James P. Owen: “Connect with hearts rather than brains”

Connect with hearts rather than brains. It’s not that substance doesn’t matter. Having something fresh and worthwhile to say is essential if you want people to give you their time and attention. But if you want to change minds and influence behavior, you need to reach people on an emotional level where you’re touching their […]

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Connect with hearts rather than brains. It’s not that substance doesn’t matter. Having something fresh and worthwhile to say is essential if you want people to give you their time and attention. But if you want to change minds and influence behavior, you need to reach people on an emotional level where you’re touching their true hopes and concerns. The poet and writer Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you did, people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing James P. Owen.

James P. Owen is the author of Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50 (National Geographic, 2017), and producer of The Art of Aging Well, a half-hour documentary film that has been airing on PBS stations across the country and can be streamed from theartofagingwell.com. Jim is also a Fitness Ambassador for Vi at La Jolla Village, one in a national group of senior living communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I feel blessed to have grown up in a loving, supportive family in Lexington, Kentucky. Both my older brother and I were adopted at birth. My father came from a hard-scrabble background, but he was smart and went straight to dental school after serving in the U.S. Cavalry in World War I. Dad wasn’t rich or famous; he was a dentist and a very modest man, but a man with unshakable principles — the kind of man you would like to have as a neighbor or friend. The thing people still remember about my Dad is that whenever he walked into the room, everyone stood up a little bit straighter. He was the kind of man I still aspire to be.

As for my mother, she was the salt of the earth, and utterly devoted to church and family. She always encouraged me to believe I could accomplish anything I set out to do.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s a Chinese saying, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.” That fits perfectly with the current focus of my work, which is inspiring people to consciously work at becoming SuperAgers — people who are in their later years and still live life to the fullest. When it comes to aging well, many people are either convinced it’s all a matter of their DNA, or they believe it’s too late for them to do anything about it. I want to debunk both of those myths.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

First, I’ve never been afraid to take risks, albeit calculated ones. When I got into the asset management business around 1980, during a period when stocks were going nowhere, I turned down the customary salary, draw and expense account package. Instead, I asked to be compensated based only on the accounts I brought in. It was a huge personal risk, and at one point I came close to going under before I began generating fees. Yet taking that risk was the only reason I was able to make any real money and have the freedom to do what I’m doing today.

I’m also conscious of my biggest weaknesses, and work deliberately on ways to offset them. From childhood on, I was never able to multi-task. Today, I’d probably be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, but that label wasn’t commonly used then. So I learned to focus intensely on one task at a time. I’m also results-oriented, so I plan, organize and track my activities around my goals. For example, I log all my workouts, and on Sundays I plan my workout schedule for the upcoming week so I can shift it around if need be. I also write down everything I eat.

Finally, I’ve always been a believer in the power of one. From childhood on, I’ve been fascinated by biographies of historical figures who literally changed the course of the world. That inspiration has been a powerful force in my life. It’s not only about making a difference; it’s really about being a difference — that is, living your life in such a way that you inspire other people, affecting them in ways that keep rippling outward. That’s how societal change happens.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

In my youth, I was restless and always looking for adventure. One summer I joined the circus as a roustabout. I even drove a motor scooter from Boston all the way to Santiago, Chile; that was my first time on the Today show. I hitchhiked cross-country, fought fires in Oregon, and worked on a king crab boat in Alaska. Those experiences are one reason I’m not afraid of to take risks and bet on myself.

I spent 35 years working as an investment industry professional. But most fundamentally, I’ve always been a communicator — someone who built my presence and credibility through writing, speaking and working with the media. Even before the Internet, I consciously focused on creating original content and having a clear set of messages that speak to my target audience.

At the same time, I think I’m pretty good at reading people. In my investment career, I was known as a rainmaker — someone who “rang the cash register.” Being able to pick up on the subtleties of prospects’ conversation and body language helped me a great deal. Some of that might be due to inborn traits, but I certainly got much better at it as time went on. It’s fair to say that my career successes all trace back to these basic communication skills.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

Early in the 2000s, I became increasingly upset about the ethical scandals that were roiling corporate America, my industry included, and wanted to speak out. Then, one day, I came up with the concept of Cowboy Ethics — the notion that individual character and personal principles, rather than more laws and regulations, are the keys to building a better world.

I decided to leave the investment business and become a full-time inspirational author and speaker. I realized that anyone can make money; it’s much harder to make a difference. The work itself I found to be incredibly gratifying, especially as the concept took hold and gave rise to a grassroots movement. It gave me a sense of purpose I never felt in my business career.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

I am grateful to have had two “aha” moments that reset the course of my life. My first pivotal moment came from seeing the movie, Open Range. I was profoundly moved by the characters played by Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner — two ordinary cowboys who led a grueling life, but valued loyalty and honor above all. I thought, “this is the kind of inspiration we need in executive suites and on Wall Street,” and that’s when the phrase “Cowboy Ethics” popped into my head. I started writing the first book in my Code of the West trilogy, hit the speaking circuit, and never looked back. Amazingly, fifteen years later, Cowboy Ethics continues to sell well; it’s sold more than 160,000 copies in all.

My second life-changing moment came on my 70th birthday. I was in terrible shape, and suffered from chronic excruciating back pain, not to mention two bum knees and a bad shoulder. Worst of all, my energy level had gone off a cliff.

I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “My God, I’m an old man.” I thought, “If I’m like this now, what will my life be like in ten or fifteen years?” I was so shocked that I resolved then and there to get into shape, no matter what it took. But as I began researching how to go about it, I was initially overwhelmed by the huge quantity of fitness-themed books, magazines, videos, and blog posts out there — then dismayed how little of it seemed relevant to someone my age.

As I figured out age-appropriate strategies for getting in shape, I thought, “Someone should put together a simple, realistic guide tailored to people in my age group.” My next thought was, “Why not me?” I started making notes for the book the next day. Little did I know I was beginning a whole new chapter in my life — it’s really my Third Act.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

One of my biggest disappointments in life was not being a gifted athlete. I did letter in football in high school, but warmed the bench most of the time.

When I finally decided to get into shape at the age of 70, I went about it the way I would any unfamiliar task. I did a ton of reading and research, got expert input, and walked into my first gym session with “beginner’s mind.” I’ll never forget how I was unable to do a single push-up with proper form — not one! Talk about embarrassing! But after a couple of sessions, I managed to do one proper push-up, and then two. As the weeks and months went by, I knew I was on the right track by how much progress I was making, and how much better I felt.

You could say I had finally discovered my inner athlete. I did it slowly and systematically, one small step at a time. After three or four years, I could do fifty push-ups without strain, and my lower back pain had literally disappeared! I’ve religiously kept up my workout routines ever since. I turned 80 last October, and can honestly say I’m in the best shape of my life.

I realized that, with all that I’d learned and experienced, I was in an ideal position to help and inspire other people my age. Who better to demonstrate that it’s never too late to get fit?

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

As always, it has evolved in ways I never could have expected. My book, Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50, was published by National Geographic in 2017, and named one of the year’s top five books on healthy aging by The Wall Street Journal. That led to a flurry of speaking engagements and media appearances, including a segment on The Today Show.

In the wake of the book’s success, I decided to produce a half-hour documentary film that celebrates people who are aging well. It was clear to me that health information alone doesn’t get people to adopt healthier lifestyles; if that were true, we wouldn’t have a forty percent obesity rate among adults in this country. The film medium has the emotional power it takes to inspire positive change.

Meanwhile, my thinking was evolving, too. I realized that while physical fitness and good nutrition are the foundation of healthy aging, there is also a lot more to it than that. I began looking beyond fitness to factors like sleep, stress, outlook and purpose.

About the same time I began taking note of the big differences in the older people around me. Some were aged sixty, but functioned more like eighty, while others were seventy-five or eighty, but seemed more like sixty. I wanted to know what traits and habits this latter group had in common.

That’s when I started thinking about SuperAgers — people who are living their best lives, to use Oprah’s phrase, regardless of their age. This theme is animating all my work now and for the foreseeable future.

SuperAgers will also be the subject of the second film in what I hope will be a series of Aging Well films. The first one got a resoundingly positive reception. Since its release last fall, it has been shown on PBS stations across the country, airing 203 times on 116 channels in 25 states. And since I posted it for streaming from my website, theartofagingwell.com, it has been getting thousands of hits per month. In fact, the film has generated so much Internet traffic that we had to upgrade to a dedicated server. That gives me the confidence to forge ahead with the second film, which will go into production this summer.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

For me, it’s not just one person; it’s the creative team I put together some thirty years ago. I couldn’t do any of the things I do without them. What I bring to the table is vision and focus. But of course, ideas are a dime a dozen. Success is all about execution, so I depend on my team to help give shape to my ideas as well as contributing their own.

Its core members include Brigitte LeBlanc, a writer from the Bay Area, and Nita Alvarez, a graphic designer in L.A., who together have helped produce all my books, publications and websites. We knew how to work as a remote team long before COVID made it a thing.

Last, but not least, is Jim Havey, the Denver-based documentary filmmaker with whom I’ve done a number of projects over the years, most recently, The Art of Aging Well. Jim has won three Emmys, and not just because of his technical expertise. What really sets him apart is the way he connects emotionally with an audience. Having him on the project is what made me so confident it would be successful.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

This happened just the other day, and I think it’s a hoot.

My wife, Stanya, and I recently moved to a community for older adults near San Diego. Part of the orientation for every resident is an assessment of physical function –for example, seeing how many times you can sit down in a chair and get up again in thirty seconds, with no use of upper-body muscles.

Once the COVID lockdown was lifted, it was our turn. Now, Stanya is a petite and very ladylike woman of 80, the same age as I, who never exercised at all until five years ago. She grew up in a time and place where young women were told, “horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow.” But after watching me work out intensely for several years and seeing the difference it made in my life, she decided she’d better start training, too, just to keep up with me.

As we went in to take our physical tests, I was thinking, “this will be a piece of cake.” I mean, I’m no Mr. America, but having done 144 full-body workouts a year for the last decade, I was pretty confident.

Wouldn’t you know — Stanya beat me in two tests out of three! With her usual modesty, she just said, “Oh, it was nothing,” but I was really proud of her. It also goes to underscore that fitness isn’t just about how strong you are; it’s about how well you function in your day-to-day life.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

Growing up, my best friend was a brilliant kid whose parents were both accomplished scholars. His mother, who was like a second mother to me, believed in my abilities and always encouraged me to see myself as exceptional. I can still hear her saying, “Cream rises to the top,” which she told many times.

This led me to think that I should be able to get straight A’s while barely cracking a book. But I couldn’t — not while I had to struggle with juggling multiple subjects and assignments.

Luckily, I went to a university that let me manage my schedule so I could take one subject at a time, and that made all the difference. By working hard and with focus, I graduated summa cum laude.

By the time I got into the workplace, I had overcome my limiting belief that I shouldn’t have to work hard to do well. In fact, I went in the other direction, making it my personal creed to always give a hundred-and-ten percent to any task worth doing. The high value I place on hard work is also the reason I later wrote a book called The Try, telling the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things by virtue of sheer determination, courage and effort.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

As a latecomer to fitness, I knew I would need support from physical trainers with expertise in working with older people and dealing with serious imbalances or injuries. Scotty, my first trainer, was the right person at the right time. He believed strongly that to get in shape, you first had to build a foundation. What that meant was spending at least one-third of every workout on core strength, which was exactly what I needed.

As I learned more about training, I realized that workouts shouldn’t be static; they need to evolve as you progress and as you age. I also found that different trainers brought different experiences and strengths to the table. I also liked being tested by someone with a different playbook than my usual trainer. So whenever I traveled somewhere for a speaking or media gig, I would book a session with one of the top trainers in town. Every single one has taught me something, and I consider them all to be part of my broader support network.

About a year and a half ago, before the pandemic, I hit a plateau in my strength training. My progress had stalled, and I was getting diminishing returns from my workouts, no matter how hard I worked. I knew it was time to try something new.

Luckily, I met Greg Laird, a very seasoned trainer whose approach is multi-dimensional, with an emphasis on the elements of mobility and flexibility that become much more important when you get older. Greg did something I believe every trainer should do — namely, a full-blown assessment of my strengths and weaknesses, which he repeats periodically. That grounding is essential, because it lets us build workouts around the strengths I want to maintain and the weaknesses I need to correct. Greg has already helped me break through to a new level of functional fitness, where my movements are both more fluid and more stable than they were before.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

When my first non-business book, Cowboy Ethics, came out in 2004, I quickly began getting requests to speak before groups both large and small. Having made dozens of presentations to investment committees, I was very comfortable getting up in front of an audience — or thought I was.

I soon realized that being an inspirational speaker is a totally different animal. It doesn’t matter how well you know your stuff. You could be the smartest guy in the world, but if you don’t transmit your energy and passion to the audience, and if your material doesn’t have the emotional hooks to grab them, you’re going to fall flat.

Unfortunately, it took me one near-disaster to figure this out. I was asked to speak at an investment conference, and I’d worked so hard on perfecting the text in my book, I figured I would just read passages from it. Within five minutes, I’d lost most of the audience. My hosts were very nice about it, and some people reassured me that my message had come through, but that didn’t diminish my embarrassment.

I’ve given literally several hundred speeches since then — I stopped counting at three hundred — before audiences of up to eight hundred people. I’ve gotten many standing ovations, but have never forgotten the hard lessons from my shaky speaking debut. Now I put a lot of creative time into each speech, think hard about the ways I am connecting with the audience, and keep refreshing the content so I’m not boring myself.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Create, don’t compete. At first, getting into the area of “wellness” seemed really daunting to me. So many people have jumped onto that trend, most of whom are selling something. It’s one of the most crowded media spaces around! Not being a doctor, trainer or physical therapist, I worried that I wouldn’t have the credibility to stand out.

But then I realized that my personal journey, starting at age seventy, gave me a perspective and a kind of expertise that no forty-year-old could match. What’s more, what I had to say was original and in a very different vein from what others were putting out. I don’t worry anymore about competing with celebrity trainers or doctors who are household names. I simply focus on putting my own insights out there in the best ways I can.

2) Connect with hearts rather than brains. It’s not that substance doesn’t matter. Having something fresh and worthwhile to say is essential if you want people to give you their time and attention. But if you want to change minds and influence behavior, you need to reach people on an emotional level where you’re touching their true hopes and concerns. The poet and writer Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you did, people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

3) Embrace the naysayers. You can expect people to roll their eyes at your ambitions. But instead of seeing them as obstacles, think of them as your biggest source of energy and motivation. I certainly heard a lot of skepticism as I was planning my documentary film, The Art of Aging Well, even from friends who know me well. I’m not saying people didn’t want me to succeed — only that they weren’t convinced I could. But that didn’t really faze me. In fact, wanting to prove the skeptics wrong only made me even more determined to get my film completed and distributed.

4) Dig for the essence of whatever you’re doing. When I’m creating content with my team, we call this “peeling the onion.” We may come up with a message or headline or topic that we think is good. But the odds are there’s something bigger and deeper underneath that we haven’t yet identified — something that really gets to the heart of things. That’s where the magic happens.

I think back to when we were creating programs to bring Cowboy Ethics into high schools and to businesspeople. At first we thought our classes and workshops were about living by a code. But as we got into it, we realized they were really about taking people on a journey of self-discovery — one that would help them shine a light on the core values they want to honor and uphold in their lives. That concept was much more powerful than the one we started with.

The same principle applies to the projects we manage. It’s so easy to drown in complexities, and there’s always that temptation to want to do or say everything. A key part of the process is asking myself, What am I really trying to do here? And what will matter most in the long run? That helps me keep things simple — which is not at all the same as making them easy. It means having the clarity to focus on the few challenging things that are most worth doing.

5) There’s a thin line between success and failure. Business school doesn’t teach you that success isn’t linear. I’ve learned that I can put in a full day’s work, give it a hundred percent, and it still may not be enough. It may take a hundred-and-ten-percent effort for me to reach my goal. That extra ten percent — completing one more task, or making one more phone call — can make all the difference.

My book, Just Move!, is a case in point. After spending two years writing and designing it, I went to my Cowboy Ethics publisher with full confidence in the book’s quality and marketability. Told that “exercise books don’t sell,” I began pitching other major publishers, traveling to New York on my own dime to meet with several who said they liked the book. The responses mostly came down to, “we only publish exercise books by celebrities.” I could have self-published, but wanted the book to have the clout of a major imprint behind it. I also knew I only needed to find one person who shared my vision. Perseverance paid off, and the book finally found an enthusiastic champion at National Geographic.

Through the years I’ve seen so many people give up when they were on the five-yard line, only they didn’t know it. They ran into one more rejection or one more failed idea than they could handle. This is why resilience is so important. You need the guts, heart and confidence to keep going even when things feel stacked against you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

It’s the work I’m doing right now. I want to inspire older adults to work at becoming SuperAgers — people who are still physically active, mentally sharp and engaged with the world. Isn’t that how we all want our later years to be?

Helping older adults realize their power to live longer and better isn’t just a “feel good” kind of thing. It’s addressing an escalating public health crisis — one that’s even more critical now that we know older adults with underlying conditions are more vulnerable to the coronavirus. More than fifty million Americans are over 65, and their share of the population keeps growing.

As we age, we often find ourselves stuck in habits that don’t serve us. The trouble is, our way of life is killing us. The average American spends somewhere between eleven and thirteen hours a day in a chair; we don’t even get up to change the channel anymore. Forty percent of all U.S. adults are not just overweight, but obese. And seven out of ten Americans over the age of 50 have at least one serious chronic health condition, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer’s, and half are dealing with more than one, according to the CDC.

All this means enormous costs to our health care system and our society, not to mention our loved ones. Yet many of our chronic disease cases, not to mention those nagging aches and pains, could be prevented with simple changes in how we live from day to day. Having healthy habits and a positive outlook helps seniors live longer, happier lives. It’s also scientifically proven to lower risks of premature death, chronic disease, and dementia.

This is why I’m on a mission to inspire and empower older adults to make their later years the very best they can be. I want every older adult to know that you don’t have to be superhuman to become a SuperAger. The key is doing it one small step at a time.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

Oprah is the first person who comes to mind. Talk about a rags-to-riches story! And she has such an extraordinary ability to cut through the noise and reach people on a deep level. I’d love to get her advice on how we can motivate older adults to make positive lifestyle changes — especially now that she’s involved with Weight Watchers, or WW, as they’ve rebranded themselves.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website is theartofagingwell.com. I can also be found on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

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