025: Lessons from Inside the Grand Canyon: Amy Wood, Psychologist

Of the 4.5 million people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, only 1% take the 9-mile journey to the Colorado River below.  Most visitors come to the edge, take a picture, and leave. Are you taking pictures or enjoying the journey in life? Amy Wood, Psychologist, Coach, and Speaker, talks about an unplanned journey that many of us would not have chosen under similar circumstances.

Picture a current so fast and unpredictable once you go through if you make a mistake, you can’t go back to repeat it; you are only able to go forward and try to do better with the knowledge from that experience. A lot like life.

Amy’s observations and insights are extremely relative in our fast-paced world. Take a few minutes and join the conversation from her experiences on the river. Perhaps you will find an idea to make your day and life better.

Click HERE to learn more about Amy Wood and her book, Life Your Way.

Edited Transcript:

ERH:  I am here today with Amy Wood. She is a psychologist, a certified coach, speaker, collaborative law facilitator, and former Dow Jones manager. She has spent over 20 years leading others to greater fulfillment and achievement. She has helped countless adults all over the country become happier and more productive. How did you get interested in your work, Amy?

Amy Wood:  Well, I have always been interested in psychology, and there’s actually a very simple answer to this. I went to college wanting to do something very, very practical so I could graduate and get a job right away. I thought of psychology and people kept telling me you’re going to be in school forever if you go into psychology.

So I got a degree in communications and graduated in four years. I moved to Chicago from New Orleans where I was in college and got into marketing and advertising and PR. I worked for a few different magazines. It was a lot of fun, but I wanted to do something more meaningful, and so I decided to go back to school and get my doctorate. That’s how I ended up moving to Maine and starting a practice.

ERH: That’s a great story and I like the fact that our paths are on these incredible journeys, right?  And I know you have recently completed another journey, talk about that.

Amy Wood:  Sure. So, I think the biggest source of stress for adults today is the constant overwhelm. Too many choices, too many disruptions, distractions, moving way too fast, and with way too much information. It’s just completely inundating at all times. There’s this new movement that’s been going around, and you said you got the book [Essentialism], which I love that book. There’s a lot of books on essentialism now, but the idea is different from minimalism.

Essentialism is not just about paring things down. It’s about paring things down in a way that makes sense to you spiritually and psychologically. So what I mean by that is paring your life down to what you absolutely love. What brings you complete joy and/or what you absolutely need and want in order to do whatever you have to do in your job or to get through the day, and nothing more.

I believe that living that way takes away a lot of the stress because there is less decision making that has to be done. There’s a lot less clutter. There’s not too much information. You have just what you need and love around you, and that has led me to a whole new theory. We have this idea of life/work balance, which gets us into trouble because it causes more stress. We talk about it as if it’s a scale. You’ve got life on the one side, work on the other and they’re separate. It’s not even possible anymore because everything’s so integrated.

ERH:  Exactly

Amy Wood:  I decided from essentialism to create this new meaning of balance; interior and exterior balance. Most of us today are so focused on the exterior, trying to keep up with everything, all those disruptions the constant choices we have to make, and all the information, that we’re depleted internally. We don’t have an inner life. So the goal in my mind of essentialism is to have around you what you love and need to have a vibrant life that feeds your interior world so that you can be more creative. You can solve problems better. You can have more clear thinking. You’re not as stressed, so you’re no longer depleted like so many American adults are because of that external focus that never ends.

ERH:  That is a beautiful picture. How, would be my next question?

Amy Wood:  Yes. So how do you do that? I think it’s a daily intention. It begins with, I would say doing a clean sweep of your life. Asking yourself … literally by going through every environment you function in. Throughout your house, for example, going into your kitchen, your bedroom, the living room, going into your workspace. Wherever you spend a lot of time, going into your car. Look around in all these environments and ask these pivotal questions: What in this environment is just taking up space, not bringing you joy and/or not serving some kind of purpose that’s important to your life?

If it doesn’t meet the criteria of bringing joy and/or meeting a very important purpose, you get rid of it, no questions asked. So that can be tough. I recommend when you do that, you do it with a really, really good friend who’s not going to lie to you, and not going let you get away with anything.

Because for example, let’s say you’re going through your closets… it’s so easy to get emotionally involved with things that you don’t even want. You’ll look at something and say, “Well, I haven’t really worn that. I should really wear it because I paid so much for it.” Or, “I’ve gained weight since I bought that and maybe I’ll lose the weight, so I might wear it in another year.” My rule of thumb when it comes to going through things in your closet is if you haven’t worn it since the same time last year, no excuses, it goes.

ERH:  That’s exactly what I do.

Amy Wood:  That’s great.

ERH:  Yes. Yes, it helps.

Amy Wood:  Yeah, definitely. So when you weed out things in your life on a regular basis like this, you just feel much freer. You just have more space in your surroundings, more space inside, and you just feel better and you have better, and you have better ideas. You’re more productive.

ERH: I can really see that transferring to many things. Once you get used to that in these spaces you have created for yourself, how you could you begin to look at the other things in your life that could also be approached in that same manner. Like friends, right?

Amy Wood:  Exactly.

ERH:  Or, the places where we’re spending time again and again, back to your words about is that thing that I’m doing really serving what I need now?

Amy Wood:  Yeah. I like what you just added about including in this idea of essentialism and internal/external balance. Not just looking at things but looking at the people in your life. Looking at the activities you’re involved with, the volunteer work you do, for example. Looking at the ideas that you believe in, the values that you hold. It’s important to look at all of that and ask, “Am I still as devoted to this particular person, or this idea, or this activity that I was so into a year ago?” We change quickly now because ideas are coming at us all the time and we get new goals from that.

ERH:  Right. We’re constantly learning.

Amy Wood:  Maybe we made a goal last year to join some kind of an organization and suddenly this year we have an idea to do something else and we’re not feeling so into that organization. I read somewhere that a great way to evaluate whether you should quit something, some kind of obligation, is to ask yourself, “If I were just thinking about joining this today, would I fight really hard to get into this, or would I just not care?”

ERH:  Oh, that’s a great question.

Amy Wood: Right. We get into these habits sometimes without even realizing it. Let’s say you have a standing date with your really close friend or colleague where you have coffee, let’s say every Friday afternoon. At first, it’s great, you look forward to it. Then you just start to look forward to it a little bit less and then you think, “I don’t really want to do this.” But then you feel guilty.

ERH:  Yes.

Amy Wood:  You’re afraid to tell the person you don’t want to meet them anymore.

ERH:  Exactly.

Amy Wood: So what I always tell people in my work with all the adults I coach, when they get into situations like that is, “You’re actually doing that person a favor. Whether it’s just no more coffee dates or you don’t want to see your hairdresser anymore, you’re actually going through a breakup. You’re letting that other person be free to move on to more resonant activities, and people just like you’re doing for yourself.”

ERH: Right, and it’s not black and white. Maybe you really do enjoy that person, but you can switch it to once a quarter. Right?

Amy Wood:  Absolutely, yes.

ERH: Let’s move on to a journey I know that you just recently went on, a very beautiful trip and journey through the Grand Canyon, which is one of my favorite places. How did that trip end up resonating in the work you’re doing?

Amy Wood: Well, a couple of things resonated. First of all, just this idea of interior/exterior balance. There was a kid on the trip and he said, “Everywhere you look, you see a screen saver.” I think that’s a great way to describe being in the Grand Canyon. It’s, it’s so spellbindingly gorgeous that you’re surrounded by that beauty constantly. That just totally nourishes you internally.

Then there’s this other level of when you’re on the Colorado River rafting, you have to hike down from the rim of the canyon, nine miles. So you are literally nine miles below what we call real life, where the commotion is happening. When you’re down in that place for several days, as another kid said on the trip, “At first it was weird being away from reality and being down here, but then I realized this is reality.” Nature is reality. That’s something that you feel when you’re in the Canyon for a while that nature really is in control.

We get the idea of where we’re up here that we’re in control and we’re really not. There’s something simultaneously very scary, realizing we’re not in control, and also very grounding about that. Realizing that nature has been around since the beginning of civilization and that it’s always going to be here.

ERH: Right, like that vibrational connection with all.

Amy Wood: Yes, precisely. One more level that was very meaningful to me was just all the lessons that can be learned from the Colorado River, which is a very wild and dangerous river. It’s very unpredictable. So even when you’re working with experienced guides, and we had seven of them on our trip taking care of us, they didn’t know what was going to happen sometimes one hour to the next. How hard it was going to be to go through rapids or whether we’re going to have a monsoon.

You don’t know with the river; how high it’s going to be from time to time. What it’s going to be doing, so you have to go with the river. One really interesting thing about rivers is, especially when you have a current moving as quickly as the Colorado River current, if you decide I want to go back and repeat something, you can’t go back. You can only go forward.

It’s very much like life in all these different ways. Unpredictable, not knowing what’s around the next bend, having to adapt. Not being able to go back and repeat a mistake, only learning from it and moving forward.

ERH: That’s a powerful observation. I love that. We spent five days, four nights down when I went, but we were hiking along the river and not rafting. It’s fascinating to realize you put in at one place and you’re going to end up at another place. Short of getting out of the raft, and trying to maneuver some of those canyons, you can’t go back, and that is such a great analogy to life.

Amy Wood:  Yes.

ERH: What else stood out for you?

Amy Wood: For me, and I think everyone else on the trip, was not having social media, and not having any technology with us. Because we, of course, couldn’t get any kind of signal, and having to entertain ourselves. At first, it felt very awkward, but then we got used to just entertaining ourselves by engaging in long conversations, long meandering conversation.

At night, we would sit around and tell stories and play instruments that the guides had brought. Some of the guides would sing, play games. We had to be much more inventive, and we had to listen to each other much more closely. From that came a much more significant connection than I think we experience a lot of times up here. Because even though we’re really connected with all this technology, we’re not focused. We’re not paying attention to what people say, so we’re not having dialogue. We’re not having experiences with other people that feel substantial.

ERH: We’re were starving for those connections.

Amy Wood: Exactly. That’s part of this interior depletion that I’m talking about It can be like a desert inside, because we’re so focused on all the commotion. And trying to keep up with everything in this sense that we’re going to be left behind if we’re not doing, doing, doing and moving onto the next thing all the time.

ERH:  I love that image too, of the up here/down there. Usually, when you’re out in the wilderness, you are going up to find the vista, right? And then coming back down.

I associate that visual of up here with being up in our minds, in that prefrontal cortex, all the time and not allowing ourselves to come inside…to ourselves.

Amy Wood: Yes, absolutely.

ERH:  it’s really a beautiful image of human versus canyon.

Amy Wood:  I’d say when you’re down in the canyon on the river, it’s literally and figuratively leaving up here in terms of the landscape. And in your mind leaving that place of always having to be thinking. And always having to obsess about things and figure out things, and just live in your body and let things flow.

ERH:  I love it. There’s just so much to work with here.

Amy Wood:  What’s interesting to me is sometimes when you go on a trip and you’re all excited about it and you come back, no one really wants to hear about it, even though you want to talk about it. But almost everyone has really wanted to talk about this. Then I’ve really been amazed at … like with you, for example, how many people I’m encountering now who have actually been to the Grand Canyon.

ERH: It’s a really powerful place.

Amy Wood: Yeah, and here’s an interesting thing I learned, which is quite astounding to me, that there are millions and millions of people who go to the Grand Canyon annually and only 1% of those people ever go down into the canyon.

ERH: I’ve heard that.

Amy Wood: They go to the rim, they take a photo, and they leave.

ERH: I remember reading that and I was just thinking, I hope it’s not 1% in the human translation to how much are we going down into ourselves? But probably day to day it could be 1%.

Amy Wood:  Well, while I was there, I saw many people when we were on our way down to the canyon to start the trip, who were doing exactly that. They had come to the Grand Canyon just to get a photograph, and then they turn right around. So they weren’t really experiencing being there. They just wanted that photo to say, “Oh, I’ve been there.” Just checking something off a list, which is what a lot of us do now day-to-day. We get sucked into that. Like, “I just got to get all this stuff done.” I can’t really immerse myself in the setting I’m in.

ERH:  Going there, I want you to share if you don’t mind, how you ended up on this trip? Because I think it’s powerful.

Amy Wood: Of course. The way that I ended up on this trip, my husband and I, and my two best friends from high school and their husbands had been planning to go on an Alaskan cruise. We’d been working on this last three years and we went in June for two weeks. It was fabulous. But about a week before we left, my husband got a call from his brother, saying that he and his wife had been planning this rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. There were 16 people all set to go and a couple dropped out, and they needed to fill those spots.

So my husband’s brother offered us those spots, all expenses paid except for airfare. Just to give an example of I think, how most Americans figure out things these days, our first impulse was, “We can’t go. We can’t take two vacations. We have to get back to work.” Then we thought, what are we crazy? Why would we not do this? We have to make this work.

ERH: Love that thinking.

Amy Wood: This is a huge opportunity. Before I went, I recognized it was an opportunity. But the longer I was down there, the more I realized this isn’t just an opportunity, this is absolutely transformative to have this experience.

ERH: Thank you for sharing that. I don’t know that I could have rallied the troops, so to speak, to get everybody aligned in the family to do that. The thing that I always try to say and remember is that everything is going to be fine. Unless we’re scheduled for brain surgery or something like that our jobs will be there. I bet both of your jobs were absolutely fine when you came back.

Amy Wood: They were. In fact, even better. Because as I always tell my clients who are afraid to take a break because they might miss out on something, “When you take a break, you come back more positive, more effective at everything that you do with great new ideas.” And that’s what happened to me and my husband. We came back and we felt much more on top of our game at work. We had literally transformed, as I said, in terms of the way we view things and the way we think about things. So it’s like we’re now working at this elevated place.

When I first came back, I thought, oh, this is going to wear off. It was just a great vacation, but it has really stayed with me. It has been profound.

ERH:  I’m so happy that you’re able to share it because it’s a great reminder for all of us. Before we close our conversation today what are the ways and methods that you try to unplug day-to-day when you are home?

Amy Wood: One of my favorite ways is to hike, get away and hike. We live, as you know, near the White Mountains, and my husband and I go there as much as possible. We’re actually going there this weekend.

So that’s something we do regularly and we try to travel to beautiful places. And day-to-day just trying to get outside as much as possible. So many studies have been done to show that just being in nature for a few minutes can lift your mood and spark creative ideas.

ERH: Absolutely.

Amy Wood: Even if you live in the middle of Manhattan and you’re really stressed out, and you’re working 80 hours a week, if you can just step outside your building and look up at the sky for a few minutes, it’s going to help you. So I have to say that being in nature is my favorite way to rejuvenate, to get a break.

But even for people who can’t get out in nature, even if you can’t get outside where you work and look up at the sky, just to take a break during the day and have lunch away from your desk. I mean, anything at all that gets you away from your screen.

A lot of people think, oh, if I take a break, I’m not going to be as productive. But the truth is the average adult can be at a screen working for about 90 minutes and then they start to fade.

You start to lose focus, are less productive. But if you take a break every 90 minutes and take a walk around, or go talk to a colleague, have a high protein snack, just something to get up and moving. When you come back, you’re refreshed and you work better, you work smarter.

ERH:  You’re speaking my language, obviously. How can we learn more about your work?

Amy Wood: I would say just go to my website and you can learn more about me there. That’s Amywoodpsyd.com. I’ve also written a book called, Life Your Way. It’s all about how to go inside and customize your life to fit who you are.

We’ve been talking a lot about the overwhelm, and how the overwhelm creates stress with all of these options. But the great thing about having all these options is that you can choose from the options what works specifically for you so that you can have a life that really resonates.

Take the time and look at what’s available. Just for a quick example, the music we have available today. It’s not just what we can buy at a record store, like when we were kids. Any kind of performer can be accessible for people to listen to. So you can find really interesting, unusual music choices, and create a playlist that nobody else has. I think that’s pretty cool. You can do that with so many things today.

ERH:  Yes, we can. Thank you, Amy.