“Money is a terrible master but an excellent servant.”
Prior to moving to the US in 2012, I spent more than a decade in financial planning in my home country, Australia, and there are so many lessons from that time that I’ll never forget, such as:
But you know me well enough to know that I'd never introduce a problem without offering a solution 😉
Enter one of the world’s foremost financial literacy activists, Adam Carroll. Adam has spent 15+ years helping people do more with the money they make. He is an internationally recognized financial literacy expert, a three-time bestselling author, host of the Build a Bigger Life podcast, and a two-time TED Talk speaker with more than 10 million views online.
He is also the creator of the documentary Broke, Busted and Disgusted, which aired on CNBC and is shown in hundreds of high schools and colleges across the United States.
In this episode, we’re going to be talking about how you can achieve financial freedom and create intergenerational wealth for your family. We’ll also go through:
Adam is an extremely accomplished entrepreneur and there are some phenomenal takeaways in this one. Get the notepad ready!
Adam Carroll, great to see you my friend. Thanks for being on the Win the Day podcast.
James, it's my pleasure. It's been a while and I'm super excited to be with you and your audience.
What was your life like growing up, and what was your relationship with money at a young age?
Well, I thought it was privileged to be quite honest. I grew up in this idyllic mid-western household where my dad had a very abundant mindset. If we needed it, we would get it. And I always thought that we were affluent or somewhat affluent.
And when I got older, my dad came clean with me. He laughed and said we were far from affluent. I think it was just the fact that I was loved at home. There was lots of opportunity, it seemed like, and I was really lucky because both of my parents had a very positive mindset, which meant there was always an air of opportunity around the house. I think that's what helped shape who I am today.
The positive energy, the love in the home, and of course, financial literacy, these are core tenets that you and I both are very passionate about and incorporates much of the light that we want to bring into the world, so I'm so excited to dive into all of that stuff today.
What career opportunities did you gravitate towards at a young age? Or did the entrepreneurial bug bite you early?
I was an entrepreneur from way, way back, and I'll tell you the very first story. My mom had made a chocolate cake one day and it was great and I said, "I want to make one. I think I could make one." And she said, "Well, the recipe is right on the side of this Hershey's cocoa can."
So I made a cake, and it so happened that the neighbor came over that day and was really wowing it up that I had made this cake, how delicious it was, and said that maybe she would like to buy one. Well, in that moment I had made the decision I was going to be a cake baker! I went around door to door and I sold three chocolate cakes that week.
I think I'd made a grand sum total of $17 in profit or something, but I was hooked immediately. And it followed me through my high school and my college years. I mean, I did little things like buying big bulk bags of candy and having that in my locker and then selling them for a quarter a piece at school. When I got to college, I bought these gigantic popcorn vending machines – they were like seven feet tall and they air-popped a 24-ounce cup of popcorn.
But I was hooked on the idea of entrepreneurship. And so my career choices post-college really went after sales and marketing because I made the connection that if I could come up with an idea and sell it, I could be a really successful entrepreneur. Lo and behold, here we are some 15 years later being self-employed and building businesses. And I would say it's all gone fairly well.
Once you’ve had the taste of entrepreneurship, it's hard to go back isn't it!?
Dude, I am functionally unemployable at this point! I'm convinced of it.
What about your commitment to your own personal growth at that point? Was there a book or two in particular that really stood out and helped you realize that perhaps you had more potential and power than you would have given yourself credit for previously?
I mentioned my parents were very positive minded and they talked about opportunity a lot. My dad was big into Deepak Chopra back in the day. And he would tell me growing up that I was a wizard, and I didn't really understand what he was telling me at the time. I had visions of Harry Potter-esque kind of wizards.
But what he was telling me, I believe, is that I could create whatever environment I wanted to create, I had the ability to manifest my own desires. And so when I read Think and Grow Rich the first time – which you are obviously well-versed in – I realized how important the messages of definiteness of purpose, and of focus and attention, were. I have a saying up on my door up here and it says “The definiteness of a purpose for acquiring wealth is necessary for its acquisition.”
The definiteness of a purpose for acquiring wealth is necessary for its acquisition.
And I kept reading that over and over and over again. Think and Grow Rich was one of the first books that got me on the path. And then I went down this unbelievable rabbit hole of finding all of the quantum physics and law of attraction books that were out there. I realized that we are all constantly, consciously or unconsciously, creating our own environment. And I owe it to Think and Grow Rich for getting me started.
What about when it came to the practical application of these things, was there a job in particular that you had that helped transform your mindset around life or business?
Interestingly enough, this is going to sound kind of odd, I think, James, but when I was in college, I got recruited to sell books door to door. It was a company called Southwestern Publishing that recruits about 4,000 college students a summer. And we go out and we knocked on 200 doors a day, 12 hours a day, six days a week. So it's a brutal, brutal summer.
My first summer incidentally, I was in Rancho Cucamonga, California. That was my home for 12 weeks. And I went and knocked on doors and I got told no 198 times a day. And they told us if you sell two sets of books a day you'll be successful. And what I realized in that business, not necessarily manifestation – although we were constantly trying to manifest what we wanted during the day – it was more about the fact that every no is just a next, and that every no just gets me closer and closer to what I truly want.
So after that summer, and then the summer the next year, I really felt like I could deal with rejection better than just about anybody because it was no big deal. You could say no to me and I was just going to go to the next door, it wasn't a big thing. And I think that alone has made me an effective entrepreneur because when I hear no, or I experience failure it's just like, "Whatever, next."
That resilience and finding the gift in every adversity and very quickly moving on when there's a door closed in front of you is a phenomenal attribute for anyone to have.
What about experiences with money? When did personal finance first appear on your radar?
Given that I was raised in a household where I thought we were affluent or mass affluent, we would receive a J. Crew catalog in the mail and I thought, "Oh, we're obliged to buy something," because it seemed like that's what we did. Then I got to college and the way that I like to describe it now when I go and spoken on college campuses is that I was a rich college kid and I quickly became a broke professional.
I was a rich college kid because I was trying to live the same lifestyle that I had grown accustomed to at home, but I was doing it on the pre-approved credit card offer that I got in my freshman year that ballooned to over $8,000 by the time I was a senior. Then I met my future wife, who was probably one of the most financially savvy women I'd ever met in my life. She said, "Adam, get rid of your debt or I'm going to get rid of you!"
She said, "Adam, get rid of your debt or I'm going to get rid of you!"
Now, we’ve built a really incredible life together using very core philosophies around the mistakes that I made and the lessons learned in the midst of those mistakes, and then going out and teaching other people how to do exactly the same.
So to answer your question, James, I think it was probably near the end of my college career where I started to take a really long, hard look in the mirror at what did I have in debt and what were the mistakes I made that got me there and realizing real quickly I didn't want to live that life. I wanted to live one that was free of encumbrances, debts, and obligations, and one that was a bigger life, one that had freedom and flexibility and options and choices. So it was from that point forward that I really started to dive in and pursue mastery of money.
What are some of the steps you've taken with your own children to insulate them from falling into that trap of credit card debt particularly?
I love this question because I think the experience that I had on college campuses in talking to teenagers helped prepare me to prepare my own children for the same kind of environment. The students that I spoke to that were 18 – 21, up to 25 years old, and many of them had never made a financial decision on their own before they arrived on the college campus.
They didn't fill out their FAFSA, they didn't buy their own clothing. Some of them didn't pay for their own gas or their own meals. Many of them had no concept of what a thousand dollars borrowed meant. What I realized was I wanted to bring my kids up in a world where they had made very tangible, real decisions around money. So my wife and I realized that it was first of all important that they have money in their hand.
And I wasn't just going to hand it out; I wanted my kids to have a work ethic and be industrious. So we pay them based on chores they do at home. It's not a commission, but it's money that you're going to make for doing this work around the home. They also make money babysitting. My daughter has a part-time job. My son has reffed soccer and basketball games. My other son has mowed lawns and shoveled snow, and done lots of other odd jobs.
I wanted my kids to have a work ethic and be industrious.
But what I'm most proud of James is the fact that all three of them have far more money in savings than the average American does right now. And they're also very, very savvy and wise about making purchases that are no longer small, insignificant purchases. They're buying things like phones and computers, and they're making really educated choices in doing it because we prep them on the $5, $10 and $50 items so that they are better prepared for the $1,000 and $5,000 items down the road.
I love it. It's not necessarily the dollar value, it's the habit that you get into at a young age, which is something I included in my first book The Beginner’s Guide to Wealth. So when you get older and have more money at your disposal, you're naturally embedded with those good financial habits. And something I talk about often is that Think and Grow Rich could just as easily have been titled Think and Grow Poor because the idea is the same. It's that your actions each day, extrapolated over time, manifest that reality.
You're a dad, I'm a dad. We know that if we really want to enact this financial literacy change generationally, it all starts in the home. What should parents be doing to teach their kids about money? And when should they start that in the home?
I get this question quite a bit from parent groups who say, “My kids are six or they're eight, or they're three, what age should I start?” Some will say, “My daughter is 18 and she knows nothing about money.” I had that conversation just the other day. Actually a dad said, "I'm sending my daughter off to school, I think we've done a great job, there's just one area that I think we fallen down."
And I said, "What is that?"
He said, "Well, she knows nothing about money. She's carried my credit card the entire time she's been in high school and when she needed gas, she charged it. When she wanted clothes, she charged it. When she went out to eat with her friends, she charged it."
And for those of you who have younger kids, let me be very clear, that is NOT the way to bring your kids up to understand money.
I think we should start doing this with kids as young as five or six years old. And the way that we did it with our kids, which I think worked was, first, we gave them an allowance. And the reason that we wanted to give them that based on the work or the chores they did at home was they need to have some tangible amount of money in their hands while it's still real and tangible.
That paper money is a big deal because as they get older, if they've never experienced the paper money and had the emotional tie to a $20, $50, or a $100 bill, they'll go onto Amazon and hit one-click ship on a $47 item and not think twice about it.
Then they get the credit card statement where it looks like there's too many things on there to even go through. So it's like, "Oh, I'll just pay it. I couldn't be bothered spending 10 minutes combing through all of my purchases."
That's exactly right. Or pay the minimum, right, where we don't even feel it. And so I think if we start young and we give kids money, we also then must give them the ability to make the decisions that they want to make. With our kids we said, "Listen, you're not going to spend $10 on candy necessarily."
But if they said they really wanted to buy a Nerf gun or a piece of athletic equipment, I’d let them know that it’s their money and they’re perfectly entitled to do that. And as the purchases got bigger, we would just have a little bit more dialogue about: How long do you think you'll use it? Will you get a good use out of it? Do you think you could resell it when you're done so there's not a sunk cost in it? So we were just teaching them some business lessons.
A study came out that said 65% of the American population could not come up with $500 cash in the event of an emergency. So another thing we did was make a rule that by the time our kids are five, they had to have $300 in savings in an emergency fund. By the time they were seven, they had to have $400. And by the time they were nine, they had to have $500.
And people will ask me, “What kind of an emergency will a nine-year-old have?” The answer is that they hopefully won’t have an emergency, and if they did I would take care of it, but if they have $500 at the age of nine, they're going to have it at 19 and 29 and 39 and 59. They're going to have it forever because it is a habit, just as you said.
Absolutely. Well, many parents conflate this idea of love with cash handouts. Is spoiling children financially about the worst thing that you can do for their development?
In my opinion, that whole idea of love and money and us conflating that idea of, “I love my kids; therefore I don't want them to struggle.” The challenge today is that there is this generation of students coming through college right now who have never really struggled. And because of it, they think that life is supposed to be easy and as soon as they confront struggle, they collapse.
They think that life is supposed to be easy and as soon as they confront struggle, they collapse.
My fear is that we're going to have a lack of entrepreneurial spirit for people in their 20s and 30s because they never experienced struggle when they were in their teens. And I think if you hand your kids money, it equates to removing all struggle from their life. I think kids need to mow lawns, they need to rake leaves and they need to wash windows, and they need to make their own money, first of all, if they want some of these big things.
As parents, we're taking away that ability if we give it to them straight away.
This is very much the growth mindset that Carol Dweck talks about, only applied to personal finance. It's absolutely brilliant.
How do parents balance that journey of their kids as they enter adulthood where independence is required, but they might've found themselves in a situation where all of a sudden one day your kids come home, they might be 18 years old and old enough to be responsible for their own decisions and be independent, but they've got $40,000 in credit card debt. How do you balance the need for independence with interjecting to potentially stop them from going a hell of a long way down the wrong road?
I think some of this goes back to my comment that young people don't really understand the context of 10 or 15 or 20 or 40 or a hundred thousand dollars in debt. And one of the ways I think as parents that we can do that is we need to have really candid, honest conversations with our kids about, “You like that card? Let's do a quick price online and see: A, what does that car cost to really run; B, what does it cost to maintain that car; C, what are the payments on that on a monthly basis; D, if you don't have a degree, how many hours would you have to work in order to pay for that car; and E, is that really what you want?”
In our house, we have some interesting conversations around, “I get that you want that car, but the car dealer doesn't necessarily want to sell you the car, they want to sell you the loan.”
And so understand that as a society, what we are doing is we are teaching our kids how to payment themselves into a corner. And when you’re paymented into a corner, it's really hard to build a bigger life because you're constantly working just to pay the minimums, as opposed to working and knowing that you own 60 or 80% of every dime you make.
Are there some things as a household that you do, or maybe you personally, to make sure you're being responsible day-to-day with your finances?
In our household we really value certain things, but going out to eat is not necessarily one of them. My wife's an amazing cook and we eat at home 99% of the time. I mean, for us to go out to eat, it might be once, maybe twice a month that we go out and have a nice dinner.
But when we do, James, we typically really take our time and enjoy it. I'm always surprised, maybe I'm not surprised, but I'm always taken aback, I think, when I go out to a restaurant and you see a family wolf through a meal, throw down a card, and walk out 25 minutes later. And the assumption I make is they do this all the time and it's not special.
And my guess is that they probably spend a decent chunk of their income going out to eat. While that may be important for them, and that's great, I also think they may be sacrificing their future financial freedom in doing that in the moment to just wolf down a meal. And was there anything special to it? Not really. So one of the things we do is we eat at home a lot.
Another is, we're just very, very careful about what we spend and when we spend that it's something that really aligns with our values. I am going through a couple of online courses around money because I always love to just absorb more and pursue mastery. And one of the course creators said, “Is this thing that I'm buying worth my freedom? And if I buy it, how much longer does it take me to achieve that freedom?”
So I am having that mindset a little bit. And I would say we're kind of closet minimalists. We're not quite there, but we're almost there.
What about someone who might be 40 years old with a bunch of debt and feel like it’s too hard to get out of debt or they don’t even know where to begin – what are some steps that people can take to start to move forward financially?
I think number one is looking for proof that it’s true or untrue. And I can show you a number of cases and clients of mine, friends of mine who are in their 40s, and I could riff off probably three or four examples right now. One guy had two homes, $600,000 in mortgages. There were three car payments in the family. There was credit card debt.
He had multiple savings accounts that he was saving for a whole bunch of random things. And I said, "Hey man, your income is totally inefficient. You've got all this money sitting in all these accounts waiting for you to spend. At the same time, you're spending copious amounts on interest payments for cars and homes and credit cards." And so we built a plan that had him completely out of debt in three and a half years – both homes, all three cars, all credit card debt.
I can share valid proof of people who've said, "I think it's possible. I'm going to build a system that makes it possible, and I'm going to go do it." And I think for those that are in their 40s and you're faced with a mountain of debt, and yet you really, really want financial freedom at some point, know beyond the shadow of a doubt, you are somewhere between three and seven years of having everything paid off. All you have to do is have a little bit of discipline and a little bit of definiteness of purpose, to go back to our conversation earlier.
It’s a great reminder that people who perhaps made a silly decision years ago can be proactive about getting on the front foot and taking care of some of those things so they’re not haunted by it forever.
How do we change the education system to start helping people become more responsible about finances?
I will say that that more and more schools today are offering financial education as part of the curriculum, but it's still not enough. In our state alone, they spent two days, two full days, arguing, negotiating, coming up with what the definition of ‘financial literacy’ was. And my mentality was if you spent two days doing that, it's the wrong people in the room defining what financial literacy is.
It’s like the quote, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person!”
Yes, indeed! And not to a committee, and definitely not to legislators. I think for us to change things, it goes back to what I've talked about in my TED Talk, which was that money is largely an illusion today, it's not real, it's zeros and ones, it's bits and bytes of the $4 trillion circulating the globe on a daily basis. Only 2% of that money is in cash point or currency.
Yet we are freely passing money to and from each other through Venmo and Zelle and all these other online apps. But if that's all kids know, the money never feels real. So they get a credit card and they're like, "Cool. I have $1,000 to spend," when they can barely afford the $28 minimum payment that comes along with it.
They need that real-world experience. And that brings us into your amazing TED Talk, which is brilliant! It’s at the London Business School and has more than 10 million views between the TED Talk site and on YouTube, so well done for such an amazing presentation.
Before we talk about the content of that awesome talk, how did you put yourself in a position to be able to get a TED Talk in the first place?
Well, I really appreciate the question, because this is a fun little walk down memory lane for me in terms of how things happen. And going back to even the conversation my dad and I had about me being a wizard, I kind of feel like it was manifested.
The way it manifested was I had been speaking professionally for some time, James. So I knew that I had chops and my career had progressed to a point where I had done local groups, I had done associations. I was on college campuses all across the country. I started getting some international nods. And a friend of mine said, "What's next for you?" And I told him I really feel like there's a TED Talk in what I'm doing.
So we brainstormed what that would look like, and what we came up with was at the very bottom of my signature line on my email, I had a solid line and in big, bold red letters, it said, “My dream is to someday grace the TED stage.” And then just below that, it said, “If you know someone who could help me make that possible, I would be forever in your debt, a simple introduction would suffice.”
And I put it at the bottom of my email signature line and I just left it. And over the course of maybe two or three months of sending out emails, I'm sure thousands of people saw the message and I ended up getting an email one day from a gentleman named Aaron who had been a student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And he said, "Adam, I'm on the curation team of this TEDx event and you were the first person I thought of."
So I went and I did my first TEDx event in the States, in Wisconsin. It was a great experience. I come home kind of riding this high of having accomplished my goal of a TED Talk. And not two weeks later, James, I got another email, this time from a woman named Sarah Durlacher – who's a dear friend of mine – and she said, "Adam, I'm on the curation team for a TEDx event at the London Business School, you're the first person I thought of." And so that's how it materialized. Again, it just kind of felt like I had manifested it.
Adding something to your email signature got you more than 10 million views online and has completely changed the trajectory of your career and the impact that you can have on the world. It's a great lessons of taking the first step to think about what you want, and then that second step of saying, how can I create those circumstances?
In your TED Talk, there's obviously some amazing lessons. Thus the 10+ million views! It's called What Playing Monopoly with Real Money Taught Me About My Kids—and Humanity and it's an incredible perspective. So don't give too much away because I want everyone to go and watch it afterwards. But where did the inspiration for that topic come from?
Well, we're a game playing family, and we love to play ball games, board games, dice games, card games, but my kids love to play monopoly, as many kids do. And one day I was noticing that the game was either really rushed or really slow depending on how my kids decided they wanted to play whether or not they were watching TV.
The money is kind of being shuffled along. And at this point, the money is like crumpled up, sweaty handed bits of paper, right? And I thought, "I wonder if the game would play differently if it were real money." And in the back of my mind at the time, James, I'd come off of a tour of college campuses where I'd met a number of students who were making these very dramatic decisions around money, and not small amounts.
I mean, they were borrowing $80,000 or $100,000. And I thought, "I think it's because the money isn't real that this is part of the issue." And so I did a quick sum of how much was on the counter at the time and was figuring out like, “I think it's $1,500 in starter capital that you need for every player. Well, there are five of us, that's $7,500. And I figured the bank needed $2,500.”
So I went to my credit union on a Friday and I said, "I need $9,990 in these denominations of bills in order to play this cash game of Monopoly." And so the idea I would love to say was like this flash of brilliance, it really was observing my children and observing teenagers and early 20 somethings with money and putting the two together and saying, "I think there's a disconnect and I want to figure out how to connect the dots."
You mentioned something earlier about a regular allowance for your children, which in Australia we call pocket money. Is it important for you that any time money is given to kids that there's some type of exchange and sacrifice for any money to be given?
I think it's important to do. And I'll tell you how I reconcile that. There are a number of people, Dave Ramsey being one of them and I'm sure Suze Orman kind of shares this mindset that kids should be paid commission for chores done. That it's effectively like you're selling me on this job and I'm going to pay you this commission.
The challenge is that you will, at some point, likely experience this, or you may have been a kid like this, that no matter how much money your parents had offered you to clean the toilet, you wouldn't have done it, right? And the thing with my kids is I didn't want them to be able to say, "I'm not going to do that. I don't care how much it is." Because the reality is that there is no job beneath you, particularly in making the house run.
So if it's cleaning the toilet, that's what it is. If it's sweep out the garage, that's part of the job. And so I wanted to tie the allowance to whatever the jobs were around the house. And the only way that they would get it is if they completed the job. In my mind, what it also tied together was you're not going to go get a job, a part-time job, and assume that they're going to pay you and not show up.
You have to show up to work. You have to do the gig in order to get the money. The same is true here. So we did that for quite a while. And candidly, speaking very honestly about it, we've since stopped the allowance program for the most part because our kids do such an effective job of saving and investing and making money that it doesn't really feel like they need the money from us.
What we've shifted that to is building what I would like to call a generational wealth plan, where we are building a program for our kids, much like the Rockefellers did, that by the time they get out of college, there will be an amount of money, a small bank for them to leverage to borrow from, to buy real estate, pay down debt, whatever it may be. So that's where that money has shifted to.
I love it. You're teaching them about the value of a dollar, about the value of hard work and responsibility and a whole bunch of other things aside from just the dollar amount.
My daughter is 18 months old, she loves the Baby Shark song (“Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo”), which you're probably very familiar with as I'm sure everyone who's a parent is! And every day I take her for a walk around the neighborhood and she says "Doo-doo" repeatedly, which is how she firmly requests me to sing it over and over and over again.
The moment I finish singing, she says “Doo-doo” for me to sing it again, although occasionally she mixes it up with “Baa baa” for Baa Baa Black Sheep.
I love it.
She's extremely convincing! I find it almost impossible to say no. As she gets older, that's going to extend to materialistic things. I’m happy to sing Baby Shark to her for 45 minutes each day because it makes her so happy! But at what age do you start saying no to these things, and is there a way to say no responsibly that maintains the peace and happiness?
I wanted to ask this question because I feel like there are a lot of parents out there who they know that their kids are just the ultimate salespeople!
Particularly for those young kids, right? You go into a Target or to a toy store, "I want, I want, can I have this?" And the natural reaction for a young child especially is to cry if they don't get it. And I've talked to parents before in large groups where they'll say my kid just has this utter meltdown.
And logically, and I was taught this by a child psychologist, they said when a baby was hungry as a baby, it cried and it was fed. When the baby was cold, it cried and it was fed. When the baby was wet, it cried and it was changed. So very naturally they equate, if I want something, I just need to cry and then I'll get it. And as parents, we start to give in to that rationale, whether they're three or they're 13, at Target.
So what I tell parents is when you implement the allowance program, and let's say you implement it at five years old, and the deal is the kid is going to get $5 a week. Well, that may seem like a lot to some families, and it may be; you may need to ratchet that down a little bit.
But if it is $5 a week and we go into Target and they see a stuffed animal, or some gadget they want to buy, there is a lesson to be taught there where we say, “Well, let's look at how much it is. Okay, well, it's $18.99. Now, how much do you have?”
“I have $10.”
“Okay. So if you get $5 every week, and you need $10 more dollars, that's two more weeks and then we can come back and get that thing.”
What a lot of parents will do, James, erroneously is they'll say, "Listen, I'll get it and then you can pay me back." But what we're doing is we're teaching instant gratification. And this is probably hard for me to even say, but I've seen my sister do this with her teenage son, he wants a new computer. They bought it for him, but he's going to pay them back by mowing the lawn for the next two years! It doesn't work that way, not in our house. If they want it, they work for it.
It doesn't work that way, not in our house. If they want it, they work for it.
We don't do stuff on credit. It's not the First National Bank of Mom and Dad, because that one's too easy to default on. And once they default on that bank, they're going to default on the next several banks that they're a part of. So I think that the way you bring up a child to learn delayed gratification and understand the value of money is you put money in their hand and you let them make decisions of their own accord and also feel the repercussions of that.
If you, as a parent, don't think they should buy that $20 item but they have $20 and they want to spend it, that's their call. And it's a really hard lesson learned if they get home and it breaks or they get home and they're like, "Guys, don't like it. I want to take it back." You can't do that in some cases.
I love it. So even things like your emergency savings account and the weekly allowance or monthly allowance, whatever that might be, it's important that it's physical money rather than them seeing digital numbers on a computer screen.
100%. And on that note, when we hand it to them, our policy is:
And then we had what I call the family 401k program. So if you put money in investing, I would match it up to $25 a month. So my middle son who's a very savvy one, every month had $25 in his invest jar. And the rest would say, "Well, I'm putting some in savings. I'm going to spend the rest of this." But my middle son knew every month dad's going to give me $25 if I put $25 in here. So again, my goal was to reward that behavior.
What's your favorite thing to spend money on?
James, I am a technology nut. And I would be remiss not to say that I'm on Kickstarter or Indiegogo probably once a week, and I buy stuff. Within arm’s reach of me there's multiple things I bought on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. I love little tech gadgets, and I probably spend too much money on those things, but I geek out on it.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Adam does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question, what's one thing you do to win the day?
This is a hard question to answer. The one thing I do, and it's more like a conglomeration of things is the morning ritual. And the morning ritual for me really starts with a night's sleep that is similar almost every single night. So I learned once, James, that we sleep in circadian rhythms, every 90 minutes we go through a circadian rhythm.
And so that realistically what we should be sleeping is some number of circadian rhythms at night. So it could be six hours, it could be seven and a half hours, could be nine hours, could be 10 and a half hours if you really need sleep. For me, I know that seven and a half hours is my ideal night's sleep. So if I go to bed at 9:30pm or 10:00pm, I'm getting up at 5:00am or 5:30am every single morning.
I'm to the point now where if I know that if I go to bed at 10:00pm I'll wake up at 5:28am, 5:29am, and I bound out of bed. First thing I do is drink a glass of water and stretch and do a little bit of yoga or exercise. And that just starts the day for me the right way. Then it's followed by a little bit of journaling or morning pages if you follow The Writer's Way. And then looking at my schedule for the day.
Then I take a shower, get ready, have breakfast with the kids. But it's all very sequential. And my business partner and I have this theory that if you win the first hour of the day, you win the rest of the day. And so our first hour is orchestrated and scripted to an extent that just makes us feel good.
We’re also building out the ultimate downstairs. You know how every guy wants a lair!? This will be my lair, so I've got a studio that I'm building down there. I've got an exercise area. Adjacent to the gym area, there's a bathroom that I'm putting in a three-person sauna and a standup shower right next to it. So my morning routine, once this is done here in the next few weeks, will be go downstairs, exercise, sit in the sauna, meditate, take a cold shower, get ready, and then go into the studio and work. So I'm jacked about that. So it sounds weird to be excited for cold showers, but I'm super excited about it.
Resources / Links Mentioned:
👨👨👧👧 Adam Carroll’s TED Talk ‘What Playing Monopoly with Real Money Taught Me About My Kids — and Humanity’
📝 Adam Carroll on Facebook
⚡ Adam Carroll on Twitter
💻 Adam Carroll website
🧭 The Shred Method: How to get out of debt
🚀 Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
💰 A Happy Pocket Full of Money by David Cameron Gikandi
🎙️ We Are Members: Create a thriving business from your podcast
“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."
Before we begin, I want to make something very clear: how you respond to adversity when it inevitably strikes is what separates ordinary people from extraordinary achievers.
That’s right, none of us are immune to adversity – and, in fact, the most successful people use the adversity they’ve faced as fuel to move forward stronger and more resilient than ever before.
Today we sit down with Dr Sonja Stribling who has faced enormous adversity her entire life.
She was born into a family as the youngest of 12 children, to parents who only had a second-grade education. At age 15, she gave birth to her first child. And just two years later, at 17 years old, she was raped and left for dead.
Sonja went on to college, but just prior to graduating, she joined the US Army for what would become a 21-year career, including combat tours in war-torn countries like Iraq and reaching the rank of Major.
While in the military, her 18-year marriage fell apart, and she returned to civilian life without any idea of what to do next. Considering taking her own life, Sonja had an epiphany that there was more to her story than what had been written.
Since that fateful moment, she has become an internationally renowned speaker, author, television presenter, and business coach, as well as recipient of the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award.
In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about:
She holds nothing back and I know you’re going to love it. Let’s win the day with Dr Sonja Stribling.
You're one of the strongest people I know. You've also got about the biggest heart out of anyone that I know, and you've helped so many people all around the world. We'll get into the amazing highs and lows of your story very shortly.
But first I wanted to say thank you for your service and thank you for all you do to make the world a better place. I'm deeply honored to have you here today.
Thank you so much for your continued support James.
What was your life like growing up, especially as the youngest of 12 children?
Honestly, I felt like I was the only child because they were so much older. At the very beginning, everyone was two years apart, but when you get to the last three or four of us we were spread out a little bit. Of course I was what they called the “mistake baby” and the mistake baby came eight years after everybody else. So when I showed up, it was a little different.
I didn't know my dad and I had to dig deep into that later in life, but I remember him being around once. Maybe when I was 9 - 10 years old, but that's about it. So my childhood wasn't the best. It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't the best. And so just being the youngest of 12 and knowing my mom had a third-grade education and my dad had I think second-grade education, that's about all I remember of him. But my mother is a strong woman, for sure.
And your teenage years were particularly challenging. You had a child at 15 and just two years later, you were raped and left for dead in a field. How did those experiences change your mindset at the time, having that happen at such a young age?
Well, I can remember being 15 years old, James, and you will see me look up because I can remember being in that hospital room, giving birth to my first child at 15 years old. I remember them strapping me down to the table. I can smile about it now, but for years I couldn't tell that story.
A 15-year-old should not be giving birth, but I did. It was a blessing later, but during that time I had to grow up really fast – I’m very open and transparent now about my story. My mom was a saving grace. She was there when the rest of my family wanted me to have an abortion. My mother was like, "No, that's not what we do. You made this bed, you're going to lie in it." But it was a blessing. My son will be 34 this year, but it's a blessing that I had a mother like that who insisted I be responsible for this child.
I had to grow up really fast.
And then, as you mentioned before, James, two years later in the wrong place at the wrong time. I grew up fast. I skipped my entire teenage years, and all the fun things we’re supposed to do as teenagers, because I was a mom. I didn't get the opportunity to do that. I was busy with school, busy with a child, busy just trying to figure out my life.
It was a bit much, but at 17 when that happened, it really changed who I was. I didn't think the same. I was very angry. I was very hurt, disappointed. So it was a lot to deal with as a young adult.
At 22, you went and joined the military, which was a career you ended up having for more than 20 years. What was it about the US Army that appealed to you?
It's so funny. I laugh about this because it was just a couple of years ago that I realized that out of 12 siblings, seven of us were in the military. Four of us were retired military. Because they were so much older, they weren't around. And then when I got older, I went to college, played college basketball, and then joined the military. It wasn't the conversations that we had, because I wasn't there. During their adult life, I was younger and with mom. So it was just different.
I always saw the "Be all you can be" army sticker on the door. So when I joined, it just seemed natural that I was supposed to be there, and I absolutely enjoyed my career in the military. I'm glad it's over, but you know once a soldier, always a soldier.
It gave me the opportunity to express how I felt about the heavy things that I couldn’t express previously. So it was a blessing for me to join and serve my country.
Well, doing combat tours in places like Iraq, I'm sure that presented elements of life and humanity that other people would really have no idea about. What did those experiences teach you about the world?
Wow, great question, James. By the way – you ask the best questions ever! Just being in a foreign land… I’m a country girl from Wilson, Arkansas, who had never been on foreign soul. And when I traveled on foreign soil for the first time, I was an Officer, and it was just like, “Wow, am I really in the desert?” Like proper desert, not Arizona or any place like that.
Iraq is a place I never want to go back to – not in that situation and as a mom having to leave my kids for 15 months. I was married at the time. My husband was there and he was about a 45 minute flight away, but you can’t just walk outside of the gate and say, “I'm going to go see my husband.” You had to catch a flight. And of course that was dangerous.
So that experience in itself is something I can't describe. I wouldn't really want to, but I would just say it really opened my eyes to what was happening around the world. And the fact that I was a part of a war is, I don't know… War is something that I didn’t find myself in, it’s something I volunteered for. I raised my hand and said, “This is what I want to do.”
War is something that I didn’t find myself in, it’s something I volunteered for.
I volunteered to serve my country and that was a part of it. So I wouldn't take it back, but I don't want to go back there either.
When was the moment in your life where you felt empowered for the first time? That you felt maybe you had more power than what you ever thought possible?
In this very home, some years ago, I was lying on my back, James, and I was just reflecting on my life. All the things that we spoke about. I was in a very deep, dark place, depression, all of that. I had recently retired from the military after serving 21 years. I just wanted more.
It was this feeling of, “Okay, you cannot live like this. There's got to be more.” I wanted something that was going to bring me happiness. I just remember crying. My prayer was, "Please don't let me live like this." Because as a woman of faith and a believer in God, it was, “God, please help me. Don't let me live like this.”
I had children and, James, if I can be very honest and very transparent, I was at the moment where I was literally wanting to take my life. I didn't want to be here anymore. It was just way too much. Thinking back: being in the Army for 21 years, having a child at 15 years old, what happened at 17. Those things happened. Then a marriage of 18 years ending in divorce that took three years to dissolve. It was a bit much for a single mom of three kids.
I was literally wanting to take my life. I didn't want to be here anymore.
I sat back and thought, “Okay, there's got to be more. So if you're not going to let me take my life, please just don't let me live like this. Just use me in whatever capacity you think I fit in.”
After that, I found myself very quickly on social media sharing my story, sharing my life about divorce, and all of these women thanked me for helping them, but it was helping me too because everything that was pent up on the inside of me I could share it very openly. Messages, emails, all of that were coming through.
So the turning point was when I realized that there was more for me to do, when I began to bring a smile to somebody else's face helping them get through whatever they were going through, it blew my mind. No one ever talked to me about it. No one ever shared that, "Hey, you can tell your story. You can share," but that's exactly what happened and it changed my life forever.
That honesty and authenticity is such a big part of your personality and one of the things I love most about you. Well, you had this 18-year marriage, which you just mentioned was a really difficult time in your life, but that then went on to inspire your book. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience, what the book means to you, and the lessons in it that help other women today?
The book is called, The Divorce that Saved My Life: 12 Principles to Overcoming a Broken Relationship. You can go and find it on Amazon and at the bookstore. The book was more of my story, but it wasn't just my story. It was tips and tools for women or men – whomever read it – to really help them walk through the journey and to know that divorce is not the end.
Divorce can be the beginning if you want, because in itself that book was my story of how I overcame all of the trauma and the pain in my life and the disappointment in the divorce in itself. It walks individuals through identifying the problems, why you're in broken relationships, and why we choose the mates that we choose, and all of that. So it was a part of my give back, to share the very intimate parts of my life.
And it was just inspired because I had to get it out. One day I was like, “I want to write a book” but I didn't realize how challenging that was. Even to this day, I cannot read it all the way through without crying. I was like, “Who is this and how did she survive?” Knowing that it was me and I was a part of this big movie. But the main thing is that it helps someone else. So that book was just something that I just wanted to give back to help someone else write their own story.
Recently I had mindset and brain expert, John Assaraf, on the show. And he was talking about using the past as a guiding post, not a hitching post. It sounds like you had something similar.
What was it about your life that made you want to work with female empowerment in particular, which of course has led to you having your own TV show and a whole bunch of other amazing opportunities around the world?
Well, truth be told James, I didn't want to really help women. I Just didn't. I wanted to focus on just me, because simple fact, because I'm a woman, I know what we deal with, all the nuances, the ups and downs and the roller coasters and all of that. But of course the universe and God had a different plan for me, and women began to come.
Men do come and I do coach men as well, but my focus in my heart was for women because all of the things we deal with. We multitask so much. We have so much on our plates. We're our husbands' wife and we're our children's mother, and we're the caregivers for everybody else. And people are pulling at us and I realize, “What if I can help another woman get to where I am?” I’m not saying I made it to the mountaintop, but I sure feel like I had, and I know it's just the beginning. So I just decided, okay, let me help some other women build their business.
One day, I had walked off stage after a speaking event, and a woman tapped me on the shoulder. I thought she wanted a signed book, but she said, "No, no, no, I don't want a book. My marriage is great. My relationship is amazing. I want to know how to do what you do."
I thought, “What am I doing!?” I didn't realize I was doing something! I was just doing at the time, what I thought was necessary and needed. It helped me, but it helped other women.
She said, "I need a coach."
And at that moment, that's when I stepped into this role of being someone else, not just a life coach, but someone else's business coach, because all they wanted to know is how do I do what you do? How do I build a six figure or higher business?
I was like, “Wow, I am doing that!”
At that time, I had made a million dollars in my business just helping others, not really thinking of it as a business, which is crazy. That's a whole different story in itself. But then I realized, James is that they were asking. So I began to build something so massive that would help women change generational wealth, to take them on a journey to help other people and really change the trajectory of their life and their business, if that was their choice to have.
You're very candid and open about talking about money, yet it seems to be almost a taboo subject in most countries. Tell us more about this mission to help others build wealth and freedom and why so many people have a bad relationship with money?
I think it's all from our childhood around the world. I mean, I used to think it was just for women and men who were in the US. But then I began to travel to the UK, Australia, and Canada, I realized it was everywhere.
Money makes the world go round. I don't care what anyone says. Most people who say it's not important, normally don't have any, which I not necessarily their fault. It is just more about what we've been taught along the way.
Money makes the world go round. I don't care what anyone says.
We can sit at a table and talk about money, but if I look at the table men talk about money, no problem. But women are very shy about having conversations about someone paying for their services. I wanted to change that thought process of you sitting at the table and being very confident about who you are and what you bring to the table, because you wouldn't allow someone to do that in a job.
You know what you're worth, but why is it so different when it comes to business? That's the pathway I want to change for women to know that they are worth so much more than what they give themselves credit for and what they allow others to put a price tag on them.
There was something I heard you say in another interview, “If you didn't come from a wealthy family, let a wealthy family come from you.” What does that mean exactly?
Oh, wow. So I was sitting in church some years ago with my son who was in his freshman year of college, and the pastor said something very similar to that. At the time, my son elbowed me and said, "Mom, he's talking about you." Oh my gosh, James, my face at the beginning just swelled with tears. I started crying so har, just from the simple fact that my youngest realized that our lives or his life, his children's lives, are different because of that.
So when you hear me say publicly and in books and wherever that if you didn't come from a wealthy family, let a wealthy family come from you. Just because you came from nothing doesn't mean your family has to carry on that tradition. It means you get to create whatever lifestyle that you want. And so it's just been my mantra.
Just because you came from nothing doesn't mean your family has to carry on that tradition.
I don't want my children to suffer the way I did or the way my mother did. It's not just about the money. Being rich is more about teaching them different ways that they don't have to always go get a 9:00 to 5:00 and always have to go to school because school is not for everyone, but there are other means to create wealth. You just need to know where to find those ideas and the strategies and the tips and tools to do so.
This year in particular has really shone a light on social injustice. To me, one of the most alarming statistics is that the average net worth of a black American family is $17,000, whereas for a white American family it's $170,000. At a community level, or at whatever level you think you want to talk about, what can be done to help balance this wealth gap? Because clearly a very real problem exists somewhere.
There's so much. I was having this conversation with one of my sons at home, and he plays in NFL at times, and then he was coming over to Canada to play, but of course they closed the borders. And we were talking about the years from slavery and all the things that were happening.
And by the way, James, when this took place, I think for eight days at the beginning, I cried every day. Every single day. I had to stop watching social media. I literally felt like it was happening to my family. I have three young black sons, so I called them all the time to check in. One was home, one went back to college, and the oldest one was in Arkansas. So I was constantly on the phone to sure that they're okay.
And then even during the pandemic, I'll be honest, my business tripled. It is simply because I got the opportunity. I worked from home, but I was doing a lot of traveling before COVID, but I just made the pivot and I start working from home. I started thinking about not just the community but what about us as African Americans and what we can do. I truly believe what has happened is we have not been educated at the same level that others have.
What I mean by that, talking to some of my Caucasian friends or anyone outside of the black community, the conversation that some of them are having at their kitchen table wasn't about survival. It was about, "Hey, when you get 18, if you don't go to college or you need to go to college, you can get more education. So you can be the accountant in our business, or you can do those things." They were having conversations about business.
But we weren’t having those conversations in my community. I know I didn't have that conversation with my mom. Not at nine sitting at the kitchen table, it was just, "Hey, we're going to eat today. What are we eating? And do you have homework?" It wasn't about the future per se, other than graduate, get a good job, go to college, get a good job. That was the conversation. And what I believe our community is missing is that education.
I’ve been in the military 21 years. Did I see racism? Yes. However, most of the time when I was in the room, James, I was a senior person, so people said, "Hey, you may not want to do that with her." It was just a respect thing that was mandated through the military. When I retired, I saw the world different. So I felt like I'd been sheltered a long time. I'm not saying racism doesn't exist in the military because it absolutely does. But what's happening in the world now is at a whole different level.
And so I think for us, we haven't been shown a few things, but I also think we have to take responsibility and not think it's about looking good and having these nice things or nice hair and all of that. There's so many other things that I've learned along the way. Just to say that I'm the first millionaire in my family is a big deal. Sometimes I get choked up about it. My children know, my family knows I'm the youngest, but I had to take on opportunities when they weren't always offered to me. I had to go find them.
You mentioned access to education, which I think is so important. In my experience, where I’ve learned the most in a practical sense is actually doing things – it’s solving real life and business problems. It's not necessarily what I learned at elementary school or high school of which I really remember probably zero. It was from having my own businesses.
I know that there's a lot of associations out there working with communities now to try and give people real life business experience through simulations, training, and programs, and I hope that style of education continues, especially in low income communities, all around the world. Entrepreneurial skills, especially now that the barriers to entry are so low where all you really need to start a business is an internet connection and a phone.
Oh yeah, 2020 is a year of the expert. If you have some life experience and knowledge... This year, James, I launched a new platform called Kitchen Table CEO. It's just that. It is more of taking your life experience and the knowledge that you had to be able to create generational wealth, because people are picking your brain all the time. They're asking you your opinion on things, and we just give it away and not thinking that you actually have something on the inside of you that many people want.
You don't need 100,000 people to make a $100,000 anymore. You need a handful of people who are willing to invest in themselves, and you take them on a journey. When I learned that, it changed the game for me.
You don't need 100,000 people to make a $100,000 anymore. You need a handful of people who are willing to invest in themselves, and you take them on a journey.
I was sharing with one of my colleagues who was in the military 28 years. He was talking about how he had just written his book and he's doing all these great things. I said, “If I would've known what I know now…” and I've invested a lot, James – and I'm sure you have as well – in my self-development but also in the business that I saw for myself.
Did I imagine one day it would be a multimillion-dollar business? Absolutely not. I just wanted to make $10,000. I wanted to replace the income from the military and that began to happen not just by the month and by the week and by the hour. It was like, “Wow, I have my hands on something.” If I had learned this years ago, while I was active duty military, I probably would have gotten out early. So it happened at the right time, but I've learned so much about wealth, the difference in wealth and riches and just really creating your own table.
And I love to say write your own check. When you're able to do that, no one can take that from you, not even a pandemic.
Yeah, it's so true having that resourcefulness and of course the resilience that you've forged from a life of challenges that you've overcome. And a lot of the mutual friends we have are all about making sure that we can learn the lessons from adversity and that it's never fatal unless we accept it as such.
You mentioned systemic racism before and it's been a major spotlight in 2020, not just in the US but around the world. Now that a bit of time has passed, how do you feel about the activism that's happened this year? And since we seem more divided than ever, what can people do to move forward united?
Well, the social injustice that's going on right now has led me to learn more about history than I've ever done. I didn't know anything about Black Wall Street. I learned about that, the killing and the massacre of a whole town and black business owners. They burned the city to the ground – just wiped out families.
It made me reflect on what happened in our history that made us think that because of someone's skin color, that they're less than. You have to think about how imbalanced someone is to think on that level and for it to carry over hundreds of years, even to today.
And when you hear the conversation about black lives matter, and then you say all lives matter... It's almost like, James, your wife coming to you and saying, "Honey, I'm not happy today because this is what you did."
The wrong thing for James to do is to say, "Well, I'm not happy either," right?
Whoa, wait a minute – I came to you first! This is not a tit for tat. I came to you to let you know that I'm not happy and to see if you could help me work through this. It is not the time to say all lives matter. Because all lives matter is not the point right now, it is about black lives matter. It's not saying everybody's not important. We're not saying that. We're saying right now, what we see in society is there a lot of black people being killed. There's a lot of injustice for the black community and we want something done.
And so when I sat back, I never really thought about this before. Again, I was in the military. I believe I was very much sheltered from what was happening in society. Well, I'm no longer sheltered. I'm wide awake. I see what's happening and I'm not very happy about it. At one point I was very angry, mainly at the fact that I missed it. So what I believe is happening is just some of the old thought processes that people have had. They have instilled it in their children.
But as far as unity, it's just time. I'm loving that Nike and Sprite and all those folks, national platforms are bringing awareness. You see tennis pros wearing a t-shirt with ‘Say her name’ and things like that.
But there's still some people who are quiet. Why? It could be about the bottom line, what's on their paycheck.
We’re going to get to a place where it's not all about the money. It is about justice and being right and fair. But we have to do something. We can no longer go back to the way we were. I'm very interested to see what the upcoming years look like about social injustice and when we ever get to a point, it's going to be a process for sure, but I'm curious to see what it looks like at the end of the road, at least during the time that I'm alive.
Can you imagine us all working together and that in itself, I would love to see that. I believe we're on our way. We have some ways to go, but it has to start from the very top from leadership. And that's the thing that needs to be changed and challenged more so than anything.
You're a mom to three boys, and I'm a new father. It's funny when you become a parent, it's like the fears that you have for yourself get passed down where you worry about what’s going to happen to your children rather than yourself. And it seems weird that the fear I have for my one child could be amplified by three because of the three children that you have, and parents who have even more children! As a mother, what is the greatest fear that you have for you children?
That they will be judged by the color of their skin and that they will not get a fair shake in life. All three of my boys now have dreadlocks; it’s not something I'm a fan of, right? Not because of a race or anything – I like clean-cut military, but they look very nice in their dreads. They are athletes too. So it is just assuming that all young black men are thugs or gangsters or whatever. They're very educated, highly respectful young men but my fear is that they will not be treated fairly because of their skin color.
But the second fear I have is that they will have a poverty mindset, and I know I have a responsibility in that. Not under my watch. We're not playing that game at all. I'm adamant about that, that it is not a ‘woe is me’ scenario, even though there's a pandemic happening, even though there are leaders who are not looking out for your wellbeing, and all of that. I want to give them something pandemic-proof, but at a minimum to make sure they don’t have a poverty mindset.
Now, as they get older, if they make decisions along the way and they do that, that's fine. But I don't want to raise them in that thought process. So a lot of the ways, James, that I used to think about things have changed because of what's happening right now. A lot of people are having to make decisions because of the pandemic, such as what they do financially.
About a week ago, I started a real estate company for my kids. That was the best feeling in the world, that I can change generational wealth because of how much I've invested in myself, the things that I've learned, so they don't have to go down that pathway and they can create their next level, if they want. Do they still have to deal with some racism? Yes. But I don't want them dealing with racism and being in poverty.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Sonja does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about her favorite quote, what advice she’d give her 18-year-old self, her favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
That mindset is such a big thing. The reverse of the poverty mindset is the growth mindset, or wealth mindset as some people might call it. I think a growth mindset is about as good a gift as you could give any child on their journey through life.
Final question, what's one thing you do to win the day?
I wake up every single morning and I ask myself, “Who can I serve today to get to their next level?”
Resources / links mentioned:
📷 Sonja Stribling on Instagram
⚡ Sonja Stribling website
📙 The Divorce That Saved My Life: 12 Principles To Overcoming A Broken Relationship by Dr Sonja Stribling
“My biggest fear is that when I die the person I am meets the person I could have become.”
Won’t that quote (above) make you think twice about living every minute to the fullest!?
Well, today's guest is a truly extraordinary human and DEFINITELY living to the fullest! And if you’ve got kids of your own or an adventurous spirit you’re going to absolutely love this one.
Bruce Kirkby grew up in Toronto as an engineering physicist by trade, but going through the motions each day left him feeling like there was so much more to life than what he was experiencing.
Despite almost failing English in high school, Bruce became a wilderness writer and adventure photographer, and today he’s visited more than 80 countries and is renowned for connecting wild places with contemporary issues. Some of his most notable accomplishments, of which there are many, include the first modern crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter by camel, a descent of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Gorge by raft, a sea kayak traverse of Borneo’s northern coast, and a coast-to-coast Icelandic trek.
Bruce is the author of three bestselling books, winner of multiple National Magazine Awards, and has been featured in The New York Times. His television show Big Crazy Family Adventure was released by the Travel Channel in 2015 and followed Bruce’s journey with his wife and two young children from their home in Canada to India with one condition – they weren’t able to use an airplane the entire time. That adventure in particular has some truly incredible moments.
In this interview, we’re going to dive into Bruce’s craziest experiences, of which there are many. We’ll also look at:
He’s got an incredible energy, some amazing stories, and I know you’re going to love this episode. Let’s get into it!
What was an average day for Bruce Kirkby growing up?
I grew up in the suburban wastelands of Toronto at the end of the subway line, so I felt like I was kind of removed from the action. I was a bit of a geek – good at maths and science. I was pretty active too, and loved to ride my bike and explore. Now, I've spent my whole life doing wilderness travel but, even at that age, I remember the joy in poking around construction sites once the workers had left. At the time though, I did not see myself as anything other than a math and science nerd.
In high school, I failed English. It's kind of weird that I ended up writing books and being a columnist for newspapers! But I thought I'd always go into math and science. By the time I got to university, I wanted to be like Michael J. Fox in Family Ties. I'm like, "I'll get an MBA and I'll just study engineering." I thought it would be this killer duo.
When I graduated, I was off to chase the money, until I started guiding rafts and everything else.
You’re an engineering physicist by trade. When did you get the sense that there was much more to your life than that traditional route you were on?
Eng phys is beautiful because you learn why the sky is blue, how electricity works, and all kind of practical things, but it only prepares you for academia and research. I knew already that wasn't for me, so I got a job in a little consulting firm and I loved the excitement. It was six people at the start, and I left four months later was 45 people, so it was growing quickly. It was in IT consulting, and I was in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.
As that was happening, my housemate had rented a cheap house in Ottawa and was starting a bungee jumping company as part of a rafting outfit on the river. I went to a meeting and the head of the rafting company said, "Why don't you guide rafts for us?" And I did. There was just such clarity for me that those two days of the weekend were so much more… not just joyful, but meaningful. They mattered to me more than the other five days of the week, even with the 99.8% cut in pay. I decided that's where I was going to go.
Too many people, especially in fields like investment banking, are living to work?
We put a lot of demands in western culture, and that's not wrong. I'm still a full Type-A guy, and it happened to be that my interests and my joys evolved. People often ask what my strength or superpower was that led me through this. For whatever reason, I had real comfort with uncertainty.
When I quit engineering, I didn't need to know what was going to happen one year later, or five years, or 30 years. But it led me to find the things that mattered to me, which is remote landscapes and threatened indigenous and traditional cultures around the world. So I still brought that full intensity, that full Type-A work ethic, into what I do. I just realized pretty quickly that working in a downtown setting wasn't for me.
Some of the adventures that you've been on are absolutely incredible in your travel to 80+ countries. Let's start with the Arabian desert where you did the first modern crossing of Arabia's empty quarter by camel. For those who don't know much about that region, the climate, the geography and anything else, how brutal was that experience?
Well, so many expeditions are difficult but fun. The empty quarter was the quarter of the world. The Bedouin thought it was uninhabited. They thought there was this huge sand desert in the middle of the peninsula that was empty. So only really three people had crossed it before us and in modern times no one. Wilfred Thesiger was the last fellow in 1938 who had been through that region. So we went back in 1999 and bought 12 camels.
It got hot. I remember our thermometer broke. It was 52.1 Celsius (126 Fahrenheit), so for a Canadian, we call it a toque. I like to have a hat on and my warm boots. Because you can escape the cold, but you cannot escape the heat.
There was no way out. It was hot, but none of it seemed like deprivation. I remember we really tried to go as traditionally as possible. I'd heard about other people who had made attempts and brought plastic water jugs that had just cracked in the heat. Instead, we had sheepskins. You basically take a sheep, cut the head off, empty it out and turn it inside out, and hang it by the legs from the saddle, one on each side. Man, the water that came out was green, and there's like these floating hairs and pieces of other stuff.
You talked about it being brutal. That does sound brutal, but for me, the joys were learning about the Arabic culture and learning about the Bedouin. That feeling of working over a period of time towards our destination… when we saw the blue waters of the Arabian Gulf and rode into Abu Dhabi, it just felt incredible.
It must have been an amazing feeling. What about the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia and Sudan? They’re two countries that are known recently for unfortunately some violent conflicts. Tell us about that experience?
That was a good year in 1999 because right after crossing the Arabian Peninsula, I went down the Blue Nile with the National Geographic team. The Blue Nile is the bigger tributary of the Nile. The White Nile is longer and it's famous for its origins in the mountains. The Blue Nile supplies about 70% of the water to hit the Aswan Dam, and Ethiopia had been through a period since the early '70s called the reign of terror where no expeditions had been in there.
Blashford-Snell in '68 had led an attempt to go down part of the Blue Nile. One of his men was eaten by a crocodile. A lot of stuff went down, so this was the opening of Ethiopia. It was still kind of controlled by the deputized outlaws and brigands in those highlands.
The Blue Nile Gorge is huge. It is three times the size of the Grand Canyon. We traveled about 500 miles on those big, big volume rapids. The white water wasn't crazy difficult, but at the bottom of every rapid there were 20 to 30 crocodiles. I mean, to the crocs, the rafts look like bloated cow carcasses. And you're probably familiar with how aggressive crocodiles are in the Nile.
As an Australian, I'm very familiar with crocodiles!
Exactly! The Salties in Australia. These were Nile crocodiles. On the first day, one of our interpreters and guides picked up all these little rocks and I was like, "What are those?" He's like, "Oh, they're croc rocks." And he put them beside himself on his seat. When a crocodile showed up, he threw it at the croc, and the croc disappeared.
The white water wasn't crazy difficult, but at the bottom of every rapid there were 20 to 30 crocodiles.
I thought, "Wow, that's amazing." Then I realized it was relatively easy to scare these crocs away, until we got to the big ones.
They always say that you can estimate the size of a crocodile: the distance between its eyes in inches is roughly equivalent to the length in feet. So some of these early ones had a whole lot of inches between the eyes, because that's what you see coming at you. We had a monster come at us – we hit it with oars and paddles, even the croc rocks, and they did nothing. The head was the size of an engine block of an F-150!
Where were you even sleeping at that point!? In Australia at least, crocodiles are known for traveling a long distance on land too.
I was sleeping beside the slowest runner on our team! We were on the banks, but definitely we were aware at all times of what was going on.
Did you have any challenges from a government and military perspective at the time?
We had all types of stuff going. In fact, a friend of mine ran the river the next year and he met a herdsman who said, "Oh, I shot at a couple rafts that came down the river last year, but I missed them." Thank goodness!
We got taken hostage at one point. And when I say hostage, I mean basically three kids. The oldest was 18. The other two looked 13, with AK-47s. Fingers on the triggers. They wanted to walk us in the jungle and take us to their leader. And that's a pretty intense moment when we're going through three layers of interpretation from English to Amharic.
Eventually, with some bribery, we walked out of that. People often talk about the scariest and most uncertain times on these expeditions. People with guns scare me more than anything because most other things have a certain level of predictability to them. You know, you can understand a bear's behavior, a crocodile's behavior and whatnot.
People with guns scare me more than anything because most other things have a certain level of predictability to them.
We met some tribes in the lowlands who had zero contact before us. A lot of my writing and a lot of my thinking is about preserving the incredible knowledge that is held within these vessels of indigenous cultures. So I really had some mixed feelings about that. But the interactions… they would ask how we got on our tight white shirts and then we'd say, "That's our skin!" And then they'd be like, "You guys are disgusting. You're see-through. It's horrible!"
What did you use to bribe them with? Did you have any cash on you or did they want something that was more valuable than perhaps a piece of paper with a number on it?
Do you ever go anywhere without some Ben Franklin's in your wallet!? The American hundred-dollar bill is a universal lubricant. We had several of those and I think it's recognized everywhere. I mean, we had lots of other things that we would trade and give away, but I don't think there's anywhere in the world that $100 doesn't speak pretty loudly.
I know you went to Mount Everest as part of Big Crazy Family Adventure, but what were your experiences with Everest like before that?
I went there in 1997, which was one year after the big Into Thin Air tragedy. I went there with a Canadian team and my role was to set up the communications to run radios on the mountain and send satellite stuff back to sponsors.
It was pretty shocking for me. I mean, the Himalaya are beautiful. I love that land and landscape, and the Sherpa people in particular. But it was the start of, and this is going to sound harsh for me to say, but the ego-driven side of Everest – people really going there in a very goal-oriented way without perhaps the respect and understanding of the mountains or perhaps the mentorship they probably should have gone through.
Just paying big money so they could tick the Everest box?
Absolutely. I saw husbands and wives break up with each other over trying to get to this summit. I understand the allure of the summit and I'm a driven guy, but I have to admit overall I was a little disillusioned.
I had a chance to go back to Everest a few years later or go to the Arabian Desert and ride the camels on the empty quarter. I knew immediately which I was going to do largely because I was interested in being away from those crowds and that insanity. I mean, there were showers in base camp and huge satellite receivers and it's only gotten worse. That was '97. Some people don’t mind that, but it wasn't for me.
Crowds certainly dampen your enthusiasm for wilderness adventures. Outside of the Galapagos Islands, Yosemite is the most spectacular place I’ve ever been to. But there were just so many people there that I just can't imagine how amazing it would have been hundreds of years, prior to the crowds.
Totally. And the funny thing in Yosemite and the Galapagos is you can get away from it a little bit. I mean Yosemite, if you're halfway up The Chief or something, you're on your own generally. The other routes can get a little bit busy.
Particularly hard for me was the focus so intently on the summit at Everest that people lost sight of the beauty, they lost sight of the culture, and the land and the history.
A large part of my work is that I think we need to stay connected with wild places and want to get people out to the Canadian parks. We talked about Banff and Glacier and all these places. It can be hard. Particularly hard for me was the focus so intently on the summit at Everest that people lost sight of the beauty, they lost sight of the culture, and the land and the history. They're going to walk all over each other just to get to the top of this pile of rocks.
Yeah, that “I’ll be happy if” mentality. Like my Everest journey will only be a success if I make it to the peak.
Totally. I think people thought it was going to change their life. Consistency and habits change your life. Standing on top of a pile of rocks doesn't change anything.
In 2015 your TV show, Big Crazy Family Adventure, was released by the Travel Channel and our good friend, Wes Dening. It followed the Kirkby family as you traveled from Canada to India, more than 13,000 miles by every mode of transportation without taking any airplanes.
You were on cargo ships, donkeys, canoes, rickshaws – you name it. You traveled with your wife and two children, aged seven and three at the time. How did you prepare for that journey?
That was a big trip. We were going because we wanted to basically live in a Tibetan, Himalayan Buddhist monastery and get away from this crazy amount of distraction and business we were feeling in our lives. I'd been talking to our good buddy Wes over the years about TV shows and ideas for adventure. I called him and said, "Wes, I'm just going to be out of the loop for the next six months because I'm taking my kids to live in Ladakh."
And there's this pause on the phone. He's like, "Hold on, mate. That might be it! The ultimate family relocation."
I went back to Wes and said, "I was thinking about Ewan McGregor and Long Way Round, like just one embedded photographer. Maybe we film it ourselves just really up close and personal and gritty."
There's another pause on the line and Wes said, "Mate, the Travel Channel has a different vision. We got 16 on the crew and budget for eight helicopters."
I'm like, "I better go talk to my wife, man!"
Things escalated quickly! I can imagine your wife would have been thrilled that your family adventure had quickly turned into a global television show with eight helicopters!
It did escalate quickly! There was a lot of great stuff about the trip and people cannot believe that it wasn't intrusive having the TV crew around. Obviously, there are stressful times. You're wearing a mic, your camera is around you for 100 days almost. That said, it was like Teflon to my boys – it just bounced off their backs.
There's a lot of upsides. The one beautiful thing is we have a nine-hour home documentary about our trip that was produced by a crack team in Los Angeles. The boys watch it all the time! I don't go back and watch myself too much. Once the crew left us, we had this incredible experience in the monastery.
There's another pause on the line and Wes said, "Mate, the Travel Channel has a different vision. We got 16 on the crew and budget for eight helicopters."
But it was really neat and we did a lot of things we wouldn't have done with them. But in terms of preparing, we'd already taken the kids out a lot. We have a thing similar to Yosemite in Canada, with some granite spires. At three months of age, we had Bodi in there. We climbed up to high camps with them. At eight months, we'd had him down in Patagonia. We've done a 70-day horse trip in the Republic of Georgia with both boys. Taj was eight months old at the time.
With the boys, one of the particular challenges was that Wes is like, "We're not going to help. You got to do it all on your own." So we had to pack into two duffel bags, everything we would need for a 100-day journey across the North Pacific over the Himalaya, down in the jungles and heat of Nepal. There were a lot of environments that we were going through. Our plan was I would carry those two duffels – one on my back and one in my arms. Christine would have the two boys in her hands, and we could navigate anything: train stations, guest houses, busy roads in Beijing.
Essentially that's how it worked, so we went light. It's easy to think, "Oh, the kids need a lot of shirts. We'll wash them in the sink at night and dry them and they'll be ready for the morning." We had maybe two or three shirts each, and some first aid and some good hiking boots and that was about it.
How did you prep for the first aid side? When you've got two young kids in the mix and different languages and medical facilities that mightn’t be as good as what you're used to. How did you prepare from that perspective?
Our assumption was we couldn't get medical help. Once we were at the monastery, we were at least two days drive away – in the best conditions – from a hospital. Or, if the road was closed, that would be 14 days of walking. It was a long way.
Luckily, I have friends who are doctors. And as a guide, you have lots of wilderness and first aid training. We took pretty robust medical kits. I took sutures. I've had these sutures forever and I'd watched a Sherpa get 79 stitches in his face at Everest when he fell off a bridge, and that had been two decades earlier.
One of the novice monks at the monastery had a rock hit him that opened up a gash, and I put four stitches into his forehead. We actually use those sutures we took and that was a pretty intense moment. I write about it in the book a bit and the bond between me and him, the trust that's required to sew someone's forehead together, it was unreal really. It was a pretty special moment. And the boys still talk about Jigmet probably more than any other of the novices. But we had everything. I had the most buffed-out first aid kits, because you're taking kids, right? You need to be ready for anything. We had three or four EpiPens just in case.
What did that journey teach you about yourself and your family?
I hinted earlier that the genesis of this was the idea of distraction. I was a bit slow adopting to these smartphones. I probably got my first iPhone a few months prior to that trip. I think just like a tractor beam, I got sucked in really quickly. Just staring at streams of Kafka coming across Twitter and Facebook. I had these two beautiful boys and I knew that I want to be paying attention to them, and I started realizing I'm wasting my time on other stuff. I tried to change it.
We're a lot more fluent now with our understanding of distraction and how these devices work. But both Christina and I wanted to go to the Himalaya with our kids, to live in a Buddhist monastery, and this just seemed like the time.
So when you ask what it taught us, it reinforced to me that time away from distractions with your family forms this incredible bond. No matter what happens when you're home, the gutters need the leaves pulled out of them and that something is broken down, the car needs more gas. There's always something to do. But when it's just the four of you in the same tent every night for six months, something really special happens and I've been exposed to that before. This was the longest big trip we've done at that time.
Time away from distractions with your family forms this incredible bond.
And there were other things that I came home with in terms of Buddhism and things I learned from those ancient cultures. What we've kept doing is going on big trips every summer and it's almost like it just resets that plaster that holds us together.
We just spent 21 days in canoes on the Columbia River and that first night we all crawled into the tent and we have our little positions, we lie, and the kids on the outside, me here. Everything has got to be right because my kids are sticklers for a routine. It just felt we're back! Here we are and by the time we got off the river, we were a well-oiled and well-connected family.
I love that. When our daughter was born 17 months ago, our big focus for her was making she was used to travel, noise, and people. Me being from Australia and my wife being from California, we knew there was going to be a lot of travel on our horizon. When she was two weeks old, we’d taken a six-hour drive to Shaver Lake. At six weeks old, she flew to Hawaii with us. At seven months old, we flew to Australia.
From everything I’ve learned in my 37 years on this planet is that getting kids as adaptable as possible is so powerful. Obviously there are elements of routine that are important, and there are unforeseen challenges that can emerge for any parent. But raising her to be constantly out of her comfort zone has been, and continues to be, a big focus for us as parents.
Totally. There's a lot I can say about kids and travel, but kids need love and their parents. If you're providing those, you're everything. I figured that out really quickly. The other amazing thing with children is what a window into the culture they are as you travel. You go to Buenos Aires or Southeast Asia and you're a 20-year-old backpacker and the locals look at you like, "Don't you have to work? What are you doing!?"
You show up with a baby and it's like everyone has that struggle, right? It's a universal part of all our journey in life. They're like, "You can't sit in the sun. You can't wait for the bus here. You need to come to my house!”
When we took Bodi away for the first time, and I'd been traveling non-stop for 20 years, it changed everything. People will also say, "But they aren't going to remember it. He's only 18 months old." But everything we know about early childhood education is those first years, the bonds are the most critical.
Kids need love and their parents. If you're providing those, you're everything.
So I've often posed a question to people. What's more impactful – taking your daughter or son as a 20-year-old or as an 18-month-old to board a ferry and go across Lake Tanganyika in Africa? Who's to say that the fact that they can't remember it doesn't have a bigger cascading effect on their life? We’ve taken our children out right from the start.
On any of your adventures, along or with your children, where you felt that perhaps you had bitten off more than you can chew?
I remember waking up to a gun fight once and it was intense. I was in Ethiopia and some mule thieves had come. I remember the first thought. I was like, "If someone was going to shoot into the tent, should I crawl up like a ball? How am I going to miss these incoming bullets?"
I think the most out there I felt with the kids was on the container ship. We were crossing the North Pacific Ocean on this massive cargo ship. They were just these little boys and this is an industrial setting with wrenches the size of horse legs hanging off the walls! We hit a storm and the ship was heaving side to side, and the captain came to our bedroom and said, "Just sleep perpendicular across the bunks so you don't roll out in the middle of the night."
I'm like, "Oh, god. What does he know that we don't!?" So it was beyond our control at that point, right? We were really at the safety of someone else's hands. So that was a bit intense. But I felt pretty good with the boys.
At one time Taj, my younger son, had what appeared to be an altitude reaction and we were just starting to acclimatize him. We talked to lots of pediatric physicians and we took him down and kept measuring his oxygen saturation in his blood and brought him up a few days later and he was totally fine. In fact, we got our boys almost to 17,600 feet. Pushing 6,000 meters on the passes as we went in and out of Zanskar and they were just absolutely unfazed.
As a dad, what's the biggest fear you have for your children as they get older?
Oh, boy. Well, I mean these days there's a lot of fear. The world seems pretty dynamic I'd say, not knowing what the future will look like. I want my boys to have the courage and freedom to pursue what matters to them in life. I think that's a journey that we all go through. And I don't want to paint with too broad of brush, but within western society, sometimes, we may get deep into life and look back and think, "Why have we made the choices that we've made? Why have we done the things we've done?"
I want my boys to have the courage and freedom to pursue what matters to them in life.
So I don't want them to get to that place. One thing I try to instill in them is just the precious nature of every day. We don't know what's coming. Of course, as a parent, you look at this beautiful child to love something you have to risk loss. Something could happen to your children and what a horrible thing for parents to consider. But that doesn't mean we don't have kids. So I want them to be aware that every day is so precious.
My fear would be nothing catastrophic. It would just be them not taking full advantage of this opportunity of being alive.
That’s such a good point. One of my favorite quotes actually is, "When I die, my biggest fear is that the person I am meets the person I could have become."
Well, of the countries you've traveled to with a young family, and with all your experiences, what environment or what country in particular do you think would be good to raise a young family in 2020 and beyond?
I love that you asked that. There's a bunch of things that come to mind, but so many other countries really worship the child like the child, and the elders are god and king. So when we took Bodi to Buenos Aires, the very first day we were walking down the road and construction workers were coming up to us and saying, "Goo goo ga ga," like pinching his cheeks saying, "Cachete," which means the cheeks. Businessmen would stop on the road. We were going out for coffee. It was 8:00 AM in the morning and they want to hold our child.
Can you imagine walking around downtown LA, Vancouver, or Toronto, and businessmen or construction workers or high school students asking to hold your baby!? No. So again, does the child know that? I think they do because we brought Bodi back and you'd be in a Starbucks and he'd start trying to get people's attention like making these little gurgling sounds and people be like, "Oh my god."
When you get on a plane holding a baby, everyone looks like the devil has just got on the plane, right? They do not sit in my row or within one row on either side. Man, I got on to a plane down in El Calafate with Bodi and there was this lady. She was an old kind of rancher from the pampas. It might have been her first flight. She was sitting in the exit row, which was row 12. We were in row 56 on that plane. She saw me and my wife walked by. She stopped us. She could speak no English, so she had the kid beside her translate for us and say, "You can't go to the back of the plane. You need this seat. Give me your ticket. I'm going to the back." This was an 80-year-old lady.
So all of that to say the amazing thing in other countries and the thing that I'm trying to bring home is that respect and love of the child, the respect and the love of the elder, that sense of community because it truly takes a village to raise a child.
One of our challenges within a busy lifestyle is not to view our children as a burden, but as a gift.
South America would be an incredible place to bring up your child, but I think anywhere where the child is respected and not seen as a burden. I think that's one of our challenges within a busy lifestyle is not to view our children as a burden, but as a gift. The more busy we are, the harder it is to see that gift they are. But they just flourish when they're in that environment.
It says a lot about the character of the human spirit, doesn't it? Across the world, we come from different cultures and backgrounds, we have different political leaders, we follow different sporting teams and have different interests, but at the end of the day we're all human.
Speaking about busy and the world that we're in, a question I wanted to ask you is about the traditional path. For most people, they get to high school and their whole focus is on getting good grades so they can get into the college program they want. And then once they're in college, their whole idea is to get good grades so they can get the job that they want.
Then they finally get that job, they move to a big city. They pay thousands and thousands of dollars a month for a tiny apartment. Then they commute for an hour a day on a bus, train or car – and I feel like sitting in traffic brings out the worst of everyone – myself included! And people are increasingly glued to their phones. Have we lost the sense of what it means to be human and what can we do to start getting away from that daily grind?
You make an excellent point. I remember being in a physics class in grade 11 and the teacher heard one of the students in the class say, "Oh, I can't go to the dance this Friday. I got too much homework." And the teacher stopped the whole class. He's like, "Everyone sit down. Forget the experiment. Sit down."
He's like, "I don't want you to make this mistake. You're going to forsake your fun right now, forsake living the way you're talking about, so you can get into a good university. Then you're going to say, "I'll have fun later once I graduate and get a good job." Then you're going to say, "I'm going to have fun later or live once I get a promotion and then once I retire.' Then you're going to retire and then you're going to die."
This man said this to me at like, I was probably 16 or 17, and that had a very big impact on how I led my life. And I think we have lost that sense. I suspect we're going to see some form of adaptation going on because it's almost reached a cracking point in the insanity of the news cycle right now. So quite a bit of what I wrote about in this new book that's coming out was this idea that development so often goes one way.
We go to an indigenous culture, we bring healthcare and improved education and all types of technology that eases the rigors of life. But it's always a one-way interaction. Nothing comes back. So the Zanskaris, this place I was living, they had all types of skills and abilities, and I'll give an example of one in a second, to help cement the community, to help bring people's attention to the moment. I was like, "We need to bring some of that back." So one thing that Zanskaris had is this idea of the Paspun which is a group of three or four families and every family, in every village, in all of this valley that's deep in the Himalayas is a unique social construct, is a member of a Paspun.
So they share some religious artifacts. They help each other during times of planting and harvest, and they cradle each other through this journey of life like at the times of birth, marriage, sickness, death. They are there for each other. It's a word we have no equivalent for in English, but it was a very powerful concept to how that society operated and as modernity comes into that valley. This will be eroded. I think we'll probably get into some routines and ideas of trying to find peace amongst the chaos.
But community is clearly a part of that. I mean, there's self-care and consistency in our work and time and all that. But I think we're going to find ourselves going a little bit back in time in some of the ways we interact. I guess that the fundamental thing it saved, James, is attention. This whole trip was about attention and our attention is this gift. It's like this hose. It's always on, pouring out. We can pour it into everything. We pour it into our kids, our family. We can pour it into our phone. We can pour it into traffic and frustrations, watching CNN or the news.
So I think the fundamental part is learning to manage our attention and obviously you can do that through mindfulness and different things. You simply do it through awareness of what matters to you and paying attention to it.
It’s a good segue into the next question I was thinking about. You've spent a lot of time in Buddhist monasteries where they talk about one of the tenets of Buddhism being that all life is suffering, and suffering comes when we desire something we do not have. But then in books like Think and Grow Rich, they talk about the starting point of all achievement is desire.
What do you do as part of your daily routine to balance happiness in the present while at the same time focusing on future accomplishments on your own growth?
Boy, that's a tough one. I'm just going to step back a bit come and answer that. Part of what I've done for the last 20 years has been speaking to corporate audiences. At first, it was just telling stories. I'd go and talk about going across the empty quarter. But slowly, you have agents representing you and they're like, "We need business lessons." So I've tried to really think hard about things that adventures taught me that I bring home and apply to my own life and I've talked about change.
A big thing I talk about is the importance of dealing with uncertainty. It’s a huge gift if we can deal with that. Recently, grit and resilience have been quite large. So what you're talking about is really one of these three core things that I talk about when I'm finding resilience or grit within us in the balance of the here and the future. You're going down this mountain ridge, you've got to look at your feet, you've got to look at the summit. How do you balance those two things?
Really the way I boil that down is this idea of purpose, process, and practice. To me, ‘purpose’ is more than winning. Winning is an outcome and purpose is a cause, not an effect. So to me, purpose is like how we can make the world better. What do friends love in us?
I'm sure Wes doesn't love you because you win, Wes loves you because of the things that make James a cool person. Therein lies the start of us finding purpose – how we're going to leave the world a better place. So that's the long-term view, the desire, because I really think people talk about big goals that they're setting for themselves, but really we need to find the thing.
I was guiding the arctic, which is severely threatened landscape. I was in love with that landscape. And on my first trip a senior Alaskan guide with a big mustache like a squirrel's tail said to me, "You know what we're doing here?"
I was like, "No.” I was tired. It's late at night.
He said, "We're creating ambassadors for the wild."
That gave me a purpose to what I was doing, so that's the long-term view.
Then at your feet is the ‘process’. Those are the daily habits. And the other little piece I have is ‘practice’, which is that we need to get better every day, right? We need to not just play to our strengths, but we need to address our weaknesses.
For those who have spent too much time in the cities and want to take a wilderness adventure so they can start to experience some of the benefits that you've spoken about here, what's the best way that they can go about doing that?
There's all types of opportunities, from day trips to longer ones. One of the things I found early on was the longer the trip – I was going to say the more intense the experience – but the better the chance to actually disengage, and the way I learned that was guiding five-day trips. I was doing a sea kayak run out of Vancouver where I take people for two days on the weekend then the five-day trip over and over and over. And on that five-day trip, on Monday, everything would be new. They'd be getting used to the sea kayak on Tuesday and still be a little uncomfortable. By Wednesday, they were free, and then Thursday they were thinking about the ferry ride home, and Friday was a write-off. So of the five-day trip, they had one day I realized where they were totally free.
Time is so precious, so if they can go a little longer – whether they're sea kayaking or climbing or whatever, it is – even three or four days, it really gives you a chance to enter a new environment. I encourage people to do things that make themselves uncomfortable, just from a philosophical point of view because so much growth comes from that.
Also, guided experiences now are so well regulated and safe. No one should have any concern about taking on something new, whether you’re paddle boarding, sea kayaking or whatever.
Your amazing new book, Blue Sky Kingdom, is getting massive praise all over the world! Tell us about the new book and who it's written for.
I really took my time with this one. It took me six years to write it and to see that some of this early praise come out has been really meaningful. I mean, I do read a lot of Himalayan literature. So guys like Peter Mathias and whatnot have been massively influential to me.
It touches on the Himalaya, but it also touches on family life. My son is on the autism spectrum, so it touches on that. It touches on Buddhism. I really tried to make it accessible to anyone because, really, in a sense it’s a family drama, a family love story playing out in a remote landscape.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Bruce does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question, what's one thing you do to win the day?
I wake up every morning, I have a big glass of water with a pinch of Himalayan sea salt, and then I get in my ice bath. And that has changed everything for me.
Resources / links mentioned:
“I’m in a battle every single day. A war. People who succeed have the burning desire to win, and the persistence to get up and fight every day.”
Brandon T. Adams
Welcome back to Win the Day! If you’re watching this on YouTube, you might notice some changes. We’re not in my regular home studio setup. In fact, we’re in a professional recording studio for the first time ever.
Our guest today has fit a LOT into his 30 years and has a truly eclectic background. Brandon T. Adams grew up in rural Iowa helping out with his father’s packaged ice business. That job taught him the value of hard work and an honest buck, but he didn’t share similar enthusiasm for his academic work. On the brink of flunking out of college, Brandon was given a book that completely changed his trajectory and became the foundation to everything he’s achieved today.
Since that defining moment, Brandon has become a podcaster, speaker, inventor, and business adviser. His work as a crowdfunding expert has raised more than $35 million and led to him working with high profile clients such as Kevin Harrington (from hit TV show Shark Tank), Jeff Hoffman (billionaire founder of Priceline), John Lee Dumas (from award-winning Entrepreneurs on Fire), and the renowned non-profit XPRIZE.
As a serial entrepreneur, Brandon owns a stake in more than a dozen businesses. He’s been featured on the cover of Investors Digest magazine, led one of the largest campaigns for a book in crowdfunding history, and was featured as the youngest cast member in Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy, which was the project where we first met.
Most recently, Brandon became the Emmy® Award-winning producer and host of TV show Success in Your City, which you can check out now on Amazon. I am extremely grateful to be featured in a few of those episodes.
Brandon and I immediately got along like a house on fire and he’s now one of my closest friends. And, fun fact, I was actually the officiant at Brandon’s wedding in Nashville where he married his wonderful wife Sam two years ago today!
In this interview, we talk about Brandon's darkest days where he faced depression, loneliness, and bankruptcy. We'll also go through:
Brandon holds nothing back in this interview. If you want both the motivation to succeed and the blueprint on how to do it, this is the episode for you.
How are you my friend?
Brandon T. Adams:
Good! It's great to be here in the studio with you, man. It's always a pleasure being in your presence.
To kick things off, tell us about what it was like growing up in rural Iowa.
Well, it's funny, you've been to Iowa, so you know what it's like. I grew up in a town of 700 people: Garnavillo, Iowa. My whole life, I was an entrepreneur. I worked with my dad in the ice business. I remember I was selling all the time, knocking on doors. Just selling anything I could. I was big into fundraising too. I remember doing the St. Jude's Bikeathon and the Boy Scouts Popcorn.
But I called myself the 'Spartan entrepreneur' and I got to see what it was like at a young age to work with my father in the ice business. I didn't play baseball, I didn't do the summer sports. I worked in the ice business. And so I always had the entrepreneurial bug in terms of lifestyle. I mean, small town, my parents have timber land and a cabin that you've been to. And it's 10 miles outside of town, middle of nowhere.
So growing up, I got to shoot guns. I got to just experience life and see what it's like in a small town area. But the one thing I think about looking back on it is when you're in a small town, you only know what you know. I never thought I was going to leave Iowa or even Clayton County, which has no stoplights in it.
Once you get opened up to the world and what's possible, and you see what other people are doing, you have a different perspective. Being in the ice business, that's all I knew and I thought that I would do that for the rest of my life. Once I got different perspectives on life, it changed how I thought and who I surrounded myself with, but it all started in a small town in Iowa.
Often you don't realize how much of a bubble you're in until you leave that bubble. I had a similar experience when I moved to Boston at the age of 28, about as far away from my home town of Brisbane as you could get, where I was surrounded by entrepreneurs for the first time. And when you're in a new city, it forces you to get out of your comfort zone and step up.
What career opportunities did you feel were available to you growing up in rural Iowa?
I always knew I wanted to sell. I was obsessed with getting sales and making money. And so the ice business was how I did that, but I always wanted to try different things. When I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to do something big. I didn't think I was going to do TV shows or public speaking, but I knew I wanted to do something.
The big setback I had as a kid was a speech impediment, a lisp. I couldn't communicate and that bothered me. I remember people bullying me. I remember avoiding the S words and I realized, "Okay, if I want to be the best at sales, I have to be a great communicator." At age 10, I was in front of the mirror at night, practicing my S's, practicing my speaking: "I am a great speaker. I am a great salesman." Over and over again.
That persistence to overcome adversity is one of the things that you would read in Think and Grow Rich, but I didn't read the book at that time. I just knew that if I kept practicing, eventually I would get better. People would come up to me and say, "Oh, do you have a speech impediment?" I'm like, "No, what are you talking about!?" And eventually it was built in my subconscious.
By the time I got to high school, I no longer had a speech impediment. I started putting myself in front of audiences. I remember I was scared shitless to speak in front of people, but I would volunteer to speak in front of a group of 20 people.
And then I remember the first time in high school, I spoke in front of 100 people. That was a big deal. So I kept pushing myself outside my comfort zone because I wanted to be a great public speaker; I wanted to be great at communication for selling. And the reason for that was so I could use it in the ice business. It always was that. It was only when I got to college that I realized I was going to do something other than sell frozen water for the rest of my life.
That forced repetition of getting out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to those situations has been such a big key to your success. Before we get into all of that, tell us about Brandon T. Adams, the college student.
My brother is 39, my sister is 37, so growing up as a kid, I would get to hang out with them. I remember when I got to go visit my brother in college, he was in Cedar Rapids at Kirkwood College but we call it 'Keg-wood' because all they did there was drink. I remember going out to hang out with my brother and thought it was cool. I was at the party as a 10-year-old and hanging out with them. Shortly after, I realized, "Okay, I like beer." I was drinking in high school at that.
It was only when I got to college that I realized I was going to do something other than sell frozen water for the rest of my life.
I was drinking beer in cornfields and when I got to college, I just let loose. I was an alcoholic. I was drinking every single night. I stopped going to class because in high school I got a 3.8 GPA, and so school was easy for me. I got to college and I realized, "Oh, I have to study now. I need to go to class."
I had a roommate, his name was Brandon too. We were called “B-squared.” And we would go out all the time. We partied, we had fun. I did some drugs. None of the people in the dorm rooms were 21, so I start making homemade Apple Pie Moonshine. It's Everclear [up to 95% alcohol volume], there's a whole formula. I made it really well and I would make it in bulk and sell it in Gatorade bottles to other people in the dorm rooms.
So, as you can see, the start of my college career wasn't the best. Needless to say, my first semester, I got a 1.68 GPA. I took the finals of my econ class and I remember failing it and I tried to convince them to let me pass, which I tried to do a lot.
I said to the professor, "What do I have to do? Can I do extra credit? Can you let me pass?" And this is what he said, I'll never forget this. He said, "Brandon, you know there's been studies done where monkeys at random pick different choices for the answers. The score that you got in your test is worse than what a monkey would get on average."
I thought to myself, "You could have just told me I failed, instead of saying I'm like a monkey." And I'll never forget that, so that was horrible. Then, towards the end of the second semester in freshman year, I was fighting. I remember getting in a brawl and I got kicked out of the dorm rooms and I had to go sleep on the couch at my buddy's house.
The professor told me, "The score that you got in your test is worse than what a monkey would get on average."
My first semester of college was a complete shit-show. I was lost. I thought to myself, "Brandon, am I going to drop out and then go home and work in the family ice business, only for everyone to say, 'Oh, you couldn't make it through college. And then your daddy just gave you the business'?" And I told myself I wasn't going to do that. So I had to make a pivot because I definitely was going down the wrong path.
In high school, students are told that the metric of success is just to get good grades so they can into a good college program. And then once they're in the college program, you're told to just secure that degree, which will then get you a good job. But anyone who's remotely entrepreneurial, or just not ready, can be crippled by that process.
I had a very similar experience when I first started university where I just felt like I was not ready to learn. And as a result of that, you're not willing to understand the systems and do what it takes to succeed in those areas. Just like that quote: "When the student is ready, the master will appear."
Also, in college, they have electives you need to take. I fucking hated econ. I didn't care about econ. And chemistry... I hated the three-hour lab! So how I pass is I would flirt with girls who were smart and have them help me do my homework, but it just was boring. I think people go to college for the wrong reasons. They go to get the degree. I get that. But if you don't know what you want to do, and you're spending $20,000 - $50,000 a year, and building up debt, and you don't know what the fuck you're going to do, don't waste your money.
My first two years of college study were purely doing things that I didn't want to do, but I did them because that's what I had to do to get my degree. Once I got to my junior year, I actually got to take things I enjoyed, I got to make contacts, I got to do small business classes, I got to do communication. All these different things. And that's where I started taking college seriously. The first couple of years I was doing something I really didn't care about. All I enjoyed was partying. The school part, I only did to get that piece of paper.
I guess one good thing about bad grades was that it gave both you and I a kick up the ass that we needed to get things into gear!
A wake-up call, yeah.
And life has certainly changed for you since then. You've got this awesome new book, The Road to Success out now in book stores all around the country. You've got the TV show Success In Your City, available now online.
Let's start with the TV show. Tell us about the premise for that and what motivated you to get the show done?
First, let's step back. When I was in my third year of college, I read this book Think and Grow Rich. While I read that book, I realized that if I wanted something in life, I could achieve it if I went after it, surrounded myself with the right people, and followed the 13 principles. And so that's what I ultimately went after.
I remember having Cactus Jack Barringer, who became my mentor and was the guy who led me to the book. He opened my mind outside of what it was like in a small town, Garnaville. I realized I could do more with the world. I could become very wealthy. I could go do different things.
And so how I first got into the TV space was through an invention I made, the Arctic Stick. I invented the product, it never really made a lot of money, but I had to raise money for it. I did a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. While doing that, I found out that there was a need in the market to become a crowdfunding expert, so I started building my brand around crowdfunding.
I found out that there was a need in the market to become a crowdfunding expert, so I started building my brand around crowdfunding.
While doing that, one of the key components of crowdfunding was video. So creating a video that told a story, introduced your product / service, captured their attention, and included a call to action, which in this case was to donate or pledge money or invest. Once I start doing more of that, I realized, "Okay, crowdfunding, I'm good at this, but I really enjoy the video stuff."
So I started really focusing more on video. I remember taking acting classes. I ended doing commercials. I had agents, I was creating my own videos. My first opportunity in TV was from a guy who sponsored my event, Greg Rollett. While we were at the event, he said, "Hey, I got this pilot for a TV show called Ambitious Adventures. If you help me crowdfund it, I'll make you my co-host."
Instantly, I said yes because I always wanted to be in front of the camera. We ultimately made the show and it's on Amazon Prime. But that led to me doing another show, and then it led me to doing Success in Your City. And that's how I got in the TV space.
In 2017, I was in Puerto Rico with my girlfriend at the time, now wife, Samantha. We were sitting on the beach having a pina colada. The best ideas sometimes come from a drink, right!? And I said, "What are we going to do next? Let's do something crazy. Let's do something fun." We were living at Florida at the time. And I had always had this idea. I remember telling John Lee Dumas this idea. He was the first person I ever told about it. I said, "Hey John, what do you think of this idea of me living in 12 cities in 12 months?" He's like, "Man, you're going to have to do a lot of preparation for that."
So I went back said to Sam, "Why don't we live in 12 cities in 2018? Live in different cities, learn from people and just enjoy life. Why don't we film a TV series on it?" Because I was finished with the show Ambitious Adventures and the one feedback was that our show would have been better if it was a male and female co-host, and what could be better than having a couple? So I somehow convinced Samantha to be my co-host. And that's where the concept for Success in Your City came from.
When we flew back from Puerto Rico, we started picking out all the cities we wanted and writing down our contacts. We were brainstorming, masterminding, looking at budget costs. We actually thought about having a cameraman live with us for the whole year. But we realized that was going to be very inefficient, costly, and we wouldn't know how that would work out because they would have to always be with us.
So we decided that we were going to travel the country and look for the true meaning of 'success.' We wanted to learn what success meant from other people through their eyes, in different cities around the country. And do it before we got married that year. Because I proposed to her on October 13th, 2017, literally the night before the Think and Grow Rich premiere. We wanted to figure out what success meant — that was the whole concept of the show.
We left Iowa on December 27th, 2017, we got to Scottsdale and within three weeks, we filmed our first episode with Shea Hillenbrand, the baseball player. We'd go to the city, live there for four to six weeks, find scenes, find the talent... we'd have to find everything. We would be on calls with our scriptwriter, because they would create scenes and different parts for the show, and then we would fly out our film crew. We'd have a four or five person film crew with us for four to five days straight.
We would set this all up, film nonstop, and then they'd fly out, and then we'd go to the next city. So that was the concept of the show, and that's ultimately where it led to us, doing a book on it, but it was a crazy journey.
Amazing. So you were in Massachusetts, Texas, Arizona — everywhere. What story in particular, or what location, stands out as the most inspiring or where you enjoyed yourself the most?
Every city was unique, and it was like different chapters of our lives in that year. So we ultimately set off for 12 cities, but we ended up getting six cities and filming five episodes. After the first city, we realized, wow, we're basically self-funding this, we're doing all this, it wasn't going to be feasible. Scottsdale was amazing and we had great support from the community. We got to do events and fundraisers; we raised about $40,000 for the Boys and Girls Club while we were there, so that was a cool experience. And we learned more about who we are as people, as we were learning from Shea.
When we went to Texas, for one, I wasn't thinking, South by Southwest was on during our time there, so we couldn't find a feasible place to stay. We lived in a hotel for a month, which didn't go over well with Sam. And we hit rock bottom because I was going through a buyout of a business partner. I had just got done with an event that I spent a lot of money on that you were a speaker at, but the fires were that week, so my attendance was one-third of what it was going to be. We were planning on doing a lot of revenue at that event and it didn't turn out to to be the case, so all these things hit me at one point, and I remember, I was negative thousands in the bank. I was broke, and you knew me back then, but I didn't show it to the world. I had to keep this strong mindset, even though I was literally at rock bottom.
Sam wasn't talking to me, and we were in the same hotel room. She was dealing with depression because we didn't have any money. She felt like nobody cared about what we were doing. I even questioned, "Is anybody going to watch this fucking show? Does anybody give a shit?" And I think we all have that moment as entrepreneurs where we wonder whether people care about what we're doing.
The people we featured from Austin was a real estate couple, Ricky and KodiKay Cain, and they said, "Hey, why don't you come to our church? It's called Riverbend." And we went to it, and I'll never forget this... we were sitting down and the priest, Dave Haney, said, "Some of you are here and you don't know why you're here, but you're here for a reason." Instantly, it spoke to us.
After that happened, we went back to our hotel room and we felt at peace for the first time in a while. I remember literally a week after that experience, I had a business deal go through that made me more money in that deal than everything from the previous year. So I went from rock bottom, with no money, to a lot of money. All of a sudden, my life changed again, so that was a positive experience.
Then, once we got to Boston, it was the quickest turnaround. We got there May 1st and we left May 31st. In that time, we had to find the talent, scenes, everything, and fly our film crew in, live there and film. We were in downtown Boston, which if you ever film in Boston, you know that you pay a shit-ton for a furnished apartment for a month.
Ultimately we learned that you don't need a lot of material things. Our feature in Boston was a guy who was homeless at one point. And after that episode, we went home, we sold our home and 99% of our things. I was in conversations with selling my event business, Young Entrepreneur Convention, which I did, and I had the first conversation with my father that I was going to sell the family ice business that I bought from him. So Boston made me realize, you have to do what means the most to you. Don't do it for the money. Material things don't really mean anything.
You have to do what means the most to you. Don't do it for the money.
Them we went to Denver. My wife told her story, we enjoyed a good time in Denver, and then our last one was Nashville, which was my favorite city. I love Nashville and I think I'll eventually move there. That one was cool because we got married there, and you're in the finale episode!
So each episode and city was its own experience, and what's really cool is we can relive it now. We can watch it, and say, "Oh, that happened." It's like you have this picture book for your memories. We have a show and we can look back, and that was our experience. So it was a crazy journey, man. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
It was difficult, but I think the part that we really emphasize in the book is what we learned along the way and how hard it was. As I said earlier, Sam was dealing with depression, we almost went bankrupt — all these different things. Most people don't talk about that. We live in a society where it's an Instagram perfect picture and everything's all right. But people always have their own shit going on, so why not share what's really happening? Why not share what it really takes to become successful?
One of the things I love most about the book is that it’s so real and raw – not just about the experiences that you went through at the time, but also the background that you and Sam had individually and then together.
Tell us about you and Sam as a couple. You obviously have such an amazing bond and I'm grateful to have spent so much time with the two of you. What do you each bring to the relationship that makes it such a strong union?
We're totally different. If there were two people like me, it would probably not be good! I'm very outgoing, sometimes very over the top, and she's more behind the scenes. She has always been very supportive of me, and that works well for us. Just doing this book tour, she did the first event, and the rest, she's like, "You go ahead, do it. You'll have more fun without me." Because she doesn't care to do the interviews.
Honestly, if someone requested her for a media or podcast interview, unless it was from you, she would probably say no because she doesn't care to do that. On camera she would turn it on, but it was more to support what I was doing. Her thing is fitness, personal training, empowering women, helping them, and she's helped a lot of women. She is a very old and smart soul, and I think it's really great to have that collaboration.
Like with you and your wife, you both have things that supplement each other. Sam is more laid back and gives a different approach. I'm like, go, go, go, go, and get up in front of the camera. And sometimes she grounds me and says, "Hey, Brandon, maybe you're getting a little ego." You know what I mean? She'll pull me back.
One trait about both of our wives is they're never afraid to tell it how it is!
Yes, they pull us back and humble us, and we need that. We need somebody to wake our ass up because we all go through that. If you're in front of the camera, or you have an audience, or you start reaching a level of success, you're obviously going to have fans and followers, and you can't let that get to your head, because if you do, it will destroy you.
Just like a really negative mindset can destroy you at the same time. What I feel like both of our wives are very good at doing is building us up when they know we're in the dark days on the entrepreneurial rollercoaster.
You and I both need our wives to support us, because we're not always at this high peak level. We have our moments too, and they pick us up, and vice versa.
One of the things I love most about you, if not my favorite thing about you, is that 'get up and go' spirit. It's amazing. You've got this energy on tap. What are the opportunities that attitude has given you?
So many, man. I'm the kind of guy who'll shoot, shoot, shoot, then aim later. I just go. But I've honed in more, now. I think a little bit longer before I take action.
Action is what gets results. The number one thing holding people back is they think about something and they strategize all day. At the end of the day, an idea is shit unless you actually take action towards it, and that's what I learned in Think and Grow Rich. You've got to take daily action, even if it's one thing you do every day, every single day, just one thing you accomplish. It'll build up, it's the compound effect. It'll slowly build up over time, and eventually, get you your bigger opportunity.
At the end of the day, an idea is shit unless you actually take action towards it.
And you don't know where it's going to happen. I've traveled the country, I've interviewed hundreds of people, I've failed many times, I've tried endeavors that didn't work. When I started in 2015, I started a podcast show, which at the time was called the University of Young Entrepreneurs, now called the Live to Grind podcast. I was traveling around the country and learning from people.
I'd drive my F-150 across the country, whether it was California, Ohio or Georgia, and I would meet with people in person. My podcast show was the way to get that connection, versus saying, "Hey, can I pick your brain?" or "Will you mentor me?" I used my show to interview people. At the time, I didn't have much money. I bought the Blue mics and I had the setup with the headphones and everything, and I would set up in people's offices.
Sometimes they didn't realize that I was traveling all around the country just to have that 45 minute interview. And that, for most people, is crazy. They think, "You're going to pay on your own dime, you're going to travel around the country, and you're going to interview these people. How are you making money?" I wasn't. I was sleeping in my truck, I remember in 2015, I think I slept in my truck 40-50 nights. Once did a trip from Des Moines, Iowa, to LA and back, I was going on TV and interviewing people, I did it for $800. Most of that was spent on fuel. I ate canned food, I had $5 footlongs sometimes.
I slept in the parking lot, the LA Fitness Center off Vine Street. I was doing an event, so I convinced LA Fitness to give me a free pass for the week. I parked my truck on the third level and I would sleep in my truck overnight. In the morning, I'd wake up early, I'd go work out there on a free pass, I would shower there, get ready, go to my conference for the day, and eat the food they had. At night, I would come back to my truck, edit my podcast, so if you look at early episodes, you'd probably hear the outside noise. I would do it in my truck and then I would go to sleep, and then I'd wake up and do it again. That is pure persistence.
People would make fun of me. They thought I was fucking nuts. My girlfriend, now wife, she's like, "Why are you doing that?" She was worried that somebody would kill me. But that was action. Most people think of all the reasons why they can't do something. Yet, I figured how I could make it possible.
Ultimately, I made a lot of connections around the country and I started doing events. My best deals and opportunities happened when I was out in the field meeting people. Sometimes my best opportunity came from a 100 - 500 person event. Other times it came from a three-person meetup.
If you take action, get outside your comfort zone, and become comfortable being uncomfortable, you will find opportunity. And then follow up on the opportunity; don't just get it and then let it go. You have to follow up and keep taking action, every single day.
You actually did it rather than talk about it.
I fucking hate it when people talk. People will promise me something and never deliver. You need to under-promise and over-deliver. I would never ask anything of anybody that I wouldn't do it myself.
Really over-deliver, and if you prove to somebody that you're a reliable person, they will never forget that and they will help you. Always over-deliver.
Video content has been a big focus for you. How do you feel when you look back at the really early videos that you did when you were just getting into the video and the branding side?
When I first started, I knew nothing about video. And to give you some perspective, I once created a video for an apprentice competition. I was selling real estate at the time, and in the video I said, "Maybe you know me for selling real estate." And I was showing all the things I did. Then I had an ice cooler and bags of ice, so I threw a ice bag and said, "You may know me from selling ice." In the video, I went through my house, and if you look at the video there is shit everywhere. It was a catastrophe, a full bachelor house. And then I said, "Maybe you know me for my invention."
At the end of the video, I kicked the bag in my basement. And I don't know why I kicked the bag. I looked ridiculous. But, see, I started.
When it comes to creating video content, people care what other people think. They're worried they're going to say the wrong thing and people are going to give them shit. But who cares!? And no matter what, those people are still going to give you shit. So I just became fearless in creating content.
With crowdfunding, I saw the power of what video did for fundraising, so I just started creating more content. And now the fact that we have this thing called a phone, there's no excuse. I create 99% of my content on my iPhone. And I bring people into my life. I share who I am. I share how I help people. And I share great knowledge and tips in my area of expertise.
I create 99% of my content on my iPhone.
That results in more followers, more people watching inside your life, more trust they build with you, and it ultimately leads to more sales. And I think video content and video marketing is the most powerful thing we have right now. And that's why I'm all in on it.
So people who don't take the action of creating video content can't really blame themselves for lack of prospects coming into the pipeline?
They're missing out. Think about it. Every video you create, it helps with SEO. People can Google my name "Brandon T. Adams" and they can see 15 pages deep of content from videos, everything I've done. As more and more of that stuff is put online, it's easier for people to find you. But also if somebody's thinking about working with you, you better hope that you have a great representation online in terms of what you do.
A lot of people who work with me say, "Brandon, I've been watching your videos for a couple of years now. I enjoy your stuff. And I'm thinking about whether now is the time that I need help with video marketing." Or they ask my if I can advise their company. That came because I have been putting out consistent content.
Anybody can do this, whether you're in real estate, a small business owner, an author, speaker, whatever. All you got to do is bring people into your life, share what you do, and how you help people, and the people who are out there that need your help will reach out and get you to help them.
Now you're an Emmy Award-winning TV producer and host. You've spoken on hundreds of stages around the world with some of the most renowned entrepreneurs. You've got three TV shows available. What stands out as the darkest day for you looking back at your life in this journey that you've been on?
It's up and down. If you're in this space, even when you've made it, you're going to have your ups and downs. We're human. Life happens, whether you're dealing with a death, a family member, a relationship, whatever it may be. And so there's a couple of really dark days. I'll share two, and the reason I'll share them is because it shows how they ultimately led to my success.
In 2014, Samantha and I moved to Des Moines, Iowa to start this company called Adams Product Innovation. I had spent money on a lawyer. I was going to buy an existing asset. I had money raised, ready to go, and I was going to start this business. We had an office picked out. We signed a lease on an apartment in downtown Des Moines, and I asked Sam to leave her job, which she did, because I said she would have a full-time job.
When we got there, I had a gut feeling that what I was about to do was going to be wrong for me. I knew if I did it, it would hurt me in the long run because I didn't have enough experience in the background and I didn't want to let down the people who had contributed funds. Ultimately, I decided not to do it. It hurt me because my girlfriend, now wife, I let her down. She said, "What do I do now?" because she wasn't really an entrepreneur and she believed in me. So I felt like I let everybody down.
But sometimes you have to eat your pride. Our relationship was rocky because it's like we were figuring out what we were going to do, and we didn't have enough money to pay rent. That was a rock bottom moment. But I realized that if you hit rock bottom, there's only one place to go and that's up. But also you get these superhuman powers to figure out what you're going to do.
I realized that if you hit rock bottom, there's only one place to go and that's up.
Sam ended up getting a job at a fitness center, and that's how she got into fitness and became a personal trainer. I ultimately did a crowdfunding campaign for my invention, Arctic Stick, which got me into crowdfunding and got me into TV. So looking back on that low moment, if that hadn't happened, I wouldn't have become the person I am today.
Sometimes our temporary defeats are successes in disguise. You just have to look at what you can learn from that moment, and move forward. So that was a big one.
Another one occurred when we were in Austin. It was rock bottom, and I didn't know what we were going to do. But we just kept pushing forward. Whether you're in a financial situation or a committed relationship, you need to figure out how to put yourself in a mindset that you can stay positive and keep moving forward. The ways I've done that is to be around the right people, to focus on my fitness - without that, I'd be dead - and meditation. The positive atmosphere gets you through those tough times.
Relationships have been by far the biggest asset that you and I have had. What relationship or business partnership stands out as having moved the needle the most in your life or your business?
Well, besides you. I mean, honestly, there's not many people I can go to and share everything with, and you're one of them. You're like a brother to me, you're my Australian brother. So for one, you.
Also, in terms of making money in business, Kevin Harrington is one. I've made more money with him than anybody, and I've made him a lot of money, but we've helped a lot of people. Kevin was the original shark on Shark Tank. He did a couple of seasons. He's known for pioneering and inventing the infomercial, and he's taken over 20 companies to $100+ million. I was a small part of one of those, that went from $20 million to $100+ million.
I saw what Kevin had done and I'm like... I always found people I wanted to mimic in my own way and learn from. I knew I wanted to get Kevin as a mentor, so I studied him, I read his books, and over months of preparation and reaching out, talking with his assistant, I eventually hired him to come to my event in Iowa, 2016.
Ever since that event we've done probably a dozen different deals. We have investment in five companies right now together, but I've learned so much and the lesson is to find somebody that's doing things at such a high level. If you want to become a billionaire, if you want to become super wealthy, or you want to become the top TV host, or whatever, find somebody that is doing it that level, figure out how to help them, make them money, get their attention, and they will help you in return.
Find somebody that is doing it that level, figure out how to help them, make them money, get their attention, and they will help you in return.
I would say that's been a pivotal thing for me. Even when he's not mentoring me and I'm just in the room with him, people who are very successful in terms of achieving things in business, they communicate differently. They understand things differently and just by being in their presence, you learn. By being in their presence, you're a lot more likely to get an opportunity to work together with them and get so-called "lucky." So surround yourself with those right people.
Absolutely. What about the business partnerships or relationships that fizzled out?
Again, it's people who over-promise and under-deliver. Also, life changes. I mean, I've made mistakes. I remember when, I had a team for Accelerant Media Group and now it's more me and subcontractors, but there were seven of us and I was probably my worst enemy. I probably was a horrible person to work with. I'll admit that. I expected a lot of others and sometimes I was a horrible person to work with.
So a lot of that was on me, but as long as you learn from it and you don't make those same mistakes again. I've had a lot of partnerships come and go. I would rather be in a position where we collaborate on things together and not start a company together because that's like, you're getting married together, and if things go wrong, you got to go through the buying out of the business partner.
So, I've sold two companies and I've bought out business partners and I've been through those uncomfortable situations, but you have to do them. It's like the dating scene. You have to date them a while before you're going to marry them, to make sure you get to know somebody. Even being friends together before going into business can be valuable.
And communicate. Communication is key in business and your relationship. The more you communicate, the better.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Brandon does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question. What's one thing you do to win the day?
Take action every day. Take action every single day.
Resources / links mentioned:
📝 Brandon T. Adams on Facebook
📷 Brandon T. Adams on Instagram
⚡ Brandon T. Adams website
🎙️ We Are Podcast: learn how to make money from your podcast
📙 Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
🌎 Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy by James Whittaker
💚 The Road to Success by Brandon T. Adams and Samantha Rossin
🗝️ Success In Your City (TV show)
🔥 BRAND NEW! Andrew Carnegie’s Mental Dynamite by Napoleon Hill and James Whittaker
“We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Today, I’m going to share with you how I’ve changed my daily routine as a result of the pandemic and being in isolation, especially the morning routine because we win the day based on what we do in the morning. I’ll also share with you a story that I’ve never mentioned before about a particularly challenging day I had earlier this year.
But before we do that, let’s quickly reflect on the above quote: “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” It’s one of my favorite quotes and something I think about often.
The most recent Win the Day episodes have featured interviews with some of the most successful people I know to help you take ownership of your financial, physical, and mental health. There are so many incredible takeaways from these episodes and there’s ALWAYS at least 2-3 things I personally implement into my own life and business as a result of these interviews.
We win the day based on what we do in the morning.
I get dozens of emails each week from people asking for help, so I wanted to start this episode with a quick recap of the most recent interviews so you can pinpoint the right ones for you based on your current circumstances and what training you need. Then, once you’ve watched that episode, you’ll be far better equipped to rise above your present circumstances due to your new level of training – as that earlier quote reminds us.
Episode 26 featured Michael Fox, an entrepreneur from Australia who created the world’s first online women’s custom-shoe business, raising more than $25 million and partnering with companies like Nordstrom, before losing it all – his business, the investors’ money, and his marriage. After a six-month break to explore his intellectual curiosity, Michael embarked on a new entrepreneurial journey – one that was far more aligned to his personal mission, which he realized was to end industrial agriculture.
To achieve that, he partnered with the right people and created a high-end meat alternative from mushrooms, so delicious that it attracted attention from people like Heston Blumenthal – whose restaurant Fat Duck was voted the number one restaurant in the world. Despite being less than two years old, Michael’s company, Fable Food Co, is now available in 600+ stores. If you want to know the ins and outs of starting a business and finding out your personal mission, I can’t recommend Episode 26 highly enough.
In Episode 27, we sat down with former Attorney General of Nevada, George Chanos – who even argued successfully in front of the Supreme Court – to talk about a whole range of topics related to the present uncertainty and what we can expect from the future. This included: the tense political environment we’re in, the technological tsunami that no one seems to be talking about, how automation and artificial intelligence are rapidly changing the world, how to pivot your business during a pandemic, and so much more.
George’s views are extraordinary and, in addition to understanding everything going on in the world in the present, you’ll have a clear idea of what’s coming in the future and how you can leverage it to your advantage.
Episode 28 featured Jessica Cox, who was born without arms and – in addition to being able to drive a car, play the piano, and put in contact lenses – she became the world’s first armless pilot. Jessica is an incredible woman and her powerful mindset is a wonderful example for us all.
If you, or someone you know, needs some inspiration, Episode 28 with Jessica Cox is highly recommended.
In Episode 29, we spoke with Emily Fletcher – the world’s leading expert on meditation for high performance. Emily has had an extraordinary career, which started as a performer on Broadway before she began her meditation journey, which has now seen her train everyone from Navy SEALs and NBA players, to leading physicians and globally recognized CEOs.
If you’re feeling stressed or simply want to free up your brain to get much better results out of each day, you will love Episode 29.
Episode 30 was a particularly special one for me because it featured one of my biggest influences, Keith Ferrazzi. Keith is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller ‘Never Eat Alone’ which had (and continues to have) a profound impact on my life. He is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on relationships, networking and now remote work.
We all feel the frustration of not having the opportunities we want, and this interview with Keith will show you the exact steps to establish relationships with the most influential people in the world and how to become resourceful enough to get job promotions, pay rises, and just about anything else you want.
Episode 31 featured Kerwin Rae, one of the world’s foremost business growth experts. Kerwin has helped more than 100,000 businesses in 150 different industries, in more than a dozen countries, to achieve better results. Better yet, all of that came after overcoming dyslexia, ADHD, and a bunch of learning difficulties, as well as drug addiction and numerous near-death experiences.
Kerwin is a seriously inspirational guy and shares some amazing lessons, such as how to balance hunger for future achievements with happiness in the present, why (and how) he learned to meditate while in a skydiving freefall, the parenting style he has for his six-year-old son, and how he reframed divorce to being an advantage.
In Episode 32 we had Coss Marte on the show. Coss certainly has a unique background – in fact it’s one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever heard. Coss began using drugs at 11, selling drugs at 13, and at 19 he was at the helm of one of the largest drug delivery services in New York – think of it like the Uber for cocaine. His business employed dozens of people and Coss needed eight mobile phones just to store his clients’ contact info.
Despite raking in more than $5 million a year, he was thrown in jail for the 10th time since he was a kid and he thought his life was over. Yet, while inside, one fateful moment revealed an entirely new opportunity for him and today he’s an internationally regarded fitness entrepreneur, author, and TED speaker. It’s definitely a raw interview but it has some incredible insights.
And finally, our most recent, Episode 33, which featured John Assaraf who you might recognize from the blockbuster 2006 film ‘The Secret’. In our interview, John shared how a painful and embarrassing health condition from his early 20s actually became the catalyst for him understanding just how powerful his brain was. Using the exact same steps as he did to get healthy, John set out to see is he could program his mind to build a billion-dollar company and did just that.
There are some seriously good takeaways from that one, with the biggest being a proven step by step method to achieving literally any goal you want.
A lot of people email me asking for tips on how to manage their daily routine, so here I’m going to share with you five changes that I’ve implemented into my daily routine to stay productive, happy, and healthy during the pandemic.
Before we dive in, I want to just reiterate how important it is to take purposeful and consistent action on anything you learn. Not just from the Win the Day show, but from anything. Like we mentioned earlier, it’s that training – that regular upskilling – that gets you moving in the right direction and achieving everything you want.
If you don’t have a plan to stay productive, happy, and healthy, you’re in big trouble. The cracks will start to appear and that can manifest in a whole bunch of ways down the track, such as relationship troubles with your spouse, financial issues, health issues – you name it. In a time of massive transition, like we’re in now, the right plan is essential.
In a time of massive transition, like we’re in now, the right plan is essential.
Overall, the theme of how my daily routine has changed is ‘Self-care’ and I want to share a quick story with you to illustrate why it’s so important. At the end of May 2020, my good friend Ronsley Vaz and I hosted We Are Podcast, an online event for existing and aspiring podcasters to make money from their show (a very important mission since many people had lost their jobs during the pandemic and needed a way to supplement their household income). We put that event together in just over seven weeks.
Now, anyone who has organized an event before knows how many moving parts there are. But launching an event in a time as uncertain and fast-moving as the pandemic led to a lot of complexity. We had to:
In the 2-3 weeks right before the event, I was exhausted. For the first time in years, I felt on the brink of burnout.
Working behind the scenes to organize the event, not to mention my regular work commitments – as well as my responsibilities as a husband and a father – it just accumulated very quickly. Working late into the night and staring at a 27-inch computer screen right before bed led to a horrible sleep, which made me feel lousy the next day, which made me less motivated to exercise, and more irritable with my family. I was spending too much time on my phone throughout the day.
Overall, it was just not the mindset I wanted to be in, and it never ceases to amaze me how quickly it can creep up on you. You might have felt that recently, or perhaps even find yourself in that situation right now, but don’t feel bad – awareness of the problem is the most important step.
On the day of the event, I woke up to a leg cramp, which is never a good feeling. In fact, it’s quite an excruciating feeling – it’s like your calf muscle is being ripped out of your leg. Once the muscle spasm stopped, I took a few deep breaths and tried to reset mentally. Feeling a bit better, I got out of bed, but as I stood up, the leg that had given me the muscle spasm gave away, and as fell to the floor my glass of water dropped out of my hand and drenched both my iPhone and the pile of books next to my bed.
For the last few years, I’ve been wearing a MyIntent bracelet on my wrist that reminds me of the importance of staying calm rather than giving into emotional reactions. Yet somewhere in the mayhem of the morning, the bracelet had snapped off my wrist.
I remember thinking: “This feels like a moment of rebirth. Either this event is going to be incredible or it’s going to be an absolute disaster.”
Ultimately, the event was a huge success. The tech side ran without a hitch, the event ran like clockwork, and we had aspiring and existing podcasters from 15+ countries who attended.
The very first speaker was Hal Elrod, who wrote a book called ‘The Miracle Morning’ which has sold millions of copies and been translated into 27 language. One of the first things he said was, “In times like we’re in now, it’s more important than ever to double down on self-care.”
In times like we’re in now, it’s more important than ever to double down on self-care.
That was such a simple but powerful statement. And it’s why the focus of this post, and what I want you to focus on for the next week, is self-care.
I truly believe we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis right now as a result of the pandemic, the forced isolation, the very real economic impacts, and so much more. That’s why it’s so important to help each other out, but we can’t give from an empty cup. You need to fill your cup first, using what we’ll go through shortly, so you can help others to do the same.
These are the exact changes I’ve made in the last few months that have helped me feel happier and more productive than ever. They’ve enabled me to fill my cup at a time when I really needed it, and hopefully they work for you too.
I know – this sounds crazy! I love a hot shower more than anyone, but I’m always on the hunt for new ways to win the day. About four months ago, I tried a cold shower in the morning to see what happened,
Nervously, I turned on the cold tap and walked in, lasting only about eight seconds. Seriously – it was pathetic, and I felt like an absolute wimp! But being extremely competitive, especially with myself, I decided to try again the next day – only this time I set a two-minute timer on my iPhone and left it just outside the shower door where I could see it. No matter how cold it felt, I knew there was no way I was going to leave the shower until that timer went off.
The stopwatch was the motivation I needed. I hit two minutes that day, four minutes the next day, and haven’t had a problem since. Now, it’s easy. In fact, the secret is that your body actually gets used to the cold after about 60 seconds.
Yet, the first part is the ultimate mental battle because our brain tells us that we should, first, not go under in the first place and, second, to get out of there as soon as possible. But of course we’re not in mortal danger – it’s just a shower at a lower temperature, albeit a much lower temperature.
So what was the big improvement and how could it possible rank #1 on my list of changes!? Sustained energy levels. It not only made me much more effective first thing in the morning, it gave me lasting energy throughout the day – much more than I’ve ever had previously. It also gives you a great sense of accomplishment early in your day because, although you never feel like a cold shower, you’re really proud of yourself afterwards. Plus, if you have a hot shower at night, it will feel 10x more relaxing!
Since starting cold showers four months ago I haven’t missed a single one. And, at this rate, I’m sticking with cold showers forever. And my wife loves them too.
One quick thing I wanted to mention. I tried the cold shower at nighttime to see if there were any additional benefits, but I didn’t notice any positive changes at all. Some people swear by a cold shower both in the morning and before bed, so it’s really up to you to try it out and see what works best.
But I need to be clear here – I still NEVER look forward to the cold shower. It’s always a mental battle to start the day, but it’s a very good system to ensure I’m ready to win the day, which is exactly what I think about when I step in there each morning.
Number 2: Have a daily routine of exercise.
Since covid, many gyms and other fitness centers have closed (some permanently), but for me personally I’d much rather figure out a way to get my exercise in without needing to commute or pay for a membership.
A few months ago, my wife and I started doing a morning yoga routine. It only takes 15-20 minutes and we just select any of the free yoga sessions available on YouTube. This gets the body loose first thing, which I’m valuing more and more as I get older.
Another confession here, I’m far from motivated when my eyes first open. However, after a quick yoga session and a cold shower, I’m a full inch taller and ready to tackle anything the day throws at me. If our daughter (16 months old) wakes up early, we’ll simply put her in the front-pack and have a nice stroll through the neighborhood.
In the afternoon, I’ll almost always add a two-mile walk where I try to spot all the things my very observant daughter notices and concede to her persistent requests to sing ‘Baby Shark.’
Unless you’re training for a certain milestone, it really doesn’t matter what you do, or when you do it, but having a daily routine of exercise / mobility should be a big priority for your life.
Number 3: Insulate yourself from negativity.
In recent years, the biggest source of negativity has come through our mobile phones. Everything we see on there is designed to create an engagement, which means all the articles are for more sensationalized and emotional than they need to be and all the apps are trying to lure your attention.
If you’ve watched the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ you’ll get a peek behind the scenes of how these tech companies and media outlets mold their algorithms to keep your attention. Is it any wonder then that a quick look at your phone can last for 30 minutes, or more, and you feel mentally drained afterwards?
So take all the time and energy you have been spending on your phone and, instead, spend that time enjoying life. You’ll feel much better for it.
Number 4: Surround yourself with the right people.
Since covid, I’ve been extremely proactive about establishing relationships with people who are having the impact on the world that I want to have. In fact, I believe who you surround yourself with is your best indicator of success.
Now, when I talk about the ‘right people’ here, I’m talking about people who:
Unfortunately, the pandemic struck during an election year in the US, which means tensions are VERY high and people are spending way too much time talking about politics. But, as George Chanos said in Episode 27, there’s 10% of people on either side of politics who are just too far gone. When we talk about unity, we’re realistically talking about that middle 80%, and trying to offer an insight with someone who doesn’t recognize their own confirmation bias is exhausting.
It might seem like the ‘right people’ are hard to find, but I promise you they’re out there. And a whole bunch of them are in our Win the Day Group on Facebook so join the 500+ legends we have in there from all over the world.
Number 5: Focus on consistency not intensity.
It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday, it doesn’t matter what you do tomorrow. What matters is what you do today. And if you go all out, you’ll probably end up burnt out, so focus on a plan that gives you that consistency.
What matters is what you do today.
Even if you have a day when you’re feeling flat, still do the task. As a parent, every now and then there are nights where we are woken up 2-3 times and feel completely wiped of energy the following morning, but those are the times when I know that sticking to this routine is most important. So focus on consistency – on getting the job done – not intensity.
Now that I’ve let you in on some of my changes, I hope you’ll implement some of those in your own life to see what works best for you. Again, that quote for today, “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” This week, I want you to focus on filling your cup so you can feel better and put yourself in a position to help others feel better.
That’s all for today! Remember to grab a copy of my brand new book Andrew Carnegie’s Mental Dynamite (co-authored by Napoleon Hill), available now in book stores all around the world.
Get out there and win the day. Until next time...
Onwards and upwards always,
In case you missed it:
11 Tips to Supercharge Your Productivity
“Do more of what you love, less of what you tolerate, and none of what you hate.”
– John Assaraf
Today, we’ve got one of the leading mindset and behavior experts on the planet, John Assaraf. You probably know John from blockbuster film The Secret.
Since then, John has built a billion-dollar company, numerous multimillion-dollar companies, written two New York Times bestselling books, and been featured in eight movies, including The Secret and Quest for Success alongside Richard Branson and the Dalai Lama.
But his journey to success was anything but smooth. Growing up with a fixed mindset, John was expecting to follow a similar path to his father who lived paycheck to paycheck as a taxi driver with a bad gambling habit. John left high school after Grade 10 and eventually found work in a warehouse, but he was hanging out with some unsavory people which left him with two career horizons: jail or the morgue.
It was only at 19 years old, through the influence of a successful businessman, that John began taking ownership of his life for the first time. This mentor asked John three simple but profound questions that changed his trajectory forever. And when his mind changed, his world did too.
Today, he is founder and CEO of NeuroGym, a company dedicated to using the most advanced brain training methods to help individuals unleash their fullest potential and maximize their results. In this interview, we talk about everything you can do to reprogram your brain for massive success.
We’ll go through:
There are a ton of value-bombs in this one! I know you're going to love it.
We’ve got so much to get through today! Let’s start with your personal story. People see the multiple New York Times bestselling author and multimillion-dollar business owner, but it wasn't all smooth sailing for you. What are some challenges that you had growing up that are still such vivid memories for you today?
Where do I begin!? When I moved from Israel to Montreal, Canada, I was just learning the Hebrew language as a five-year-old and struggled with the reading and writing. My parents moved us to Montreal because they didn't want to raise their children in what, at the time, was war-torn Israel.
I quickly fell two years behind the other kids in school. There were 50-60 kids per classroom and I started getting into a lot of trouble. By grades seven, eight and nine, it felt like I was in the principal's office the whole time. I ended up with a group of kids that were adept at shoplifting, breaking and entering, and ended up in detention centers. My life was spinning out of control. By the time I was 17, I knew I was either going to jail or the morgue. That was the direction my life was heading in.
And fortunately for me, when I was 19, my brother had invited me to travel by train from Montreal to Toronto to have lunch with a gentleman. He said, "Listen, this guy is really smart, he's a really nice man, and he can help you." I'm like, "Yeah, sure, I don't need any help." But long story short, I knew that I was heading in the wrong direction and picking up speed.
When I met this gentleman, Allen Brown, he asked me questions about why I was doing all the things I was doing that I shouldn't be doing. And my answer was, "Well, because I just want to make some money, I want to fit in, and I want to have a good time." And he asked me, "Why don't you just use your brain better to do things legally, and to become more than you are right now?"
I had no idea what he was talking about. He then asked me about some of the goals I had, and I said, "My goals are to move out of my parents' house, get my own car, and have a little bit of money to have some fun." He said, "Well, they’re all great basic needs. Everybody wants that at your age. What are some of your bigger goals and dreams?" And I said, "Well, I really haven't thought about it."
So he gave me a five page document and said, "Why don't you sit down at the table next to your brother and I and fill out some of these questions while we have lunch?"
The first question on this document was: At what age do you want to retire? I'm like, “I'm fucking 19 years old! What do you mean what age do I want to retire? I'd like to get a job!”
The next question was: What net worth do you want upon retirement? I remember looking at him and saying, "Hey, Mr. Brown, what's net worth?" And he's like, "You take your assets and you minus your expenses or your debt, that's net worth." I remember thinking that I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, "Just breakdown how much money you want to be worth." There were a whole bunch of questions like that: What kind of lifestyle do you want? What kind of car do you want? Who do you want to help? All of these obscure questions that at 19 years old, I had no idea about.
About 15 minutes later, I’d written down a bunch of stuff, and he looked at the document and he goes, "Wow, this isn't bad." On it, I’d written that I wanted to retire at age 45, a net worth of $3 million, I wanted to drive a Mercedes Benz, I wanted to travel the world first class, I wanted to have Italian clothes, and blah blah blah.
He said, "This is actually really good. Where did you get all these ideas?" And I said, "Well, I love watching the TV show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. They live a great life, so I want to live a great life." And he said, "Listen, I'm going to ask you one question, and the answer to this question will determine whether you achieve every one of these things."
In the back of my head, James, I'm thinking, one question? Really? I said, "Fire away."
He said, "Are you interested in achieving these goals and dreams, or are you committed?"
I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I asked him what the difference was. Mr Brown said, "If you're interested, you'll keep coming up with stories, and excuses, and reasons why you can't. You'll keep doing the things that you're doing, and you won't do what it takes to change. But if you're committed, you'll upgrade your knowledge, you'll upgrade your skills, you'll upgrade your beliefs, and then you will develop habits that are consistent with somebody who can achieve those goals. All of which are doable."
Then he repeated, "So are you interested or are you committed?" I thought for just a moment, and I don't know why, but out of my mouth came, "I'm committed." And in that second, he says, "Good." He reached out his hand and said, "In that case, I will be your mentor." And I go, "Awesome. What's a mentor?"
If you're committed, you'll upgrade your knowledge, skills, beliefs, and then you will develop habits that are consistent with somebody who can achieve those goals.
Then he explained to me that a mentor is somebody who coaches you on what to do, what not to do, and why to do it. I was 19 at the time, it was the end of April in 1980, and that was the beginning of my shift. So I went from being lost, low self-esteem, low self-worth – which I didn't know at the time – with a limited mindset of what I could achieve, doing things that I shouldn't be doing because that's what I thought I had to do to succeed, and to have a little money in my pocket, and feel like I belonged. And that was the beginning of my life really shifting, and being on this trajectory that I've been on now for 40 years.
So, there's a little bit of the history, maybe more than you wanted!
No, I love it. Were you actually committed at that time, or were you interested, pending committed!?
Well, I didn't even know what it meant. As soon as I said I'm committed, and he said, "I'll mentor you", he said, "Great. In that case, I need you to move from Montreal to Toronto." And I said, "What do you mean move from Montreal to Toronto? I don't have any money, I don't have a car, I don't have a job."
He said, "There you go, look how fast you're giving me excuses! If you're committed, you'll figure it out." I said, "Well, I know, but I have $40 in my bank, I don't have a car, and I don't have a place to live in Toronto." He says, "There you go again."
I said, "Fine. I'll move to Toronto." I had no idea how. And he said, "By the way, on May the 5th, there is a real estate course that I want you to take so you can get your real estate license." Mr Brown was a very successful builder and had real estate offices. I said, "You mean me going back to school? I left in grade 11. I failed math, I failed English, I can't stand school."
He goes, "Look how fast you're telling me about your past, and how you hated school. I don't care about your story. I don't care about the reasons or excuses that you have. That's what's going to hold you and keep you stuck. "The course starts on May the 5th, it's five weeks from 9am to 5pm, it costs $500, are you doing it or not?"
I go, "I don't have 500 bucks and I hate school." He says, "See how fast you just keep going back to why you can't?" I said, "But it's the truth. It's reality. Like I'm committed, but it's reality." He says, "No, it's not reality but you're making it your reality, and you're reinforcing a limited mindset."
It’s not reality but you’re making it your reality.
So I sat down and said, "Fine, I'll do it." And I wanted to say something else! And my brother says, "Hey bro, I'll lend you a hundred bucks." My sister ended up lending me some money. My father ended up lending me some money. At the time, I was working for $1.65 an hour in a shipping department, so I quit my job, moved to Toronto 10 days later, and my brother let me live with him.
I attended the real estate course 5th May 1980 and graduated 20th June 1980 with a real estate license in my hand. And the reason I remember these dates so well is because I had cheated tests most of my high school life because I didn't feel smart enough to do it on my own. Or I just failed. And so, on 20th June when I passed the test and they gave me my certificate, it was the first time in my teen or young adult years that I actually felt proud of myself. And it was the first time that I'd actually worked really hard for five weeks to learn the material, because he was practicing with me, to ask me all the questions for real estate.
I then realized, "Maybe I'm not dumb. Maybe I can do this." It was the first opening of the window of possibility for me, and it was because he challenged me to not have stories, and excuses, and reasons, and to have that as my fallback position.
So I wasn't committed, because I really didn't know what it was like to be committed. Even though I blurted it out of my mouth, he helped me understand what ‘commitment’ means. And that has been the story of my life, because I've achieved some pretty neat things. I've also failed, but I always committed to what I want to achieve more than I am to the reasons of failure.
It gives me chills as you talk about that. A lot of people say that they're committed to their success, even though deep down many of them aren’t even interested. But once they start seeing that result, and are able to reinforce that with consistency – which is where mentor guidance is so powerful – they believe it. Was there a specific book or two that Mr Brown shared with you that helped reinforce everything he taught you about mindset, resilience, and resourcefulness?
Yeah, there were a couple of types of books that he helped me with. One, of which you know very well, was Think and Grow Rich. Back in the early '80s, it was even more of a classic, and handed out even more, than it is today. I think it should be handed out more today. The theme of Think and Grow Rich is that you become what you think about most. I remember after reading it, I said to Mr Brown, "I think I'm going to become a woman" because at 19 years old that’s what I was thinking about the most!
He started to chuckle and laugh, but I remember having dialogues with him about what it really means to become what you think about most. I remember him sharing with me, "If your dominant thoughts are on your vision and your goals, and how you can, then you'll likely achieve it. However, if your dominant thoughts are on having a vision and a goal, but your dominant thoughts are on why you can't, you’ll pursue all the reasons why you can't."
He used to call it the razor's edge. The razor's edge wasn't in goal setting. It was in which part of the goal-achieving process you decided to believe and follow. So if you believe that it's possible, and if you believe that it's possible for you because you upgrade your knowledge, you upgrade your skills, you upgrade your belief in yourself and your self-confidence, you'll achieve every goal in the world. But if you're hyper focused on why you can't, and why it's not possible for you because of your age, or the color of your skin, or your knowledge, or your skills, you'll give yourself all the reasons of why you can't.
Of this razor’s edge, he said, "You can train yourself to see the reasons why it may be hard or impossible, and then you can train yourself to see how it is possible, and then you can learn how to choose which option you're going to follow."
I just learned that both positive and negative exist – that can and can’t both exist – and which one I choose to focus on every day, week, and month will determine the outcome.
That’s so powerful. I feel like one of the biggest misconceptions people have about self-mastery is that they’ll reach a certain point and then nothing bad will ever happen to them again. But as you and I know, life sometimes has a funny way of throwing you a curve ball.
You’ve mentioned some of the challenges from growing up, and obviously everyone has challenges as they get older, too. What's the biggest adversity you've in your life to this point where you were able to find an equivalent benefit or advantage in?
There’s one thing that I'm so grateful for today because it is actually is one of the reasons why I'm where I'm at today. For an insight into my background, my father was a cab driver and my mother worked at a local department store. They always fought about the lack of money, and he was a gambler. He would make $100 in a day, and then end up owing people $200. So there were fights and screams, and I just hated fighting about money, or listening to the fights about money, and the lack of it. It always felt like we didn't have enough, because we didn't. We had enough for food and shelter – it was never a problem with that – but there was never enough for more. There were always these arguments. The joke was that there was always too much month left at the end of the money, instead of too much money left at the end of the month.
When I was 22, I was working really hard to succeed. With Allen Brown's help, I made $30,000 my first year in real estate. I upgraded my knowledge and skills, and made $151,000 my second year. And then I went and traveled around the world. When I came back, I was working really hard to make money again, but I ended up with severe ulcerative colitis. I had ulcers in my colon, which means you've got inflammation of the colon. And I had bleeding ulcers in my colon, so it was very painful, and I had no bowel control.
So for a year, I was taking 25 salazopyrin pills a day, doing two cortisone enemas a day, and going to the hospital once a month to do a sigmoidoscopy, which means they stuck up a tube up your rectum to see what's going on, to see if the medications are working.
And after more than a year of being sick, I was watching a TV show about a topic called ‘psychoneuroimmunology.’ And in layman's terms, that's just the body-mind connection. The doctors who were on the TV show were saying that there's a lot of new evidence around the thoughts you have and how it affects your cells. Obviously, your behaviors and your stress too. If you're focusing on disease, you create more disease. If you're focusing on health, you create more health. And coming back to Napoleon Hill and Think and Grow Rich, it's like think and grow healthy.
If you're focusing on disease, you create more disease. If you're focusing on health, you create more health.
I started to research the cause of the colitis, and then I started focusing on, “Okay, let me get a health affirmation. My body and all its organs were created by the infinite intelligence and my subconscious mind. It created all my muscles, bones, tissues, and organs. It knows how to heal me, and make me whole, and perfect. I am deeply grateful for the healing powers that are taking place within me. I am now perfectly healthy.”
I wrote out this affirmation and every day I read it, I visualized it, I meditated on it. I changed my diet, began exercising, and so between affirmations, visualizations, declarations, meditation, proper eating, etcetera, five weeks later, all of my symptoms went away. And so, at 23 years old, I went from being unhealthy to the point where they were talking about removing a portion of my colon, where I was like, “I'm fricking 23 years old, I'm not going to have part of my colon removed!” So, the mental and emotional rehearsal and practice of being in a state of ‘at ease’ versus ‘disease’ helped me realize there is a lot of power in that brain of mine.
Now, I have been researching the power of the human brain for over 38 years. First, because of a health issue with me. But then I started to look at it and thought, “Well, if you can train your brain to be healthy, can you train your brain to build a billion-dollar company?” And I did that. It’s due to what's going on between the conscious and subconscious mind.
If you can train your brain to be healthy, can you train your brain to build a billion-dollar company.
Not only did that terrible disease cause me to have pain and anguish – and I mean, the embarrassment you would not believe if I shared with you some of the stories of where I shit. I had presidents of companies in my car with their wife and kids, taking them to look at houses. I would be showing a home, but not have bowel control, so I would have to ask somebody to go get my bag from the trunk of my car so I could change in the bathroom. I would have to ask the homeowner if I could go shower after I've shit in my pants showing a home.
Having sex with a wonderful young lady, and all of a sudden not being able to make it to the bathroom, and shitting all over the place. You want to talk about pain and embarrassment? It causes you to either be a victim of it, or learn how to be victorious with it. That's what I dealt with.
So out of that, at 22, came my fascination with the human brain. And then I've built companies, and I've helped employees, and I've helped hundreds of thousands of people with what I've discovered over the years, and written books about that. So that's one of the things that came out of being very, very embarrassed, and a very painful time in my life.
One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Jobs who said, "You can never connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back." And I bet at the time, that felt like the worst thing that could ever possibly happen to you. To have built the amazing career that you have as a result of the lessons you learned the hard way, and from manifesting those visualizations, is very powerful.
You’re obviously still focused on making a bigger impact, but what do you do to stop and smell the roses these days?
Well, first and foremost, every day I start off with gratitude, and I end the day with gratitude. I have a really good process, and rituals, to be able to enjoy the moment, as I'm setting bigger and bigger goals of what I want, and how much I want to give, and be, and all that stuff.
I'm living in the moment as well. I meditate every day, I practice mindfulness all day long. I have an alarm on my cell phone that goes off at 55 minutes past each hour for me to stop and breathe, and to get centered, and to be in the state of appreciation.
I spend time with my wife, my children, my family, my friends. That's actually what I put into my calendar first – before I do any work. And so for me, it's not about what else am I going to acquire. For me it's about what else can I contribute. How else can I make a difference on the planet, on the animals, the plants, planet Earth, people's lives, so that I can share my journey with them, in a way that positively impacts them. And in that, I get an enormous amount of gratification.
A lot of people know about vision boards. One of the things you mention a lot is the accomplishment board. Can you give a bit of an overview of what an accomplishment board is, for people who aren't familiar with it?
Sure. Everyone who goes through my coaching program goes through the process of what they want and what they've accomplished. The idea behind a vision board is “This is what I aspire to have, do, be, give, etcetera.” But an accomplishment board is something very few people put in place, and that is a collection of all the things you’ve accomplished.
And people ask, "Well, why would you want a list of that?" The answer is because it's a great reminder of the things you've already done, many of which probably came with a lot of obstacles.
Now, there's another reason for that, and I always have my plastic brain on the table here. When we look at the stuff that we've accomplished, we actually fire off a part of the brain that releases a little hit of dopamine. When I release a little bit of dopamine, that part of our brain activates the motor cortex part of our brain as well.
Why is that important? Well, when we are motivated, we have motive for action. And if we can remind ourselves of all the things we’ve done or overcome, or people we’ve helped, or products we’ve created, or places we’ve been, whatever the case might be, we're activating the motivational circuit that wants us to actually do more of the things that helped us create the success we want. And it doesn't matter what accomplishments – if you think about, I learned how to ride a bike, I learned the English language, I graduated from grade 10. It doesn't make a difference.
When I am motivated, I have motive for action.
Any time we activate that circuit in our brain, we reinforce that circuit. And we then can become addicted to doing the things that are necessary in order to achieve goals, including overcoming obstacles and failure, because most of us do not have this rocket ship ride to success. If you ever take a look at a map of people who climb Everest, it’s not a straight climb up. It's left, right, down, up, across, this way, and that's what life and success is like. So, I like to remind myself of the things that I've already accomplished, as opposed to all the things that aren't working.
It's so easy for us, and I call it activating not the Einstein brain – which is the imagination, and the vision, and the signing part of our brain – but the Frankenstein's monster that goes, "You can't because… You're not good enough, you're not smart enough, you're too young, you're too old, what if you fail, what if you succeed, what if you're embarrassed, what if you're ashamed?" That part of our brain is active all day long, way more than our Einstein brain is.
So, by having my accomplishment board and vision board right here next to me every day, I can just get a little hit of dopamine to help me get focused on the things I want to do and need to do.
It's an evidence-based check in? I love it. And that's the perfect segue, actually, to talk more about things on the performance side, too. I just finished your awesome new book Innercise, which is a fantastic overview of the human brain. What's the biggest misconception that people have about the brain?
Well, I think a lot of people still think that we only use 5% or 7% of our brain, and that's not true. We use 100% of our brain, and the neural networks and the patterns that exist within it. Every one of us has the ability to double, triple, quintuple the capacity. I mean, way more than that.
Misconception number two is that change is hard. But change is only hard if you don't have the right process. Change is easier, not easy, if you have the right process. So the brain is made up of circuits that turn on or off, so if you think about your computer, you can go from one software program to the other, and our brain has circuits, and networks. So networks that turn on and off, circuits that turn on and off, and most people just don't know how to turn on or off, whether it's their motivational circuit, or their fear, or stress, or uncertainty circuit. They are victims of what their brain has been conditioned to do, instead of being masters of change, and using their brain.
Since I don't believe that we are our brain, I believe that we have a brain, and our brain is an organism, not an organ. So an organism can grow, develop, and do things, and once it learns how to do things, it does more of those things. We can deliberately and consciously evolve ourselves way more rapidly than ever thought possible. So the reason I wrote Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain's Hidden Power is not to teach people about their brain as much as to show them that they've got the most powerful trillion-dollar organism that they already own. I try to give them a bit of the user's manual to learn how to do X, Y, and Z; to become aware of fears and then release them; to become aware of their self-image or self-esteem; and to become aware of the limiting beliefs that are holding them back.
It’s important to realize that limiting beliefs are nothing more than patterns in your brain that have been reinforced. They're not right or wrong, but they may be constructive or destructive. But you have the ability to deactivate a pattern in your brain, and create a brand new one that you can reinforce, and that becomes the new default or automatic part of you that's more empowering.
So that's the fascinating part. Why I wrote the book is to show people that you don't have to be a victim of your traumas, your past, your limiting beliefs, or self-esteem, or fears. You can be victorious over them, but you have to have the right process. And in the absence of the right process, change can be almost impossible.
I’m a Rubik's cube fanatic. If you want to solve this Rubik's cube, you just need to know the algorithms. Now this one might take you 24 hours to do, once it was totally messed up, but a two-by-two, or three-by-three, or four-by-four, you can do it in minutes or seconds, if you get good. And so in the absence of getting good, people just randomly try. And it's silly to try in a world where we have the answer, and the how-to, for anything that you want to achieve.
There's so much to unpack about what you said there, because in my experience, it's not really the motivation they struggle with, or the goal-setting, or even the knowledge. It's that activity – the daily reps – that they simply don't prioritize. What do people need to do to make sure they're getting that daily activity done, so they can achieve their goals – whether it’s a weight loss goal, a financial goal, or solving a Rubik's cube!?
Sure, so I want to just back you up for just a moment. You also need to know what you need to do and when. So what you do, and when, and how, is important. Any goal that we have now, in our time, all the ‘how-to’ already exists. Unless you're trying to colonize Mars, or you're Elon Musk trying to figure out how to use rocket ships more than once, you really don't have to be innovative. For any goal, whether it’s health, wealth, relationships, career, or business, we already know the ‘how-to’.
So the first part that you have to know is, “Do I really want to achieve Goal X and am I committed?” If I'm committed, then the next step is, “What do I need to believe in order to achieve that goal? What are the behaviors that I need to take today, tomorrow, the next day, the next day after that?” It’s important to know what you need to do and what skill you need to have.
Then I need to understand, “What could get in my way?” Well, what could get in my way is something happening in the economy or many other things. Then I need to ask, “What am I going to do if that happens? What is my contingency?”
Then I simply develop the daily habits that make that process repeatable, so that you are doing those things every single day. So we need beliefs, and we need habits, and we need the right strategies.
Once we learn those few pieces, we can achieve just about any goal that we have.
The other piece is managing emotions on a day to day basis because, as we are looking to achieve greater and greater goals, the stress, fear, and uncertainty circuits in our brain are going to get activated. And when they get activated, the first thing that happens is the motivational center actually closes down. The thinking center closes down. Then we spend the time on all of the things that are causing us to have these fears or uncertainties. So I have to learn how to self-regulate, specifically my emotions, because they are the triggers by which our brain just tells us that something dangerous may be lurking in the background. There might be an emotional, mental, financial, or physical trigger in our brain, where we might have a loss or a painful experience.
Anytime we're growing, this part of our brain is hyperactive. And so we have to learn how to recognize that this trigger has happened, and then we have to learn what to do about it. Once we learn those few pieces, we can achieve just about any goal that we have.
Most of my career has been about studying human performance, as yours has, and I remember as a young idealist, I naively thought that I could positively change every single person's life who I came into contact with. But I had a situation several years ago where I learned the hard way that sometimes those you're trying to lift up can sometimes end up pulling you down, without even you consciously being aware of it until much later.
Eventually for my own well-being, I had to distance myself from that person who was a good friend at the time. Have you ever had an experience like that and, if so, how did you handle it?
Yes, on many occasions I’ve worked harder at helping somebody achieve their goal than they have. But that brings me back to a couple of things that I've discovered over the years. First and foremost, help the people who want the help, not the people who need the help.
Number two, don't be in the convincing business, because if you've got to convince somebody, then they're not sold on themselves doing it.
Help the people who want the help, not the people who need the help.
And number three, every person I work with I ask the question, “Are you interested or are you committed?” And if they tell me they're committed, and they're willing to do whatever it takes, and be radically honest with themselves, and radically honest with what they do, or don't do, then I'm willing to help you.
But anybody else, I have no interest in helping. I don't want to spend my time trying to talk somebody into what they should be doing.
Well said. Earlier, you mentioned some things you did as a teenager that were perhaps a little bit unethical. I would put myself in that same boat, as I'm sure a lot of people did stupid things when they were young, that they're not proud of. Why are we haunted by things in our past that bring us shame in the present? Whether that's something that we might have done personally, or something that's happened to us?
If we haven't worked on our self-image, self-worth, and self-esteem, then those things can embarrass us, or cause us to feel ashamed, which is blame turned inwards. And so I've done things in my teens that, I mean, you wouldn't believe. Crazy, crazy, stupid things that I'm not proud of today. But I forgave myself a long time ago for those things. I created a healthy self-image, but also a healthy respect and understanding for traumas, for errors in judgment, for stupidity, for things that, like, really, you did that? Or you didn't do that? And forgave myself for those things, and then have made restitution by doing a lot of good stuff to balance all of those things out.
Shame is blame turned inwards.
One of the things that I teach in the book is an exercise called A.I.A., which is awareness, intention, action. One of the first and best ways to grow as a human being is to practice awareness: awareness of my thoughts, my feelings, my sensation, emotions, behavior, results. My past, my present, the future. To be in awareness of the thoughts that are going on. And if you can start to become more aware of the past, the present, and the future, without judgment, blame, shame, guilt, or justification, no judgment, no blame, no shame, no guilt, just pure awareness. And be in a state of acceptance of whatever is, is, whatever was, was. And then surrender to it, and allow. That puts you in a state of growth, versus a state of going into the past, and bringing forth a disempowering thought or emotion, or the meaning that you gave something, or give something back then or now that can disempower you.
So, why not give yourself permission to have made plenty of mistakes, forgive yourself, and then say, "What am I doing right now?" And so, we live in the moment, we use the past as a guidance post, not a hitching post, as our friend Tony Robbins said many, many years ago.
What I love about what you said there is that we always have the ability to be able to make restitution for something that we might feel bad about. And, in fact, that bad thing from the past can even be used as a bit of rocket fuel to help us do a even more good in the future.
Yeah, and every single person who’s experienced some kind of a trauma and made something out of it, the one core bridge between all of them is they said, "Because of that, I chose to be better." They used it to become more, to help others, and to make sure no one else has to experience that.
But there's other people who because of that trauma, or that thing they did, they say, "Oh my God, I'm going to hold myself playing small." The meaning you give it determines how you feel, and how you feel determines what you do or don't do. So it is possible to give meaning to something from your past that you are embarrassed, ashamed of, traumatized by, that can actually empower and inspire you, rather than expire and disempower you.
So why not do it for yourself? I can take the stuff that I did with lying, stealing, cheating, selling drugs, doing drugs that I was embarrassed about, and I can say, "Oh my God, can you believe I did that?" and minimize myself. Or I can say, "Because of that, here are the 50 things that I have done as a result. And here's what it forced me to do, or challenged me to become." So I'm happy that it happened. I'm not proud of it, but I'm happy that it happened, that I was able to reframe it and use it in a way to empower me, so that I can empower others. And that's using your noggin a little bit better.
Yeah, your credit's good with the universe now.
We're in interesting times at the moment, and the mood and productivity of way too many people is malleable based on what they see in the news or whoever’s in the White House. We're in a pretty unique time now with COVID, where there's a lot more fear, anger, and negativity than there would be normally. What can people do to avoid this negativity creeping in from external sources?
Whenever we say, “Because of that… COVID, the news, the government, this political party or that party… because of them…” we're taking all the control and putting it out there.
What if you could turn off your TV if it's not empowering you? What if you could be neutral, and in a state of observation, in asking, "How can I take this opportunity to be more focused? More empathetic, more compassionate? More productive, instead of just active, or unproductive. How can I use this as a fertile opportunity to become an adaptationist?" Which is what I've been teaching all of my clients for six months now.
Adapt, adapt, adapt. What if that gave you more confidence, more certainty, that you could endure anything, anytime, anywhere, no matter what?
Also, how can you observe whatever it is that there is to observe, and see more than just that? How do you teach yourself to see the polar opposite of it? To find the good in it? You can practice that right now.
Use this time as a fertile opportunity to become an adaptationist.
Now, I don't want to downplay COVID and all the deaths. My mother died because of coronavirus, and a dear friend died because of coronavirus, so it's really close to my heart. I know the severity of what I'm talking about. When there's a real predator at the door, and there's a chance of death, you can still be personally responsible for reducing your own risk.
My wife and I, and our family members, have been hyper-focused on immune system buildup and staying healthier now than we ever did before. We teach people that even if you don’t have an underlying health condition, you should start getting healthy now. You can use it as a springboard into being healthier, and increasing your ability to fight off any virus if you happen to get it.
So, everything has got a polarity to it, right? You can't have an up without a down, an inside without an outside, white without black, or light without dark. So the polarity always exists. But if we allow ourselves to get hyper-focused on the disempowering thing, or the negative thing, that we're giving meaning to, then we are not focusing on its polar opposite of, “What can I do about it? How can I grow from this? How can I become better, be more, have more?”
When we get hyper-focused on these external things, and we give them these disempowering meanings, then we become victims of them, and I don't want people to be a victim.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where John does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question, John. What's one thing you do to win the day?
First thing every morning, I do meditation and innercise. And I'll give you a bonus one. I review and listen to many pieces of my Exceptional Life Blueprint.
Thanks so much for being on the Win the Day podcast!
Thank you, James. I appreciate you for having such a great show.
Resources / links mentioned:
📝 John Assaraf Facebook
📷 John Assaraf Instagram
💪 Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain's Hidden Power by John Assaraf
🧠 John Assaraf website
💡 Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
🔥 BRAND NEW! Andrew Carnegie’s Mental Dynamite by Napoleon Hill and James Whittaker
“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
– Winston Churchill
In the pursuit of giving you everything you need to take ownership of your financial, physical and mental health, I try to interview and share the stories of a diverse mix of guests. However, I’ve never interviewed someone like who we’ve got today: Coss Marte.
When she was six months pregnant with him, Coss’ mother immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. Settling in the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1980s, it was a brutal time, with skyrocketing crime statistics that made headlines around the world.
At 11 years old, Coss began using drugs. Just two years later, to make ends meet, he was selling crack on the streets. With a complete lack of positive role models, and an environment riddled with crime, there were few legitimate avenues available to him. Yet, despite seeing people killed and regularly witnessing extreme acts of violence, Coss survived as he inched his way up the food chain.
Eventually, at 19 years old, he was at the helm of one of the largest drug delivery services in New York City. Through a team of more than two dozen couriers, dispatchers, and street soldiers, Coss distributed vast quantities of cocaine and marijuana to all segments of society – from public housing residents to cops, judges, and doctors, but especially Wall Street executives who had the salaries to match their insatiable appetite for his product.
At its peak, the business was earning more than $5 million a year. Coss’ drug venture was so successful that he needed eight mobile phones just to store the sheer number of customer contacts.
Eventually, the law caught up with him, and 23-year-old Coss was sentenced to prison and forced to turnover all proceeds from his criminal enterprise. It was the latest and most severe of a string of arrests that had seen him incarcerated 10 times since he first began dealing drugs as a 13-year-old. Giving up the lavish lifestyle was tough but, since Coss had become a father for the first time, the feelings of abandonment from his baby son – whom he had to watch grow up from behind bars – was the worst.
While in prison, Coss was told that his cholesterol levels were off the charts and he would die if he didn’t start taking care of his health. Six months later, through a rigorous fitness regime from the confines of his cell, Coss lost 70 pounds and helped dozens of other inmates to do the same.
His physical transformation had reignited a flame of ambition, and when released he launched ConBody, a fitness program that would help get people in the best shape of their life, while offering employment for people who had just left prison so they wouldn’t have to face the constant rejection that awaited them.
Since then, through his studios and online programs, Coss has trained 50,000+ people from around the world. He’s an author, a TEDx speaker, and recently launched a crowdfund for a nonprofit that helps equip formerly incarcerated people with the skills to succeed in the digital world so they don’t need to return to a life of crime.
This is a different and more somber style of interview than I’ve done before, and while we cover many of the raw aspects of Coss’ past, none of it is used to glorify the life he used to lead. It’s a wonderful tale of redemption and shows how the right accountability and focus can brighten even the darkest situation.
Note: Prior to the interview, I asked Coss to avoid mentioning anyone or anything from his past life that could jeopardize his or his family’s safety.
Great to see you my friend. Thanks for being on Win the Day.
No, thank you so much, James, for the opportunity.
To kick things off, take us into the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1980s, and what it was like as a 13-year-old kid selling crack on the streets?
It was a crazy time. I remember seeing drug lines down the block, and I remember it was a normal thing to see. The community was part of it, and I grew up thinking it was some sort of job. People would say, “Yo, the cops are coming,” and somebody would blow a whistle down the block to warn everyone. Some people would scatter, and sometimes the cops would just turn a blind eye to what they were seeing because there was so much craziness. It was just insane.
I remember seeing buckets filled with drugs coming down from the roof, and people on the street would put their money in the bucket and it would go up and down all day to service everyone in the lines. It was just crazy.
And that was obviously a notoriously crime-ridden part of New York City that made headlines around the world. Were there areas of the city where the police just refused to go into?
You would see the police, but you would not see them doing anything. There was just so much going on that it became normalized – they would walk by prostitutes and just say hi to them, to keep it moving. I felt like they just couldn't control what was happening and they were part of the problem as well. They were doing corrupt stuff. They were taking money under the door or robbing people. I've been robbed by cops before where they take my money and just don't report it.
How did the drug game work as a street-level dealer? Did everyone have their own turf where other crews knew they weren’t supposed to be unless they were trying to take it over?
Yeah, every corner was owned by somebody. But it’s not like the movies where somebody from one corner comes to the next corner and they get shot. Although if you sold drugs on that block, you would have a problem.
I remember having a fight with the guy who sold drugs in my mom's block, and I sold drugs two blocks away. I was walking into the building and saw a common customer, so I served him. Somebody told the other guy, and we got into a fight. He pulled out a knife and started chasing me. It was just things that you would never imagine happening, but it was happening, and there were no cameras around.
Nowadays, people are worried about the cameras watching them. Back then, there were no cellphones with cameras. Everybody had a beeper, and that was it.
Much easier to get away with things before all the surveillance?
Is there an incident that stands out as particularly brutal that people who haven't lived that life might not have any idea about?
I had a friend/neighbor get shot and killed. He got shot three times in the head, and I was down the block. I was just standing on the corner, and shots rang off. It was over a girl and a cellphone. It was just crazy to see how things could escalate for something so minuscule. Thinking about it now, people would fight for someone stepping on somebody's else’s Jordans [shoes]. “You step on my Jordans, it's an automatic fight,” so it was things of that nature.
I've seen a lot of crazy stuff. There's just so many stories that I could get into, especially with me and my business partner from back in the day. I remember we went to Central Park, and there was a horse and carriage there. We were walking around with our mink coats and joking around with our pimp sticks. And we just had so much money that we were like, “Yo, let's try to bargain with one of these horse carriages and take them back to our neighborhood, so we could sell drugs right from the horse and carriage.” There was a borderline under 42nd Street where they weren’t allowed to go.
So we gave this lady $5,000 to take us to the block, and the kids in the neighborhood started feeding the horses apples and carrots, and we gave everybody money. We were literally going down 5th Avenue having crackheads meet us in a horse and carriage so we could sell them drugs.
We were literally going down 5th Avenue having crackheads meet us in a horse and carriage so we could sell them drugs.
We even took the horse and carriage through a McDonald's drive thru. It was crazy, but we got away with stuff like that.
How would people know that you were the dealer? Or did people recognize you at that point?
At that point I had a delivery service, so I was getting calls all over the city from people who wanted drugs. So while we were riding down 5th Avenue, we were like, “We're about to hit the corner of 14th and 5th. Jump on the horse and carriage, and then jump off.”
And then we were heading to Houston Street: “We're on Houston and Broadway. We're here. Meet us on this corner.” It was like something out of a movie that’s really hard to describe.
It would make for a good movie at some stage in the future! Was there no concern about any of those people wanting to buy drugs possibly being undercover cops? Or was the war on drugs, and the big clean up of the city, done later?
Yeah. Rudy Giuliani [Mayor of New York City] was a man who was against crime. I remember as a kid just being stopped by cops constantly for not doing anything. I've probably been stopped by cops on stop-and-frisk about 200 times just because they knew I was up to no good, but sometimes I was just going to the store or going down the block or just minding my own business.
They stopped me because they said, “You fit the description” or “Somebody said you had a gun on you.” But I never really carried guns at that time. It was crazy.
Eventually you make it from street dealer to head of a crew making more than $5 million dollars a year. How did that transition happen?
We basically changed the way we sold drugs. I remember make little pieces of paper, and writing my number on it, and giving that out to people. In the early 2000s, the neighborhood started getting gentrified, after 9/11.
Nobody wanted to live in the Lower East Side, and I remember landowners offering people like $20,000 just to move out. Then they would fix up the apartments, and rent them out for $3,000 a month, which is crazy. And that’s still happening today.
So gentrification happened quickly. People, mainly white hipsters, started moving in, and they had a lot of money. I remember increasing my price from selling $20 bags to $50 bags, and then $100 per gram, and they just kept escalating like that.
I would buy a kilo for about $20,000 and make $100,000 off of it. And we'd move a kilo in a week.
I did what I could to make sure the person was not a cop. I would hang out with them – meet them in a bar, smoke a blunt with them, and give them my card with a coke sample on it. We would exchange numbers, and that's how it expanded.
But I did get caught through phones, but that's a longer story.
So, at that point, you had this whole business. You got dozens of people on your payroll. You've got drivers, couriers, people working all the different phones as dispatchers. What about the product side – where did that come from, what could you sell it for, and who were you selling it to?
I'm not going to say where the product came from specifically, but everything is derived from South America. It was being delivered directly through mail, people on planes, and that’s how things operated. I would buy a kilo for about $20,000 and make $100,000 off of it. And we'd move a kilo in a week.
You were also dealing to Wall Street executives and other corporate clients. Were they asking for certain drugs that you weren’t currently selling, which you then added to your portfolio?
The only thing that we added to our portfolio was weed. We didn't really have that many categories. When I was younger, I had messed around with hashish, heroin, e-pills, and acid, and all that stuff. But once we started the delivery service, we just straight focused on coke and weed.
Who were the best customers to have?
Those Wall Street people. They had a lot of money. They would move into the city and pay $3,000 a month for a 200 square foot studio apartment. It was crazy to see that. I've never seen people spend money so frivolously.
And there were actually a lot of Australians moving in. I remember them saying back home they paid like $150 a gram for coke. When they came to the city and we told them $100 a gram, they were like, “Wow, can I get 20?”
And it was just like, “Oh shit. This person going all out.”
So you had these people who were moving into New York City, and they were our best customers. They had professional jobs, but they all partied. And then the word got out. Even doctors. I've sold to lawyers, judges, cops. You name it.
At its peak, you were bringing in $5 million a year with more than $2 million in profit. What was your life like at that point – were you happy or were you wanting more?
I was always wanting more, and I was pretty greedy. I had a cold heart. I didn't even care who was hurt by my drugs – I just wanted the money, and I wanted to keep growing. It was crazy. I spent money frivolously and didn't really care what was going on.
I knew the money would keep going and coming, and it was fun. I was not sad at those times! It was a lot of crazy partying and messing around in the streets, and that was just the mentality that I had. I didn't care who I had to step over or hurt to get that money.
That notion of living for the present, rather than trying to set yourself up for the future. Is that why the idea of quitting while you were ahead never entered your mind? Or maybe it did enter your mind?
It did. I definitely wanted to get into some type of real estate. I tried to get my real estate broker license when I was younger, but I had a [criminal] record so that prevented me from entering that business. I was looking into buying foreclosed houses, and buying stuff, and I got caught up with my friend. We spent a lot of money.
When did you realize the whole operation had come undone or was about to become undone, and you were facing some very serious consequences?
It was the day I got caught – it was a total surprise.
We had all our dispatchers setup in condos, with cars and a salary. All they had to do was answer the phone and just tell the people where to go. They had the packages that they handed over to the deliverers. One dispatcher went behind our back, took our business card, and made a new phone number on the card. He then gave those cards away to try and steal our customers. One card ended up with one of my clients who had my personal number.
So this client of mine hits me up, and I used to hang out with this guy. He's like, “Yo, this guy gave me a card. It's a new number now and the product is not the same.” And I'm like, “What are you talking about?” because our product was always grade A. We didn't cut anything. It was straight from the ship to your nose, and that's how we delivered it.
Our product was always grade A. We didn't cut anything. It was straight from the ship to your nose, and that's how we delivered it.
He was like, “Yeah. They're serving green bags.” And I'm like, “That's not my bags. My bags are clear.”
I asked him for the phone number on the card he was given. I called the number and heard a dispatcher that I employed answer that phone, and I was like, “Yo, what the fuck are you doing?” and he quickly hung up. That dispatcher had all the phones in his possession at the time.
I had a connection with T-Mobile, and we only used prepaid phones, so I went and turned off all the phones and started again with new cell phones. But the phone number he had started was being tapped by federal agents. I had taken that phone number and started operating with it because I thought it was all the customers he stole from me.
So that's where the investigation started. They had a year-long investigation on me. They had a bunch of cell phones from all my drivers, but didn't even know that there were six other phones that we were operating with. The reason we had so many phones was because each one only held 1,500 to 2,500 contact numbers. Back then, you couldn't hold tens of thousands of contacts in a phone.
And we just kept pushing it. I remember not trusting anymore dispatchers. I started doing a lot more myself, and that's how we got caught.
I remember going to the stash house to drop off some weed. As I walked upstairs, I was getting a whole bunch of calls from clients. So, I was sending all my drivers out, and one at a time they were getting picked up. I don't know if you remember the Nextel phones with the walkie talkie, but when it didn’t go through it used to go “beep, beep” when they were busy, like someone was on the phone. And it kept doing that, so I kept sending other drivers to different places because we had a list of 50 people waiting for us, but it kept happening.
That night, after my ninth driver was unresponsive, I said, “Fuck that. I don’t know what these guys are doing. I can’t wait, so I'm going to go make these deliveries myself.”
So, I grabbed a whole bunch of packages, but as soon as I got downstairs, I saw this white… I'm in the middle of the Bronx, like a straight black and Hispanic neighborhood. You don't see white people there, but I saw this big white guy, and he was standing outside the house. He pulled out his badge and said, “This is Federal Agent Joseph King. Your whole operation is over.”
And I'm like, “What the fuck?”
He said, “You’re Coss Marte, right?”
And I said, “I don't know what you're talking about.”
I turned to run, but they quickly tackled me. They pulled out their warrant, went upstairs, and knew exactly where everything was stored. One of the drivers had told them where everything was stashed. I just knew that somebody had told because, when they brought me upstairs, they were like, “Don't worry, we know everything.”
They knew exactly.
I had about 500 pairs of Jordans, which I sold to start Conbody. The cops went exactly to the pair of sneakers where all the drugs were at in that box, and they opened it up. Game over.
Wow. So you were arrested and initially faced a life sentence because of the three-strikes-law that imposed a mandatory life sentence if you had two prior convictions. Due to equal parts luck and some changes in government, you ended up with a seven-year sentence with a non-parole period of five years. What was it like in court, just sitting there waiting to see how much of your life was going to be taken from you?
It was nerve-wracking. It was definitely one of the most nerve-wracking situations that I’ve ever faced. I've been in shootouts, I've seen people pass away in front of me, but to be in cuffs and see a judge who decides the future of your life… it’s like they can kill you right there. And once you're away, you're not alive, and that's how I felt.
You're off to prison at that point. It wasn't the first time you'd been to prison, but it was the largest sentence. How was your first night on the inside, knowing that it was going to be a long time before you'd be able to see your son again?
It was sad and it’s what hurt me the most. I remember that day I got arrested, I spent pretty much the whole day with him and my wife ... Well, she was my fiancée at the time, and we got married when I was inside prison, but divorced when we got out. But yeah, it was hard. If anybody has kids, you feel it in your heart.
And then also speaking to him over the phone was tough. I taught him his ABCs over the prison phone. And he would also come to visit me and say, "When are you coming home?" And that broke my heart, to hear him cry and have to tell him, "I can't go home."
What's an average day like in prison?
You try to forget about the real world. You're living in a different planet in there – it’s just a different set of rules. There's a lot of racism going on in US prisons. There's black gangs, Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and all types of gangs running stuff. Sometimes you end up in a housing unit that's full of mostly Bloods, sometimes you're in a Crip house, sometimes you're in a Latin King house. You just have to be ready to adapt.
I knew how to adapt because I was a kid when I first went to prison. I remember when I was a kid, I had a fight every single day because I was not part of a gang. The adults are a bit more lenient in terms of you not being in a gang, but that meant you still couldn't do things like use certain phones.
In prison, there were three pay phones: a neutral phone, a Spanish phone, and a black gang phone. I was not in a gang, but I was always hanging out with the Spanish gangs, so I was okay to use the Spanish phone. Sometimes other gang members would take away that neutral phone, so if you're not part of that unit, you couldn't make a phone call.
I've seen people extorted for food, have fights over TV. Actually, a lot of fights over the TV – someone might be watching the Spanish channel, whereas someone else might want to watch regular news, so they just go up to the TV and change it. You just have to be ready to fight. It's crazy.
They say, “Pull out your gun.” You don’t have a gun, but it’s what they call knives. Your knife is your gun, and that's what they’d say.
Was it more violent inside or on the streets?
It was definitely more violent inside prison. In the streets, you could be incognito, especially after things changed with cell phones and delivery services. It was not that corner-to-corner type of issue from back in the day.
Were you able to work and earn wages inside prison?
Yes, I was working as a customer service agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles, earning seven cents an hour.
Seven cents an hour?
Yes, that’s an hour. My monthly wage was $40.
That's crazy. How do they justify seven cents an hour?
I have no idea. It's all a robbery. It's a money-making business. The department pays the inmates a certain amount, and the prison take a cut. So they could say like, “Hey, we'll deliver all the customer agents for you for $10 an hour rather than $20 an hour.” And then you get paid whatever they tell you you're going to get paid.
I was working as a customer service agent for the Department of Motor Vehicles, earning seven cents an hour.
You’re stuck because you want to do something while you're inside. You have to do something, just to keep occupied. And if you don't work, you get in trouble too.
There are so many ways you cease being human when you enter the prison system.
Yeah. It's part of the law. Basically, to be incarcerated, you’re subject to being enslaved.
Well, five years in, you're only a couple of months away from being released, but an unwarranted assault from a guard lands you in solitary and stacks more time on your sentence. How that did happen, and how did you keep the faith?
I was devastated when I ended up in solitary confinement. I had two months left before my release, and I remember one of the officers beat me up and threw me in solitary confinement with 24-hour lockdown. I was devastated. I felt hopeless. I thought I couldn't get out of the situation, but then an officer came to my door, opened up the food slot, and passed me a pen, paper, and an envelope. I quickly grabbed them so I could communicate with my family.
So, I wrote a letter to let my family know about the whole situation, and how this officer set me up and beat me up. As I sealed the letter, I realized I had no stamp to send it out and I became even more restless.
I sat on my bed and started banging my head on the wall, just frustrated. Hopeless. It was not until three or four days later when my sister found out I was in solitary. She wrote me a letter and said, “We found out you're in solitary. Everything is going to be all right. All I want you to do is pray.” My sister is super religious, and she told me to pray to Psalm 91.
But I was like, "Fuck that. I don't need god and I don't need religion. I need a lawyer. I need to fight this case. This guy is trying to set me up."
It was not until a couple of days later where I decided to pick up the bible, which was the only thing in the cell. The bible is the only thing that follows you around through your whole prison sentence, and it was this bible that she gave me early in my incarceration in Rikers Island.
To be incarcerated, you’re subject to being enslaved.
And I turned to Psalm 91, which states, “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord. He is my shelter and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” And as soon as I read those words, a stamp fell out of the Psalm pages, and that gave me chills.
I don't know. I was struck by awe, and I kept reading, and something weird happened to me. I was in 100+ degree weather, a super-hot cell, frustrated, but every time I read the bible I felt like I was in cool 70 degree weather, and sitting in the Caribbean. Every time I began reading, I escaped that cell. I got lost in the words, and I read the bible from front to back. I'm not a super religious person, and I'm not trying to convert anyone, but that is what happened to me.
Through reading the bible, I started realizing that what I had been doing was wrong. I felt like drugs were okay to sell. Previously, I had felt like I was not doing anything wrong – that it was the system that was wrong. I thought I was the victim in every situation.
And then I started realizing that I was affecting not only the thousands of people that I sell drugs to, but I started thinking about their families. I started thinking about my family. I started thinking about this web of destruction that I'd created, and I felt so much regret. I said, “I want to get back in some sort of way.”
I came up with the idea of ConBody in that cell. Then, I lost 70 pounds in six months, while helping 20 other inmates lose more than 1,000 pounds combined.
So, I started this whole workout program in the prison yard. I knew then that it’s what I wanted to do when I came home: a prison-style bootcamp. In my cell, I wrote a mini-business plan and a 90-day workout plan. I said to myself that I would do what I wrote, and I did.
About a year later, I came home and put it into action. I started training classes in the park, then rented out studios, then eventually opened up my own studio. It escalated to building an online workout platform where I now train thousands of people all over the world. Today, we've trained more than 50,000 people. But the most beautiful thing is that we've hired over 40 people coming out of the prison system, and none of them have come back into the system.
That's incredible. In New York, aren’t 53% of released prisoners likely to be back inside prison within three years?
Yes, and that's just three years. Within five years, it's 76%. Within eight years, 82% of the people will go back into the system. So more than three out of four people will go back, and I'm a proven statistic. I recidivated, and it a lot has to do with the lack of opportunities that you receive when you get out of the system and come home.
So you were inside and came up with what you thought was a solid business idea, but it was only when you got started that you realized just how good it was. How were you able to spread the word about ConBody? And were there any principles or lessons you had from your former life that were able to help you build it?
Yeah. I remember when I got out of solitary confinement, I had to do this group class for a couple of months called ASAT – the alcohol, substance abuse treatment program. In the middle of the class, full of inmates, they ask us what our plan is when we come home. I remember getting up in front of the class and telling everyone, “Look, I'm going to start a prison-style bootcamp. I'm going to hire people coming out of the system.” And I told them the whole idea of ConBody.
They all laughed and thought I was crazy, but that got me mad. I said, “This shit is going to fucking pop off! I know how to build the business from the ground up.” And that was just my mentality: that nothing was going to stop me. I was determined to make this thing happen.
My mentality was nothing is going to stop me.
Then I came home and used the same marketing and hustling skills that I used when I was selling drugs. I was going up to random people and giving them my business card. Any females wearing yoga pants who were jogging down the block, I would chase after them and pitch them left and right! I just kept doing it, and from there it started escalating.
Did you find people who were currently incarcerated and go into the prisons to train them as personal trainers? Or was it once they were released, you were able to train them as personal trainers and bring them into Conbody?
Yeah, once they were released. At the start, I was doing everything myself – teaching all the classes and running the whole business. I couldn't afford to pay anyone in the beginning stages. It took me a little over a year and a half before I hired my first guy. Then, one of the guys who I was locked up with that saw me lose a lot of weight, he contacted me immediately when he came home because he’d read about me in an article and became my Facebook friend. He hit me up and said, “Hey, yo. Can I be a trainer there?” So I brought him on board, and it kept spreading like that.
I love it. And this year, you started a crowdfunding campaign for Second Chance Studios, which has raised more than $60,000. What's your aim with Second Chance Studios, and why is it such an important project for you?
One of the biggest issues when people are coming out of the prison system is that we have a lot of manual labor jobs, and that's pretty much the only job you can get when you come out. One out of five people unemployed in America are formerly incarcerated people, which is crazy. That's millions and millions of people with criminal histories, and that correlates to people going back. Especially during COVID time, anybody who had a manual labor job pretty much lost their job. So now with the technical skill side of it, we want to launch Second Chance Studios so we can hire and train people to do podcasting work, video production, and audio engineering.
We want to have corporations hire these individuals once they’ve gone through our program and solidified their training. That would also be helpful for me because I want to hire people with those skills for the ConBody side, too.
It's perfect timing with the pandemic and the push to remote work, where people can offer their expertise from the comfort of their own home.
You've been a TEDx speaker, an author, and done all these amazing things. How long ago was it since you were released and able to start doing all these awesome ventures?
It's been a while. March 2013.
I have the utmost respect for the journey that you have been on. It was obviously a very difficult upbringing, but the bigger the setback, the bigger the comeback.
There seems to be a resistance to helping formerly incarcerated individuals develop skills and earn money. It’s like people would rather be afraid of them from a distance, and it remains a taboo subject. Yet, we need that change to happen if we’re to have a meaningful society. If you had one change to make to the prison system, what would it be?
I think we need to believe in redemption. Everyone in this planet has committed some type of mistake, something immoral or something bad. Not everyone's perfect, and we need to realize that we all commit mistakes. If we didn't commit mistakes, we wouldn't learn from our mistakes. But our system in the US is all about punishment. It’s a correction facility, and we need to correct the problem.
To do that, we need to recruit people who care. Instead of bringing in correctional officers who just want to beat you up with batons and turn you more into a criminal, why not have trained correctional officers and staff members who really care? People who want to correct the problem, to train and reform individuals, and who believe in second chances.
Hopefully sharing your story on platforms like this can help initiate that change.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Coss does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question. What's one thing you do to Win the Day?
Working out is the biggest thing for me. I feel so accomplished when I wake up in the morning and go for a run or workout.
Resources / links mentioned:
“Do or do not. There is no try.”
Today we sit down with one of the world’s foremost business growth experts, Kerwin Rae. Kerwin has amassed millions of followers with his raw, no-nonsense motivational style. In an extraordinary career, he’s helped more than 100,000 businesses in 150+ different industries, in more than a dozen countries, to achieve better results. He is also host of the Unstoppable with Kerwin Rae podcast.
But Kerwin certainly had to attend the school of hard knocks to get where he is today. At 7 years old, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning difficulties. At 15, he had the first of seven near-death experiences. And at 19, he became addicted to drugs.
It looked like the stars simply wouldn’t align for his life, and he hadn’t even read a book in full until he was 23 – which is coincidentally the same year he started his first business.
Then, a series of transformational moments occurred that made Kerwin realize he had FAR more potential than he ever thought possible. At that point, he realized that his rollercoaster journey – through difficult lessons and significant hardships – had actually equipped him with an unparalleled ability to help others succeed. And he’s been kicking massive goals ever since.
Incredibly, he was one of the few people on the entire planet to properly foresee how dramatically things were going to change as a result of covid, and he pivoted his business accordingly.
In this interview, Kerwin and I talk about:
You’ll certainly be ready to Win the Day after this episode.
You’re known for your amazing energy and larger than life presence – whether it's on stage or in the office. Who were you before the bulletproof Kerwin Rae that we see today?
Probably the Swiss cheese version of Kerwin Rae – full of holes. I wouldn't say I'm bulletproof. But I'd certainly say that yes, I've always had a certain aspect of my personality that is quite persistent. And I think that's played out through my life in a number of different ways. But it's hard to say. Like anyone mate, we've all been through so many different experiences in life, and I can honestly say, I've probably lived four or five different lives in the lifetime that I've had.
So it's like asking me who was I before this version? Or who was I before the version before that? But I guess you could say, I've always been someone who’s really enjoyed helping people. I'm someone who natively likes to help and support others – it’s just something I do instinctively – and I think that's played out in a range of different ways. It's been able to support me and many other people in the process.
You and I are acutely aware of the power of the mind. It's what we do with our work and we both love helping people. We know that just as we can think and grow rich, we can also think and grow poor. When you were diagnosed at the age of seven with things like ADHD, and told that you had learning difficulties, dyslexia, and all these different things, how did those labels shape your younger years? And how do you feel about putting labels, good or bad, on children these days?
At the time, I don't think I gave much credence to the labels. It was more the description and how I was treated as a result. I didn't understand ADHD and dyslexia. I just knew that I found it really difficult to learn at school, and I found it very difficult to concentrate. The teachers often made a point of making it known that I was different from everyone else in that capacity.
At a very early age, as far back as I can remember, there was a suggestion given to me by an immediate family member that I was ‘stupid.’ In many respects, I grabbed onto it – that label of being stupid. And then I started to manifest that in a whole range of different ways. And a lot of that, the ADHD and dyslexia, was ultimately the experience of really struggling in the learning space.
Can you take us into the moment of when you shifted your mindset away from feeling stupid to feeling like you had power – the moment when, for the first time, your destiny was potentially much brighter than what you’d been told to that point?
That's a good question. I actually remember where I was. I was in Carindale in Brisbane [Australia]. I was managing a fitness equipment store at the time, and I was reading a book by Dr. David Schwartz called The Magic of Thinking Big. I remember reading that book because it was given to me by someone I knew. And as I read that book, which I read feverishly – and I never read anything feverishly because I always struggled to read. Like, I had never even read the newspaper up until this point. I didn't read anything. I don’t think, until that point, I’d even read a book cover to cover before.
And this book kind of attuned me into the possibility that maybe there was more potential out there, that there was a possibility of some form of growth and personal development. I read the book over three days, got to the end – which, first of all, was a serious feat because it was the first time I’d read a book cover to cover. But then I remember getting to the end of the book, looking at the back cover and thinking, “Huh, I actually fucking remember what's inside.”
Then I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m not stupid after all.” I remember thinking that exact thought.
Then I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m not stupid after all.” I remember thinking that exact thought.
From there, I just made it a practice to start reading news I was interested in. I even started buying newspapers, not because I was interested in the news, but I'd flick through the newspapers until I found a headline that caught my attention, and then I would start reading. To me, that was just a form of practice.
Wow, what an interesting catalyst.
You know, I actually grew up in Carindale for the first 15 years of my life!
There you go! I actually remember your dad.
We lived in the middle of nowhere, before all the residential developments. There was a neighboring house, but no one else around for about a 10-minute drive. So, one of my greatest athletic feats was at about the age of 12 trying to get to the corner store that was about a five-kilometer bike ride away!
I’m sure the experiences you’ve been through, like what you just mentioned, help you in the career you’ve got now where you help so many people. That story reminds me of the quote “When the student is ready, the master will appear” because you always had the ability. But it was specific resource that was able to completely change your trajectory.
Every day, I think about the sliding door moments from my own life and how they can be created for other people. Is a big part of the work that you do today to help other people create those sliding door moments that can massively change their belief of what’s possible and life trajectory?
Everyone's got their own story, and I'm not trying to put myself above or below anyone. But what I do know is I've come from a pretty interesting background where I've had a vast range of experiences that could be labeled as severe traumas. And as a result, that created a whole bunch of situations, contexts, and feelings within me. Some of those were given labels and diagnoses. But it just required a disproportionate amount of work.
I've seen the amount of work that I've had to do to get to the person I am today – and it hasn't been an easy journey by any stretch of the imagination. But that's given me a really solid set of tools because I'm one of these people who is relentless, but I'm relentless from the perspective of sustainability. I don't just want to learn how to do something once. I want to learn how to do something over and over and over again.
And through this process of learning how to develop and grow myself, I'm equipped with tools that are incredibly powerful so when I look at anyone – and it's hard to look at anyone as anything other than what they are, which is an individual with their own experiences – but knowing where I've come from, I haven't met anyone to this day that I can't look at them and believe, “There’s still hope for you.”
That’s the beautiful thing about being human. We all have this capability to grow. We all have this capability to change and transform. But it's just getting people to that point where they can see that.
Many people out there feel like they don't have a good story. Brendon Burchard talks about his car accident. Janine Shepherd, a good mutual friend of ours, was literally hit by a truck. A lot of people out there feel that they’re not good enough because they don’t have a momentous story like that. But I think there's a huge market that you're serving of people who may not have a moment of great trauma from their lives. Although, I should clarify here that I believe everyone who has reached the age of 30 has overcome significant adversity and hardship in one way or another.
You've had a bunch of near-death experiences, business challenges, and personal challenges. Was there one of those challenges in particular that stands out where you were able to identify an equivalent benefit or advantage from?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had to go through was probably the separation from my wife about three and a half years ago. That was mainly because I grew up in a single-parent household and I had these dreams and ambitions of creating a family-like environment in my own house. And when that didn’t come to fruition…
I feel very grateful that my ex-wife Kristen is an incredible human being. We’ve separated incredibly consciously, but at the time I was having this massive ideal shattered. This ideal of a mum and a dad, and a family that were going to have these big Christmases and these lives together. And when that started to come undone, from the perspective of the ideal, it required an enormous amount of work for me to balance the perspective and say, “Where’s the benefit in this? How is this serving me?”
Especially considering a significant body of my work is around relationship dynamics, and I’m now going through my own relationship breakdown. So, for me, it was beautiful and I’m so grateful. But I’m one of those people that whenever I experience challenge, I just embrace it really strongly. I love challenge. I love doing things that are hard. And when we went through that period, it was very difficult, but it was very easy to see the benefits when you’re looking for them.
Whenever I experience challenge, I just embrace it really strongly.
One of the most incredible benefits that I received was all of a sudden I became a full-time dad 50% of the time, instead of a part-time dad 100% of the time, and that was absolutely transformational for me. It changed my life in every single way, shape and form, to the point where I look at that one aspect and say, “It’s in balance. I’m good. It’s all good. I’ve got nothing to regret and everything to be grateful for.”
Absolutely. What has happened in your life, or what have you done, that now enables you to stay so calm in highly stressful situations?
A disproportionate amount of fucking meditation and all sorts of other gizmos and gimmicks! But you've also got to understand my origins, mate. I was undiagnosed SPD. And what that means is I've got family who are on the spectrum. I'm on the spectrum myself. And SPD means I have a sensory processing disorder, but it's not really a disorder – it's more like an upgrade. All of my senses are heightened. So my sense of smell, taste, touch, everything is turned up.
Now everyone might go, “Oh, that's amazing,” but it's not amazing when you give that to a child who is evolving in an environment that is quite noisy and frenetic and hasn’t demonstrated how to regulate in a healthy and functional way. So for me, growing up, I didn't know anything other than feeling stressed because I was constantly under the bombardment of amplified information, whether it be a sound, sight, you name it. Going into a shopping center was a very different experience compared to most other kids.
As a result, I think it was only a few months ago where I came to this conclusion, that I've literally gone through almost every system in my body, learning how to regulate it consciously, just to try and feel normal. But in the process, I've developed an incredible set of tools that are being used by the military, by business, by mums, by dads, by anyone to regulate stress and stay calm and cool.
People look at me and might think, “Man, how is it that you're so calm?” Well, it’s because I spent decades as a very wound up anxious little child who didn't want to be that way. And I used to look at everyone around me as a kid and go, “Why does everyone look so fucking relaxed? I feel like I'm wound up like a spring here.”
So it’s all been about the pursuit of calm. And even to give you context, there are only two base fears that we have: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. I went straight for those two. Once I identified I had a fear of heights, I did 200 skydives in 12 months. I did 60 skydives in very quick succession where I threw a heart rate monitor on and meditated in free fall with the aim of getting under 80 beats per minute and maintaining that. Now that’s not normal by any stretch of the imagination, but you've got to understand, if you can learn to meditate in freefall – you know, flying through the air at more than 200 kilometers an hour – you can fucking meditate anywhere.
I did 60 skydives in very quick succession where I threw a heart rate monitor on and meditated in free fall with the aim of getting under 80 beats per minute and maintaining that.
One of the reasons why I pursued training with weapons and why I’ve trained with special forces — and I'm very lucky to have trained with some of the Navy SEALs and European special forces groups. When I do this training, people think, “Oh, it must be mad you know, running and jumping and climbing through the mountain.”
But I'm like, “No, dude, I don't get my hands fucking dirty in the mud. I play with the guns.”
The reason I like to play with the guns is because you're working in an environment that has a very loud percussion that activates the autonomic nervous system instantaneously if you don't know how to regulate.
And if you have to execute a series of 73 moves in the next three minutes and you're activated, you can't do that. You're fucked. But by virtue of exposing yourself to those stresses consistently – whether falling out of the sky, or loud noises as part of a complex range of sequences that can get someone or yourself killed – it forces you into a new zone where you are very clear on who you have to be. But, more importantly, you understand the value of calm.
One of the reasons that people aren't calm is they don't see the value of it. When you are calm, you have this massive objectivity to be able to make multiple decisions at any one time that most people can't make, because they're stressed and they're activated. There's a lot of value in calm once you start playing in that space.
For most people, jumping out of an airplane is probably stressful enough. But you're taking that to another level of constant growth around pushing the boundary at the furthermost point, which is the meditation in freefall thing, which is incredible.
Recently I had Emily Fletcher [Ziva Meditation] on the show, and we spoke about how 80% of doctor's visits are related to stress. Yet, the people who feel the most stress often aren’t taking the daily steps to improve themselves or get out of their comfort zone.
You’ve worked with hundreds of thousands of business leaders all around the world. Is stress an underlying factor for all those people? Maybe they're too busy working in their business rather than on the business. How much of a factor is stress, and how do you help people get through that?
Look, I would say it's a massive factor, and that's one of the reasons I think that we are so successful in what we do. When we work with business owners, the clients that we work with over a long period of time, there's about one in three or one in four that will 2X to 10X in the first 18 months to two years. We teach very solid business, marketing, leadership and scaling principles, yes. But the one thing that makes us different that really sets us apart is the psychological conditioning component that we teach. And a big part of that is learning how to deal with stress. Because here's what we know about stress: stress is the number one killer of the 21st century, and it’s a multi-billion-dollar issue in the workforce.
When we have stress activated in the body, our autonomic nervous system is activated, and we go into fight or flight. Adrenaline and cortisol start flooding the system and we lose within seven minutes about 50% of our intelligence. So when stress goes up, intelligence goes down. And to me it's a valuable question to ask, “Okay, what are the situations I'm in most that have the highest level of value that requires the greatest level of calm, that if I'm stressed most situations can cause me significant consequence?” And that is in your job, in your business, in your relationship, in those moments that really count.
And so, for me, there's an absolute clear correlation that if you're going to be alive, you're going to experience a level of stress. But if you're going to be an entrepreneur – and stress is a spectrum, right? You are going to significantly start to push yourself up that spectrum of experiencing stress. And the more you can regulate stress in a healthy way, at levels that other people can't, the more you’ll enable yourself to go further than anyone else can.
That’s the beautiful thing about being human. We all have this capability to grow. We all have this capability to change and transform.
The only difference between someone who plays here and someone who plays here is not necessarily their smarts. It's their ability to expose themselves to information, in some cases, stress, at a level that they can regulate in a healthy way. That's why not everyone's going to be able to build a multibillion-dollar company because not everyone could cope with the mental stress of even considering working with those denominations and those values. And that's why you'll always find where your limit is, and wherever that limit is you'll be constrained by some level of fear that triggers a level of stress.
The more we can interpersonally learn how to regulate the systems within our body consciously, based on the recognition of that being required, then the further we can go.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, once said in a letter to shareholders, “I've made billions of failures at Amazon literally.” That’s one of the wealthiest people who ever lived actively seeking out ways that he can get out of his comfort zone because he knows that the more he can expose his company to those environments, the more comfortable it will be. Which creates that sensory awareness around bringing something quickly to market that might resonate, in contrast to your traditional bureaucracy (e.g. banks, government organizations, etc.) that moves so slowly.
You had a two-year career break around the age of 33 when you were between business ventures where you were trying to figure out your next move. What did you do during that time which enabled you to find the business and path you’re on today that you’re so passionate about?
At the age of 32 or 33, I did what I probably should have done at 18 or 19. I took some time off because I went straight out of school and was working multiple jobs, which I had been doing since grade 10 or earlier. From the moment I could work, I was working multiple jobs. And so I never took any time off. At 32, I just got out of a venture, I had some money in my pocket, and I was like, “You know what, I'm going to take some time off.” And I did, and I took some time off living on the Northern Beaches of Sydney.
I just took enough time – and I think this is critical, I think this is something that everyone should be open to – I took the time to get bored. And the reason I think that's important is because it's not until we get bored that we get really curious. As I said, I've lived many different iterations of my life and my life is very full, and very rarely does it ever get boring. But this is one stage of my life that I got to where I'd basically done everything I wanted to do from a financial perspective.
I thought, “Well, maybe I want to retire now.” I took that time out. And then I started looking at who I was surrounding myself with in that phase. I was playing golf a couple of times a week with 74-year-old men who would sometimes accidentally piss their pants when they hit a good drive. And I thought, “Fuck, these guys aren’t exactly inspiring me to stay retired.”
I had to get to the point where I was so bored that I thought, “Right, I’ve got to do something. I'm going out of my fucking mind here. I’ve got to do something.” But I didn’t need to, so I put myself in a situation where I had to. After two years, I got to the point where I'd spent all my liquid capital, and if I wanted to keep living, I had to start selling assets. And I was like, “Yeah, fuck that.”
I sat down on the beach with a notepad and my cat. I had a bengal, and he's like a little leopard that thinks he's a dog. And I just started writing down what I love to do, and I kept coming back to teaching, I love teaching, I love speaking. But I was quite jaded, because when I'd come out of the industry two years previous, I'd worked in a range of different businesses, and I'd seen quite a different perspective. Like yourself, James, I'd been exposed to both sides of the seminar industry and I was just like, “I have no interest in coming back to the seminar industry.”
But I sat down to identify what I really loved to do: I love to teach, I love to help, I love to serve. Then I thought, “Well, I do that greatest when I'm speaking.” But I’d said I'd never do that again. In that moment, and I remember it was a Tuesday afternoon on that beach, it was a little bit overcast, the waves were pumping, and I made the choice that I was only going to take the stage if I would talk about something I was actually doing.
I gave myself a little bit of leeway, a 95% congruency. But with that 5%, they still needed to be things that I was going to do. The important message for myself at the time was don't talk about it unless you're fucking doing it. Don't talk to it unless you've got experience. Otherwise make it clear that you are going to do it. And that’s become a big part of our brand and making sure we’re genuine and authentic in what we do.
And I think that really comes across in everything you do. It reminds me of what you said at our event for podcasters a few months back that “Leadership is not a badge, it’s a behavior.” It’s about leading by example and taking that time to explore your intellectual curiosity.
I've got to connect you with a friend of mine, Michael Fox, who had a company called Shoes of Prey, which was the world’s first custom women’s shoe company. After a 10-year rollercoaster journey, he lost USD $25 million of investor’s money and his marriage broke up. He then took six months to explore his intellectual curiosity, and that's what led him to that mission of wanting to end industrial agriculture. And now he's created a new business called Fable Food Co that just launched in 600+ Woolworths stores, with partners like Heston Blumenthal, and they’re absolutely crushing it.
That’s great. I love that.
Once you’ve been an entrepreneur, it’s extremely hard to stop working or switch off. But big results if you can manage it properly.
I actually got the idea from David Deida in one of his books, I think it was The Way of The Superior Man. He spoke about how oftentimes what men will do is they'll keep themselves distracted, which will prevent them from discovering their purpose when they stumble upon it. And that's why I'd recommend this to a lot of people to take extended periods of time just to do nothing, just to get bored.
And we see it with kids. A big part of the Montessori method that we do with our son Noah is the importance of getting kids bored because that’s when their imaginations fire up the most.
From all the businesses and individuals that you've worked with and been able to help, is there one transformation in particular that you're most proud of or that stands out?
Yeah, there is actually. I know it might sound arrogant but my own. I feel like it’s a P.Diddy moment, “I'd like to thank me!” [laughs]
Look, it's hard. I don't know anyone as well as I know myself, so that's an honest answer. I've seen where I've come from and what I’ve gone through to get to where I am today – it's been a phenomenal transformation.
But if there's one other transformation that really stands out in my mind right now, it's Mattias, my filmmaker. When he came to me, I still remember his interview, his hair was shaking in the Skype interview and he was very mild. But the transformation, four or five years later, he's now probably one of the strongest leaders in our organization and he's got a great head on his shoulders.
He’s got his own story growing up and losing his mum at an early age. And the more I got to know him, the more I saw where he was from his journey. It’s a beautiful thing about working with a filmmaker, especially Mattias, because he's with me all the time. So you can't help but get to know him and find out more and more about each other. He's definitely one of the most phenomenal transformations I've seen.
Earlier you mentioned your six-year-old son, Noah. What do you do differently as a parent compared to how you see other people raise their kids?
I don't know because I don't look at what other people do with their kids, unless it’s in the line at Woolies [supermarket] or something.
Look, I’m like most other dads. I raise my voice every now and then. But the difference is, and this is probably the key difference, when I do I apologize straightaway. I'm human and can get a little bit on edge and lash out. I'll often say, “Buddy, I'm sorry for raising my voice. I'm not sorry for what I said, but I shouldn't raise my voice.” Then we can chat about the issue and bring it to an end that way.
So he sees me own my shit on the regular. Like, he really does see me own my shit on the regular! Which is something I hold very near and dear. But we also spend a lot of time together. I wouldn't say I’m anti-social but I'm not a massively social person. And one of the things I realized that up until the beginning in a new relationship about five or six months ago now, outside of work, 98% of my socialization was with my son, Noah.
And so I guess what that means is we spend a lot of time together. We hang out a lot, and we play cars, but one of the things we do on a very regular basis is we'll just hang out on a beanbag hugging and just talking. We will sometimes talk for hours. And I talk with him like he's a real human being and I talk with him at a high level, and I treat him with an enormous level of respect. I treat him as a human being, as an age-appropriate human being, but that comes with an incredible level of respect for the potential that he holds.
It’s up to everyone to parent their kids however they see fit based on their own experiences, but I see so many people who are quick to dictate to children how the world is. In contrast, I love asking children questions so they can tell me how the world is. I just love letting them talk and listening to their observations.
What is the biggest fear that you have for Noah as he gets older, and how are you equipping him to handle that?
I wouldn't say I have any big fears, outside of losing the little guy – that would absolutely destroy me. But I guess what I'm equipping him for is a very strong mental game. He gets some of the world's greatest coaching in some of the most important situations of his life. He really does. I look at him as, like myself, as probably one of the greatest clients I'm ever going to have. And I don't mean that in a commercial way, I just mean that in a way of service.
I'm just equipping him with a very strong mental game with a really strong focus on leadership and teamwork. Like, a disproportionate amount of our communication is around working as a team – working together, helping each other, being of service, helping people, and that kind of plays out in every context.
The other day, someone asked me, “How do you know you're successful?”
And I thought, “Okay, that's a good question.”
And I answered it honestly. I said I look at my son. I look at how he behaves in public. And that's not to say that every now and then he's not a bit of a cheeky monkey like other kids can be. He can be. But I look at the way that he treats a stranger, I look at the way that he treats the wait staff, I look at the way that he treats someone busking on the street. And he's the most polite, gentle, kind, loving human being I've ever fucking met in my life. And so that, to me, is success.
Now, I’ve just got to hold the standard for another 15 years to get him well on his way. But that's important to me. And I think that's a big part of why I do what I do. But I do an enormous, a disproportionate level, of socialization with my son.
Have you got anything that you focus on in particular to make sure that you're entirely present with him, such as switching your phone to airplane mode?
He's really good. If he's getting jacked off with the phone, he'll just give it to me straight. And we have a bit of a deal that if dad is distracted, he'll put the phone down. But also, if he has to get an important call, he can take it.
But this is one of the things that I do with my son that is maybe a little bit different as well. Yes, I give him an enormous level of presence. But I actually include him a lot of my business. You know, he sits in on a range of different meetings. He's been in planning meetings, sales calls, consulting calls, client meetings.
If he's around, he's welcome to come into the meeting, and he knows he's just got to be quiet. And so yes, that's something that I enjoy exposing him to as well.
With a 15-month-old daughter, I am astounded at how much she actually remembers and picks up. But I can't imagine the six-year-old level of consciousness. He’s going to learn so much more than what other people might actually think from participating in those situations.
And it's hilarious to see him in a meeting. In early February, I was in a meeting in the office giving someone some coaching. Noah turned to me and said, “Dad, just be nice to them. They’re new.”
Then I was like, “Oh, my God, this is hilarious.” So yeah, he's a pretty funny character. And that's why I look at how he behaves and him sitting in on these meetings and being involved in these meetings like you said, they hear everything, and they echo it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he's running the company in the next six years!
There's a poem that John Wooden used to have up in his office, and it was called ‘A Little Fellow Follows Me.’ I'll send it to you afterward, it’s incredible.
I love the sound of that.
It talks about how we’ve got a little companion who will always mimic what we do, good or bad – that whatever we do is handed down, whether we like it or not.
To switch gears for a second, you always talk about bigger, faster, stronger. How do you balance that hunger with enjoying happiness in the present?
I think it’s a practice. You don't just get happy by accident; you don't just get healthy by accident. Some people are naturally wired that way, maybe. But I think happiness is something that everybody needs to work on with a level of consciousness to be aware of how much they’re experiencing their life. And I'm no different to anybody else – I get obsessed with business performance and with everything moving so quickly, but sometimes I do forget to slow down and enjoy more.
And that's where the last few months have been quite special for me. I've now entered a new relationship for the first time, almost four years since the separation. And I've been spending more time in a family environment and bathing in a sea of happiness that is inspired by a different value to the business at a higher level. I've always bathed in the family value with my son, but to be putting myself back into the context of a family unit, it’s brought an enormous amount of happiness to me and awareness to the importance of managing that balance moving forward.
When covid hit, you were able to connect the dots quicker than anyone I’ve seen. How were you able to read the tea leaves of what was coming with covid, and how did you change your business as it was all unfolding? People might forget the uncertainty, but it was shifting wildly every day and it seemed that no one had any idea what was going on.
I guess you could say it was one-part luck, one-part smarts, and one-part timing. I'm someone who naturally gathers information every day. I use a range of different sources and look at a range of different data, depending on what's on my dashboard at the time. And somehow corona got on my dashboard on 7th January. When I read it, I thought, “Well, this is interesting.”
And I remember doing a little bit more research and thinking, “Fuck, there's something going on here.”
But then the very next day, 9th January, I jumped back on and it was media silence. And I remember thinking it was a bit strange. It went from outbreak in China to no talk at all. After about a 24-hour blackout, it was on the news again. And I just I couldn't shake it. Every day, I just kept gathering data.
So when the China outbreak happened, I was on it. When Spain, Italy, and France went up, I was on it. I ordered the first set of protective gear for our team on 18th January. We created our first biothreat response plan with the team on 24th January.
We had a 13-city tour that was scheduled for February, where I was going to be on 30 planes in 30 days, and I wanted to make sure that myself and the team were protected. A lot of people say, “Oh, it was a good intuition,” but it was just good foresight, combined with a solid intuition, and just looking at the data points.
In early January, I was literally saying on film, “Why the fuck is no one talking about this? This covid thing is taking off and no one’s talking about it.”
By 27th January I was saying, “China's been shut down for 3-4 weeks now. Everyone ships out of China, but no one is talking about this. What's going on?” When it hit, I thought, “Finally, someone's fucking paying attention,” because I'd been talking about it for seven weeks, heavily. As a result, my clients and our business were well insulated.
And it's so funny, because when I first went to my team and said, “Oh, this event will get canceled,” they were fighting it. They said it won’t be cancelled. And not only did that event get canceled, we ended up shutting down the event that we were just about to go into, like two weeks later, we shut it down halfway through. And I had team members arguing with me saying “No, that's not going to happen, it will never happen. That's impossible.” And I was like, “Oh, it's not impossible. It's going to fucking happen. Everyone needs to get their head around it now.”
For some context for those who don’t know, when you ordered all that protective equipment, that was seven weeks before the US stopped the first flights from Europe. And it was also five weeks before Nancy Pelosi held a press conference in San Francisco’s Chinatown district to reassure people that everything was fine and that they should continue their lives as normal. To make that call many weeks before those things happened is incredible.
It's kind of birthed a new division in the company. We now have, I guess you could say, a small intelligence division in the company that just gathers data. And it gathers data at whatever we point it at, which is very helpful. We’re going to explore that more moving forward.
A lot of people these days want the instant monetization strategies, the magic bullets. But for me, and I suspect you too, relationships have been by far the most valuable asset and the most valuable weapon in the arsenal. How have relationships played a role in the success that you have today?
Massively. A relationship is a dynamic that's also on a spectrum, and we're all involved in them. It just depends on what types of relationships, whether they be relationships with our family, our team, our audience, our clients. And so, as someone who is a massive introvert, it's been a real journey. Because I wanted to be like, “Okay, I just want to help people and make money, but I don't want to talk to anybody!”
It’s interesting because I see that playing out with a lot of our clients who say, “Well, I'm not really a people person.” I go, “Well, neither was I. I had to fucking learn!”
If you want to do anything well, you're going to require a team. And if we're going to have a team, there's going to be relationship dynamics at play. And fundamentally, what determines the performance of those dynamics is your communication strategy and how well you communicate. It ultimately determines the level of trust or connection that you have, which ultimately determines the quality of the collaboration.
And that collaboration might be your wife or husband. Again, that might sound cold, but it’s the reality. It's an intimate collaboration, whether its collaboration with your kid when you’re parenting, or collaboration with your team member when you are trying to lead.
As humans, we are built to collaborate. But not all of us got the best instructions on how to do that effectively.
I just had Keith Ferrazzi on the show who’s the #1 New York Times bestselling author of books like Never Eat Alone. During our interview he mentioned that the next romantic partner he wants to have will be his partner not just on the relationship side but to co-elevate with. To lift each other higher.
In a relationship that involves kids, they allocate so much meaning to the relationship the parents have with each other. Is that a big focus for you and your ex-partner – making sure the relationship you have with Noah’s mum is one he admires and respects?
As parents, we need to swallow a pill, take a step back, and start to really become aware, because a lot of parents look at the relationship dynamics of their children and say, “Well, I don’t know where that comes from.” I’ll tell you right now, there is a very high probability it came from you. Whenever Cesar Millan works with a dog, he goes, “I rehabilitate the dog and I train the human.” It’s the same thing with kids. As parents, we’ve got to be very careful with the blueprint that we demonstrate because that ultimately become the foundational operating system of how they relate in a different context.
And that can be at an intimate level. One of the biggest fallacies that we tell our kids is that if someone is mean to you, it means they like you. What does that tell a six-year-old girl or a six-year-old boy?
“Oh, that boy is bullying me.”
“He doesn't not like you. He likes you, but he just doesn’t know how to tell you.”
And so now we start building this whole model of people treating you poorly, which you interpret as them meaning they love you. Or they start looking at the dynamics they have with their mom or their dad, and their communications strategy, and they don’t understand why their communications strategy keeps playing out in their intimate lives when they move forward.
As parents, we have a lot to answer for, but we also have a lot to be responsible for and a lot to be grateful for, if we are conscious of what we demonstrate.
Check out the YouTube or podcast or YouTube version where Kerwin does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question, what's one thing you do to Win the Day?
I just get it done. To me, when you know yourself well enough, you just know what buttons to push and you can do anything, in most cases, regardless of context.
Always great to see you! Thanks for coming on the show.
Absolute pleasure, James. See you, next time buddy.
Resources / links mentioned:
“Success in any field – but especially in business – is about working with people, not against them.”
– Keith Ferrazzi
There’s less than a handful of people on the entire planet currently alive today whose work has continually and significantly impacted my life. Without even knowing them personally, these people have spoken to me through their life-changing books and given me the confidence and tools that really inspired the mission that I’m on now and that I will continue until my dying breath.
Today, I am extremely grateful to have one of those people on the Win the Day show: Keith Ferrazzi. Keith is undoubtedly the global leader in relationships and networking. In fact, he’s often cited as the modern-day Dale Carnegie. (For those who don’t know, Dale Carnegie is author of one of the most impactful books I’ve ever read, How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
As long-time fans of the Win the Day show will recall, relationships have been by far the most important ingredient in literally every success I have enjoyed to this point and I’m sure will be responsible for every opportunity that arrives in the future. I’ve spoken before about my struggles through high school and as a young adult, and that it was really only at the age of 23 when I felt focused and empowered for the first time.
But the journey from then certainly wasn’t a straight line.
In 2012, I moved to Boston on the east coast of the US – about as far away from my hometown of Brisbane, Australia, as you can get. I was 28 at the time and moved there to study an MBA, and early in the university program they mentioned Keith’s book Never Eat Alone so I grabbed a copy.
The #1 New York Times bestselling book showed how being genuinely interested in other people, being of thoughtful service to others, and constantly learning (and practicing) every day are the foundations to making every one of our own dreams come true. This philosophy had a profound impact on my life. Keith’s blueprint to success in relationships – along with Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and Napoleon Hill’s achievement principles – are what have shaped my mindset today and really underpin everything I do.
Yet, more than ever, I see people who want magic bullets to success – and the secret to instant monetization. However, this focus on immediate gratification all but nullifies the opportunity to establish authentic, lifelong connections that can provide enormously transformational experiences for us and the people we meet.
In May this year, during my presentation at our virtual event House Sessions, I even mentioned that my number one tip for monetization is not advertising, which everyone kills themselves to get, it’s relationships. It’s giving without the expectation of anything in return. It’s boldly being of service. And it’s knowing how to leverage the people in your network – the ones who would do anything to help you – to achieve your mission.
You're going to love this episode of Win the Day with Keith Ferrazzi, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of books like Never Eat Alone, Who’s Got Your Back, and the brand new Leading Without Authority. Keith leads executive teams of some of the most well-known companies in the world, including Delta Airlines, General Motors, and Verizon, and is featured regularly in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal.
When he was just a summer intern at Deloitte, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world, Keith used the power of relationships to become the youngest Chief Marketing Officer of a Fortune 500 company and the youngest partner in Deloitte history, all before he turned 30.
In addition to relationships and networking, Keith is recognized as the world’s foremost authority on remote work. At a time when most teams are failing, and the global pandemic has pushed the majority of organizations to remote work, Keith’s mission is more important than ever.
In this episode, we talk about:
At the bottom of this page, you can also check out the 60 best quotes from Keith Ferrazzi.
I know we were talking offline, but I wanted to quickly give a public acknowledgement to express my gratitude for all you've done – not just to help me, but how you’ve helped the world through your work. It's had a profound impact on my career and on my life, and I know for millions of other people around the world too. So thank you. It means a lot to me that you're on the show today.
Thank you, James. I'm honored.
Three of the most impactful books I've ever read are: How to Win Friends and Influence People (by Dale Carnegie), Think and Grow Rich (by Napoleon Hill), and your book Never Eat Alone…
Those are the three books that had the biggest impact on my life too!
It's a good coincidence then! All those books include themes like: being genuinely interested in other people; the power of the mastermind; how we can all go higher together; and the importance of working on your relationships now rather than when you desperately need them. Those three books have enormously shaped my mindset and created all the opportunities and relationships I have in my life today.
All your work talks about relationships, but I want to know whether you had relationships with any books that played a pivotal role early in your career?
Yes, particularly How to Win Friends and Influence People. My father gave me that book when I was young, and I have to say there's nothing more gratifying to me than when somebody will say to me or introduce me as ‘the modern-day Dale Carnegie.’
Another book you wouldn’t imagine is The Great Gatsby. Growing up, I was a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks, and I got to go to some pretty prestigious schools thanks to my parents' commitment to education. But through that, I also created and absorbed a great deal of insecurity. I didn't feel I deserved to be in the room. I wasn't as good as the rich kids.
And if you know that last chapter of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby – who came from the wrong side of the tracks – had this beautiful desire to be with Daisy Buchanan. He moved to a mansion right across the ocean from her, in the Long Island Sound. He longed for that green light on her deck that someday he could be something. And that actually was his demise and what ultimately led to his death, as you know from the book.
And the name of my company is Ferrazzi Greenlight. It's to always remind me of that deep insecurity I had as a kid and how that insecurity could really be my demise if I didn't watch out for it. So, The Great Gatsby was a warning to me as a young man.
“It's to always remind me of that deep insecurity I had as a kid and how that insecurity could really be my demise if I didn't watch out for it.”
I just finished your awesome new book Leading Without Authority, where you introduce the concept of ‘co-elevation.’ For those who haven't read the book, what is co-elevation and what problems does it solve in this rapidly changing world we're in?
Thanks, James. Co-elevation is a shift of an operating system in the workplace. And in the last four months, we have seen more innovation change the way of work than we have in 20 years. We’ve been talking about the future of work for 20 years. It happened in four months. And I think the question we have to ask ourselves is: how are we as leaders, teams, and organizations in a post-covid world?
You read my book, Never Eat Alone, and it's about networking. Today, we work in networks. Anybody who's listening to this podcast has to understand that your dreams, hopes, and aspirations depend on your capacity to create a team around you that will co-create and fulfill the mission that you have.
But the mission that you have is owned by the team. So when you invite somebody into your mission, you're inviting them into their mission as well. It’s that journey of co-creation … of taking a hill together. And at the same time as you’re going for that shared mission as a team, you're also equally as committed to each other's development.
Co-elevation is a commitment to a shared mission and a commitment to each other. When a team has that, nothing can stop them.
“Co-elevation is a commitment to a shared mission and a commitment to each other. When a team has that, nothing can stop them.”
Another big theme of the book is that maximizing each other's capabilities should be the responsibility of every member of team. I think that's so important, whether it's a sporting team, a business team, or even a family team.
But in the business world, particularly, we have these hierarchies and job titles. People in a junior role might not feel comfortable approaching someone higher, or maybe the person in a senior role might rest on their laurels due to their job title. Is traditional leadership now out of date, and are job titles sabotaging companies from within?
We have to take a step back to recognize the world we live in today. Today, the world demands transformational levels of change from all of us. If you're an entrepreneur, or simply an individual who wants to achieve anything, it requires that you consume radically large volumes of information and continuously adapt to that information to figure out what your plan and strategy is. You also need to keep pivoting because that information changes pretty frequently.
That's unheard of. Previously, we never had that. I coach the transformation of teams and work with companies like General Motors and Delta Airlines. These groups have wake up every day and ask themselves: “What business are we in? How do we deliver?” And so, every one of us has to meet these transformational pressures.
Now, how do you do that? Well, you cannot do that alone. You're only going to be able to do that through unleashing the insights, the wisdom, the warnings of risk, and with the help of a calm networked set of individuals.
So, if you thought your job was to manage your team, meaning the team of people that report to you, and you think that's going to get you there? Bullshit. There's no way you're going to meet the pressures on you by simply managing the resources you have.
Your ability to transform and meet the pressures of the marketplace is dependent on your ability to enlist others into your goals, your mission, and your vision. If you want to be transformational, you've got to work in the network.
I coach executive teams of some of the biggest companies in the world. Covid hits, and no one is spending outside money on new consulting. Even McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture, they're giving away their consulting because they don't dare ask for cash, which they know these companies aren't giving, but they want to earn loyalty. So, from our perspective, what's the marketplace that we play in now? Well, we've started playing in the middle market where I've coached coaches in our methodology, and they deploy that into smaller companies. We have courses in team transformation that can be taken online, and I had none of that on March 1st.
“We’ve been talking about the future of work for 20 years. It happened in four months.”
So I needed a team to make all that happen. And I found my team in a group of individuals that I didn't even have to pay. Now, the co-creators of my business ended up being individuals that I had admired for years, who I reached out to. Jim Kwik, the memory expert, is a good friend of mine. I reached out to Jim and said that I didn’t know anything about online sales funnels and I needed to sell to small / medium sized businesses and individual business consumers. Jim walked me through the sales funnel process.
All these people came out of the woodwork to help me. Peter Diamandis. Tony Robbins. All of these people joined my team to help me create my business. Opportunities like that have nothing to do with your org chart. Remember that if you’re sitting there at the moment and think you’re stuck.
I had this conversation last night with my 25-year-old [foster] son. I got him at 16 and he's 25 now. He was bemoaning the fact that there's no work out there. And I said, “Kiddo, let's talk about who's on your team to find your work.” I could, obviously, help with that in a moment, but it’s about his ability to co-create a vision for himself. He needs to know what he wants to do, then invite people in to help him and work out what's next in both of their lives, right?
It's amazing how the entire world is open to you through the idea of creating a team where you’re going to help each other be successful. That's the bottom line, and that’s co-elevation.
These days, everyone wants a magic bullet, instant success. For example, I work with a lot of podcasters, and the number one challenge they have is how to monetize. But the only solution they come up with to monetize is to get sponsors on their podcast.
Recently, at We Are Podcast, I spoke about the number one monetization strategy that you can have is investing in relationships. I mean, Keith, look at the relationships that you and I have both been able to build. Then, as you said, you need to be clear on what you want and not be afraid to call in a favor, because other people who you have built up all that goodwill with actually want to help you. That can easily equate to millions, tens of millions, over time, rather than going for a short-term dollar.
One of my favorite quotes from your book is when you said, “I never let a title or a lack of one stop me.” How did you become the youngest Chief Marketing Officer of a Fortune 500 company and the youngest partner in Deloitte history, all by the age of 30?
I'm going to try to answer this in a way that I can coach your listeners and viewers. Imagine yourself working inside of a company. And the CEO says his vision is to really go from eight in the industry to being one of the top consultancies in the world. You're in the audience. What do you do with that information?
Most people say, “Well, that’s nice and I'm glad to be part of the team that's going to go there.”
Well, here’s what I did. I went up to [Deloitte CEO Pat Locanto] the CEO afterward and said, “Sir, what are some of the critical elements that you have in your plan to make us become number one? What are some of the things you're working on?”
He responded by mentioning pieces of brand, marketing, and core competencies. And I said, “Sir, I know you didn't ask me to, but I'll do some research, and if see anything that could help, I'd love to be able to reach out to you and show you what I’ve got.”
He said, “Oh, sure kid” and didn’t think much would come of it.
Well, I went back to school because at the time I was a summer intern. At school, I reached out to a professor of mine and said, “I'd like to do a white paper on professional services marketing. I'd like to do that as a replacement for some of the work that we're doing in our class.”
And he agreed, saying that it sounded like an interesting project. So, I reached out to the top consultancies – their Chief Marketing Officers. I told them that I had spent the summer at Deloitte and was really intrigued by marketing and professional services, but I couldn't find much about it in the industry papers. I mentioned that I was going to do a study on best practices, and I would give them a copy of it when I was done.
So, I was a 100% transparent. And I talked to McKinsey about their vision for thought leadership – how they extracted it from the projects that McKinsey worked on and how they put that out into the marketplace. I talked to Jim Murphy about how he was applying traditional advertising and media, and what that looked like. And then I went to the other folks at the other firms.
I put it all together, sent it to Pat Locanto, and said, “Sir, you don't remember me, but I was the kid that said I'd like to do some research and come back to you. I have now interviewed the Chief Marketing Officers of all the major competitors. Here is the analysis of what a codified marketing strategy would be if we wanted to be rivaling one or two.”
Well, it kind of blew him away. None of his partners had ever done it. He didn't even have a Chief Marketing Officer.
Pat called me, flew me down from Boston (where I was at business school), and took me to dinner. He said, “Kid, this is unimaginable, what you just did. I want you to come and work for the firm, and I want you to come in and work on a project around redefining marketing for the company.”
I said, “I would love to. All I want is one-on-one dinners with you every few months.”
I knew that relationship was more precious than anything else. I did ask for more money; he didn't give it to me!
Then I said, “If I do this job for you, will you make me Chief Marketing Officer??
And he looked at me and laughed. Actually, he said, “No effing way! Get that out of your head. You’re a child, just out of business school, and you would have to be a partner to be the CMO.”
So I said, “Okay then. Make me a partner.”
He said, “You're just lucky you’ve got this opportunity.”
Within three years, I was the youngest partner ever elected at the firm and the Chief Marketing Officer of the company.
So, all I ask for those of you listening to this is don't give me bullshit. In chapter two of Leading Without Authority there's the six deadly excuses of why you are mediocre. And one of them is, is ‘laziness’ because the reality is that path with Deloitte took work. The other one is ‘deference,’ which means, “Oh, it's not my job.” That wasn't my job. There is no excuse for you to remain mediocre. If you want to be extraordinary, you chart your path. Leading Without Authority is really a prescription for that.
“There is no excuse for you to remain mediocre. If you want to be extraordinary, you chart your path.”
Now, the flip side of that is if you are a title individual, holding onto your title is going to also make you mediocre because you'll never have enough resources under your control to really break through. You need to go to Peter Diamandis. You need to go to Jim Kwik. You need to get James Whittaker who knows everything about podcasts to teach you about podcasts, right?
So, you need to expand your view of team, which is chapter one of Leading Without Authority. You need to redefine your view of team. If you don't redefine your view of team, you will remain mediocre with mediocre resources.
Incredible stuff. What I love about the book is how tactical it gets, especially in the second half. I listened to the audiobook, but I think I need to go and get the hard cover because there's just some really amazing stuff in there!
How did the guy on the audiobook do? With covid, I really didn't have the time, even though I wanted to.
He did great! I feel like if you’re an author and you can't do the audio recording, at least find someone who's got a similar voice.
I listened to a bunch of guys and listened to their style. Then I got him on the phone, and I said, “Brother, let me explain this to you. Let me explain to you my passion. I've listened to your books. I don't know who directs you, but I want to tell you, you better be excited as hell about this book. This book is going to change the effing world and how we think about leadership and interdependency in the workplace. It’s going to redefine collaboration. You need to be excited about this. I want you to record your first chapter and send it to me. And if you're not excited enough, I will get someone else.”
By the way, I knew I didn’t need to listen to it. I just needed to throw that gauntlet on the table.
He did great. He's a good substitute for you anytime you can't do it!
You often talk about vulnerability and struggle. Why is that so powerful?
We work in a world where people don't have to do what you want them to do. So, that's what this book is written about. The book is written so that you can lead people who don't have to do what you want them to do. By the way, that's not just people who don't report to you.
I can remember all the jokes about millennials, but the reality is you have to earn your right to lead. People follow you, not out of authority, but out of their own compulsion to do so. So, the basic idea behind all of this was a word I created called opening porosity.
“You have to earn your right to lead.’
This [computer] screen is not porous. You drop water on it, it slides off. Sponges are porous and absorptive. You want people to be a sponge to you. You want people to be a sponge to your ideas. But what opens them to you? Vulnerability. Authenticity.
The reptilian brain, which controls your fight-flight mechanism, is triggered when people are insecure and fearful. A friend of mine, Christine Comaford, talks about people going to critter-state like that. So, many leaders have their people in critter state constantly. But if you’re constantly in critter state, you can't be innovative. You can't be risk-taking. You’ve got to be in flow.
And so, porosity is about us. How do you create ‘us’ with people? And the one human connector of a productive relationship is empathy. You open that door with vulnerability. Think about how I started this conversation when you asked me what books changed my life. I could have stopped at How to Win Friends and Influence People.
But I went to The Great Gatsby. Not only is it an accurate answer, but it’s expressing my vulnerability because what a great opportunity to start this dialogue with people getting a peek into who I am. They open their ears more. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. And I think one of the best things that you have done is stay grounded despite a lot of the people who you rub shoulders with today. I think it's great that your mission is still very much to help everyday people, rather than focusing on coaching the best executive teams in the world. I mean, you are doing that, but you're also doing a lot to help people all over the world because you're aware of the impact that one person with the right knowledge, expertise, and willingness to help can do for others.
Well, it goes back deeper than that. My whole mission… I don't think I've ever told this story in any of the books. My whole mission started at my dad's dinner table when he was unemployed. Unemployment was rampant in Pennsylvania. The bosses and the managers didn’t care about the workers. They weren't unleashing value from the organization.
“The one human connector of a productive relationship is empathy, and you open that door with vulnerability.”
I vowed that I would grow up and make sure that I made an impact on leadership and organizational dynamics, because I felt that we were unemployed because of it. That is an especially important lesson for me, and it is very humbling. I do what I do at General Motors and Verizon and Delta and all these companies because it saves jobs – hundreds of thousands of jobs – and families. That's why I do what I do.
That feeling from when you were young is still so strong within?
So strong. Hopefully I've ironed out a lot of the insecurity, but I’m still working on that.
We’re always a work in progress! What about bureaucratic bottlenecks? Some of my clients are police officers, in Australia and the US, who express their frustration with how hard it is to progress. You can also see that more broadly in any government organization, where people want to move up the ranks, and they don’t want to wait for the tap on the shoulder for it to happen, but they feel like there’s absolutely nowhere for them to go. What can employees of bureaucracies like governments do to move up the ranks quicker?
Well, frankly, the more barriers you have to progress, the more you need to influence the network. I was talking to General Stanley McChrystal who is an amazing business leader and coach. He and I were talking about how the people in the military that really make it to the top understand the network. It’s the grunts down at the front level, the infantry, who are not imagining the network is what's going to get them there. They're just doing what they're told. However, those who do awaken to that are the ones that navigate up through the hierarchy.
“The more barriers you have to progress, the more you need to influence the network.”
But it's true of everything. That’s the only way to move forward if the blockers of large organizations – like silos and bureaucracy – are standing in your way. Deloitte was probably one of the worst organizations at the time. And my whole point was, “Bullshit I’m going to wait for 12 years until I’m a shot at partner.”
I committed to adding so much value, and doing it in the face of the most powerful people that I could find. I didn’t want to play onesy, twoesy around the board. I wanted to go down the slide and win the game.
Rather than being confined by the linear progression, just because of how that worked for others previously?
In March this year, we started really feeling the effects of the pandemic. Now, people are working remotely. There's been a lot of unemployment and a lot of economic issues that I'm sure are still to come in the next few months and years.
Despite that, are there any opportunities or benefits that exist right now, uniquely as a result of what's happened with the pandemic, that people can use for their own personal growth?
Massive. So, that's the third business I just started. In March, everybody was panicked, and I started a business. I had done a lot of research around remote teams and remote work. I did it starting in 2015, and nobody gave a damn back then. I had invested $2 million in research on running remote teams, and I did it with Harvard Business School. I raised the money from Siemens, Cisco, Accenture and a bunch of others.
“I committed to adding so much value, and doing it in the face of the most powerful people that I could find.”
And I believe that remote can be better than co-located. I think a lot of us are finding that it's not as bad as we thought, and with certain adaptation you are going to get better collaboration. So, I opened a website called Virtual Teams Win, which was me finding opportunity in crisis. And through that website, we started courses and a resource center. That point of view gave me access.
For example, Zoom named me their top thought leader in remote teams. Fast Company did the same. Harvard Business Review asked me to do more pieces within a one-month period. I had more PR and more visibility because I read the tea leaves of where people were suffering the most, and I decided to serve that market.
I was talking to a gentleman this morning, Martin Lindstrom, who's just a brilliant market strategist. He was talking to me about how in times like this, you need to step back, look at the tea leaves and say, “How has customer demand changed and in what way? And how do we serve that?”
And it might be that you serve someone you've never served before. Unilever didn't do hand sanitizer, and in 20 days they had hand sanitizer on the shelves in North America. Normally, it would have taken them six months to get a product on the shelf.
And now the hottest item in the world.
Exactly. You need to look at the tea leaves and really understand and decide how you’re going to serve. With Virtual Teams Win we started a whole series of what we call ‘remote reboots.’ How does a team reboot itself in a remote world and make it a better team? But then I started hearing people talking about going back to work, and I thought, “What's that going to look like?” And I started getting scared, because I've seen more innovation in the last four months than I have seen in 20 years.
“I had more PR and more visibility because I read the tea leaves of where people were suffering the most, and I decided to serve that market.”
And I wanted to capture that. So, I started a media site, as opposed to go back to work, it's called Go Forward to Work. And I hired the former managing editor of Forbes, the former editor of Brand Week, and a few writers. And they're collecting the world's largest database of best practices of how work been redefined over the last four months and how marketing and sales have been redefined.
I know one large tech company that used to spend a billion dollars a year in sales travel, but now they've spent no money in sales travel. They've saved over $400 million in sales travel – and their loyalty numbers have gone up. So, what does that say?
One question is, “What have we seen that we like, and we want to hold on to, as we go forward?” Start curating that question with your team.
And the next question is, “What are the things that we're fearful in a remote world will not be performed as well?” And then when you list those things, stay on them and ask, “Well, how can we do them better?”
We believe we've engineered a process where team meetings can actually be better in remote world than they were physically. So, I think there's a lot of opportunity right now.
You speak all over the world and meet tens of thousands of people each year. What system do you have of keeping in touch with all those people that you meet?
I use Salesforce. I know it's a little expensive, and there may be a lot of things out there, but what I like about it is that as my company has grown, it doesn’t just track my network – it tracks campaigns.
The one thing I learned since writing Never Eat Alone is that a network is not about you running a bunch of individual relationships. It’s starting communities. And that's probably a whole conversation by itself, but starting communities is very powerful. When I started Go Forward to Work, part of the intention was to take all of my VIP relationships, pull them into a virtual room and say, “How will we teach each other what the future of work looks like?”
I started a community and then I hired a community manager, a gentleman from Forbes, who's curating that conversation, so when I'm not there, I'm still there. When that group convenes with Bruce, I'm present in that conversation, right? So, your ability to be present in conversations and build your network by building community makes you exponential in terms of your network.
So much of what you talk about comes from that abundance mindset. It's like when you were talking about hosting parties at your house, where you ask everyone to be co-hosting the evening – that they all make sure everyone's got a drink in their hand and that everyone’s invited into a conversation.
Well, the point I'm making is that leaders are great hosts. And part of being a great host is helping other people make other people comfortable. If I’ve got a table of 14, I can handle that. I can make everybody comfortable. But if I've got a party of 150, now I need to turn everybody into hosts. If everybody acts like a host to take care of each other, then everyone's going to be taken care of.
“Part of being a great host is helping other people make other people comfortable.”
It's the same thing with your team. A great team leader is a host of a team that takes care of each other.
In Leading Without Authority you talk about co-elevation in the workplace predominantly, but what about co-elevation in the home? How can it be used to improve a marriage, or a relationship with your children, or even a relationship with someone's parents?
By the way, it is so infrequent that I show up and somebody's done their homework. You've actually read the book and consumed it. It's just amazing! Thank you for that.
The example I use a lot is my son. I could not parent my child the way that my dad parented me, nor would I want to. And I think that's true of a lot of us. But with our spouses, imagine being in a spousal relationship where your commitment is to a shared and aligned set of goals for each other, for the family, for my career and for my spouse's career. And collectively we are going higher together where we are open and interested in each other's challenges, innovations, and critiques. Not critique as in badgering. Critique as in caring enough to correct. And it's received that way and it's given that way.
I'm single now. I've been single for five years and I've made a commitment that my spouse is going to be my co-elevating partner. That's one of the reasons I didn't dive back into a relationship sooner.
I'm hopeful that co-elevation is adopted by governments because we certainly need more cross the aisle collaboration. It's starting to heat up with all the [political] conventions. And unfortunately, we're going to see such divisiveness and lines drawn, when what we need is more co-creation because we need the brilliance on all sides of the aisle to come together and fix these problems.
Absolutely. Focusing on the future rather than pointing fingers or what might've got us here in the first place.
How can someone turn a generic “How can I be of service?” into actually being of service?
Well, listening helps and asking the question is easy. In the case of Pat Locanto, I was in the audience and I heard something and I was like, “Let me double click on that. That sounded important. Let me double click and let me see if I can be of service.”
It’s this idea of serve, share, and care. And the service piece is really understanding what another human values. And typically, there's a checklist: they care about the kids, they care about their own personal development, they care about the careers, they care about being entertained, they care about their intellectual growth, they care about their spirituality.
You have a checklist of things, and if you are curious and ask people questions about things, you can start to say, “Oh, well, I can introduce you to this person.” Or “Maybe I could help you here, or “Could I do some research here for you?”
It's quite easy when you start having a framework that says, “Okay, James. How do I help James? Well, here's the checklist of things that I might be able to do to be helpful.” And you get better at it as you practice.
Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Keith does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about his favorite quote, what advice he’d give her 18-year-old self, his favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question. What’s one thing you do to Win the Day?
I workout every day.
Connect with Keith Ferrazzi and learn more about the resources/links mentioned in the interview:
📙 Keith's new book Leading Without Authority
🚀 #1 New York Times bestseller Never Eat Alone
👨👨👧👧 All-time classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
🗝️ Bestselling self-help book of all time Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
That’s all for this episode! Remember, to get out there and win the day – I certainly will after that chat with Keith.
Until next time...
Oonwards and upwards always,
PS - As a special bonus for making it this far, check out the 60 best quotes from Keith Ferrazzi below...
The 60 best quotes from Keith Ferrazzi:
“What you seek is seeking you.”
Wherever you are in the world, there’s a strong chance that you’ve been feeling a great deal of stress lately. And 2020 certainly seems like a year of transition for all of us.
What started with the Australian bushfires, where we thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, led to a pandemic. Job losses skyrocketed, incidents of violence dominated the news cycle, and if you combine that with the forced isolation that most people have been in for a good chunk of the year, it’s an absolute recipe for disaster for our mental health.
So how bad is it? Well, Harvard suggests that up to 80% of doctor’s visits are caused by stress, and that was before all of this hit. This made it the perfect time to have Emily Fletcher, who is regarded as the leading expert in meditation for high performance, on the Win the Day show.
I want to clarify something right off the bat here: Emily is not the person you might have in mind when you think of a meditation guru. It’s not about sitting cross-legged in front of an incense candle while you chant out loud and block out your thoughts.
What she teaches is extremely practical and eliminates the shortfalls that I’ve personally experienced from other types of meditation. Every session also ties in directly to goal-setting and manifestation, which is one of the attributes I love most about it.
But don’t just take my word for it!
Emily has worked with Navy SEALs, NBA players, Academy Award winners, leading physicians, and globally recognized CEOs. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Today Show, and Vogue magazine, and she’s spoken at Google, Viacom, and Harvard Business School.
Today, The Ziva Technique founder has taught more than 20,000 students around the world how to perform at their best. Emily’s new book ‘Stress Less, Accomplish More’ is also a wonderful introduction to the challenges we face today and a practical guide to living at your best – in all areas of your life.
In this interview, we talk about her 10-year career on Broadway, what she teaches the most elite performers on the planet, how to reach new levels of productivity despite what’s going on in the world, and how you can use meditation to unlock your full potential.
Emily Fletcher, great to see you again! Welcome to Win the Day.
I am really happy to be here; and happy to see your face again. Thank you for having me.
Let's start broadly. What's the problem with society that meditation solves?
[Laughs] There's a long list right now! I think the underlying problem for so many symptoms is stress. There's so much stress in our nervous system and so much stress that we've inherited from previous generations. It’s all showing up in big ways right now.
Stress weakens our immune system, which is making us more vulnerable to the pandemic. That inherited generational trauma is certainly pouring gasoline on the fire of the racial injustices happening around the world, but certainly in the US. And it also makes it harder to heal them because when you're very stressed it's hard to let go of your own unconscious biases. It's hard to even look at them.
And so once you start meditating, once you start getting rid of your stress – not only from today, but all that accumulated stress from your past – it really revolutionizes the way you interact with other humans; the way your immune system works, your productivity, your clarity, and your creativity.
It's a pretty profound list of changes that start to happen in your brain and in your body, when we really handle the root issue – which, for many of us, is stress.
It’s counterintuitive how we have quickly increasing standards of living and many other benefits to modern society, yet we’re more and more stressed. Is being accustomed to comfortable beds, warm showers, and Nespresso machines contributing to this at all? Although, I should mention I recently converted to cold showers in the morning and am loving it.
Well, it's an interesting double-edged sword. We have modern advancements like plumbing that have really decreased communicable diseases. We have surgeries and antibiotics that have really upped our longevity and the quality of our life.
But the other side is that much of our modern conveniences are directly opposed to nature. Like staying up late and looking at your phone – your brain thinks the sun is up and that it should be awake. Drawing the shades and sleeping past sunrise – your body thinks the sun has not yet risen. Eating food that isn't food – this over time creates chronic stress in our body. The fact that our soil is depleted from over-farming. Our bodies are not being nourished in the way that they could and should be.
The fact that we're over-sexualized but not having enough sex – this is changing us. The fact that we don't have our feet in the soil. There's so many “modern conveniences” … plane travel, car travel, eating mangoes in the wintertime. You know? All of these things ... microwaves!
These all seem convenient, and they might seem to be saving us time in the short term, but over the long term these chronic stresses really cost our bodies and they are asking our bodies to adapt.
None of the things that I mentioned are inherently bad, but over time you're asking your body to adapt, adapt, adapt. And when you burn up something called ‘adaptation energy’ and then you have another demand on your nervous system, your body will launch involuntarily into fight or flight.
Whether you've read Eat Pray Love or not, whether you’ve read Think and Grow Rich or not. If you're stressed and you're out of adaptation energy, your body is going to start preparing for that imaginary tiger. And that's unfortunately what so many of us are dealing with – this low-grade chronic stress, which is different than something like a cold shower.
A cold shower, boxing match, or a sprint, even though they are “stressful,” this is what we define as good stress or hormesis. You’re actually inspiring your strong mitochondria – which are the energy centers of our cells – to get stronger, and you're killing off the weak mitochondria.
So acute short-term intentional stress, that can be very good and help strengthen you. But the low-grade chronic stress is what's making us stupid, sick, and slow.
In your awesome new book Stress Less, Accomplish More you mentioned, “It's not bad to get stressed. It's bad to stay stressed.”
How does someone disconnect from a world that's increasingly connected? People are multitasking like crazy – on their phones while eating dinner and watching television. How do we disconnect from that stress?
Well, I would even take that one step further. People are now on their phones when they're meditating! [Laughs] It's like having an AA meeting in a liquor store. Why would you want to be tethered to your phone for your meditation practice? It would be good for us to just have one thing to do that didn’t require being glued to our phones.
That's why I’m so big on self-sufficiency and giving people the tools to do meditation on their own, without needing wifi or headphones or someone guiding them.
But how can we unplug? Well, I think first it’s letting go of the “I'll be happy when...” syndrome, which is what you and I were talking about before the show. This idea that your happiness is going to come on the other side of a person, a place, a thing, another follower on Instagram, another 100 likes on your post – the little dopamine hit that we're even subconsciously chasing and craving. And if we can stop to really remember that our happiness exists inside of us, it exists right now, then perhaps that will stop the constant searching, the constant strolling, and the constant checking.
And it's a practice, you know, because we're all addicted. Just like strengthening any muscle, we need to say, “Okay, let me put my phone down. Let me turn it off. Let me put it in a drawer. Let me create a consequence around it.”
"If we can remember that our happiness exists inside of us, it exists right now, then perhaps that will stop the constant searching, the constant strolling, and the constant checking."
I'm big on promises and consequences. My rule for myself right now is that I have to be in bed by midnight, asleep – like lights out by 12:30am – or I can't be on social media at all the next day.
Social media is my big vice and I know that it's an addiction; because I feel myself. I'll do it mindlessly, so I have to create some boundaries for myself; otherwise, it becomes destructive.
Completely agree. My wife and I, we have a 14-month-old daughter and I mean, what a weird world we live in where you've got to consciously say to yourself: “Look, I'm going to leave my phone on airplane mode in a different room so I can actually be present with my daughter.” Like you, I'm completely addicted to my phone – and you and I teach this stuff, yet we're still not immune from those things!
An interesting point from your book was when you said that “nature doesn't allow your body and mind to rest at the same time.” A lot of people associate exercise as a way of getting a mental reset, which can be beneficial if they're in a demanding job doing really long hours and they have an opportunity to go out for a run. But when it comes to peak performance, what's the optimal balance between exercise, sleep, and meditation?
Like you mentioned, it's important to differentiate exercise versus meditation because so many people say, “Well, working out is my meditation.” And exercise is good for you – of course! But it is exciting your nervous system. You are speeding up your metabolic rate, whereas meditation is the opposite.
In Ziva, we are de-exciting the nervous system. We are decreasing the metabolic rate. And the really important differentiating point there is that exercise is good enough to handle your stress. When we get stressed, our body is preparing for an imaginary tiger attack. So we need to either fight or flee.
People say: “Oh, I box out my stress” or “I run off my stress.” And again, that's good enough to handle your stress from today, but if you want to handle the backlog of accumulated stresses that we have in our cellular memory then we have to give the body rest – deep, deep rest – and that's what meditation does.
So I think that both is really the answer, and I think that it's a personal preference as to what you do first. My loose recommendation is that you wake up, meditate, and then workout because you're giving your body this rest so you have more energy for a workout.
The only exception to that would be yoga because yoga was designed to prepare the body for meditation. Every asana; every pose. Asana is a Sanskrit word that means “seat”; and so what we're doing with yoga is we're preparing our body to become a seat for meditation.
Ah, like savasana.
Yeah, exactly. Savasana actually means “corpse pose.” It’s practicing dying. Sometimes that’s what I'll say to folks about Ziva when I'm like “Well, Ziva's actually practicing dying” if you get to that savasana without having to do an hour and a half of yoga.
Within 30 to 45 seconds, you're moving beyond the left brain, which is in charge of individuality, and you're tapping into that right brain, which is in charge of totality.
But for me personally, I meditate every day, twice a day, and I exercise about three times a week. I could probably stand to up that especially in this sedentary time of pandemic. My normal life is so active. I live in New York City and the subway and stairs, and meetings, and walking 10 city blocks.
Normally, I could exercise once or twice a week and feel strong and my body has enough energy moving. But because I'm much more sedentary now, I'm needing to exercise more.
Let's dive into your story for a moment. You had a 10-year career on Broadway, which is a very public forum of mental and physical capabilities. What was it about a career on Broadway that appealed to you in the first place?
I remember when I was in fourth grade. I was sitting on the floor of my mom's bathroom reading the newspaper while she was in the shower. I saw an ad for a thing called Young Actors’ Theater, and I said to my mom, “Oh, I need to go here. I'm going to be an actress.” At fourth grade and eight years old, I knew that’s what I was going to do.
There was no wondering or guessing or wishing or hoping. It was just like, “That's what I'm going to do” and it was just one of those crystal clear moments. But I knew even then that I wasn't going to stay there. I knew I would do it for a while and then I would move on to helping people.
I started at the Young Actors’, which is this amazing children's theater in Tallahassee, Florida, where I got to study voice, dance, and acting pretty intensely. I would go every day after school, and that was in addition to my other dance classes and then doing musical theater at my high school.
So even at a public school in Tallahassee, Florida, I had a pretty intense training in these three disciplines. Then I went to Florida State to study musical theater, and moved to New York in 2001, just three weeks before September 11.
And I was very fortunate to get my first job on my second day in New York. So I was employed when all of Broadway shutdown due to 9/11 – because tourism stopped. A lot of my friends and colleagues who were starting their careers as actors went years being unemployed because the whole industry shutdown and it took a long time to recover.
It was a blessing that I was able to start working right out of the gate, and then I worked for about 10 years back-to-back-to-back. It's intense and a very competitive industry, and I think that's where I really learned, like you said, to use my voice, my mind, and my body as an instrument, and where I got my hardcore high performance training; which I've now taken into the meditation arena and with Ziva.
It sounds like trial by fire! How did you deal with literal stage fright before you even discovered meditation?
Not well! [Laughs] I mean, I guess okay, because I was working, but it was what drove me to meditation.
My last Broadway show was A Chorus Line where my job was to understudy three of the lead roles; and that means you have no idea which character you're going to play when you show up at the theater.
Sometimes I would start the show as one character. Halfway through, they'd switch me to another one. I would just be chilling in my dressing room doing my taxes and they would say "Emily Fletcher, we need you on stage". I would start panicking and having full-blown anxiety attacks. I would grab all three of my costumes and run down seven flights of stairs. Someone would throw me in an outfit and sometimes I would be on stage before I knew which character I was playing.
Some people are good at this job. I am not one of them! I was having panic attacks. I was going grey. At the tender age of 26, I was having debilitating insomnia, I was getting sick five or six times a year. And thankfully this amazing woman – and you'll like this story – this amazing woman was sitting next to me in the dressing room. She's understudying five of the leads, including Cassie.
So it's an incredibly hard job and this woman is nailing it! I mean, every song she sang was a celebration; every dance she danced was a celebration. Every bite of food she ate, she went “Oh, this is sensational!” and she was an Australian. At first, I thought she was just an Aussie because all of you are so happy – I don’t know what you put in the water down there! [Laughs]
It's our Australian coffee!
It really is! That's strong stuff. But finally I thought, “No, this is special. I need to have some of what she's having.”
I said to her, “What do you know that I don't know?” And she said, “I meditate” and I rolled my eyes and thought “Oh god, one of you.” Finally, I was so embarrassed about my performance, and I was sucking so bad at my job, that I thought I have to try something.
So I went along to an ‘Intro to Meditation’ talk. I liked what I heard. I signed up for a course, and on the first day of my first course, I was meditating! I did not know what that meant, but I was in a different state of consciousness than I had never been in; and I liked it. That night, I slept through the night for the first time in 18 months – and I have every night since.
That was 12 years ago. Then I stopped going gray. I'm 41 years old now and you know I have not been to the salon because it's illegal! So this hair right now, you know it’s real! I didn't get sick for eight and a half years. I started enjoying my job again.
I just thought “Why does everybody not do this?”
Then I left Broadway and went to India where I started a three-year training process to teach.
Now you're a veteran of meditation and teaching others how to unlock that extraordinary performance. What do you incorporate with Ziva Meditation that you noticed was missing from traditional and more mainstream meditation?
Well, it's interesting because when I first learned I had the blessing of beginner's mind. Twelve years ago, there were no apps. There were no drop-in studios. I know that it's hard for people to conceptualize now, but it was really just monks and me in New York.
I mean, that's not totally true, but it was nowhere near as mainstream as it is now, so I have the gift of no comparison. I was just like, “Oh, here is this thing” and it made my life so much better.
Now, interestingly, what people consider ‘mainstream meditation’ is the free apps. There are hundreds of millions of downloads of these different apps and then very little continued usage of them. What people now consider mainstream meditation apps are actually what I would call mindfulness.
Mindfulness is very good at dealing with your stress in the now. Mindfulness is the art of bringing your awareness into the present moment. And it is necessary, especially in this day and age.
The type of meditation that I teach at Ziva is all about getting rid of your stress from the past. And that's not an insignificant shift; because I would say that eradication of the backlog of cellular stress is really what gives you this surge in cognitive ability; this surge in productivity. Like we were saying earlier, with that chronic low-grade fight or flight thing. Over time, that's what's making us stupid, sick, and slow.
“Eradication of the backlog of cellular stress is really what gives you this surge in cognitive ability.”
While mindfulness or using a free app may create a state change – it might make you feel better in the now – meditation is creating a trait change. It is going in and healing you on a cellular level; so that your brain gets faster, your IQ increases, your neuroplasticity increases, your body age reverses, your immune function gets better.
These aren't, “Oh, let me just imagine rainbows and gurus and incense.” You're actually healing things on a physiological level. You are changing your neurochemistry. And then over time – just like the cumulative effect of stress can be very detrimental over time – the cumulative effect of meditation can be very beneficial.
It's interesting that one of the greatest discoveries of our time is that we can improve our own IQ. More and more studies are proving that’s the case, which you reference in your book, for example, that meditation can improve one’s IQ by as much as 23%.
And a smile came to my face when you were talking about people who have downloaded a meditation-type app and then deleted it. I downloaded Headspace because I'd heard everyone talking about meditation, so I sat down to give it a shot but it was just really brutal for me. I couldn't stand it. I was very uncomfortable and couldn’t block out my thoughts or the sounds. I all but swore that I would never do meditation again because I found it impossible to switch my brain off.
Around the same time, I started doing yoga which, although didn’t allow my brain to switch off, it was definitely a break from the usual chaos of thoughts.
Recently, I started doing Ziva Meditation for the first time, and one of the first things that I noticed was that I was completely present in the yoga session and I think it's the first time that has ever happened.
So I wanted to talk to you about ‘meditation failure.’ I’m one of those meditation failure people, and if you and I weren’t connected I would likely still have a distaste for meditation! But now I'm really, really excited for it. I have committed to it – my wife and I incorporated it into our daily routine.
What is the meditation shame spiral? And why should people give it another shot if they’ve done meditation before and didn’t enjoy it?
Yes! Thank you for sharing this and thank you for being open enough to give it another go. Know that you are not alone; I hear this story multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times a day: “I downloaded this app; I tried to do it, I couldn't stop my mind from thinking; I felt like I was failing and then I quit.”
It makes me sad just because I know that there are millions and millions of people out there who think that they are failures. I actually dedicated my whole book to it. Anyone who's tried meditation and quit because you felt like a failure; you're not a failure. You just haven't been taught yet.
"Anyone who's tried meditation and quit because you felt like a failure; you're not a failure. You just haven't been taught yet.”
And so the beautiful and hopefully stress-relieving fact here is that the mind thinks involuntarily just like the heart beats involuntarily. Trying to give your brain a command to shut up is as uncomfortable as trying to give your heart a command to stop beating. It does not work, yet this is the criteria by which we're all judging ourselves as to whether or not we can meditate.
There's like one dude out there telling everyone to “clear their mind” and we've got to find him and we've got to teach him how to meditate.
We do. Patient Zero!
[Laughs] Exactly! He's Patient Zero – and he's got the same publicist that kale has. Even people who have never meditated before are convinced that the point is to turn off the brain. But I would argue that the point of meditation is to get good at life.
No one cares how many or few thoughts you're having when you sit quietly in a chair. Everyone cares about how kind you are, how present you are, how creative are you, how is your immune system, how is your sex drive, how is your intuition? People care about that stuff. Nobody cares that you can clear your mind.
And the beautiful thing is that all of these physical and mental IQ-increasing benefits that we're talking about can happen even when you don't “clear your mind.” Those thoughts, especially during Ziva, are an indicator that stress is leaving the body. And once you understand that meditation is a cycle – it's like a washing machine, like a cycle of stress release – then you stop beating yourself up for having thoughts and you celebrate them as part of the purging healing process. And that can be revolutionary for people and their practice.
When I first started Ziva, the apps weren't around yet. I was just teaching straight up meditation face-to-face in my studio in New York, and people were having profound results. People were committing, people were noticing their lives were changing, their insomnia was going away, they were becoming fertile after doctors told them that they were infertile. Their IBS was going away, migraines, panic attacks... All of this stuff just falling away.
And then they would say: “Well look, I want my mom to learn. She's in Idaho” or “I want my cousin to learn; she's in Brazil.” “Hey, do you ever go to the Virgin Islands?” And I'll be like, “Yeah. I'll be on a plane tomorrow!”
Technology was getting better and so I just thought that this thing is too good to rely on geography. Not everyone has access to a teacher in their hometown, and so we actually created the world's first online meditation training.
It was before Headspace, before Oprah and Deepak Chopra, and it was just me with my musical theater degree, my tap shoes, and zero technology experience!
But a hell of a lot of life experience!
Yes, a lot of life experience and thankfully some really smart friends! And so we made the first course and it was an experiment. We didn't know if it was going to work or not, but slowly but surely it just grew and grew, and then we revamped it in 2017 and that is when I created the Ziva Technique.
I created the Ziva Technique because after six years of teaching meditation I realized that meditation alone was not enough; that more people were falling off the wagon than I would like; more people were not starting than I would like; and so as I started to ask deeper and deeper questions of “Why are you not starting? Because you know this is good for you. The science is in. Why are you not giving this practice or yourself a fair shot?”
And the other question I really was interested in answering is why anyone could get the keys to the kingdom and put them down? That was the one that was really mind-boggling to me. And for most people it was about time. When you're stressed, you feel like you don't have enough time, that you're always behind schedule, that your to do list will never fit inside of your day; and the reason we have that relationship with time is because our brains are not functioning as well as they could.
And so if you really just drill again and again that meditation gives you more time; it makes you more productive; it makes your brain more efficient; your sleep more efficient; you get sick less often and just keep reminding people that the return on time investment is exponential, then that sometimes solves that issue.
But the quitting issue, as in why people were starting and quitting? They would say: “Well, I'm too busy”, but when I got to the root of it, what I realized is that people were terrified of feeling their feelings. People were terrified of facing the intensity of emotion, and trauma and stress that most of us have stored inside – and most meditation teachers aren't talking about that. They're not talking about the purge of the catharsis that often happens when you do something as powerful as this.
So I just doubled down and I started warning people. “Hey don't start Ziva on your wedding weekend” and “Do not start Ziva the week that you just got a new job”! Because stuff's going to get a little messier before it gets cleaner.
And then on top of that; I wanted to equip people to handle the purge, to handle the catharsis, if and when it comes, rather than saying like, “Oh, don't worry about that; let's just focus on enlightenment!” It's like “No, we have to integrate that. We have to celebrate it.”
We have to equip people to process the level of intensity that we've been dealing with in our lifetimes, but now scientists are starting to say we can inherit trauma from somewhere between two to seven generations prior – and that's not insignificant, especially in today's climate.
Inherited generational trauma, it's a thing. And the cool thing about Ziva is that you can stop it in its tracks; by you healing your stress, your cells; you're changing your epigenetics; you're changing what you're passing down to future generations.
With the Ziva process, you’ve got mindfulness, meditation, and manifestation. Can you give a quick insight into those three “M's” and what they do for the brain?
Mindfulness is really good at dealing with your stress in the now. It's like a focused meditation, and that's what most of the apps and YouTube videos are. Anytime someone's guiding you through, then you're directing your focus. And when you're using a directed focus style of meditation, a small part of the brain lights up but very bright.
This is different from the style of meditation that we teach at Ziva, which is all about letting go. It's all about surrender and rest. It feels kind of like a nap sitting up, and this is where that healing of the old stress happens – where the trait change starts to go. Also, it’s where I would say you get this return on investment, meaning that you get more time in your day.
And then the manifesting piece is all about dealing with your dreams for the future. So it sounds a little hippy-dippy. It sounds a little woo-woo. Maybe not to you or your audience!
I would define manifesting as consciously creating a life you love. It is reminding yourself of your dreams. And what I've found is that the combination – and this might really be the thing that keeps you committed to meditation – the combination of meditation and manifesting is so much more powerful than either one alone. Because you could meditate all day, but if you're not clear about what it is that you want it's very hard for nature to give you the thing.
“I would define manifesting as consciously creating a life you love.”
And conversely, you could manifest all day, lining your walls with vision boards, but if you're not meditating and your nervous system is riddled with stress and trauma, and limiting beliefs that you can't even see, then again it's going to be a lot harder for you to achieve your dreams. But when you do them together, you get rid of the stress in your body, you peel away these subconscious limiting beliefs, and you remind yourself of your dreams every day, twice a day, and things start to show up a lot more quickly.
It's interesting because it's like what you said earlier about meditating for life, rather than to get good at meditating. If we have an idea of what we want, this is simply a weapon we can have in our arsenal that's going to get us there and achieve it as quick as possible.
There are so many themes from what you said that I think are really valuable to anyone who actually just wants to achieve anything – whether it's a successful marriage, a strong relationship with their children, or a business goal.
You've worked with a lot of elite performers from Navy Seals and the NBA, to top executives and doctors, and Academy Award winners. Who stands out as the most ‘elite’ out of all of those people, however you want to define it?
Fascinating question! I think you have to say Navy SEALS, just as far as the mental and physical performance and what they put their bodies and minds through.
This one Navy SEAL, he did Ziva online when he was in Afghanistan. He said he was meditating in a porta-potty and I was like, “Dude, you are more committed than me.” I was like, “I love meditation, but I cannot say I would meditate in a porta-potty!”
That's a nice testimonial to have!
But I mean, he said it saved his life. He said that having the ability to deregulate his nervous system or to down-regulate his nervous system – because when you're in that chronic fight or flight for a living, for your job, you aren't granted the luxury of turning off or getting into rest and digest. Over time, that can lead to adrenal fatigue, it can lead to PTSD, and it can also lead to you not even having the capabilities of down-regulating.
I think that's why we see such high suicide rates from folks certainly after being in active combat. So the fact that these Navy SEALs were using it while they were in the trenches, and then many of them are interested in actually becoming teachers now, really is very heartening to me because it means they might be able to enjoy their lives for the rest of their lives, which can be difficult if you’re used to intense situations because the rest of life can just feel boring.
I had an interview yesterday with Larry Sanders who is a former NBA player. It was an interesting story, but his manager asked me to teach him because he was about to walk away from a $44 million contract, and his manager was like “No! Please come teach him to meditate!”
So I taught him and I was like, “Look, I can't guarantee anything. I'll teach him to meditate, but I can't guarantee that he's going to stay in the NBA.” But he ended up leaving. We fell out of touch until a few days ago, and he posted this photo on Instagram with “What advice would you give to your younger self?” and he had Photoshopped a picture of him now and a picture of him eight years ago – and he looks so much happier now.
His face is like beaming sunshine. And the picture of him eight years ago, he looks sad and depressed. I'm not outing his secrets here; he had a very public struggle with anxiety and depression.
And so anyway, we just sat down for this interview and he said that he considered Ziva a really important part of his mental and physical boot camp when he was transitioning out, and he feels happier now than he's ever been.
And he said that when he was in negotiations about walking away from $44 million; he was in the room, with these people, and he said they were just talking, talking and talking; and it was like “I couldn't hear anything they were saying. I was meditating, and I was imagining just cutting the cord from my root chakra to these people that represented my survival.”
And I was like, “Dude, good for you!” Because there's a lot of people who say that they would and who think that they would, but they wouldn't actually, and he did!
Wow! That's powerful. How receptive were the Navy SEALS to everything that you were teaching?
Several Navy SEALs reached out to me organically and then shared it among their groups, and there’s another retired Navy SEAL who wants to become a teacher. While I haven't officially been hired by the Navy SEALS, the ones I’ve worked with are super-duper gung-ho; and I think they like it because Ziva is so focused on performance.
It's so much about optimizing your brain and body, and I think it speaks their language. Whereas a lot of meditations are about ceremony and incense. If that's your thing, awesome. It's just not my thing.
What about people who want to try meditation, or want a partner to try meditation, but they don’t feel like doing it in the first place? How do you get people to give it a try, especially if they think it’s too woo-woo?
Good question. I can't tell you how many people come to my intro talks and they're like, “I really need this for my husband. I'm not going to take the course, but I'm going to get this for my husband.” Or like, “Hey, can you give this to my wife? Can you get my wife meditating?”
Always, always, always you've got to clean your own house first!
If you want your dad, your mom, your brother-in-law, or your sister to meditate, you've got to start with you.
“Everyone else should do it. Not me! Just everyone else.”
That's it. “It's their problem!” [Laughs] – “If my husband would just go to therapy, then I'd be fine!” I definitely heard that story for a couple of years.
So we have to clean our own house first. And the beautiful thing that happens there is that as we change the lens through which we are seeing everything, everything changes. If we have stress lenses, then the whole world looks stressed!
If we start to peel away our own layers of ignorance, then sometimes relationships might change, our job might change. You're going to think that the world is changing, but actually it's you that's changing. And your life gets better. You get less stressed. You get healthier, you get happier.
And as you do that, you inspire something that I call ‘worthy inquiry’ which is basically like: “Does someone want to know about this thing; and are they willing to surrender something to get it?”
Because here's the meditation course that everybody wants: they want it to be free; they want it to take zero minutes; and they want to never have to meditate again. That's really what everyone is looking for! And I don't teach free meditation. I don't teach a one-day meditation class. I've got no interest in it. I want to teach people who want to learn, and that usually requires some skin in the game.
"I want to teach people who want to learn, and that usually requires some skin in the game.”
The online course is 15 days. When I teach it in person it's four days. So at the very least you're surrendering your preference of your time. This weeds out the people who don't want to be there, and that's great because no one should be forced to meditate.
Everybody comes to it in their own time and when they're ready, but I would say it depends on who you're talking to. If you're trying to convince someone else to meditate – and you’ve started with yourself, and cleaned your own house – then the most powerful thing you can share is your own experience.
You can say, “I used to be struggling with this and now I am this…” or “I used to feel this and now I'm this…” and no one can argue with that. You don't have to be a neuroscientist. You don't have to pretend like you're a meditation teacher, if you're sharing your story.
And then, if people want all the science, if they want to be equipped with facts – they go to our website. We have hundreds and hundreds of articles and studies; and we have been collecting them since 2011.
So basically every study, story, or research that's been published, I've been categorizing based on: mindfulness, meditation, or manifesting. And people can find that on our blog.
High performers are always trying to squeeze as much as they can out of every single minute. Have you noticed an effect on a reduced number of hours of sleep required by people for those who have been doing Ziva Meditation during the day?
Yes – but for a lot of folks, especially in the beginning if they're sleep deprived or if they've been dealing with insomnia, oftentimes in the first few weeks and even months they need more sleep and sometimes a lot more sleep.
I have an interview right after this with my friend Amber; and when she first took the course, she was sleeping 14+ hours a night. She said, “Emily, I have a job. I can't sleep for 16 hours a day, and then come here for an hour and a half a day!” But that's extreme. Normally, most people are not like that.
A lot of people are sleepy for a couple of weeks as their body is detoxifying and moving through the purge. And then because the meditation is so restful – because you're inserting these 15 minute chunks twice a day, which is an equivalent of about an hour long nap, or 2 hour long naps – over time, as you're building up that backlog of rest and sleeping more efficiently, a lot of people end up needing less sleep.
Even if it was one hour less. You usually need eight hours of sleep, but then you start to need seven. Then for a 30-minute time investment, where you meditate twice a day for 15 minutes, if it shaves off one hour at night that you need of sleep, you're already 30 minutes in the black. And that doesn’t even take into consideration better decision making, getting sick less often, the opportunity cost of stress or losing your temper when you are frazzled. So over time the return on time investment is a real thing.
How has what you’ve learned about meditation changed your life as a parent?
My son turned two yesterday. When he was born, I had been meditating for 10 years, so I don't have any frame of reference of what it would be like to meditate or to be a parent without meditation.
However, I will say that he has been my greatest teacher in presence. He has been my greatest teacher in surrendering and really embracing the now; because everything just changed so quickly! And as you know, because you have a 14-month old, it's like they take a nap, and when they wake up they have five more skills! They have five more words!
Five more teeth!
Yes! Things are falling away and new things are being acquired hourly. Like: “Oh, you don't suck your thumb anymore but you do know how to climb that couch!”
It's just a fascinating lesson in impermanence. And I will say that I never felt happier or more present than when I'm with him, but it feels like this is almost like the reward for the 12 years of meditation, that I've been training to be able to be with him fully. And that is such a gift and a blessing.
But I will say that I went to classes with him when he was a baby. They were RIE classes, which is about respectful parenting. It's about nonviolent communication where you're speaking in observations versus judgments, and you're just present.
In the RIE classes, there would be seven or eight babies and you would just sit there. The adults are in the circle; not touching, not speaking, and not interacting. You only intervene if someone's in physical danger. Other than that, the babies are on their own and you are just super-duper present with them; on their level, watching them.
You can affirm them. Like “I'm right here. I see you.” And then, they call it sports casting, where you're like, “Oh! You picked up that cup!” or “I hear that you're crying. Are you upset?” which is different than “You look angry.”
So you're speaking an observation rather than a judgement, which is almost like an out loud meditation practice. “I hear that you're crying” and “How are you feeling?” is different from “Are you scared?” and “You sound upset.”
It's an interesting thing that I'm still practicing obviously, but the nonviolent communication, and speaking in observation rather than judgment, and the hyper presence, have all really served me as a parent.
So now we're working on a kid’s course. We're creating what I hope to be the world's best kid meditation training. We're working with creators from Sesame Street and a Harvard child psychologist. And it's been really fun to get inside a child's mind. So even though my son is only two and the course starts for four-year-old children, it's still letting you live in that world a little bit more.
What do you tell the athlete who is about to start their gold medal race at the Olympic Games, or the university grad who is interviewing for their dream job, or the CEO who is about to deliver a presentation to the board for the first time? What do you tell them in that last one or two minutes to focus on before they're about to embark on something that feels life-changing or is potentially life changing?
Good question. So there's a couple of techniques. One is a very tactical technique and the other is a bit more conceptual. A tactical thing is something I call ‘Balancing Breath.’ You can be backstage, or in a bathroom, or in the locker room. You probably don't want to do it in front of people because it looks weird because you're closing it right and left nostrils, but it's just an adaptation of alternate nostril pranayam breathing.
It helps to balance the right and left hemispheres of your brain. But when you close one nostril, you are de-exciting your metabolic rate and you are de-exciting your breathing. And when you close the right and left nostrils, you are helping to marry the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which is your critical mind, and your creative mind.
And the cool thing about balancing breath is you can do it quickly or slowly. So if you were just exhausted but you had to amp it up for a game, you can do it fast. Or if you're really nervous and you needed to appear relaxed for your presentation to the board, then you can do it slow and sort of deescalate things.
Also, it helps me to just feel much more creative. I like to think that it's giving you this simultaneity of critical mind and creative mind.
For a more conceptual thing, I gave a talk at Google many years ago, at the beginning of my career. I’d only been teaching for a year or two, so to be asked to speak at Google felt like a make or break. I thought, “Well, this is it! If I mess this up; my career is over. But if I nail this, my career is made!” It felt like the penultimate thing.
And my husband just reminded me, “Look, even if you totally blow it, like you just forget everything and you are just a blithering idiot, what's the worst thing that can happen?”
He said, “The reality is, even if you were to be your worst day, it would probably be an 85%.”
“What's meant for you is coming, and what is not, is not.”
He helped me understand that more realistic 15% range, which is not going to make or break your career. And even if you totally forgot your name, how to speak, or how to read and write, this one thing is still not going to make or break your career. And I think that’s the important lesson to remember: that what's meant for you is coming, and what is not, is not.
Check out the podcast or YouTube version where Emily does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about her favorite quote, what advice she’d give her 18-year-old self, her favorite book, and a whole lot more 🚀
Final question. What's one thing you do to Win the Day?
I think it's the manifesting piece. It doesn't take long; it's just that two minutes at the end of the meditation where I ask myself, “How would I love to feel today? What's one thing that I would love right now?” It varies in length depending on how intensely I’m working on something.
Also, something I learned from BJ Fogg is a tiny micro habit version of that, where you hit your feet on the ground in the morning and say, “Today is going to be a great day!” Our mind has that confirmation bias – it wants to be proved right. So just saying “Today's going to be a great day” is like the micro super-fast manifester's trick.
I love it. Everyone's looking for a magic bullet, but it's often those simple habits reinforced with consistency that can be the most powerful. I want to finish with a quote from you. “We meditate to get good at life not to get good at meditation.” Such a great lesson. Thank you for being on Win the Day.
Thank you for having me. Thank you for your clarity, your inspiration and your wisdom.
Connect with Emily Fletcher and learn more about the resources/links mentioned in the interview:
Get out there and win the day! Until next time...
Onwards and upwards always,