Adam was recently interviewed for a book chapter about his perspectives on Leadership, Success, and Wellbeing. The following is an excerpt from this interview.
I’d like to start off by asking you about failure. It’s something we all experience, yet often find so difficult to overcome. You faced massive failure at the 2004 Olympic Games when your rowing team, poised to take home the Gold, finished fifth and well out of medal contention. How did you recover from this personal and very public failure?
This experience, while devastating at the time, was an incredible learning opportunity. I attribute much of my current success to the lessons I garnered and have applied to my life since. I spent months debriefing with teammates, coaches, psychologists, and friends and I eventually developed a process to effectively recover from failure. It’s a simple four-step method that I use in all moments of failure—minor or major—I reflect, learn, grow, and let it go.
The first key step in rebounding effectively from failure is to reflect. Whether it be failure in business, personal relationships, commitments, or otherwise, failure often generates feelings of embarrassment, regret, guilt, and denial. The initial shock of failure can be paralyzing. Reflection is about exploring and dwelling on the emotions attached to a failure. It’s not the time to think of solutions or what could have been done differently—this will follow. In order to recover from failure, we must start by reflecting thoroughly on the emotions experienced with failure. Instead of hiding from painful feelings of embarrassment or regret, we must embrace and explore that hurt.
Following my Olympic failure, I began reflecting by exploring my feelings through discussion. I talked about the experience and its effects with my support system—my wife, family, teammates, and psychologist. I also kept a journal and wrote about the emotions I was experiencing—this is key. I learned that the more I reflected and discussed the experience, the easier it became to sleep at night. The more I articulated my emotions, the more I could detach myself from them. This continued until the day I felt no emotional reaction when I shared that failure. I had released failure’s hold over me.
A remarkable and funny thing happens when we explore the depths of pain, depression, or anxiety. We begin to rebound. Study upon study has shown that humans are most creative and entrepreneurial following stressful and depressing periods. The human spirit is built to recover from times of challenge. The greater the obstacle or failure to overcome, the greater the possibility of creativity and success. If you use the proper tools and strategies, your conscience will only let you dwell on the negative for so long.
The next step in overcoming failure is to learn from the event. As I was recovering from the emotional burden of my failure, I began to seek understanding of how and why it had occurred. This wasn’t planned or forced, but rather a natural next step. My energy was directed toward learning from my mistakes and my team’s mistakes. What had lead to this outcome? What was my role in the failure? What could we change in future to better our performance? Simply, I sought to learn everything I could from my failure. I studied it. I wrote about what could have been done differently. After an exhaustive process, it became clear that just knowing what I needed to change wasn’t good enough. I needed to grow from the process and develop habits that I could practice in my day-to-day life.
This third step, growth, focused on applying my learning to my life. Though it took months, it brought incredible rewards. Unless we actively make changes in the way we live following a failure, we’re likely to fail again. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
So finally, after I’d reflected, learned, and grown, I was able to truly “let it go.” My failure in 2004 no longer held me captive. I had explored my emotions, studied why the breakdown occurred, and made the changes necessary in my life to ensure it would never happen again. What else was there to do but “let it go”? My greatest failure had turned into a skill set and opportunity for achievement. I knew myself more intimately and held an enhanced self-confidence, self-responsibility, courage, and internal strength. This process allowed me to move forward, free of any baggage.
Leading up to the Olympics of 2008, the media adopted a slogan for my team; we were “seeking redemption in Beijing.” This catch phrase made me laugh because it couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I explained in every interview that we were anything but redemption-seekers. We were, instead, focused on our present opportunity and primed to “seize the moment.” We approached our Gold Medal performance in Beijing with a clean slate, steadfast confidence, and boundless mental and physical strength.
I teach the process of Reflecting, Learning, Growing, and Letting Go in keynotes and workshops across North America. It is incredibly effective at helping individuals and teams rebound from failure and move on to great achievements.
I can see why you are described as an extraordinarily optimistic person by nature! Do you think this trait is something that others can adopt and benefit from, even if it doesn’t come naturally?
I believe that optimism is an acquired skill, like a spiritual discipline, and must be practiced. I remind myself routinely: hope above all! I encourage everyone to choose and adopt a mentality of positive realism. Positive, because feelings of hope, optimism, and joy are more productive than the inverse; realism, because at times negative emotion is required and productive. When we explore our negativity and embrace discomfort, we can learn from them.
Being a positive realist means actively choosing to seek out opportunity and goodness in all circumstances. We are all faced with challenge in life, but it’s how we choose to respond to obstacles that determines our life experience.
For example, six months before the Olympics, I herniated two discs in my lower spine and several others were found to be bulging. Searing pain shot through my body throughout the day, whether I was still or in motion. My doctor informed me that “most people take eighteen months to recover from this injury.” “Hang up your oars,” he said, “your Olympic dream is over.” His advice, combined with the constant pain overwhelming my body, left me in a crippling despair.
Fortunately, I was able to renew my sense of positive realism after speaking with my father. While I was bemoaning my bad fortune, he gave me a wonderful piece of advice: “There are two types of people you can talk to about your problems: Sympathizers and Solvers. Talk about your problems to your Solvers and your solutions to your Sympathizers.”
His message was simple and practical. Voice your problems, questions, and doubts to Solvers. Solvers are professionals who can give you constructive solutions, like psychologists, doctors, and experts.
However, when you talk to Sympathizers, talk only about your solutions. Tell them what you are doing to solve your problem. For example, when a friend asks you about your obstacle, you can say, “These are the things I did today or I am doing regularly to solve this challenge. I spoke to my psychologist. I visited my doctor. I consulted an expert.” We spend most of our time speaking with Sympathizers, and while family and friends can be a resource of solutions and positive feedback, most often, we use this group as an audience to complain to. This leaves us feeling drained and negative at the end of a conversation. If we speak only of our solutions, we’ll leave a conversation feeling empowered to succeed.
When I injured my back, one Solver I consulted was my psychologist. He gave me a great insight: “The goal remains the same. It’s only the path that has changed.” Instead of training as hard as possible, I had to change my paradigm. I needed to heal as efficiently, naturally, and quickly as possible. I changed my focus and did everything in my power to recover.
This story has a happy and miraculous ending. After eight weeks, I was back training full-time. The mind is powerful and can contribute to physical healing when we allow it to. I highly recommend adopting a mind-set of positive realism and talking to your Solvers about your problems, and to your Sympathizers about your solutions.
You work frequently with corporate teams and emphasize the importance of Shared Leadership in team success. How did Shared Leadership influence your rowing team’s Olympic Gold Medal win in 2008?
One key difference stood out between our team dynamic in 2004 and 2008: each team member in 2008 held a leadership role within our boat. I call this Shared Leadership. In 2004, our team had a very strong coach, Mike Spracklen. While he brought incredible leadership, inspiration, and knowledge to our team, he was also our sole support. We relied on Mike for 100 percent of our direction, motivation, and decision-making. When we failed, we would look to Mike for guidance, and when we succeeded, we would celebrate his brilliance. We had little sense of personal ownership over our success and failure. We had strong personalities, but minimal leadership gumption within our boat and this contributed to our failure at the Olympics in 2004.
It takes is one small fracture in a giant dam for it to entirety to collapse. That’s exactly what happened to our team; one person suffered a small injury, another panicked, and uncertainty spread like wildfire throughout our team. There was nothing our coach could do to contain the anxiety. We were effectively doomed at the start line. We did not have the strength to maintain our team psychology under intense pressure and so it cracked beyond repair.
The pressure of Olympic competition is like no other. The hopes and expectations of your country rest on your shoulders and some four billion viewers across the world are watching. I’d spent more than eight years training, three times per day, six days a week, fifty weeks a year. My team had put our lives on hold to achieve a goal that would be decided in less than five and a half minutes, along a two-kilometer racecourse. In short, there’s enormous pressure weighing heavily on your conscience. No individual, coach or athlete, can support and manage this scale of demand alone. It requires Shared Leadership within your team to succeed in such a challenging environment.
The development of Shared Leadership takes practice, in the same way that physical strength is created. It doesn’t appear overnight, but can be mastered through consistent trial, error, and rehearsal. After 2004, our team needed to learn to flex its leadership muscles as much as our physical ones and we did just that.
I developed a model to foster Shared Leadership in corporate teams called GO DO IT. GO stands for Guided Openness, DO stands for Distributed Onus, and IT stands for Identity of Team.
Guided Openness is an asset necessary within a CEO, President, or Organizational Head who wants to create an ethic and culture of Shared Leadership. In my case, it came first from our coach, Mike Spracklen.
Leading with Guided Openness involves soliciting and embracing feedback from all team members. This encourages individuals to exercise their critical thinking skills and develop the ability to voice their opinions routinely. It necessitates patience and listening—seeking first to understand, and only then to be understood. Guided Openness means using leadership to engage conversation and ensure collaborative decisions, rather than using it as a power tool to force quick decisions. This method encourages individual egos to be shelved, and the greater good of the team held first in mind. The result is strong team buy-in. And we all know that “if you ’wanna win, you ’gotta have buy in”!
Distributing Onus is the next step within a framework of developing Shared Leadership. Team members’ roles and how each contributes to the team’s performance should be clear to all. The goal here is for all team members to understand that without them, the team will not succeed. In turn, team members learn to take responsibility for their team’s success and failure. The onus becomes contagious and leads to stronger work ethic and camaraderie. Success is inevitable through this team approach and the joy of shared victory in this Shared Leadership model is exponentially more powerful than any ego-driven results.
Articulating an Identity of Team is the third step in creating an ethos of Shared Leadership. Forming a team identity provides a grounding point that members can call upon when decisions or uncertainties face the group. Team members must participate in creating a team identity. When members see themselves clearly in the team identity, confidence and performance increase. The team must ask themselves what makes the team unique and what does the team stand for? In our boat, our identity of team was based upon our speed. We were the fastest boat in the world and remaining so was our central priority. “Will it make the boat go faster?” was the eternal question we asked ourselves in the face of personal and team decisions.
Adopting a framework of Shared Leadership is a simple and practical step to increase team performance and success.
I’d like to stay on the subject of teamwork for a moment. You have vast experience working in teams. What would you recommend to team members trying to improve their skills, performance, and ultimately, success?
There are many steps we can take to improve our performance. I’ll highlight a key one: surround yourself with success. I’m a firm believer in the Stephen “Coveyism” that successful people surround themselves with successful people. I believe we are a product of the five people with whom we spend the most time. Success is contagious. Sadly, the inverse is also true. If we surround ourselves by unmotivated individuals, it’s likely that we will follow in similar trajectories. Bottom line, you have the choice to surround yourself with driven, successful, and inspirational people. If you don’t have this option currently at work, develop a plan to find a new job. In the meantime, seek out successful and inspiring individuals in your personal life.
There are successful people in every community and demographic. It’s a matter of finding them and having the courage to introduce yourself. People love helping others. You’ll be amazed at the willingness of successful people to act as your mentor and provide guidance when asked.
Second, identify where you want to go and find someone who’s already there. Whether it’s your boss, a community leader, a celebrity, or otherwise, ask for ten minutes of his or her time. Most of us don’t have the gumption to ask. The worst that can happen is that the person says no. In this case, find another role model and ask again. Repeat.
Finally, while learning firsthand from successful people is ideal, an additional tool to increase your success is to learn from audio programs and books. There is a wealth of personal development materials available at minimal cost. I like audio programs because I can listen to them while commuting, traveling, or multitasking.
I can’t emphasize how much those who surround us affect our success. Choose your friends, colleagues, and bosses with wise consideration.
You have found incredible success in your life—you’re an Olympic Gold Medalist, a graduate of Stanford University, a successful entrepreneur, a board member of various businesses, a leader in Olympic movement, and a top speaker and trainer. Will you explain how you’ve been able to sustain success across the various realms of your life?
Sure. One of the best lessons I learned through Olympic training was not to rely on past achievement as a predictor of future success. Success, while rewarding, can also be crippling and must be handled with respect. No one is entitled to success, and the rules of life’s games are constantly changing. Just because we’ve made a lot of money in the past, there is no certainty that we will continue to make money in the future. Anyone who’s made a marriage survive for more than sixty years, as my wife’s grandparents did, will tell you that you have to continually work and adapt to make something of value continue to thrive.
Next, focus on what you can control. Apply this practice to all realms of your live. There are three types of events and influences in our lives. First, there are things that we cannot control—the weather, others’ moods or behavior or the outcome of the lottery. Second, there are things that we can influence—the tone of this interview, the energy within a group of people, or the success of our team. Finally, there are aspects of our lives that we can fully control. For example, I am in charge of how I choose to focus my energy, all decisions I make, and how I respond in any given circumstance. To sustain success, I place the majority of my energy in areas of my life where I exhibit full control and responsibility. As necessary, I place small amounts of effort in areas where I have influence, and I place absolutely no mental energy in areas where I hold no possible personal impact.
This concept may sound simple to you, but I am repeatedly amazed at the number of people I meet who worry about things like the traffic, the weather, or how a person will react to a given circumstance, and so on. If an event is out of your control, do not waste your effort thinking or worrying about it. Move on, and focus on what you can control. This simple policy will increase your performance remarkably.
A final piece of advice for sustaining success: I’ve met many successful people who are not fulfilled. I call this Gold Medal Syndrome; you achieve your goals of riches, marriage, kids, a house, but you don’t feel the emotions that you’d expected to feel when you’ve reached success. There’s a scientific reason for this. Recent studies have shown that dopamine, a hormone that makes us feel good, is not released upon completion of your goals. Rather, dopamine flows in abundance as you pursue goals that you believe are possible. While the lesson here is as old as time, again, it’s not always practiced. It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. To sustain success, find fulfillment in the process, not merely the outcome.
Our lives, both at work and home, are constantly changing. What advice do you share with organizations and individuals about effectively dealing with change?
We’ve discussed a number of strategies that help deal with change. Focus on what you can control, embrace the fact that paths change en route to goal attainment, and talk effectively about your problems with the appropriate people—Solvers. Perhaps I’ll elaborate a bit more on the concept of Reflecting, Learning, Growing, and Letting Go, with emphasis on the power of “Letting Go.”
We need to let go of our success as much as we need to let go of our failure. Remember the Gold Medal Syndrome I explained earlier?
I am reminded of an ancient fable about a king who was prone to wild mood swings. One day he would be passionate, energized, and engaged, while a few days later his drive was gone. He did not want to rule his kingdom, although he knew he had to. He became depressed.
The king commissioned the wisest man in his nation to help him solve this problem. The wise man’s answer was to give the king a ring. It was inscribed with the saying: This Too Shall Pass.
The ring came with the advice: “Any time you are in the hopeless darkness of depression, I want you to look at your ring and say to yourself, This Too Shall Pass. The hope will pull you through the darkness. However, you must also do the same when you are celebrating the accomplishment of great things. In times of victory, again, say to yourself This Too Shall Pass. This will ground you and prevent a fall from heights.” The king obeyed and used his ring every day. His problem was solved and his leadership improved.
When we become too fond of the way things have worked out or been done in the past, we create an attachment that holds us back from seeing the opportunities of the present. Change is constant. Adaptation comes from an honest and accurate view of what is happening now, not what happened ten years ago, ten hours ago, or ten minutes ago. Detach yourself from the highs and lows of life to see the joy of the present moment. Let go of your past success and failures.
Will you give our readers some examples of habits you employ in your daily life that you feel help you maintain your peak performance?
Absolutely. I’ll share three habits that pertain to physical well-being. I find that the way I spend my first waking hour defines the productivity of the rest of my day. If I roll out of bed late, lazily eat a poor breakfast, and resist the morning, my day tends to be sub-par and ineffective. Alternatively, if I start the day with positive habits and rituals, the rest of the day flows seamlessly. For this reason, I follow the same routine every morning. I wake up at 6:00 AM, exercise, take my vitamins, and then eat breakfast with my family (when at home). I eat oatmeal with ground flax and hemp seeds, and scrambled eggs with vegetables, or a protein shake with frozen berries, spinach, maccha green tea, and whey or hemp protein powder. Keeping my morning routine consistent and predictable gives me the strength to deal with inevitable changes that will occur through the day.
A second habit I have is my daily use of dietary supplements. As science and technology have allowed us to maximize food production yields, so to have our soils become depleted and our food less nutrient dense. Every day I take a high quality multivitamin and Omega 3s, vitamin C, and maccha green tea. I eat whole foods only, and whenever possible, I buy local, preservative-free, and organic produce. I moderate my alcohol use, and get adequate sleep. And again, I prioritize my time and focus my energy, both emotionally and mentally, on issues of greatest importance.
The final habit I employ is a fun and playful attitude toward my exercise. If exercise is not fun one day, I stop immediately and come back the next day. As long as I commit to showing up regularly, I find ways to exercise outside or in a gym that I enjoy. I often use intervals—short bursts of strong effort spaced with rest. This keeps bodily movement lively and challenging, while giving me the most fitness in the least amount of time. If all I can spare is ten minutes for a quick run, I will take it. I also transport myself by foot, bike, stairs, and public transit whenever possible. Besides the obvious physical benefits, I believe exercise is an essential tool to stay mentally well.
You have an engineering background; how does this influence your current work?
Engineers design and work with systems and access truths to produce predictable results. By following simple laws of nature (e.g., gravity and fracture mechanics), we can manipulate and work within system forces to achieve desired outcomes. As I moved into the arena of human performance, I’ve found many parallels. I teach systems and processes that we can apply to our lives to find success and fulfillment. Briefly, I could never have predicted the level of influence my engineering background would have in my current work, but I’ve learned that the more diverse your knowledge base, the more creative you can be in generating solutions when faced with new challenges across fields.
You’re rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in December of 2012. What motivated you to take on this challenge?
The answer is twofold. First, I love to embark on adventures, take on new challenges, and calculate new sets of risks. I’m naturally curious and a firm believer in the power of adventure as a tool for personal growth. Without real challenge or risk, we create false adversity in our life. I see people who are stressed out of their minds while driving to work, suffering road rage, or having anxiety about what people will think of their choice of outfit. These are, of course, not real stressors. But as humans, we’re designed to live with stress—stress of predation, weather, famine, and the like. In our modern Western world, largely free of true stress, we create false stress in our lives or what I call “challenges of the mind.” We don’t typically learn useful lessons from the kind of stressors that we create, and yet they persist and cause angst and negativity in our lives.
I’m not suggesting that we all go out and row oceans, but young and old alike can take on varying degrees of adventure to enhance their lives. We can get outside and get active, walk, hike, run, play, climb a local mountain, swim, or compete in a triathlon. The key here is to get outside, be active, and challenge yourself—whatever that means to each of us.
If you’ve never been active, go to a local park and walk around for twenty minutes. Eventually, increase your time outside and in no time, you’ll be hiking for an hour. Find a map (paper or online) and become familiar with your community’s outdoor spaces. Choose a park in your area that looks interesting, new, and exciting, and go explore it! I think you’ll find that this will lead to a small, yet significant, adventure in your life. Most of all, time outside will give you a peace of mind that so many people are lacking in this modern day and age.
Second, we’ve partnered with the Canadian Wildlife Federation. This incredible organization shares our goal of increasing the health of marine ecosystems and re-connecting the public to our oceans, waterways, and all amazing outdoor spaces.
We have also partnered with multiple universities in the United States and Canada to study human physiology and physical oceanography. Finally, we will be reaching out to youth in kindergarten through twelfth grade across North America through curricula we’ve designed about the multiple facets of our row.
The outdoors is clearly very important in your life. How did you bond with the outdoors? What benefits does time in nature give the high performing individual?
I bonded with the outdoors in my youth. I was lucky to have a father who would take my brother and me on canoe camping trips in Northern Ontario. I found a sense of peace and an ability to connect with a higher power when I was outdoors. As I grew up, I gravitated toward more and more outdoor activities, like working outdoors in the oilfields of Northern Alberta or outdoor sports like rowing. I seemingly continued to benefit from my experience in nature. Outdoor activities keep me grounded, fulfilled, and mentally sharp. I often wonder about the affect of our screen-based culture, video games, and so on. How will it affect our children’s generation and our society at large? The statistics tell us that we’re living largely unfulfilled lives and I believe a large part of this is our lack of time spent outdoors. Whether you enjoy video games or not, humans were not built to sit stationary in front of screens eight hours per day. Technology is meant to improve our lives, not to take away joy and passion. I see pervasive sadness in people who spend too much “spare time” indoors, in front of screens.
I’ll give you an example of the power of nature in my life. After every major rowing race, like the Olympics, world championships, national trials, collegiate trials, I would find a quiet spot along the water to sit and reflect. Some might call this meditation, but to me I was simply enjoying nature. I’d turn off my thoughts, and simply observe the birds, plants, and trees. I found an incredible sense of rebalancing and grounding through this pastime. The intense energy of the day was processed and a balanced perspective was brought back into my life.
I’ve taken this practice with me into my business life. After large presentations and workshops, or any undertaking that has expended great amounts of emotional or physical energy, I find a quiet spot outdoors and spend a half hour or so just being. I find the same can help on days when for whatever reason I feel drained or as if I’m running on empty.
As you can tell, I’m a huge advocate for time spent outdoors. I believe outdoor activity is the cornerstone for ensuring that future generations enjoy healthy, fulfilling, and sustainable lives.
You’ve shared incredible insights with us today. I’d like to end by asking you about your work with individuals. In addition to working with organizations, you share your expertise one-on-one. Will you tell me a bit about your personal coaching program?
When I first received requests for individual coaching, I learned quickly that in many ways, personal coaching is quite similar to athletic coaching. I had coached athletes for years, and had also worked personally with several talented, professional coaches and had grown successfully from their advice.
I have an eight-week coaching program that’s had fantastic results. People initially want to know why it’s only eight weeks and I explain that eight weeks is an ideal amount of time to establish new habits and solve key problems. My role as a coach is to provide direction, motivation, and tools for individuals to apply to their lives—not to become a necessary part of an individual’s success.
The eight weeks program acts as a springboard to shape and refocus an individual’s life. We focus on mental and physical wellness, adopting principles of achievement, and employing habits to foster and sustain fulfillment.
Every person is unique and struggles in different areas of life. This keeps me on my toes and continually tailoring my programs to meet new and diverse needs.