Ben Bernstein—or “Dr. B”, as his clients refer to him—has been working with students and people in high stress/high performance jobs for over forty years. He's an expert on how stress affects performance, so if you’re looking to bring your stress levels to a healthy level, his most recent works, Stressed Out! for Parents and Stressed Out! for Teens have just been released.
We thank Dr. B for his time and his willingness to participate in this interview.
Tell us a little about yourself—your career, family, etc.
I’ve had a long-term career as a teacher since 1969. I was first trained in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, and then in London, England. I was blessed to be able to work in very progressive schools, where there was a joy in learning and in teaching. In 1985 I combined my teaching career with my work as a psychologist. The other part of my life is in music. I write and produce opera and I run a non-profit called “The Singer’s Gym”, which is a professional workshop for singers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In my own family, I’m the eldest of four children. My sister is an actress named Didi Conn. She’s most well known as the character of Frenchy in Grease. My middle brother, Andrew Bernstein, is the head photographer for many years of the NBA. My youngest brother, Richard, is a full time singer at the Metropolitan Opera and has been for over fifteen years. We’re a very active family. Fortunately, I’ve been able to give them a hand when they needed it. But, of course, they help me out too! So it goes both ways.
My wife—Suk Wah—is a writer. She was a prominent screenwriter in Hong Kong for many years, and now she’s writing a novel of her own.
My work as a psychologist and a teacher has evolved into focusing on how stress affects performance. There are various ways in which we perform in life, whether on stage, or as an athlete, or as a mom, or as an executive. I’ve focused on how stress affects performance in Stressed Out! for Parents and Stressed Out! for Teens.
What initially interested you in psychology?
That’s a good question. My dad was a psychologist. But I think I was born asking the question “Why?”: why people were doing things, why things were happening certain ways, why people said this or that. The question “Why?” has always interested me. I’m very interested in why we do the things that we do, what motivates us, and what keeps us going.
I think psychology has a lot to offer in terms of fulfilling one’s potential. I went to college in the 60’s, the height of the “human potential” movement. I see psychology as the vehicle for helping all of us to bring out the very best in who we are. Psychology started out as a problem-based discipline. But in more recent years, there’s been a movement towards what is called “positive psychology”: how we can make the best of who we are and make a better contribution to the world. That’s what interests me most about psychology.
You’ve worked worldwide with students as well as people in high stress/high performance jobs in the past. How would you compare the way that students deal with stress vs. professionals?
I think that as a culture we don’t do a good job of teaching our younger people how to deal with stress. So they don’t have any tools to handle stressful situations. This is why so many students have test anxiety and under-perform on tests.
There are three wrong assumptions we make about testing and handling challenging situations in general:
Knowing content is enough to perform well on a test.
Some people are natural performers on a test or in a challenging (test-like) situation.
There’s no systematic way to train people in performance skills, in other words, how to perform their best when they are under pressure
Knowing test content is not enough. You have to learn the material, certainly, but then you have to carry it forward into the test itself. In other words, you have to learn how to perform under pressure. We don’t teach people that, and that’s what my work is all about. My books give a systematic method and specific tools to stay calm, confident and focused when you are in stressful situations.
Professionals in high stress/high performance jobs—athletes, dentists, surgeons, lawyers learn how to stay calm, confident and focused by experience or by having good mentors. But because we don’t teach these skills in our educational system, many people in these professions either don’t know or don’t practice using the tools needed to stay in “the zone” (where stress is at an optimal level), and so they are prone to developing many stress-related problems such as health issues, chronic anxiety, fatigue, addictions, and in severe cases, suicide.
Whether you’re in a high performing job or you’re about to take the SAT, you really do need to know how to keep calm, confident, and focused. These correspond to optimal states for your body, mind, and spirit. Performing is not a natural skill; it’s something you can learn and learn well. There is a systematic way of learning to perform at your best, and that’s what the books are about.
What inspired you to write Stressed Out! for both parents and teens? Why write them separately?
What inspired me was Christopher Robbins. I articulated the model in my first book, Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident and Focused, which I self-published. When I met Christopher and his wife, Michele at a publishers’ convention, I greatly enjoyed talking with them both, hearing their story and learning about their company, Familius. They very much liked Test Success! and could see the possibility in multi-purposing the model of the book for different audiences. We discussed how there could be separate titles directed towards different groups that would address the specific stresses of those people—for example, the stresses of teens vs parents. We began to discuss different title options that included those different audiences. The model is the same, but the vignettes and applications are different because of the different stresses of the particular group of people.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m most grateful to Christopher and Michele for the mission and what they’re doing with Familius, and I’m happy to be a part of it. I’m grateful that they’re giving people like myself a chance to take what we know from our life experiences and share it with others. I also want to say, especially concerning Stressed Out! for Parents, that I asked to work with a co-author, who was a parent—my wife and I don’t have children even though I’ve worked with children and parents for thirty-five, forty years. They organized for me to work with Michelle Packard, a lively, warm-hearted mother of four, and that was a wonderful working relationship.
Thank you again for your time and for your invaluable insights, Dr. B! Order Stressed Out! for Parents and Stressed Out! for Teens here. Click here for more information on Test Success!