109. Monica Parker: Exploring the power of awe and wonder

Slowing down and engaging in activities that quiet the brain can bring more wonder into our lives. Monica Parker talks to host Sue Stockdale about how practicing mindfulness and being observant allows us to cultivate a slower thought process, which is essential for experiencing wonder. Additionally, exposing ourselves to new ideas, new perspectives, and new environments can also stimulate wonder by breaking our routines and allowing our minds to notice novelty.  Monica suggests that we don’t have to wait for extraordinary moments or visit extraordinary places to experience wonder and awe.  Instead, we can find it in the ordinary, in the simple things in our lives. Appreciating things like sunsets, the beauty of autumn leaves, or small details can bring a smile to our faces and evoke a sense of wonder, and enhance our overall sense of happiness and fulfilment. Overall, the episode highlights the importance of curiosity, both about the world and ourselves, in fostering personal growth and self-acceptance.

About Monica Parker 

Monica Parker is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Power of Wonder and a world-renowned speaker, writer, and authority on the future of work. Parker has spent decades helping people discover how to lead and live wonderfully. The founder of global human analytics and change consultancy HATCH, whose clients include blue-chip companies such as LinkedIn, Google, Prudential, and LEGO, Parker challenges corporate systems to advocate for more meaningful work lives. In addition to her extensive advocacy work, Parker has been an opera singer, a museum exhibition designer, a policy director, and a homicide investigator defending death row inmates. A lover of the arts, literature, and Mexican food, Parker and her family split their time between Atlanta, London, and Nice. Her wonderbringers include travel, time spent with friends, and live music.

Connect with Monica Parker on her website : LinkedIn : Twitter : Instagram

Key Quotes

  • “What’s interesting about wonder is that you can still experience it while you’re experiencing dread. In fact, sometimes dread can be a source of wonder.”
  • “Slowing down not only allows us to see more wonder, it allows us to connect dots in a deeper way.”
  • “The thing that I took most away that surprised me was just how positive, how beneficial mixed emotions are for us.”
  • “We can find wonder in even the darkest of places.”
  • “There’s been some research that shows that potentially the difference between people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and post-traumatic growth might actually be curiosity about their own human condition.”


[00:03:07] Finding wonder in prison.
[00:06:09] The benefits of wonder.
[00:07:03] Slowing down for wonder.
[00:13:41] The power of mixed emotions.
[00:15:54] The role of inspiration in wonder.
[00:19:38] Redefining the work environment.
[00:21:00] Silver linings in dark times.
[00:24:28] The Power of Wonder.

This series is kindly supported by Squadcast by Descript –the remote recording platform which empowers podcasters by capturing high-quality audio and video conversations. Find out more at squadcast.fm

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Transcript: Monica Parker

00:13 Sue Hello, I’m Sue Stockdale, your host for episode 109 of the Access to Inspiration podcast, the series with a social mission to help you be inspired by people who may be unalike you. We hope that their experiences and insights cause you to reflect on your own perspectives about the world and think differently. Well, my guest today is Monica Parker, who is author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Power of Wonder, and a world renowned speaker, writer and authority on the future of work. And that makes me curious to find out more. Welcome to the podcast, Monica.

Monica Thanks for having me, Sue.

Sue Now, your career and background is really varied, and I do want us to dig into it today, as well as find out about all the work that you’ve been doing, that has inspired your work on awe and wonder. And just for our listener, here’s what I have as your diverse career to date, Monica, that you’ve been an opera singer, a museum exhibition designer, policy director, chamber of commerce CEO, and even a homicide investigator defending death row inmates.

01:16 Monica That’s right.

Sue That’s quite a list.

Monica I know. And it doesn’t even have my time as a professional clown. So, I mean, there’s there’s even more variety.

01:24 Sue So take us back to the beginning and when you were starting out in the world of work, what was your thinking about what you would do at that point?

01:30 Monica Well, when I was very, very little, I wanted to be the first female president of the United States. But then I decided as I got a bit older that that seemed like a lot of hassle. So I decided to switch off that and I studied design in undergrad and was a designer for quite a while and then went on to grad school and studied organizational behavior. And that was really when I started to put together all of my observations previously. But in between those two experiences, yes, I was a homicide investigator for the Department of Justice. I worked with men and women on Florida’s death row to try to exonerate them. And I was quite young. That was probably my second job out of uni. And what I learned through that work is that there seemed to be certain people who were just able to be more buoyant. And what I’ve come to realize is that that buoyancy comes from holding the world in a sense of wonder. And so that was probably where the kernel was planted.

02:23 Sue And it’s not a thing I would imagine that somebody on death row is really thinking about a sense of wonder. I would almost think a sense of dread at that point.

02:31 Monica Well, there certainly is a sense of dread, but what’s interesting about wonder is that you can still experience it while you’re experiencing dread. In fact, sometimes dread can be a source of wonder. But when people are on death row, it’s not like you get thrown there and then a month later you’re executed. These people sit on death row for decades. So you learn to live in some way. And some people go through a type of social death where your friends and family sort of just have to move on. But there are some of those who could still find those glimmers of enchantment in their environment. And those were the ones that seemed to be more buoyant. There’s actually research that shows this. There’s been some research where images of natural environments that are natural wonder bringers are brought into a prison environment. And people are given the choice to go there or to go back to their cell when they sort of get in trouble for a fight or something like that. And the people that choose to go into what they call the blue room show reduced levels of aggressiveness, of violence. And they also say that they feel more resilient. And so there is evidence that shows that even in these most terrible environments, these isolated and confined and extreme environments that we can still find a sense of wonder.

03:45 Sue So given that that is the case, how did you bring that learning forward to the next step in your career?

03:51 Monica Well, I guess the next step probably I worked with adults and children with disabilities. That’s another sort of existential change. And now as a consultant with Hatch, I deal with change like mergers and acquisitions, people losing jobs, Really, the red line through all of my work has been helping people through big change, not little change like, oh, use this new program. Big existential change, like the state’s going to deprive you of your life, or you have a child with disability that was unexpected, or you lose your job and your industry is in turmoil because of automation. These are big changes. And what I kept finding through all of this is that if people stayed curious, if they stayed open, if they looked for the magic in the depth of the change, that they were able to then move through it with a more positive outlook.

04:41 Sue And given that you were noticing this as being a common ingredient across these different experiences, Did you also have that experience yourself?

04:50 Monica I have certainly had that experience. In many ways, being a homicide investigator was like one giant wonder experience for me because it truly changed my outlook forever on the world and illusions of meritocracy and fairness in the justice system and all sorts of really big, heavy topics. So I would say that’s certainly a wonder moment for me. But what I’m learning and what I really took away from the research that I started doing was that we don’t have to wait for the big moments necessarily. We don’t have to go to one of the poles like you have. What we can do is find it in the quotidian. We can find it in the simple things in our life, and that can still actually give us just the same kind of benefit. So I’m trying to do more of that to appreciate the sunsets and the perfect autumn leaf and those sorts of things.

05:37 Sue So I agree with you, Monica, that the wonder and the awe in everyday situations and experiences can just give us a smile on our face at times. Nothing more than that, perhaps. Why is that important for us these days, given the way society is and given the work environment that many of us are operating in?

05:55 Monica Yeah, well, what’s interesting is that it does a lot more than put a smile on our face. That might be what we sort of sense viscerally, but what’s happening inside on a psychological and physiological point of view is really fascinating. People who are higher in the component elements of wonder perform better in work and school. They have better relationships. When we experience wonder, our blood pressure goes down, our pro-inflammatory cytokines reduce. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are the markers of certain inflammation diseases like heart disease or Alzheimer’s, cancer. We’re more empathetic, we’re more generous, we’re more humble. And so all of these things are happening to us, both psychologically and physiologically, behind the scenes in a sense. And this has all been proven through decades of research. And so we might feel the smile on our face. And there is proof that people, when they took selfies at the beginning and end of a Wonder Walk, they had bigger smiles at the end. But certainly there’s a lot more that’s going on in our brains and our bodies.

06:56 Sue So given that reality, and even as you’re talking there, Monica, I’m getting a sense of activity and busyness that the wonder is causing. I wonder whether there’s an element of requiring us to slow down in order to appreciate that wonder.

07:10 Monica Absolutely. And when people ask, you know, what are some ways we can get more wonder in our lives? Number one is slowing down. The way that our brains work most of the time, we’re pretty much in autopilot. Our brains like efficiency. And so we really don’t notice much that’s in our sphere. We really only notice things that are changing or different. And we try to rush from point A to point B in our noggins as quickly as possible. And so if we are not slowing down, if we’re not super present in our environment, if we’re not observing and doing sort of this quiet observation of our environment, then we will miss opportunities for wonder. And there’s also the chattering fastness that occurs in our brains, right? We have that chattering monkey mind that sometimes it’s difficult to shut down. And if we can’t slow that down and quiet that internal voice as well, then it becomes harder for us to find wonder. But absolutely, slowing down, being quietly observational, and allowing ourselves to create some kind of slow thought practice that gives us attentional control, those are all key to finding more wonder.

08:17 Sue So given that that is one of the prerequisites or one of the ways that we can get into being more, I was going to say wonderful and probably.

08:25 Monica Wonder prone is what I like to say. Wonder prone.

08:27 Sue Yes. To get into be more wonder prone and thinking about leaders of organisations and your consultancy HATCH that you founded, which is a global human analytics and change consultancy, I understand. It’s maybe not a very palatable message sometimes that leaders want to hear to slow down when they want to speed up growth and speed up change in their organization.

08:48 Monica Yeah, well, what’s interesting is if you look at, say, Thinking Fast and Slow, which was by Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics, and interestingly that he was a psychologist to do it, I would dare say that that fellow is smarter than most of us. And he says, if there is an opportunity to slow down, then you must. Because slowing down not only allows us to see more wonder, it allows us to connect dots in a deeper way. And so absolutely sending the message of not falling into what’s known as action bias. So action bias is the bias that makes us want to be in action, even if we don’t have all of the information to make a wise decision. And this ends up in a sort of a perfect storm, because also, as society, we honor leaders who make decisive decisions, even if those are proven later to be wrong. And so what we’ve got is the individual who wants to feel like they’re doing something, and they do whatever that something is, and then you have society saying, yes, they did something that’s good. And so it’s really trying to break out of that action bias rubric and move into something that’s more thoughtful. And yeah, that can be tough for some organizations. But if you look at, say, Toyota has a model where you have to ask why five times before you can implement anything. That’s the kind of energy that I want to see from organizations, more creativity, more curiosity, more time to be openly curious. And the benefits are substantial. So what we’re finding is that once you show organizations what the benefits are, that they are quite intrigued.

10:27 Sue I’m wondering if you’ve got any practical examples of success stories you’ve had with clients.

10:32 Monica To be fair, with wonder, because I’m a data kind of person, we have some anecdotal evidence where people say that they feel more resilient, that they feel that they have better connectivity within their organisation. But we need data to prove that. And we’ve only been doing this work for probably about 18 months. And that’s really not enough time to get data on some kind of cultural organizational change. But I do hope to find that and prove it from a data point of view. But at least anecdotally, what we’re getting is people are saying that I feel like it’s a more empathetic organization. I feel like there’s more patience in our organization. I feel like I can be my authentic self. And so those are just some of the anecdotes that we’re getting.

11:14 Sue So if a leader was calling you into their organization and saying, come and help us create more wonder in our organization, is that a thing that they would ask you for?

11:21 Monica They might say, my organization, my staff seem disinterested, or they seem disengaged, and this might be a solution. Some people, now that the book is out, are coming to me and saying, yes, I want more wonder at work, and I’ll help them understand what that looks like. And that’s through either training, or keynotes, or a longer piece of strategy. And that covers everything from empathy training to understanding psychological safety to seeing how ethics and wonder connect. And really just helping them understand these component parts of openness, how open are you from the point of view of the big five personality profile. looking at curiosity, understanding the difference between surface and deep curiosity, understanding how absorption works and how to get into the type of flow state that could lead to the aha of awe, and how all of these work together.

12:18 Sue All of those things that you’ve just been describing to me, Monica, I’m wondering if those are aspects of the book, because you mentioned that, of course, you have a book out now. Are those elements that are contained in there, are those things that you were researching to bring into the book?

12:32 Monica Yeah absolutely both so they were things that I researched and have now put in the book there is a chapter just specifically on wonder at work and then there’s several chapters that explains my approach to wonder. I think wonder is a word for many people is something of a shape shifter so. They think of wonder as the verb, which would be to wonder, as in curiosity. But then if you think of wonder as a noun, that might be a thing, a catalyst that gives you a sense of awe. And so my goal with this was to link those two into a single emotional experience so that people could understand how it almost acts as a cycle. So the way that I have developed this is that it starts with openness to experience, then moves into curiosity, then absorption and awe. And every time we experience one of those elements, we’re more likely to experience them in the future. And so it really becomes this lovely additive cycle that’s so beneficial for us.

13:26 Sue I was thinking that, as you described it there, that from awe, then we move back onto curiosity then, and no doubt deepen our curiosity. Absolutely. So as you’ve been researching this subject of wonder and awe, Monica, where has it taken you to? What has it caused you to deepen your awareness or interest in?

13:44 Monica I think what I find most fascinating is the power of mixed emotions that I hadn’t appreciated before. So we tend to look at emotions as being single valence. And what I mean by that is happiness is always positively valence. That’s the term that psychologists use and say fear would always be negatively valence. But there are certain emotions that we have that can be both at the same time. And those are duly valence, or ambivalence. And so wonder is one of them, curiosity, awe, nostalgia. These are all emotions that have both a happy component, but a little tinge of sadness as well, potentially. And those are very powerful and positive emotions for us. They really help us metabolize change. They help us deal with trauma. There’s one interesting study done where when widows and widowers reflected on their deceased loved one and remembered both the positive and negative elements of their relationship, they were better able to manage their grief. And so being able to hold those two competing ideas in our brain at the same time, really positive, also helps us be more tolerant, helps us appreciate nuance more to understand that yes, two competing ideas can both be right at the same time. And so I think that’s the thing that I took most away that surprised me was just how positive, how beneficial mixed emotions are for us.

15:05 Sue It’s really fascinating to reflect on that as you’re describing it there, thinking of nostalgia.

15:09 Monica There’s evidence that nostalgia is a wonder bringer, that it triggers a lot of the same physiological and psychological mechanisms as seeing a beautiful sunset, that our brain loves stories. We love narration and we love a story. And so what nostalgia sort of does is it’s like we’re replaying a story of some time in our life. And if we’re remembering it, then that means it has some impact to us. So by going back into a time of our life and remembering something of impact, our brain really enjoys that.

15:38 Sue So here’s the question where my mind’s wondering now, Monica, because we’ve been using the word awe and wonder. And of course, our podcast is called the Access to Inspiration podcast. So I’m wondering what does the word inspiration mean to you in all of this research that you’ve been doing? Does it have a place?

15:54 Monica Absolutely. I think inspiration can be the catalyst again for a sense of wonder. One of the things that I also took away from this is that we can find wonder from a lot of different places and one of those can be other people. So we can have socially derived wonder and that could be certainly seeing your kid take their first steps, but it could also be being inspired by another person. And I like to say that wonder shared is wonder multiplied. And so if we allow ourselves to be inspired by the people in our sphere doing incredible things, by doing great feats or accomplishing something you didn’t expect them to, or even just hearing a moving inspirational speaker, all of those can be wonder bringers. And so I think no question, inspiration plays a huge role in wonder.

16:40 Sue Whew, just as well, there’s a relevance we have you on the podcast today, so I hope our listener can see why we have you here to talk about this really important subject. What brings you wonder these days?

16:51 Monica For me, the ocean, the sea has always been a wonder bringer for me. One of the reasons that I love the seafront is because it seems to always change. Every time you look at it, it’s a little different. It can be sort of like a Turner painting. The vista is always a bit different. But for me, also sunset’s huge wonder bringer, and I love music. Music is an enormous sense of wonder for me, and whether that’s live music in a club or just listening to some beautiful classical music with some great headphones on, but music for me really does stir that visceral sense of wonder in me and sharing that with my friends, even more so.

17:32 Sue All of those things sound absolutely wonderful as you’re describing them, Monica. In terms of where you want your work to take you and what impact you want to have on the world, that’s one of the questions we often ask our guests is, what’s your bigger purpose? What would you say to that question?

17:46 Monica Well, I think when I went to write this, a lot of people said, you know, that’s interesting. So are you just shutting down your consultancy? And I said, no, not at all. The two connect so deeply. And so what I hope is that people will appreciate that wonder is not some fanciful, magical, fairies coming in and sprinkling the wonder dust on you. Rather, it is a very concrete and achievable and beneficial, measurable experience. And I think that’s the message that I want to get to people that yes, there you can have a magical component if you so desire, but that it can have very concrete, measurable benefits if we just create the opportunity for it. And I think that is my purpose. I mean, really, my purpose is to make work suck less. And wonder is one of the ways to make work suck less.

18:34 Sue And of course, post-COVID, many people are realising that there is more to life than work, consciously voting with their feet to make more time for themselves or choose a different line of work. Do you think wonder plays a role in that as well?

18:43 Monica I think it can. I think the desire for curiosity, the desire to be able to set your own direction from an autonomous point of view, to seek novelty, as opposed to doing the same thing on a treadmill over and over again, I can see how it connects. I also have people telling me that just the freedom to be able to find wonder when they want it, as opposed to being tied to their desk, is something that’s really driving that response. But I think that we have to create ways of working and work environments that have a degree of that inspiration, that have a degree of that wonder bringing to it, so that people want to be with one another, they want to be in the workplace when it’s appropriate, And then they get the freedom and the autonomy to be in other places that potentially also brings them wonder when they don’t need to be in the office.

19:35 Sue So in a way, it’s redefining what we mean by a work environment.

19:38 Monica Absolutely. And we see it. I mean, there’s wonder in architecture all the time. Museums are great wonder-bringing environments. And we can bring that knowledge into our workplace with things like biophilia, which is mimicking in the built environment elements of nature. We can find it through the differentiation between small spaces and big spaces. We can find it in what’s known as safe threats. So areas that are dark and feel kind of spooky, but actually are cozy. These are all the different ways that just from the built environment, we can start to find wonder in our workplace.

20:12 Sue You reminded me about the sense of duality that you spoke about already, where you can kind of hold two competing ideas in your mind at the same time. Whilst you’ve described to us some of the positive aspects of wonder so far, I’m wondering what you found challenging or difficult or didn’t go as expected and what have you learned from that?

20:31 Monica To be fair, I so thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And while there were times where I felt, I mean, let’s be honest, I am an applied social scientist. I’m not an academic. And yet I was writing something that had a lot of academic underpinnings. So there was a little bit of, I guess, imposter syndrome that was embedded. But of course, I was writing this during COVID. And I think the thing that I really took away from it was that we can find wonder in even the darkest of places. And the research shows that. We saw that with COVID, that it was so terrible, and yet we saw what’s known as these silver linings of people helping each other. And I guess that was what I took away from it as well, is that even in the darkest periods of our life, there is still space to find wonder. And that’s something that really impacted me. But I would say probably the most negative element, and we’ll put aside that publishing is a very strange industry in its own sort of opaque world. But what I think I found perhaps most challenging was just the fear of putting this book out into the world and letting people see inside my thought processes and then potentially mock me. And it’s that typical just sort of childlike fear that we all get when we try something new.

21:47 Sue And yet at the same time, so important that A, first of all, expressing a vulnerability, which of course takes courage to do so. And then B, that degree of uncertainty. You put something out into the world and you’re not sure how it’s going to be received and yet you still do it.

22:02 Monica Absolutely. I mean, I’ve described it that writing the book was like being in a dark closet and then coming out was like being in a disco because now you’ve got everybody just focusing on you. But I’ve been delighted to get just some really lovely feedback from people. And they’re telling me that it is changing their perspective and changing their life in measurable ways. And that’s all I really wanted to be able to do.

22:25 Sue Well, that’s great. I’m sure getting that positive feedback. If you had a message for our listener today, Monica, who is curious from what you’ve been saying and wants to bring more wonder into their life, what would you recommend to them?

22:36 Monica Well, we talked about slowing down absolutely any kind of slow thought activity that can be meditation, it can be a gratitude practice, it can be narrative journaling, even prayer. Anything that slows our brains down is going to help us get closer to wonder. Novelty, our brains notice newness. So any way that you can shake up your routine, see new places, but even better expose yourself to new ideas and new thinking, that’s great wonder bringing. And even a wonder walk. You know, what makes a wonder walk a wonder walk? You decide it is, that’s it. And so you just prime yourself and say, I’m going to find wonder on this walk. It’s great if it’s outside, if you can find something that gives you a sense of vastness, where it makes you feel small, all the better. But if you can’t do that, then go small in your observation. Look for tiny details that you might have missed otherwise. But I think those are just some easy ways that you can start to find wonder and bring it into your life.

23:30 Sue That’s really helpful, Monica. I’m also thinking, as you’re offering that piece of advice to us, is something about not judging ourselves and how do we not put too great expectations on ourselves?

23:42 Monica Yeah, absolutely. It’s sort of interesting. I think some of that is almost part of the curiosity element. There’s been some research that shows that potentially the difference between people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and post-traumatic growth might actually be curiosity about their own human condition. There’s this phrase that was attributed to Walt Whitman, but actually is Ted Lasso, where he says, be curious, not judgmental. And I think that we can turn that inward as well. Be curious and not judgmental about ourselves as well. And I think that allows us to give ourselves grace.

24:15 Sue Oh, yeah, that’s a lovely way to describe that. And if a listener wants to find out more about your book and the work that you’re doing, Monica, how can they do that?

24:22 Monica Absolutely. So the book is called The Power of Wonder, and you can find it anywhere that books are sold. And if you want to find more resources, like how to take a wonder walk or some materials on wonder at work, you can go to monica-parker.com.

24:37 Sue Fantastic. Well, it’s been great to speak to you today, to be wondering about wonder in a completely different way and to find out how the research as well are both so important for us to consider this as part of the new world of work, I would say.

Monica Thank you so much, Sue. It was a pleasure.

Sue Brilliant. Thank you, Monica. Well, I hope you enjoyed hearing from Monica, and maybe you’re planning a wonder walk for yourself now. Remember, you can find a transcription for this and all our other episodes over at our website, accesstoinspiration.org, and you can keep connected in between episodes on social media. We’re on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. I hope you can join me again next week for another inspiring guest.


Producer: Sue Stockdale
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra