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Extreme You | Podcast

Sarah Robb O'Hagan

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Led by Flywheel Sports CEO Sarah Robb O’Hagan, this session will inspire and educate you on ways to tap your full potential. In 30 minutes, Robb O’Hagan, author of Extreme You, will walk you through how to • push yourself to be more open to new experiences so you can discover where you do and don’t shine • ignite your personal drive • get out of line to leapfrog your performance • and deal with failure and pain training on your road to epic success—all so you can, as her book says, step up, stand out and kick ass at work and in life.

SARAH ROBB O’HAGAN has been described as “Superwoman undercover” and the “Pied Piper of Potential.” A high-energy combination of disruptive business leader, fitness fanatic, and cheerleading mom, she’s been named among Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business.” She led the reinvention of Gatorade as its global president, and now as CEO of the indoor cycling company Flywheel Sports she is transforming the business through digital services. She has held leadership positions at Equinox, Nike and Virgin and is the author of Extreme You, a book to unleash potential. Sarah is a sought-after expert on business innovation and inspiring human performance.

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CFW: Welcome to the “Conference for Women Teleclass, The Extreme You.” Our guest today is Sarah Robb O’Hagan, the author of “Extreme You:  Step Up, Stand Out, Kick Ass, Repeat,” a book to unleash potential. In today’s teleclass, Sarah will teach you methods to get more out of yourself. She will walk you through how to develop the big traits you need if you want to be an extremer. These include how to ignite your personal drive, how to deal with failure and the importance of pain training on your road to epic success.

Before we begin, we want to let you know that Sarah will be going through a slide deck for today’s teleclass. You should have received a link to download the presentation when you registered. If you did not and you still need to download the presentation, please go to your conference website, click on the ‘resources’ tab and then scroll down and click on ‘telelcasses’. You’ll see a download link there. Now, let’s get started. Sarah Robb O’Hagan, welcome to the Conference for Women Teleclass.

Sarah: Hi. It’s great to be here. Okay, ladies. We’re going to have some fun today. I hope you’ve had a moment to download the PDF presentation. I’m just going to tell you what page I’m on as I’m going along. I’m going to try and have some fun today, tell some great stories and hopefully impart some lessons. My presentation today is called, “Extreme You:  Step Up, Stand Out, Kick Ass and Repeat,” because that’s what we all want to do. I think it’s always helpful to have you guys know who am I? Why are you listening to this crazy lady with an accent?

If you go to page 2, I’m actually from New Zealand if any one of you have heard of that amazing country at the bottom of the world. It’s actually one of the most beautiful places on the planet. You may go, “Why did I leave New Zealand?” If you click to page 4, I’m sorry, page 3 that gives the story away. It is a country of 5 million people and 50 million sheep. Did you hear that, 50 million sheep? That means when you’re growing up there, it’s kind of hard to stand out from the crowd.

At any rate, it’s an interesting place to have grown up because it informed a lot of my leadership style and lessons that I’m going to share with you today. If you click to page 4, you’ll see New Zealand is a country that is passionate about sport and 1984 at the Olympics happening in Los Angeles, California. I remember as a young child watching our team score the most medals we had ever achieved in our country’s history. We got eight golds, three silvers and two bronze which is amazing for us.

What was the most interesting about those victories is every sport that we competed in and won was a sport that involved sitting down. Think about it for a second. How funny is that? Look at the pictures on the slide. Kayaking, rowing, horse riding, sailing, cycling, every sport involved sitting down. That’s kind of weird. When you think about it, it was a really specialist approach that our country took to being able to beat the big guys on the world stage.

If you click to page 5, what I believe I learned from this is if you aim for over-sized achievement in your life, in your career, you have to be willing to go to extremes just like those little, underdog [kiwis] who did so well on the world stage. You have to figure out what is your unique specialty that you’re going to be better than anybody else at? It starts with a really strong foundation of you.

If you want to break through as an individual and truly kick ass and outperform everyone around you, you have to be what I call extreme you. How do you do that? Well you start by building the strong foundation of truly knowing who you are, what you stand for and where you shine. If you click to page 7, to live the extreme you is to operate at the edge of your potential.

What do I mean by that? It means to constantly be pushing boundaries to a new future that you cannot see and to create capabilities to stay ahead even when you can’t know they’re going to work. How do you do that? Being extreme you means, by definition, that you’re not actually terribly well-rounded. It means it’s important to understand your incredible shining strengths and, frankly, your mortifying weaknesses.

What are those things that you’re just not good at? Understand how to surround yourself with the best teammates to get the most out of yourselves together. That’s really what living extreme you is all about. It’s all about understanding you at your best. Then every time you get comfortable and get really good at what you’re doing, you push yourself out and take on a bigger challenge to get to the next level of your own potential.

With that in mind, I’m actually going to share with you today three key lessons that I have learned over my research in the last three years that extraordinarily successful people do to achieve that success. These people are what I call extremers. The first one, page 8, is what I call ‘Check Yourself Out’. This is probably the most fun one of all. The first rule in becoming a bonafide extremer is knowing who you are and where you shine.

If you click to page 9, I thought I’d share a funny story from my childhood. I grew up wanting to be a champion. I was absolutely certain I was going to be world-class at something. If you look on the left side of the page, I wanted to be Tina Turner. Who didn’t want to be Tina Turner? Come on. She was filling stadiums. That’s what I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I never got picked for school choir solos. I thought I could be a world-class skier.

The closest I ever got to stardom was when I went to primary school with a girl who got an Olympic medal. I was sure my moment was arriving when I tried out to be Sandy in our high school production of “Grease.” Do you guys remember “Grease?” I didn’t even make the Pink Ladies. I was in the section of the chorus that didn’t even belong on the stage. I basically felt, for most of my life, that I pretty much sucked.

If you go to page 10, what you’ll find is that I actually have now discovered I wasn’t alone. To be extreme you is to create your own playing field. Look at the amazing images of great people on this slide. Over the last three years of writing my book, I’ve interviewed 23 of the most successful people in the world. You see on the slide Sam Castaway, [House Shift], Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, Alli Webb who’s the founder of the Drybar. Ladies, who doesn’t love getting their hit on the Drybar?

In the top-right, Mister Cartoon who’s one of the most famous tattoo artists in the world. What I’ve heard from pretty much all of them is that they never knew early-on that they were destined for this huge, huge success. Take Angela Ahrendts. Do you guys know Angela? She’s actually the head of retail for all of Apple and the former CEO of Burberry. She is, according to Forbes Magazine, the 40th most powerful woman in the world.

Yet when I interviewed her about her formative life experience, she told me she just didn’t feel that smart. She said, “I was a rock-solid, B student.” How did she go on to have the extraordinary achievements that she did? By checking herself out. She tried on all sorts of different experiences to discover where she was incredibly successful and where she had the most fun. Though in her high school, she struggled with extreme linear, left-brain, analytical subjects and she also struggled with the extreme right-brain subjects like languages, she just didn’t know where she would thrive.

Through her own process of trying different jobs and roles, as she says, she was incredibly blessed to stumble upon fashion, an industry that was more balanced and tapped into both her right and left brain which was the way she was wired, bringing together an equal part, the best parts of her natural talents. She explored many roles from marketing to strategy of business unlocking different parts of her experience as she went and eventually discovering she would thrive as a CEO in general management in industries that harnessed innovation and creativity. What an awesome, awesome story.

I mean this is not someone who immediately knew in their 20s or their 30s where they were going to be the best but by trying out lots of different things, found their way there. Page 11, what I think is important for all of us to know is the system is designed to make you fit in. Most of us have been raised in societies that like to put us into neat, little boxes. When we do that, we often end up looking and feeling really average.

Look at my experiences from childhood. I thought I could be a singer. I thought I could be a skier, all these linear, vertical boxes. I didn’t do terribly well. What about you? Are you an intellectual? Are you a data geek? Are you good at art and creative? Are you a great singer or an actress? Are you a great athlete? For the very lucky few of us who are absolutely amazing at one of these things, you might go on to become famous and brilliant in one, simple box.

Let’s say we’re Serena Williams, and we happen to have extraordinary talent at one thing like tennis. For most of us, it requires defining the box on your own. Most of us actually have a unique set of interests and characteristics that if we could just really play them to their full potential, we could be absolutely world-class. If you flip to the next page, let me bring it to life for you.

In my case, it took me years of wins and losses to discover my own unique combination of skills. I was drawn to the airline business because I love to travel, and I’m a huge explorer. I was drawn to the sports business not because I was a good athlete, as we’ve just learned, but because I love sports. I’m incredibly competitive. I was drawn into a marketing career because I’ve always been very, very creative.

Again, I wasn’t destined to be a singer, but I had a creative brain. It’s no surprise now when I look at where my career went and where I really thrived that the places where I did this brought all-together those specialist skills. I created my own game of being world-class at innovation and competitive creativity in the sports and fitness industries. The lesson, overall, is check yourself out.

You cannot read in a textbook or Google what your unique specialties are. You have to get out there and try different things. When you do like Angela did, like I did, you’ll start to see where you really thrive, where you really feel yourself come to life. You’ll be able to play at your very best. Going on to slide 13, rule number two, ignite your magic drive. For the second rule in becoming a great extremer is knowing how to trigger your internal engine that drives you and enables you to outperform and outwork others around you. We’ve all met people that we would describe as highly-driven.

If you read books such as “Grit” by Angela Duckworth, who’s one of my fellow extremers that I interviewed, you will know, like I do, that drive and determination is a far greater predictor of success than raw talent. Where does that drive come from? How do you light that internal fire within yourself? It starts with taking your life and career into your own hands, not waiting for others to open up opportunities for you but instead making them happen for yourself.

Slide 14, let me give you my first, real example of igniting my magic drive. As I explained, I was pretty damn average all through school, all through college. Then, I had the opportunity to get my first job coming out of college. I wanted to work for a company called Air New Zealand. You see the airplane on the page. I went and took all the tests that you had to do as a new graduate wanting to get into the internship program.

I [epicly] failed them. I got home. I got a letter in the mail that said, “You’re rejected. You’re not going to be working here.” Here’s the thing. I just knew that those tests had not brought to life my unique passions and experiences and my deep, deep desire to work for Air New Zealand and travel the world and represent my airline and my country in an interesting way.

Instead of just going, “Okay, this sucks. I’m not going to get the job,” and frankly taking another job that I had been offered, I said, “No. I’m not taking, “No,” for an answer.” I went back to the hiring lady. I said, “Here’s the reasons why you have to give me 20 more minutes,” just to get into an interview with the hiring manager.

Here’s the thing. I managed to get in the door. Because I had done tons of research on the airline and combined it with my unique passions, knowledges and skills, I was able to reframe this very analytical hiring process and turn it to a right-brain process that suited me better and really enable myself to get the job by convincing how my unique skills were going to take the role and the team forward.

The lesson in this, if you click to page 15, is that with more of you on the line, you will push much harder to success. Here’s the really cool part of the story. There were six internships at Air New Zealand. They created a whole, extra role for me because I had done such a good job at convincing them that they needed to hire me. That’s cool in and of itself.

What was the better part of the story is because the hiring HR lady and the hiring manager had made so much effort to accommodate me, my god, I worked harder than anyone else around me to make sure I didn’t let them down, to make sure I proved to them that they made the right decision. I’d really put myself on the line and put myself out there to get the role. The lesson is how do you ignite your internal, magic drive? Put everything you’ve got on the line and really go after the things you care about the most.

Page 16, my last and most favorite lesson for the day is don’t be scared of pain training. When I looked back to earlier in my career, I realize now I was incredibly scared of failure. Interestingly enough, every generation in America today becomes statistically less likely to take risks from the generation before them. I realize now that it’s incredibly limiting to think that way. For me, by far the most transformational springboard in my career had actually been the really epic, painful fails.

Page 17, after my [orphan] starter in New Zealand that I just described to you, I went on to work at Virgin Atlantic Airways in my late 20s. It was awesome. I was rocking it out, partying with Richard Branson at the Con Film Festival when I was 26 years old. Things were amazing so much so that I thought I was pretty unstoppable. I made a jump and moved to the sister company, Virgin Mega Stores, without thinking too much about the fact I had no experience in music retail.

At the time, the entire industry was imploding thanks to these [advants] of free music like Naphtha. To cut a very long story short, I went from being at the top of my game to being a clueless, rogue force on the Virgin Mega Stores team. I lacked the humility to learn from the tenured employees around me. I wasn’t able to have impact with my ideas because of my sheer lack of understanding of the business. Frankly, I was leading a bunch of rebel roundings.

What ended up happening, I got fired, epicly, embarrassingly fired. I was given a one-week severance and a one-way ticket to New Zealand, and I had three months to figure how not to get deported from the USA because they had canceled my visa and green card application. It sucked. Let me tell you, I can go into great detail about how mortifying the experience is of losing your job.

Page 18, if that wasn’t bad enough, things got even worse. I took the first job I could to stay in America leading marketing for the video game publishing company, Atari, completely overlooking the fact that I hate video games, don’t understand them, didn’t want to understand them and was unable to build any kind of understanding in the role. As a result, my two-year stent in that business ended up with me getting laid off. Yep, you heard me. Twice in the space of two years, I was laid off and fired.

A few months of soul-searching, eating humble pie and dissecting what I’d done wrong made me so freaking determined to come back stronger. It’s true that I failed. It’s true that in a world of linear career progression, the risks that I took to try out new environments ended with disastrous results. It made me feel like I was, at best, treading water and, at worst, going backwards.

What I didn’t realize, at the time, was that the massive back-to-back failures actually became the greatest personal trainer of my life. They taught me the humility I needed to learn and grow in new environments and most importantly the resilience to never give up and realize that no matter how bad the failure, I would always be able to rebound. They ultimately enabled me to spring much further forward with the confidence and the learnings that I had taken from them.

Page 19 is one of my favorite stories. One of the people I interviewed for my book was Body Miller who’s the internationally well-known, downhill skier, probably the best American, downhill skier of all time. He has taught me more about failure than any other person I’ve spoken to. I met him when I was at Nike, and he was an athlete that we were sponsoring. He was at the Trino Olympics.

What he has taught me is that when he was a kid, he was training to be a skier and was constantly coming in like 35th in the races that he was participating in. That was because he just wasn’t as physically strong and big as the other skiers around him. He realized, “If I’m going to start winning, I’m going to have to play my own game.” He decided the way to do that was in training.

Instead of incrementally improving his performance each time, he would push to the extremes even if it meant that he crashed a whole lot more. Trust me, he did constantly clipping gates, falling over, pushing the edges and crashing more often than the other skiers. The good news is when it came to race day and everyone was pushing themselves to the hardest point, he was so well-prepared to crash that he was able to avoid crashes better than the other skiers and ultimately end up winning.

This was his unique method of using failure to really propel his performance forward. It’s a great metaphor for how you think about your own life and career. If you don’t experience failure, you simply won’t develop the skills, the resilience and the training that it takes to really have the courage and confidence to push forward to the next level.

With that said, page 20, I come to the summary of my little discussion today, “Three Rules For Bonafide Extremists.” Check yourself out. Ignite your magic drive. Most importantly, don’t be scared of pain training. If any of the stories I’ve shared with you today have been interesting, please, please go out and buy my book, “Extreme You,” because it is loaded with fiercely practical tips for any of you guys wanting to get more out of your own potential and super-inspiring and fun stories. That is where I leave it.

CFW: Thank you, Sarah. Those were amazing stories. You’ve given us a lot to think about. I wanted to ask you. We have so many questions here, but how would you define an extremer in the simplest terms?

Sarah: I would define it as someone who is living at the edge of their own potential. They are doing the most that they are capable of doing with their own, unique skillset and passions and idiosyncrasies

CFW: You don’t have to be in extreme sports to be an extremer.

Sarah: Absolutely not. I think one of the cool things about the stories in my book is you see people of all kinds, extroverts, introverts, people in all different industries who I consider to be extremists because they are the best at what they do. They have found their own, unique personality style, their own, unique skills. They’re really maxing them to the best.

CFW: For a lot of people, it’s difficult to make a leap of faith and give up on other plans to chase their dreams. Have you ever felt doubt in your own journey other than the examples you mentioned? If so, how have you overcome it as an entrepreneur?

Sarah: Yes. I have felt doubt constantly. Literally, last year, a year ago, I actually quit my job and stepped into nothing except writing my book. My, god, was I terrified. When you’ve had a big career and you’re constantly doing big jobs, it’s so scary to step out there with nothing to go to. Really, what I’ve done to overcome that doubt is really rely on some of those earlier experiences where things have gone wrong, but you learn that you will rebound.

If you’ve been fired twice, hell, you’re not terribly scared of being fired because you know you’re going to survive. That’s why I think I feel so strongly that people should really get out there and try all manner of things. Even if it’s a failure or a success, either way, you’re going to learn such incredibly important skills to drive you forward.

CFW: You call the failure, you call it pain training. What made you decide to rebrand failure in this way? What can thinking of failure in these terms as pain training do for us?

Sarah: I’m glad you asked that question. One of the reasons I actually wrote the whole book was because I felt really, really upset that for particularly the younger generation living in our perfect, social media world where it looks like everyone has this perfect, perfect trajectory that we simply weren’t being honest enough and talking enough about the real stories of travel and failure and pain training that happen on the way to great successes.

I knew from my own experience like if you Googled me a couple of years ago, all you would see were these great accolades. There was no mention of the terrible mistakes I made along the way. I felt that for young people looking up, that just wasn’t a fair picture. I wanted to make a real, concerted effort. I was very lucky that all the people I interviewed for my book were willing to participate.

I said, “Let’s get out there and reframe and rebrand what success actually is all about. Let’s be honest about the struggles, the failures, the mistakes and frankly the training that it takes to get through all those things to become the best version of you. Then, I think we can help take the stigma away from failure and hopefully encourage people to take even more risks in their own lives.

CFW: Can you share a surprising story of failure that one of your interviewees might have shared with you?

Sarah: There’s so many. It’s interesting, everything from one of my favorite stories that she was … [Amrisa] who she was actually a music industry executive who was struggling along and not even necessarily really loving her job. Deep down inside, she herself was an artist and a singer. She tucked away those dreams and not even dealt with them. Whether you call it a failure or a discovery, she eventually came to the realization that she needed to walk away from what she was doing and throw herself into the artistic side of her.

She’s ended up going on to be a quite famous, Bollywood artist and singer and who’s created a brand around all sorts of stuff because she took the original skills that she had and combined them with her own, deep passion for art and music and turned herself into something different. The failures can often propel you forward. Sometimes, it’s just the acceptance that what you’re doing isn’t where you’re meant to be and almost like the grieving that goes with walking away and trying something different.

CFW: You write about the extremer movement as a counterpoint to the millennial way of life where young people are criticized for being entitled or lacking the motivation to excel. Do you think, in any way, we might be suppressing the talents of the millennial generation by not allowing them to explore their potential maybe by overprotecting them or by taking a sure path rather than a risky path?

Sarah: I feel quite passionately about this topic. I feel like the millennial generation gets a hard rub because everyone’s like they’re entitled and et cetera, et cetera and they’re sheltered. An actual fact, I sort of think to myself, they just haven’t necessarily been given the same tools that I know I was given being raised as a gen X-er. I think there’s enormous amounts of passion and capability sitting in this younger generation that we have a lot of opportunity to unleash if we give them inspiration, tools, education to really get out there and take some of these risks and push a little harder. As I say to younger audiences all the time, fortunately, we’ve raised people culturally to believe that everyone was a winner. Kids came home with participation trophies. Everyone isn’t a winner. You have to actually go to a whole different level if you want to become the best version of yourself. I think it’s all about giving people the tools and inspiration to figure that out in their own way, in their own time.

CFW: What do you mean when you say that we often edit ourselves down?

Sarah: It’s really interesting to me how certainly corporate America has typically been a place where you have to play by a certain set of rules in order to get forward. Certainly for someone like me who’s worked in really big companies, I’ve seen too often the situation where people are trying to please the boss and do the right thing so as to keep progressing. That may not necessarily be pushing the company forward and taking the kind of risks and bold moves that is necessary.

That is one of the things that I love about the millennial generation is that they have brought to us a whole sense of finding purpose and really being who you are at your best and making sure that you play it out to your best potential as opposed to trying to tone yourself down to fit in. I know I can speak from my own experiences of being in certain companies where I thrive. Environmentally and culturally, I felt I could fully be myself compared to other places where I felt I had to fit in and not rock the boat. It’s very different how your performance is affected when you are fully being yourself, bringing all of you to all you do as opposed to editing yourself down to fit in.

CFW: We all experience periods of stagnation or plateau whether it’s in our personal lives, our fitness level, our careers. How do we begin to disrupt those plateaus so that we can get extreme?

Sarah: I have a whole chapter in the book dedicated to this called “Break Yourself to Make Yourself.” It’s really interesting. I use the fitness metaphor, actually, of when we all find, as you just said, whether you’re trying to be in a weight loss program or a strength-building program, you do eventually plateau. If you keep doing the same thing, you don’t get increasing results. You actually have to change it up like whether it’s the person who’s a runner who has to change it up with weight training or the person who does a ton of yoga who has to change it up with more cardio.

That’s a great metaphor for our careers and lives. I think we all know what it feels like when you start a new role, and you’re a little bit out of your debt, and you don’t really know exactly how to do everything, and you’re trying to figure it out. Fast-forward a few years later when you’ve really achieved mastery, you start to plateau.

You’re not learning as much. I think it’s up to you, the individual, to get disruptive whether that’s pushing for an assignment that gets you out of your comfort zone, whether that’s as the younger generation would call it, the side hustle of volunteering to be part of an organization that stretches you and puts you in a different situation, whatever it may be to help you get uncomfortable again. That’s, honestly, where your growth happens. Certainly, I learned from interviewing all these people for my book, every single one of them, they never got to a point of complacency. They would always go, “Okay. I’m doing really great, but now I’ve got to disrupt myself and get uncomfortable again.”

CFW:  That is all we have time for today. You can read a lot more in the book. It is called “The Extreme You,” by Sarah Robb O’Hagan. A reminder that today’s teleclass will be available as a podcast on your conference website. If you registered through Eventbrite, you’ll receive an email telling you when the podcast is available. Our thanks to Sara Robb O’Hagan. Thank you all for listening.

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