Real Talk: A New Approach for Men’s Mental Fitness and Wellbeing

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The concept of men's 'mental fitness’ has fascinated high performance leadership coach and behavioural science consultant Chinazom Sunny Nwabueze for years. Combining observations, research and professional training, Real Talk combines coaching insights with solid data and impactful storytelling.
First 10 Pages

A New Dawn

What if it happens to me?

This fear-inducing thought launches to the forefront of my mind. I watch yet another employee leave the office carrying an overflowing cardboard box, and I’m not sure what to think… Thoughts flash through my mind: “Everything was going right for him until suddenly it wasn’t. What happened to him? Where did he go? What if the same thing happens to me?”

He was on the fast track to becoming the next manager in my investment banking firm, and who knows where he would have gone from there? But nope. It wasn’t meant to be. I realised ‌ I needed to take charge of my own destiny. If I was carrying out a cardboard box filled with junk, it would be my choice! I wish I could say I quit the next day, but that’s not how life really works. It took many years, but with mindful intention and many late nights, I built a bridge to a career I am thrilled to work in today. I faced many obstacles along the way, but I’m finally in a better place.

It all started way back to 2014; I’d been doing a career in investment banking for nearly twenty years. I know… Yawnnnn. I’d known for a long time I wasn’t happy with this line of work. Sure, it had given me the financial security I’d always craved, but let’s just say, I felt the job in my bones. I was just cutting, pasting and reformatting nothing. The work held no meaning. I played with Excel, Word, and PowerPoint and argued about formatting and what should go where. And then, as always happens, no one even looked at the many documents I attached to painstakingly worded emails. Sigh… It was exhausting. And for what? I couldn’t help but think, “Is this all that my life is? Is this really it for me?”

My job in investment banking gave me the financial security I never had, and I was extremely grateful for it. My family and I left Nigeria when I was a fourteen-year-old boy to move to the UK. Assimilating into the UK and a new Western way of living had its own challenges, mainly because we didn’t have a lot of money. Financial security was a pipe dream for us growing up, and I was now realising that “dream”. But each day, an ever increasing sense of disillusionment and unhappiness washed over me and I couldn’t shake the feeling that my job had no purpose. I wanted out. And when I looked in the mirror, I knew I wasn’t giving everything I could. I saw an incredible level of potential in the man looking back at me, but I knew I wasn’t reaching it.

Even the mere idea of chasing my passion, whatever that might be, scared me. This fear is common among men, but it’s all based on a lie. The story in my head, one that we are told constantly growing up, is that you can’t do what you are passionate about unless you’re one of the lucky few who make it as an actor, a famous musician, or a talented football or basketball star. Doing something that fed your soul was out of the question, because you wouldn’t make any money doing it! This is the story I’d been telling myself, and I knew that something had to change. I wanted to look at myself in the mirror and actually like the reflection staring back at me.

This shift in my thinking catalysed a three-year period of researching, intensive soul searching, and trying to understand what “it” could look like. I started to realise you really can’t give everything to work because learning how to protect your mind, what I call mental fitness, is paramount. It’s just as important as putting on your oxygen mask in a plane that’s going down because you’ll pass out and be unable to help anyone around you. Once I learned to protect my thoughts and guard my mind, everything changed for the better.

The Adventure Begins

My adventure towards mental fitness continued on a trip to Vietnam on New Year’s Eve, 2014. I had a conversation with God and he told me I was going to meet my soulmate. What? I wasn’t ready to hear that! I’d been practising mental fitness heavily, opening up to the universe, and learning how powerful the mind was. Mindfulness quickly became a way of life for me. I became heavily involved in sports and competed in triathlons, and focused on inner work and understanding my mind to a greater degree. This work was my precursor to interest in performance psychology.

In 2015, I met my wife, my beautiful soulmate, and we married in Nigeria. We moved to the UK to start our married life. As I matured, I looked into the future and I thought, “I don’t want to be one of those dads who gets fat, is dazed or checked out ninety percent of the time or, God forbid, dies sitting on a toilet at work. I wanted to lead my family with strength, not complacency! I wanted to be happy at work, happy at home, and to be an example for my kids instead of just ‘doing it all for them.’”

So, how was I going to face my fears of striking out on my own and chase this passion for improving my own mental fitness? I first became a disciple of conserving and strengthening it for myself. I knew I could never help others if I didn’t master it first. I thought, “Well, I have my mental fitness. Now I need to learn how to take practical steps to protect it. I need to walk the walk so I can talk the talk.”

I wanted to learn everything about my mind and how I could use it to navigate all of life’s many present and upcoming challenges. It became my mission to stop this cycle I saw all around me, where we wait for life events to shake us up, then we reactively make changes to our mental fitness. Challenges reared their ugly faces (and no, kids, if you’re reading this, I’m NOT talking about you). Life just came at me as life does. I already started the journey of changing career paths, and I was quite nervous, but I had to do it. Right?

One day, after completing my first performance psychology presentation in Croatia, I had a wonderful conversation with my wife. She asked me several poignant questions when I was struggling to decide what to do:

“Do you really want to make a go of this?”

I responded with alacrity because I was still jazzed up from the presentation, “Yeah. I really do. I’m sure.”

Seeing that I was buzzing around the apartment with a smile on my face you couldn’t punch off, she said, also shining with an inner light I’d never seen before, “What would it take for you to make a good career out of this?”

I said, “Well, I would have to be willing to get my ass handed to me on a regular basis because I’d always be learning. And I’ll never really be an expert because I’ll be learning about other people’s minds. I would always have to bring a beginner’s mind and curiosity to everything I do.”

She continued to press, “Okay, that makes sense, but what else?”

I said, “I’d have to communicate the importance of mental fitness in a way people can easily understand. Using big words like “performance psychology” just confuses people. I’d also have to be willing to speak and present often, which, as you know, isn’t something that comes easily to me!”

She said, “Okay, are you willing to do those things?”

I almost surprised myself with the enthusiasm of my answer as I said, “Yes!”

“Then let’s go for it! I’m game if you are,” she enthusiastically replied.

I never loved her more (until the birth of my children later on!).

Only two years into our marriage, even though I was already in my early forties, we decided I would leave my twenty-year job in investment banking that had given me so much stability, to chase a career in performance psychology. Very few people make a living out of this line of work, and I knew I might be committing career suicide, but I knew I could do it. I had to.

Our adventure kickstarted from there. Life was tough, unbelievably tough, but I had the presence of mind to know I needed to go for it. When you start a new career, especially one that’s not chartered and all lined up for you, you know it’s going to be an emotional and bumpy ride and you’re going to work for it.

Well, lo and behold, I’d already started saying yes to the universe and trusting my instincts and my mind. I embarked on this adventure and I’ll never forget walking on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport as we were boarding our flight out of the UK. My wife waddled in front of me, obviously six-months pregnant, and climbed the stairs to the aeroplane. A tremendous feeling of excitement washed over me, but I was equally terrified at the same time something I now call “excitified”. Looking at my wonderful wife, so many thoughts came through my head all at once as the plane took off:

What the fuck was I doing?

What is the future really going to look like?

Am I crazy for bringing my six-months pregnant wife with me to a new country without a “real job” lined up?

After talking myself out of telling the pilot to turn the hell around, I felt, somewhere deep within, an excitified feeling telling me this was the right path, no matter how hard it would be.

Starting Over

Adjusting to a new country was even harder than I expected. I’d written down many plans and visualisations of what it would look like, but then I learned there’s a massive difference between planning something and then actually taking action. There are always additional problems and issues that arise in reality you can never expect.

I was used to having an ocean separating me from my in-laws, so it was brand new to have them right nearby. I was still building my still new marriage with my wife. And then, on top of it all, I was also preparing to become a dad, which scared the living daylights out of me. So, as you can see, my plate was full and my own mental fitness was tested at a high level. However, I needed to keep it strong because it was the only thing that was actually going to help me get through this. I was as far outside my comfort zone as I had ever been. I should have crumbled, but I actually thrived.

And then, once again, my life changed even more with two massive events: the birth of my son, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Holding my son made me realise what love really is and how to hold dearly to what’s most important to you, but there was no rulebook for living through a lockdown. We all just made it all up as we went along. I had to actually start my career in performance psychology and put into practice all the tools and strategies I had been using in my work with athletes.

The enforced prison sentence of the pandemic was great for organic practice of mental fitness. You had enough time to be alone with your thoughts, which, for some people, can be worse than a nightmare full of murderous clowns. But I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of during this hectic period. I pivoted, adapted, and discovered my creative side. I had to let go of my identity; who I thought I was or who I thought I should be didn’t matter anymore. I experienced, whether I liked it or not, what a growth mindset really took. Getting your ass handed to you repeatedly teaches you how to keep getting back up, learn the lesson required, and then move forward.

Along with billions around the world, I had no option. I had to move with the times and embrace all that COVID-19 offered. I couldn’t do the performance psychology I wanted to do because there was nobody playing sports! There was no one around to interact with. This is where I found a different role as a high performance leadership coach. Luckily (and thank God for virtual!) I could work with many leaders across a myriad of industries because of the power of communication tools like Zoom.

When you're going through transitions like these, the little things cause you the most pain. Learning to drive on the wrong side of the road, going to the grocery store and trying to figure out where things are, realising just because you speak English it doesn't mean others will understand your accent or what the hell you're talking about. Throw in caring for a newborn, the pandemic, and a change in career, it made for a fun-filled emotional roller coaster that I wouldn't change for anything.

The Mental Fitness Revolution

There used to be a park near my mom’s house where I would go running when I was younger. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I was running all alone. There was no guy huffing and puffing trying to lose weight after a doctor’s visit. No Olympic marathon runner who just broke their own PB (personal best) record without even breaking a sweat. No average everyday Joe or Jane putting in mile after mile just to keep their minds clear.

No one used to go running. It just wasn’t a thing one did. In fact, my mom used to worry about me when I ran. “Why are you going running as a black person!? Get back in the house and watch a movie like a normal human being.” She’d go on and say things like, “What are you going to say to the police if they ask why you’re running in the evening?” Of course, I didn’t have a great answer. I just needed to run.

Then, ten years later, in 2015, when running in the same park back home in London, I couldn’t find a single blade of grass because everybody was running around. People were doing PT (personal training) sessions, CrossFit, and even doing group yoga in the park. The daily fitness routine was now normal!

It’s only recently that physical fitness became something everyone does. Now, if you aren’t out on a Saturday in the sun practising some sort of sport or fitness routine, you are the weirdo. This fitness revolution occurred overnight and now everyone’s into it. This is what I want and expect for the future of mental fitness. Everyone will focus on it and make it a habit to strengthen their minds.

There’s a huge opportunity before us, especially now that we are moving on from the pandemic. Everyone’s aware of wellbeing and mental fitness and we share a belief in one salient truth: there is no sustainable high performance without it. It’s time to rewrite the script and change the way we view and handle our mental wellbeing.

Are You Ready to Get Real?

As the eldest son of a Nigerian family, they had certain expectations for me and how I was supposed to live my life. Until the transition to the US, I didn't fully realise how much of my identity centred around my upbringing and my position within my family. I realised this influenced my personality because I had always been this dependable, steady, and reliable person. This continued into my working life, and it’s likely the reason I stayed in the same line of work for twenty plus years! These are great attributes, but it also held me back. When I made my big transition, I decided to fully let go of this identity to bring my passions to life.

This identity shift and the courage to get real with myself were the revelations that led me to write this book. I went from investment banking to performance psychology coach to high-performance leadership coach, and now, with over 2000 hours of coaching leaders through the pandemic to discover their own mental fitness prowess, it’s time to share what I’ve learned with other men. Are you ready to join me and shred the bonds of your past identity?

I’ve written this book as a mind opener for any man (or woman with a man in her life!) who wants to discover their own mental fitness power. After studying and earning my bachelors and then my masters, no one ever talked about mental fitness and working on one’s mind. Well, that time is over. I want you to see what’s possible when you prioritise your mental fitness. You’ll learn you can’t ignore it, and that you can actually improve your life by focusing on what’s important. Life will throw all kinds of stuff at you, but it's only when you go through these types of major transitions you're forced to question your identity, the way you think, and even what you should think.

Real Talk is not your typical nonfiction book that lays out the process in a series of seven steps to master your mental fitness. Mental fitness needs to be discovered and then practised for yourself. To that effect, this book contains a series of short stories based on real-life events that take place with normal, average, everyday people navigating their own journeys to mental fitness.

The book, even though it’s fictional, contains all my lived experiences and what I’ve learned from countless conversations with clients, mentees, friends, family members, and anyone who will let me talk to them about mental fitness. I’ve chosen to share what I’ve learned in this engaging way because stories that bring you alongside the characters in meaningful and relatable ways are memorable and thought-provoking. I think this is the best way for people to reflect and take home the message. The last thing I want to do is preach to you because while I’ve figured out many aspects of mental fitness, I still have a lot to learn!

Throughout the stories, I want you to think about your story and what it would look like for you to take action on what you read. Each story has a valuable lesson, and at the end of each section, I’ll pose a few questions you can ask yourself about what mental fitness means for you. The book contains five easy-to-read chapters:

In Real Talk, three of our main characters, Chico, Ishmael, and Francisco, meet for the first time since the pandemic to catch up. What transpires is the type of conversation men want to have but seldom do. We’ll explore the idea that people, especially men, need to drop the facade that everything is fine, and actually talk through their issues. Men need to ask better questions of those they are closest to, and model this novel approach to mental fitness. This theme will be apparent throughout the rest of the book.

In Measuring Mental Fitness, you’ll learn the three parts of mental fitness and how to measure it for yourself as Ishmael, Francisco, and Chico dig even deeper.

In Moments that Matter, you’ll learn the reason behind practising mental fitness. You’ll hear from Chico and Ishmael as they journey toward grasping the essence of life and creating moments that matter, no matter where you find yourself.

In Friends Reunited, we’ll join Max and his friends as they continue to deepen their bonds with tough, but necessary, conversations. You’ll learn the importance of sticking by your people even in the tough times.

In Trusted Advisors, you’ll meet a brand new character, Jonathan, as he talks with Chico, seeing mental fitness in action where it's needed most.

In addition, throughout the stories contained within this book, you’ll notice a series of “Mind Flexes” designed to help you practise the lessons contained within. These small sections provide bite-size mental fitness reminders. Highlight these sections and save them if the words speak to you.

During the pandemic, I had the great privilege of becoming a dad. I realised that what we model to our kids is actually what we learned from our parents and other caregivers growing up. That’s why a lot of men in my generation don’t know what it really means to be mentally strong. We don’t talk about our mental health because we model what was shown to us, which was to just shut up and deal with it. I want to change that script because when I look at my son and my brand new baby daughter; I want to model strong mental fitness and mindful wellbeing to them so they can pass it on to later generations. Isn’t this what it’s really all about?

Have fun, take it one day at a time, and let’s dive into these stories.

Practise Mental Fitness

At the end of each chapter, I’ll pose a series of quick questions to get you thinking. As you read the stories within, I strongly encourage you to reflect. Don’t just skip these sections. Picture yourself as the main character because, in your life, you are!

Who do I see when I look in the mirror?

Have I given it my all, or am I not living up to my full potential?

What’s one simple tactic I could employ to strengthen my mind?