How To Cope
I recently listened to a podcast episode featuring David Goggins, a former 300-pound teenager with a third-grade reading level and a stutter, who became a Navy SEAL, a world-class ultra athlete, and a world-record holder. I was fascinated by his story, but most of all by his ability to self-motivate and turn a lackluster life into an ambitious one.
Mr. Goggins said he was motivated by his own philosophical construct: the idea that when he died, God might hand him a list of all the things he was capable of doing, and all the things he actually did. He didn’t want there to be a discrepancy between those two lists. He wanted to live his life knowing he was doing everything he was physically capable of.
So he did. And after one hour of listening to exactly how he did so, I was inspired to do the same. I realized there was a big gap between my own two lists, and that I was capable of so much more than I was allowing myself to achieve. So I set goals and created definable ways I could become better in all areas of my life, and thereby avoid the mediocracy against which Mr. Goggins preached.
This is the hope of self-development. That by listening to podcasts, reading books, hiring coaches, attending retreats, or practicing meditation, we can become more centered in our lives, and more motivated in our ambitions. And doing so has practically become a prerequisite for reaching one’s professional peak.
Finding (Work-Life) Balance
“I’m the CEO of a company, and yet the only job I’ve held apart from this one is life guard,” says Chris Gibson, the CEO at Recursion Pharmaceuticals. He’s explaining the reason why he felt compelled to work with a coach last summer, though he’s more qualified than he sounds.
Before founding the biotech company headquartered in downtown Salt Lake City, Mr. Gibson was completing his PhD in bioengineering at the University of Utah. He was preparing to attend medical school there when research for his thesis became the foundation upon which Recursion would be built.
Five years later, the company has raised $80 million in venture capital, hired 120 employees, and moved into a 100,000 square-foot laboratory and office space―all while its founder was learning the role of a CEO while on the job. “Being a first-time CEO is hard and lonely,” he says. “It can take a bigger toll on your family and your own health (mental and physical) than most people realize. I spent a good part of [last] year working on finding my own personal balance.”
I credit my cofounder [Blake Borgeson] for helping me see how impactful personal journeys can be―not sure I could handle this role without lots of tangible personal growth. Thanks to my family, caring colleagues, investors, and coaches, I was able to recently get to a place where (I think) I am more reflective of my negative patterns. I also started to learn to disentangle my sense of worth from company milestones and hours worked. – Chris Gibson | CEO | Recursion Pharmaceuticals
Going into 2018, the company was doing well, but Mr. Gibson found himself at a personal crossroads. “I was sleeping very little, gaining weight, and generally existing in a state of stress and anxiety that probably made me a much less effective husband and father, as well as CEO.”
In the fall of 2018, Mr. Gibson took a leave of absence from Recursion to spend four days in the South of France. Under the tutelage of an executive coach, he read literature, practiced tai chi and meditation, and went on long walks alone in nature. He also “dove into my positive and negative patterns, interpersonal relationships, the meaning of my work, my mission in life, and so much more.” By the time he returned home, he had re-centered his vision for the company, as well as strengthened his own role in it.
“I credit my cofounder [Blake Borgeson] for helping me see how impactful personal journeys can be―not sure I could handle this role without lots of tangible personal growth. Thanks to my family, caring colleagues, investors, and coaches, I was able to recently get to a place where (I think) I am more reflective of my negative patterns. I also started to learn to disentangle my sense of worth from company milestones and hours worked.
“[It doesn’t] mean I don’t still work hard. But now I consider taking care of myself a part of my responsibilities to myself, my family, and even Recursion, much more than I did a year ago… I am resting more, working on communicating better and more openly, eating better, etc. I still feel all the excitement and stress of [Recursion’s] growth, but I feel more balanced all-around in my life.”
Mastering The (Executive) Self
To counter the stressors of demanding―and often high-risk―careers, many executives turn toward a litany of coaches, retreats, and meditations to help them keep calm and collected at work. But a select few also rely on such practices to help them aspire to―and reach―new levels of personal and professional mastery.
“I believe most executives use self-development [practices] to not only be focused but to continue to grow themselves and operate at a high level,” says James Jackson III, assistant vice president of community development at Zions Bank. “I would be disappointed in an executive who is not reading a book; attending a conference or retreat; working with a coach; or practicing yoga, meditation, or other fitness exercises. I feel those are the things that make the executive.”
In this way, modern self-development practices have evolved beyond 90s-era business development―trading the limitations of Franklin Covey for the limitlessness of Tony Robbins. The professional self, we’ve learned, is part of a larger, more complete, whole self. And it’s that self that requires our attention if we hope to attain executive enlightenment.
That’s why Jonathan Nielsen, the CEO at Backcountry, first hired an executive coach. “The foundation of the work I do with our coach is based on personality type and internal wiring and how that affects how I make decisions, how I process information, how I communicate, and how I interact with and lead people,” he says. “I am much more aware of my strengths and especially my weaknesses as a leader. Most importantly, I have a better understanding of how my personality and wiring can translate into counter-productive behaviors that affect those around me.”
“I believe most executives use self-development [practices] to not only be focused but to continue to grow themselves and operate at a high level. I would be disappointed in an executive who is not reading a book; attending a conference or retreat; working with a coach; or practicing yoga, meditation, or other fitness exercises. I feel those are the things that make the executive.” – James Jackson, III | Assistant Vice President of Community Outreach | Zions Bank
Because of the value he saw in his own life, Mr. Nielsen decided to bring coaching services to Backcountry’s entire executive team. “When [Jonathan] became CEO at Backcountry, one of the first things he did, was bring [the coach] on,” says Hillary Benjamin, the senior vice president of brand marketing at Backcountry. The coach has now worked with the team for three years, meeting quarterly at an offsite location where she conducts one-on-one sessions with each executive.
“I always meet with her for dinner,” says Ms. Benjamin. “We have a glass of wine, and we talk about areas I’m struggling with or need coaching on. Sometimes there are personal things going on in my life that affect my work and vice versa. She’s a safe space―a neutral party―but she knows all the players. In that way, she’s better than my husband because my husband is going to be biased toward me.”
Attaining (Professional) Nirvana
Many executives and entrepreneurs seem to use these same practices to rise above mediocrity and achieve mastery, not just in their careers, but in everything they do. The heart surgeon who also runs Ironmans comes to mind. The entrepreneur who is also a New York Times bestselling author, perhaps. The professional basketball player who can somehow also play professional baseball, maybe.
What are these people doing differently from the rest of us? How are they finding the time, energy, and aspiration to achieve so much? I don’t know. But I have to believe that it has to do with the continuous development of the self. That by developing the complete person, that person becomes better not only personally, but professionally as well. As Mr. Goggins said in that fated interview: it’s not about retiring and sailing off into the sunset. Once we’ve achieved one challenge, we must move on to the next one. Repeat ad infinitum.
The road might be as winding as the route to Dharamsala, but the result will be just as enlightened. Maybe our careers will benefit from the work we put in along the way―Richard Branson’s, Oprah’s, and Gwenyth Paltrow’s all have―but regardless of the practices we put in place to improve our lives and our careers, in the end, we can die knowing that we lived up to the list of things we are capable of achieving. And perhaps, that was the meaning of it all, to begin with.