fits together and lots of engineers and, you know, you study physics and engineering there at MIT. It’s like. We have this other side of our life that doesn’t get talked about as much. And for me, it was dancing at Purdue. I love that volleyball went from not even a part of your life to varsity team, which is the same for me.

[00:02:57] I had never danced a day in my life until I got to Purdue and then became, you know, one of the nation’s top collegiate dancers, which is pretty wild. So, all right, let’s get off of that area. It’s not why we’re here today. You got into software engineering back in 1998, a time when that industry was just absolutely blowing up, and also, Y2K and some wild things that happened around that time.

[00:03:21] But I actually want to fast forward in your career to about a decade later, and I’m sure we could cover 10 episodes worth from the things you learned in that time. But I’m going to fast forward through that because. You got selected for an opportunity at what was a dream company and some dream opportunities at Google.

[00:03:42] And I’d love it if you could begin your story for us, like right before Google, what made you excited to go there? What were you hoping to accomplish? Maybe what were you doing at that point in your life seeking to land a role in one of these FANG organizations? 

[00:03:59] Eric Nehrlich: So my second job was at a biotech startup, which had an amazing engineering team. One of the best tech teams I’ve ever worked with doing world class stuff. Nobody else could do. based on that work, the company raised like 40 this is, this is going straight to the top.

[00:04:17] We’ve got a great team. We’ve got funding. This is going to go like, everything’s going great. This is, you know, 2001, of course, everything was crashing. Uh, so a year later we were bankrupt and I’m like, I don’t understand what happened. Like the engineering team is doing great work. We had money, and now we’re bankrupt.

[00:04:35] I am missing something here. And it turns out what I was missing was any understanding of business. And we were missing a leader. We had a terrible, terrible CEO that made awful decisions. Wow. 

[00:04:47] Zach White: Okay. 

[00:04:48] Eric Nehrlich: that made me go, Huh. It doesn’t matter how good of an engineer I am, if the leadership is terrible. If the business is terrible, I want to understand this.

[00:05:00] So a couple, a few years later, I actually went to Columbia to get a master’s degree in technology management, which is like an MBA for techies. And the whole point was like, I want to understand this business thing. Like what is going on here? What am I missing? How does this work? And one of my professors said something that I took to heart, which was if you want to understand how executives think you have to understand the money.

[00:05:26] I’ve never thought about the money. I’m just like, does the tech work? Do I, am I delivering value by building a cool product that has value? That should be enough, but it’s not, you have to understand the money. So I was looking for a job, cause I was in Columbia and I wanted to move back to California where I’d been before.

[00:05:43] And of course, Google’s a great company, but I saw this position for a revenue forecasting analyst. And I was like, you know, I bet if I analyze and forecast the revenue, I’m going to understand the money. And I managed to talk my way into it because I had the physics background. So they’re like, okay, you got quantitative analysis.

[00:06:02] I had the software background. So like, you understand the tech industry. I didn’t have like the MBA they were looking for, but they’re like, eh, we can work around that. You’ve got enough with this Columbia program. that’s how I got into Google was as this revenue forecasting 

[00:06:13] Zach White: analyst.

[00:06:14] Really interesting. So tell me for you. What sparked the, desire to sort of move into this business understanding as your actual career path. So it’s, it’s one thing to go through. A startup that fails, which lots of the happy engineers out there have been in that seat that you were in. Like one day it’s, you know, we’re all eat, drink and be married.

[00:06:37] The next day we’re all looking for work. you know, not everybody responds to that with a hunger to understand the business. A lot of engineers still resist that. So is there something that you actually did? feel connected to, you enjoyed that, you wanted to one day start your own company or something that created that drive or tell me more, like, why did you get pulled that direction to actually want to do work in that space?

[00:07:01] Eric Nehrlich: as you mentioned, I was trained in physics. I’m a first principle thinker and it’s like, okay, if this is the thing that drives the company, I want to understand that. And I’m a systems thinker also, I want to understand how everything fits together and there’s this piece I didn’t understand.

[00:07:17] it bugs me when I don’t understand how things fit together. So I think that’s what was drawn to it. I didn’t expect to make it my career. I was not like, Oh, I’m going to become a finance person for the rest of my life. But I was like, let me. I just have to go do this. Yeah. I just have to know.

[00:07:31] people are like, Oh, how did you plan? Carly? My career is not planned. My career is like, that looks interesting. I want to go learn that. I’m going to go learn this. In this case, I wanted to go learn about revenue and business. And I thought that doing a stint in finance as a finance analyst would 

[00:07:45] Zach White: be a way to do that.

[00:07:46] So interesting. All right. So here you land the role. They take a risk on Eric, who doesn’t have the, Harvard MBA or some of these credentials, but unique background can bring some expertise to the position. What was it like? Was it everything you hoped it would be? Was it a terrible experience?

[00:08:03] Tell us a little bit about, day one. 

[00:08:06] Eric Nehrlich: Day one, was pretty amazing. the thing that I learned very quickly was that my professor at Columbia had been correct. Executives really care about the money. Yeah. second week at Google, I’m sitting in our weekly revenue meeting where we’re talking to the, it turns out the leaders of the ads business, people like Susan Wojcicki, who now ran YouTube for many years, this guy walked in late, he was wearing a backpack, casual clothes, jeans sits in the corner of the room and.

[00:08:36] I’m like, and he starts asking all these questions, like, who the, who is this guy? Like, what, why is he asking all these questions? And eventually somebody addressed him by name as Patrick. I’m like, Oh, that’s Patrick Pritchett, the CFO. Okay. You’re like, my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss is sitting right next to me.

[00:08:51] Literally. And I’m like, Oh yeah, this is the meeting where this stuff gets talked about. So that was kind of this amazing experience. Like, Oh yeah, real people. At the top of the company are paying attention to what we’re talking about, what I’m working on, and they’re making decisions based on this information.

[00:09:06] So that was like thrilling. It was really exciting to be at the center of the 

[00:09:10] Zach White: action. Okay. So, so the day one is like, this is cool. You know, here I am doing work that gets the highest level of visibility in the entire organization, at least at my level and you get into it. What was it easy? Was it natural to do the work or was it like a super heavy lift to figure out how to do what you were 

[00:09:30] Eric Nehrlich: doing?

[00:09:31] It was a super heavy lift, the team was in transition at that point. So the other fun thing that happened was we were a team of seven people and six months after I started our manager left, our senior analyst left and one of their team member left. So we went from seven down to four.

[00:09:46] And the other key bit here is that I started in September of 2008, which was just as we slid into Great Recession, just when Lehman Brothers happened, just when it turns out nobody had any clue what was going to happen with the economy, with business, with anything. And that meant the revenue forecasting team all of a sudden became the center of attention for the Google executive team.

[00:10:08] And so we had a lot of pressure on us and we were down half our team, which meant 2009 was a very difficult year. Exciting. I’m in meetings with Eric Schmidt and Larry and Sergei and talking about what’s happening with the business. And I don’t think I took a day off until maybe Thanksgiving. Wow. 

[00:10:29] Zach White: All right.

[00:10:29] So let’s get into that experience. Cause a big part of your journey and why you, you wrote your book and coach and do the things you do today is built around this season of your career. So. Exciting, really important work, but just level with us. What was really going on in terms of the hours and your energy and your lifestyle at that 

[00:10:55] Eric Nehrlich: time?

[00:10:55] I the hours were long. I was working, like I said, every day,Saturday, Sunday, sometimes I would take a Saturday afternoon off. I was working. I remember I worked every single holiday that year, like I said, until maybe Thanksgiving, but my energy was really high at that point because it was like.

[00:11:09] This is important work. It was exciting. I was on a mission people were listening to me like the decisions being made at the top levels of the company were depending on the work I was doing. So that was exciting. It was thrilling. uh, it was definitely hard. It was definitely tiring. And I guess, you know, by the end of that year, I was starting to wear down.

[00:11:28] I was like, okay, I don’t think I can keep up this pace. we didn’t have a manager for most of that year. So our manager left in March and they didn’t give us another manager. We were kind of reporting to the VP, but he’s got a bunch of other stuff going on. So we had Nobody looking out for us, do the work, just get the work done.

[00:11:45] And the thing we were really missing was any kind of protection I’m getting requests from the CFO and the head of sales. And which is the VP of product. And they’re, they’re telling me what to do. And I’m like, I can’t say no to any of these people. They’re like up here and I’m little me down here, but it was too much work.

[00:12:03] It was just too much. There was no protection. there was one other analyst and I, who were the most senior people on the team. So we were basically the interim managers collectively. And, we had this pact. Like if either of us left, the other one would collapse immediately.

[00:12:16] Cause like we were sharing the load. So like, we, like, you can’t leave without telling me. And in December that year, we’re like, it’s going to be time. It might be time we have to quit. But then just then they said, you’re getting a new manager in January. And we’re like, okay, let’s check out the new manager who turned out to be phenomenal.

[00:12:34] Best manager I’ve had in my 

[00:12:35] Zach White: life. 

[00:12:36] Eric Nehrlich: Awesome. And he turned things around. 

[00:12:38] Zach White: So did that kind of change the whole situation and you never looked back? Like those long hours were done. Everything was uphill from there. Or, tell me a little bit more about the shift. Cause yeah, I’m curious what was the journey like from that point?

[00:12:52] Eric Nehrlich: the main thing was the new director we had, had worked closely with the CFO already. He’d worked closely with all these senior leaders. So he had personal connections and had the confidence and the capital that he could just say like, no, we’re not doing that. And so he was like, yeah, I’m going to be your air cover.

[00:13:09] If you don’t need it, if you don’t think it’s a good idea, we’re just not going to do it. And he held to that, which meant from being overloaded, all of a sudden we had. Capacity to actually get what we needed done. And that was the thing he was great at. That’s what I learned from him was prioritization.

[00:13:24] I’ll share this story now cause it’s relevant. I once asked him about it cause like early on when we were working together, I was still working these. Ridiculous hours, 8am to midnight. And I could see he wasn’t, he was leaving at 6pm and still having impact. People listened to him.

[00:13:40] He was doing strategic work that people up to the CFO were listening to him on. I was like, how do you do it? How do you have that kind of impact without working all day and all night? And he said, well, Eric, I come into work and I work on the most important thing first. And if I don’t get to the next thing.

[00:14:01] That’s okay. It’s not as important. And it seems so easy and it’s so, so hard. And I’ll tell you why it was hard for me because I would come into work at 8am and I would spend two hours responding to emails, anybody that put something in my inbox, I would respond to. I’d go to meetings. Anybody that somebody put on my calendar, 10 AM to 5 PM, I’d be in meetings.

[00:14:24] Come back to my 5 PM. There’s a whole set of new emails. I’m responding to them. And at 6 PM, I would start on the one thing that only I could do. The one thing I had to get done that day. And that’s how I was working to midnight every night. Yeah. Yeah. And the thing he did was he just blew off the emails.

[00:14:41] He blew off the meetings. He let people be annoyed with them and he worked on the one important thing each day and recognized that meant that some people would not be pleased with them. They were not getting what they wanted from him and he was delivering on to his most important stakeholders, what really mattered, what was most important.

[00:15:01] That’s what he focused on. 

[00:15:02] Zach White: So I love the way you framed this up and it is the kind of thing, Eric, where it sounds so easy and I’ve coached a lot of engineering leaders who then go into their quote, real life and say, Zach, this isn’t. As easy as it sounds, I’ve got a lot of people asking for my attention and you even said yourself, Eric, you had this paradigm of how to work where I can’t say no to these people.

[00:15:30] This is a VP. This is a CTO. This is somebody who, you know, they can in one conversation end my career. You know, it’s like, okay, how do you make that kind of shift? From a mindset that I can’t say no to somebody above me in the org chart or cross functionally or whatever to blowing off potentially an email from a VP level leader or something like what is that journey to working and operating in a different way like?

[00:15:59] Because for most people it feels pretty daunting or impossible. 

[00:16:04] Eric Nehrlich: I did not achieve that shift immediately. Okay. Uh, it took two, two more years of struggling and actually eventually burning out completely. where I was lying in bed for a week, like couldn’t get out of bed for a week.

[00:16:19] Cause I was, my body was so exhausted after keeping that pace for three years. Oh man. when I finally hit that bottom, I’m like, wait. I need to say no. And in my case, it was the, immediate thing was I’d switched jobs. I was no longer working for this manager and work for a different manager who didn’t know how to prioritize.

[00:16:38] And they were saying. I was trying to get promoted at the time and they’re like, Well, you have to get everything done to get promoted. And they everything that came in, they would just pass on to me. And I’d be like, Okay, I guess I have to get all this done. And all this meant I’m working a hundred plus hours a week.

[00:16:53] And I kept it up and I kept it up and I kept it up. And then eventually I got to Christmas one year and my body just collapsed. It said, No, you can’t do that. and. This was the point where to give a little preview of the genesis of my book, which is called you have a choice because at that point, I didn’t believe I had a choice like, well, I have to go for that promotion.

[00:17:15] I have to do whatever my manager says, and these were rules were absolute in my head. There was no wavering. There was no questioning them. But lying in bed that week, I was like, wait, do I have to? What would happen if I didn’t? And for some reason, I was at rock bottom enough to say. Let me test that, let me run an experiment to use my science roots.

[00:17:41] And I went into work in January and I said, I don’t think I’m going to work that hard anymore. They’re like, what do you mean? I’m like, I’m not going to work that hard anymore. They’re like, well, the work needs to get done. If you can’t handle it, I’m going to find somebody that can. I’m like, okay. And they said, if you can’t handle the work, you’re not getting that promotion.

[00:17:59] I’m going to cut your performance rating. I’m like, I understand that’s what you have to do. And that’s what happened. They took away half my team. They slashed my performance rating. I did not get that promotion at that time. And weirdly, after a couple of years, a couple of weeks, let’s say, maybe two or three weeks of like being angry and shaking my fist at the world.

[00:18:20] I was like, yeah, actually, this is kind of better. I’m working 40 or 50 hours a week. I can actually see my friends again. I can see my family again. I can. Hobbies again. I could do stuff outside of work. I went snowboarding that spring. I was like, huh, what you did? What I know. It’s like, I took a weekend off and went snowboarding.

[00:18:40] It was like, Oh, this is a very different. 

[00:18:44] Zach White: What a statement. I took a weekend off as if like, that’s a, you know, your whole career, that’s not even the normal thing. 

[00:18:52] Eric Nehrlich: wow. Wow. Yeah. Well, I mean that previous year I literally had maybe would occasionally take like a Saturday afternoon off. Like it was just, I was working every weekend and so yeah, it was, it was bad.

[00:19:04] because I thought I had to, I thought I didn’t have 

[00:19:06] Zach White: a choice, you know, just to extrapolate a point that I see a lot. Around your story, engineering leaders, oftentimes. Complain about having a bad boss, and I get it. It’s no fun to have a bad boss. Somebody who just buries you in work and puts these unrealistic expectations on you and tells you a hundred things are all number one priority and blah, blah, you know, fill in the blank.

[00:19:31] But at the same time Sometimes working for a great boss, like you had this new manager come in and kind of save the day, provide that protection, show you and role model for you what great prioritization looked like, you know, that created a shift in your experience that made work manageable again. The thing that I think people forget is while it’s a huge blessing to have that amazing boss, it also then.

[00:19:56] prevents us from always seeing where we need to level up in our own mindset, our own beliefs, our own systems, our own strategies, the way that we work and having the courage to make those no decisions for ourselves because we have this great boss above you who’s doing all the heavy lifting on your behalf.

[00:20:13] And then you get into this new environment and suddenly you’re buried again, right back to a hundred hour weeks and. You know, your body is what finally had to signal Eric’s enough’s enough. And so many people, that’s what actually triggers their growth and transformation is a, a rock bottom burnout experience.

[00:20:29] And that’s so tragic. And so I was just saying that, you know, for the happy engineer who might be working for a bad boss and upset about it, it’s like, how can you take the learning? Now, before you get to rock bottom and celebrate this opportunity while you’re in a adverse situation, I’m wondering what would you say to that person if they have this tough, tough boss or toxic environment, like how do you turn that into the lesson before you hit the bottom?

[00:20:56] Eric Nehrlich: part of it is to accept the consequences. And I think that was what shifted for me when I burned out was like, I have to do what my manager says, unless I’m willing to accept the consequences. And I want to note that I’m coming from a place of incredible privilege.

[00:21:09] I was working in Silicon Valley. I’ve been working at Google three years at that point. I could go find another job. Like, this was not, like, I didn’t have one lined up, but like, I had confidence that if I went out there and looked, I was going to be able to find a job. And that’s a place of incredible privilege to come from.

[00:21:23] Like that was my backup. But pretty much all the people that I talked to, and I’m sure the people that you talked to, they have a pretty similar experience. I mean, not right now with the tech layoffs, but like most of the time, engineers are in high demand and they can find another job, but they don’t believe in that power in themselves.

[00:21:39] They don’t understand they have these choices, that they have these alternatives that they don’t have to show up to work and do everything their manager says. So I guess what I would say to this, you know, the person with a bad boss is like, Believe in your power a bit. they need you and you may not realize it, but they are depending on you.

[00:21:58] To make themselves look good, to make, deliver on the work for their team. I mean, after my burnout experience, I left that job a few months later, of course. And I look back a year later and like, they’d hired three people to do the work that I was doing by myself. I’m like, okay. Like I was not being unreasonable and saying that was too much work.

[00:22:17] Yeah. 

[00:22:17] Zach White: Wow. So Eric, where did you fall in love then with the idea of taking all of this and becoming. An incredible coach and writing the book, like where did that spark begin to take your tech experience and shift gears into what you do now? 

[00:22:37] Eric Nehrlich: after that burnout experience, I managed to land in a very happy spot for me, which was being a chief of staff to one of the VPs at Google.

[00:22:44] So I was leading business strategy and operations for the search ads business at Google. Oh, cool. which is a great, was a great role for me. And in particular, because I was reporting to a VP that I respected, that knew how to prioritize, that cared about his people talk about a great boss, he was a great boss, great leader.

[00:23:03] And really respected him. And so I ended up being his chief of staff for almost over six years, actually, because I’ve had enough experiences at that point. I’m like, this is a good one. I’m not letting him get away. I’m just going to stay here and ride his coattails. But. Towards the end of that, I was like, what’s next for me?

[00:23:19] am I going to just be as chief of staff for the rest of my life? And I didn’t think the answer was yes. And I started asking myself, what do I want my life to be? it really started actually with, I was complaining that, it was performance review time and I was getting, got my rating as the chief of staff.

[00:23:34] And I’m like, they’re measuring me on the wrong things. I was complaining to a friend. These are all the wrong things. And they’re like, okay, what are the right things?

[00:23:42] I don’t know. Got to go think about that one. And that was kind of the beginning of me pivoting into coaching was thinking about like, what did I want? My impact to be, what did I want from my life? Not just what gets me the next rung on the ladder, but if I’m going to set my own direction, what would that be?

[00:24:03] I’d had the privilege of sitting at the table with some of Google’s top leaders for almost 10 years at that point. And I’ve had this experience early in my career where a terrible leader had take the company. And I’m like, I want to take what I’ve learned. And share it with more people because leadership matters.

[00:24:20] Leadership is a multiplier. Leadership affects the whole team, not just that one person. And if I can help leaders become better, that is something I’m excited about. That’s something meaningful to me. And that’s what I do now. I’m an executive coach. I’ve worked with leaders to be more effective, to have more impact.

[00:24:38] And as you mentioned, I’ve written the book now to share those lessons I’ve learned in my own personal development. And I work with my clients with a wider audience. 

[00:24:47] Zach White: So, you have a choice. Beyond Hard Work to Meaningful Impact, title of your book. I’d love to hear, you mentioned earlier as a physics guy, that you’re a first principles thinker, which I love.

[00:25:03] the point we’re recording this, it’s December of 2023 and just recently, one of my heroes of first principles thinking, Charlie Munger, passed away recently. And for those who don’t know Charlie, I really encourage you to go check out all of his work. But Warren Buffett’s business partner, they’re at Berkshire Hathaway.

[00:25:22] And in my opinion, one of the best You know, thinkers in terms of mental models and first principles and connecting dots that has influenced, you know, the modern world, especially in the world of investing more than anything, but just a brilliant, brilliant man, I would say in many ways, smarter than Warren, but just less of the face and maybe the risk taker of, of the business.

[00:25:45] So what are the first principles that you discovered? In your decades of experience and now as a coach and executive coach and helping these leaders to become those first force multipliers and kind of what shows up in your book, if we were going to pick a couple of them, I know there’s lots, what are the most important first principles for us to wrap our head around as an engineering leader?

[00:26:09] Eric Nehrlich: first of all, yeah, rest in peace, Charlie Munger. I was turning around because poor Charlie’s almanac is somewhere on this bookshelf behind me. I couldn’t find it at a quick glance, but it’s somewhere. 

[00:26:17] Zach White: Great, great book. I’ve got my copies out on the coffee table right now in 

[00:26:22] Eric Nehrlich: memory of, yeah.

[00:26:22] but first principles, I think it goes back to what I shared with that, one good manager I had of, getting clarity. about what’s most important. Because until you get clarity for yourself, like what matters most to me? What are my values? What are the principles I want to live my life by? Who do I want to serve?

[00:26:41] Who are the stakeholders that matter most to me? Without that, you’re going to be spinning in all directions. Because a lot of people are going to ask you for stuff. And especially high achieving people of all sorts, engineers or anybody, the reward for more doing work well is more work. They’re like, oh, you’ve got this?

[00:26:59] Oh, here’s some other thing you could do. Oh, I love you. I’m do this to keep going, get more. And it’s a great experience. I mean, this was kind of one of my downfalls at Google is I loved that experience of like, you’re doing great work. Here’s more of it. Yep. And that was great until I, that was. Buried under the word.

[00:27:16] Cause I didn’t know how to say no. my metric was like, keep everybody happy. It’s it’s great. It’s not good. Kind of a rough 

[00:27:24] Zach White: one. You’re giving me the chills there. Cause I, I had this exact same experience, you know. Just keep working harder, keep getting smarter. I love the attaboys and the accolades and the recognition and that next promotion and that bigger project and the bigger, oh yeah, lived it.

[00:27:40] So clarity, first principle one, clarity, get after it. What blocks people from clarity? Why do you think it’s so hard for folks to get to a place of extreme crystal clear understanding of themselves and what they want? 

[00:27:56] Eric Nehrlich: It’s just a lot of demands in our life. We have a lot of different aspects of ourself that.

[00:28:01] So like in the book, I have this one section where it’s like talking about what’s the right thing to do. And I’m like, okay, the right thing to do as a coach is You know, invest more in my business, spend more time developing my coaching thing. And then the right thing to do as a dad, it’s like, spend more time with my kids.

[00:28:17] The right thing to do as a writer is spend more time writing and less time with my coaching and my kids. The right thing to do for my physical self is to spend more time exercising. in each individual area, it’s very clear, Oh, I should do this and I should do this. And it all sounds attainable because by itself it is, but the limit is.

[00:28:34] You can’t do more of everything. And that’s where the clarity needs to really kick in is recognizing you can’t do it all. There are going to be trade offs. So if you’re not careful, you’ll be like me and putting all of your time into work and leaving nothing for your physical health, your mental health, your friends, your family, I don’t recommend that, but until you are clear for yourself, like these are important buckets of my life that I want to invest in, it’s going to be hard to hold those boundaries.

[00:29:04] So that’s where the clarity comes first. Yeah. Have an idea of what the life is going to look like. 

[00:29:11] Zach White: Before you go to the second principle. I want to hear your perspective on this, and maybe I’ll push, I’m going to challenge a little bit of what you said, and I get it, as an engineer myself, we live in the world of trade offs, and everything has the trade off, there’s two sides to every coin, all this is true, but there’s some people out there who seem to have a lot, they may not have it all, But man, they’re further along than some of us.

[00:29:34] Like they’re in great health. They have six pack abs. They’re, you know, they’re healthy and strong. They have a, what looks like at least from the way they describe it. And what I know of them, you know, great family relationships and time with that family. Their finances are great. They do work. They love, it’s like, wow.

[00:29:50] Some people seem like they got pretty close to Eric. So what is that? That actually opens the door to somebody getting that far along in terms of progress in so many areas. Cause what I’ve seen is this sort of trade off mindset that engineers have. We almost take it to the extreme of that belief to say, well, can’t have it all.

[00:30:09] So I guess I’ll just be average at everything. And that doesn’t settle well for me. And I know a lot of my clients don’t want that either. So what’s your thought? Like you can’t have it all, but how do you get a lot? What is that journey like? Or what’s your belief about that? 

[00:30:25] Eric Nehrlich: Well, it’s funny you ask that because that leads to principle number two, which is focus.

[00:30:28] Okay. 

[00:30:29] Zach White: All right. Well, perfect. I didn’t know. I was a perfect little tee up. That wasn’t my intention. But all right. So, so yeah, you get there through principle to focus. Tell us about it. Well, 

[00:30:39] Eric Nehrlich: focus. is recognizing that you can’t do it all. So Steve Jobs has this great quote about focus, which is something like, people think focus means saying yes to the thing that’s important, but that’s not what it means at all.

[00:30:51] It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that are out there. And that’s what it means. This is being really ruthless about where your time goes. It’s saying like, yeah, that’s a good idea. I don’t have time for that because I’m going to focus on the thing that’s great or the thing that’s going to have the most impact in the time I have.

[00:31:09] So like my VP at Google was one of those people you’re describing. He has, VP at Google. He eventually grew to be the general manager of all ads at Google. He has two kids, went home at 6 PM for dinner every day. And he ran ultra marathons on the weekends. Like he would run a hundred mile runs. Of course he did.

[00:31:23] Of course he did. Like, wait, how, like, I didn’t realize this when I first met him. Like we went to an offsite. We had an offsite and he knew I was like into biking. It’s like, Oh, we should go for a mountain bike ride before the offsite. You want to meet up for a ride? I’m like, sure. It’s like in the first few months I’m working with him.

[00:31:39] I show up and we’re in Lake Tahoe in the mountains. I show up on my mountain bike. He shows up on a single speed mountain bike. I’m like, Oh, this is not good for me. He rode up the mountain in one speed, the one, one speed bike. I’m like, Wow. And he just like left me in the dust. And he was like, Oh yeah, I used to be in like the, I used to go to the single speed world championships.

[00:32:00] I’m like, of course he did. the reason he was so good at it, it’s like he was just super focused with his time. he didn’t have time for training all the time, but it was three miles from where he lived to work. So he would run that with a backpack each day. And that’s how he would get some of his miles in during the week.

[00:32:15] And then he’d block off a longer run on the weekend and he was just like, that’s what he would do. And within his working time, he’s like, okay, I got to want to be home at 6 PM to have dinner with my family. That means I can’t do everything on my plate. I’m going to do the, 30 percent that has the 80 percent value and the rest is just going to have to wait. 

[00:32:33] I’m not going to try to do it all. I’m going to do the stuff that has the most impact with my work, with my family, with my training. And if you really focus on that 20 percent that has the 80 percent of impact, you can have a lot, make a lot more progress than you might think is possible.

[00:32:49] If your mental model is working harder is what gets results. No, working in a focused way is what gets results. 

[00:32:56] Zach White: Yeah. That’s my favorite part about the title of your book, by the way, beyond hard work. A work ethic. Is one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of our vocation, you know, work ethic and working hard and, a lot of it from sports, even you get this, you know, nobody’s going to outwork me on the field.

[00:33:15] Like we’re going to be the hardest working team and coaches. Mean well, when they’re seeking to inspire high school kids with these speeches, but then you take that belief system into your career and you copy paste that code and that code snippet is not, it’s not complete, right? It’s like, no, no, no, no.

[00:33:33] It’s not about a hundred hours a week at work. That’s not actually what gets you to VP faster. And so saying no to a hundred other things. Focus is first principle two. If there was one more with the time we have, Eric, where would you take us? What’s, what’s another really key ingredient for success in a balanced life?

[00:33:52] Eric Nehrlich: I guess the third principle is it doesn’t have to be this way. And what I mean by that is when you feel stuck, well, nothing can change. I’m in this job. I’m with this man, this bad manager in this job.

[00:34:05] I have to keep the job because I have this mortgage and I got kids to support. way out of this situation. And there is one version of. viewing that, that this, like, that’s true. There is some truth to that. there’s no easy answer here, let’s say, but back to your point about trade offs, what happens if we experiment with some of these constraints, what happens?

[00:34:27] Can you look for a new manager within the company? Can you look for a new job? Can you find a way to take the job that you have and be a little more assertive with it? what if I pushed back on some of the stuff that isn’t as important? What I like to, again, physics background, I call these experiments.

[00:34:41] Like, let’s experiment with what you can change. You can’t change the whole picture, but you can change your behavior. What are you going to do? What’s your reaction? Play with that and try one thing differently. And you might find The whole situation starts to change when you take different actions. 

[00:35:02] Zach White: The thing I love about that, obviously being an engineer and the scientific method, if it’s good enough for science, it’s good enough for my life, right?

[00:35:11] And framing up our goals in the context of running experiments really resonates for me and for the engineers I work with. And just to ask yourself, well, What are the assumptions that I’m living under today that may not be true? And what kind of a test could I run to just see what happens? And to get a little bit more playful about life and say, you know what?

[00:35:34] It’s okay to run some tests. And I literally just got off a session today with an amazing engineering leader who’s feeling completely trapped by all the things he has to do. And we just say, well, hold on a second. Like, where did you come up with that idea that you have to do this and you have to do this and you have to do this?

[00:35:50] What if it doesn’t have to be this way? It’s literally the conversation we had today, and here it is showing up as principle three. Dare I say, you have a choice. Is 

[00:36:00] Eric Nehrlich: that Yeah, but you don’t realize you have a choice until you start with this principle. Because if you’re stuck in this is just the way it is, then you don’t have a choice.

[00:36:11] You’re stuck. So part of the book is to try to convince people, try to make the case. That it doesn’t have to be this way, and you have more choices than you think you have. you know, I’ll take a really, maybe hopefully tangible example for your audience. So I was working with an engineering director.

[00:36:30] A little while ago that felt trapped. He wanted to take on more responsibility. He wanted to get to the VP level. He wanted to do these more cross functional company projects, but he was stuck in meetings all day. He’s like, well, I have to be in all these meetings. I’m like, what do you do in those meetings?

[00:36:43] He’s like, I’m the one with the insight. I have to tell them what’s going to happen. Like nobody else knows what I know. Okay. Can we test that? He’s like, what do you mean test that? I’m like, I want you to run an experiment in a couple of these meetings. I want you to shut up, say nothing until the end and see what happens.

[00:37:01] And he’s like, Oh, I don’t like that. I’m like, it’s two meetings. Like you can try the experiment. Let’s let’s, let’s try it out. It’s small, it’s safe. And so he tried it. First reaction, his team freaked out. They didn’t know what to do. They’re like looking at him like, what is wrong? Why isn’t he saying anything?

[00:37:17] Like, this is weird. So then he had to like insert a disclaimer. Like my coach is making me try something different. I’m going to sit back and observe, pretend I’m not here. And then sat back and watched. And they got to the conclusion he would have gotten to without him. And he was like, Oh. I guess they can figure it out without me.

[00:37:36] Like, uh huh. That means I’m not, needed in all these meetings. Uh huh. And then he was able to let go of like half the meetings on his schedule and start taking on those bigger cross functional projects he wanted to work on. So, but he had to figure, like, I had to give him this experiment to realize.

[00:37:51] It didn’t have to be this way. He didn’t have to be the one that new everything. 

[00:37:56] Zach White: So simple and important. An example. And I love that even at the highest level of the organization, this is true. I’ll tell you, it’s true at all levels, Eric, I, same type of story. I’ve got a client who wants to.

[00:38:09] Do our coaching program and there’s, you know, sessions for coaching through the week and they’re during work hours. Cause you know, I, I want to have a life too. And so we, we meet during work hours and he said, Oh, I can’t do that. You know, I’ve got meetings during those time slots, so I can’t invest in my growth because I’ve got a meeting during the time when the coaching calls happen and I just said, Oh, interesting.

[00:38:30] Well, did you already ask about if you actually need to be in the meetings? Well, no, I have to be there. Yeah. Oh, really? Yeah. And it’s the exact same dialogue. So we’ll have you even. Run any tests you haven’t asked your boss. If you could skip every other week. You haven’t asked you I bet you you don’t have to be there 100 percent of the time.

[00:38:48] There’s a solution 100 percent of the time but yeah Yeah, 

[00:38:54] Eric Nehrlich: go go yeah, what one more story I just can’t resist here So I was working with the CTO of a startup and he’s like you’re telling me like there’s this really important strategic thing I need to work on it’s an analysis but it’s gonna take a few hours of focus time and I just haven’t had time I’m like How long have you been putting this off?

[00:39:08] He’s like three or four months. I’m like, what are you doing? Like, that’s, you are the, one of the leaders of this company. You’re telling me this affects the future of the company and you’re not doing it. no. this is not acceptable. You’re sick this Friday. He’s like, what? You’re getting sick this Friday.

[00:39:22] It’s like, what do you mean? It’s like, if you were sick at home, your team would figure out how to do deal with the life and they’d be fine without it. That’s right. You’re going to be sick and you’re going to get this done. He’s like, I can’t. Wait, I, I guess that there, I, I just like flubbexed him. He was like, his immediate reaction was like, can’t do that.

[00:39:38] And it was like, then he looked at it. He’s like, why is it, why can’t I do this? Like, what is stopping me from doing this? And as soon as I flipped that switch, he was like, oh, I just will block that time off and I could just get it done this Friday, like, 

[00:39:50] Zach White: man, I love being a coach. That that’s one of my favorite, little tricks that the old, what if you got sick?

[00:39:55] And it’s true, right? We’ve all been there or another one. it’s maybe more sad to think about, but like, if there’s a death in the family and you, you want to take time off to go to a funeral and the business keeps on going, it’s like, well, if these things can happen, then you can also say no to that meeting for a reason that involves a high priority for your future and for the company or for these other things, it will work 

[00:40:17] Eric Nehrlich: out.

[00:40:18] Uh, yeah. Yeah. Sorry. Last point here. It’s like, this is where like having the different parts of yourself matter. Like in your work self, you can’t make that choice. But if your family self pops in, like my kids need me or my mom needs me, you’re like, of course I would prioritize work. And it’s like, okay, clarity, what’s going to be important here?

[00:40:36] That’s 

[00:40:36] Zach White: right. Well, and the sad part is so often because we won’t make that choice from a place of power and agency for ourselves. Our body will make it for us, you know, and just as you experienced, it’s like you just can’t keep going the way you’ve been going. So man, what a powerful chat. Eric, if someone wants to take these principles, dig in and start taking it to the next level, get a copy of your book and get to know you and your work, what’s the best way, the best place for people to reach out, connect and, do all those things around your world.

[00:41:05] Eric Nehrlich: LinkedIn is a great place to connect and follow me. I post a couple of times a week with insights I’ve been learning for myself and with my clients. and to learn more about me, you can go to too many trees. com. That’s my site. There’s a link there for the book where it links to all the places you can buy it.

[00:41:19] yeah, those are the two main places, LinkedIn and too many 

[00:41:21] Zach White: trees. LinkedIn and the website. We’ll have those in the show notes, of course. So happy engineer. I definitely encourage you to go connect with Eric. If any of this conversation resonates, and especially if you are an executive and you need this support, uh, Eric could be a great coach for you.

[00:41:38] So go check that out. Eric, you know, this well as a coach. The questions we ask really matter questions, lead answers, follow. And we’re all here looking for better answers in our careers and in our lives. So what would be the question that you would lead the happy engineer with coming out of our chat today?

[00:41:58] Eric Nehrlich: I’ve shared a few of them already, but I guess I’m going to steal one, uh, from Jerry Colonna, who’s a executive coach. And he always asks, how are you complicit in the circumstances you say you don’t want? And he uses complicit. It’s not like you caused it, but there’s something, some way in which you are contributing to the situation.

[00:42:19] And until you take ownership and responsibility for how you’re contributing to the situation, even if it’s just in your own expectations, your own mindset. Nothing will change. So examine your own actions and how are you complicit? That would be the question I would ask. 

[00:42:35] Zach White: takes some guts to sit and be honest with yourself about how you are complicit in creating the situation that you’re in today.

[00:42:43] Eric, thank you so much for your time, your wisdom, sharing everything you’ve learned in your own journey. just amazing to connect with you and tons of value today. Thanks again. I wish you a tremendous success in your coaching and your writing going forward. And it’s been a pleasure, man. 

[00:42:57] until next time. Cheers brother.