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Adam Markel: “Creating and sharing useful content is key”

Creating and sharing useful content is key. In our business, we are finding we can increase the size of our audience by providing genuinely valuable information, being of service, and focusing on engagement and building relationships. We use that as a catalyst to create new fresh content on a continuous basis, then to share that […]

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Creating and sharing useful content is key. In our business, we are finding we can increase the size of our audience by providing genuinely valuable information, being of service, and focusing on engagement and building relationships. We use that as a catalyst to create new fresh content on a continuous basis, then to share that content with larger and larger groups of people. That helps to build our brand. Building brand awareness ultimately leads to deeper, more meaningful relationships with those same people. At some point along that continuum, those folks that are part of that audience become clients. It’s very much about creating a transformational opportunity versus looking at it strictly through the lens of transaction.


Aspart of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Markel.

Adam is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and resilience expert who inspires leaders to tap the power of resilience to meet the challenges of massive disruption — for themselves and their organizations. Adam is author of the #1 Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Publisher’s Weekly best-seller, “Pivot: The Art & Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life.” Learn more at www.AdamMarkel.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I’m a resilient guy. I’ve spent most of my career focused on what it takes to be at your best, even in the most challenging conditions, including writing a best-selling book on resilience (“Pivot: The Art & Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life”). Originally, I went to school to become a lawyer. I practiced for 18 years but found myself, midway through my professional career, feeling like something was off. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew something wasn’t right. Over time, that feeling grew and developed other symptoms. I had trouble falling asleep at night, or I’d have trouble getting back to sleep if I got up in the middle of the night; I would frequently get up, thinking about work and my responsibilities. Then, at the start of the day, I would feel this sense of anxiety, angst, or even dread sometimes. The moment I put my feet on the floor would just be like, “Yes, something’s definitely not right here.”

I continued to work and work and work thinking I’d make it right, make it change — that as long as I could just earn more money, I could find a way out somehow. But I was confronted with the reality that might not happen, given the fact that I was looking at a lot of other older attorneys in their sixties and seventies, many of whom were quite unhappy, it seemed. And so I had two experiences that were catalysts for my pivot.

I ended up in the emergency room with what seemed like a heart attack at the time but was actually an anxiety attack. And then after I got out of the hospital, I made the usual sort of vows to change things and figure out what to do next. But I couldn’t figure that out and didn’t change what I was doing.

Several months later I came home late from work on a typical weekday, walked in the door, and knew immediately that I had not just missed my four kids’ dinner, but I’d also missed their bedtime. So I didn’t get to read them a bedtime story or kiss them goodnight. Around this time, our oldest girls were in their early teens and our youngest kids were between five and seven. Everybody was tucked in and sleeping at that point. I walked up to my wife Randi and said these fateful words: “If I keep doing what I’m doing, you’re going to be a widow.” At that moment, I knew something had to change. And my wife didn’t remind me about all my responsibilities, all the things that I had to do, or all the money that I was responsible for making. She looked at me, we both took a deep breath, and she said, “We’ll figure it out.” Those words were like a relief valve for me at that moment. I was moving quickly toward a midlife crisis, but instead, we began creating a midlife calling.

Ultimately, I made some small changes, and those small changes are part of what the book is about. When the small changes started working, I could see some light at the end of the tunnel. And that only helped me to take more steps to increase my commitment to those small changes. I began to develop some momentum. I found that I could take slightly bigger and bolder steps in the direction of that midlife calling. So that’s exactly what we did. Over the course of two and a half years, I went from a full-time practicing lawyer to the CEO of a company that ran personal growth and business development training programs all over the globe. I was traveling worldwide and running this company that sprawled across three continents and four countries.

The book “Pivot” was written shortly thereafter to look back and chronicle that time when the small steps led to bigger steps and the momentum that we created in the process. It’s very much a foundational book about the process of change. And it’s about the things that are fundamental when you’re going to make a conscious, proactive change — as opposed to how we often deal with change, which is completely reactive. Just like now, with the coronavirus, we’ve got massive change happening and we are reacting to it. There are very few people, I think, that were somehow prepared for this and are simply executing their process or their plan to deal with this change.

A conscious process to make a change is like building a house with an architectural drawing. In contrast, an unconscious or change-by-default process is one where you build things on the fly. You can create great things building out of thin air. I’m a huge believer in that, which leads my current work. That is, in order to be able to do both of those things and to do them consistently well over time, you have to be resilient.

Resilience is the common denominator in both the pivot-by-design or the pivot-by-default modes. Either case requires resilience. And it’s resilience, along with the tools and the skills and the process of developing resilience before you need it that helps you to maximize or optimize opportunities and to perform at your best in any scenario that involves change. The universal constant is that nothing stays the same. Everything is constantly changing. So to evolve, to adapt, to be able to flex and flow in constant, never-ending change is a set of skills and a state of being that is highly advantageous in your business, your personal life, your health, and every other area.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

Since 2009 I’ve been talking about change, talking about pivoting, even before I was calling it pivoting. It’s about building ourselves up from the inside out, building on substance, like building on rock instead of sand. I’ve been sharing my insights about mindset, the inner game of success, and the inner game of personal growth, as well as sharing my experience on how things operate in the business world.

I was a lawyer for 18 years. I’ve represented hundreds of clients and hundreds of millions of dollars of business transactions. And I ran a very large company that ultimately did more than a hundred million dollars in sales. For me, thought leadership is sharing insights that are not so much unique but are based in real-world experience, in business and in personal matters. Humbly, I feel I’ve been able to do that and to share those things in unique ways in many places around the world.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I was 19 I worked as a lifeguard on an ocean beach, which is different from working at a pool. I started out on a pool and ended up on the ocean. It’s about half a square mile of beach on the south shore of Long Island called Jones Beach. And on busy summer weekends, there are more than a hundred thousand people on that beach. The ocean currents are very, very strong there and peaceful, calm days are very rare. Often there’s a lot of shore break, big surf, and rip currents. So that first summer that I was on the beach, there was one day when we heard three whistles ring out, which is a sound we don’t hear very often on the beach. Very rarely in fact, because three whistles mean someone is missing and it’s time to form a search and rescue team. So we met up with the captain of the beach field for our search and rescue instructions, and then we spent an hour in the Atlantic Ocean trying to find a missing swimmer. Over an hour later, we heard the whistles signal us to get out of the water. We hadn’t found the guy. We lost somebody that day.

We met with the captain of our field, with the beach now closed and the lifeguards off duty. And he told us that he understood how devastating this day was. We said a prayer for the family of the missing swimmer, and then the captain looked at us and said, “We’ve got to be able to get back up on the lifeguard stand again tomorrow, because if we don’t do that, then more people are likely to drown.” He was telling us that we had to get back on the stand and we had to be impeccable. We had to make sure that no one ever went down in our water again, so we had to learn something from this horrible experience. We had to learn that in order to be impeccable, we had to watch out for each other. We had to watch each other’s backs. We had to make sure that we are covering each other. And he told us something pretty intense as well, which is that if we wanted to work at Jones Beach, we had to ensure that we would never ever go in the water after somebody and not come out with them — we would make the save or we would die trying. This was his exact message, which was very intense to a 19-year-old lifeguard making eight bucks an hour. And I loved it. It was a call to action like I’d never heard before.

I could have easily said, “This is too intense. I don’t want to be responsible for so many people’s lives and I don’t want to die, so I’ll go work at the pool or at the beach down the road where they don’t have so many people.” But to me it was the opposite. I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna make sure this never happens again, ever.” And I worked as a beach lifeguard for seven more summers after that, even after I was going to law school and we were having kids; I did it until my life just didn’t allow me to be a lifeguard anymore. And seven summers later, we had never lost another swimmer.

So these days I tell that story often to organizations so that they can use it as a measuring stick for their culture. Each organization is either a “got your back” culture or a “watch your back” culture. And often, it’s a “watch your back” culture — it’s people stabbing each other in the back, looking out for themselves but not for their teammates — all that kind of stuff that could never have existed at the beach for us to be successful.

What were the things that we did to ensure that we were at our best? Because we couldn’t be less than our best. Every day had to be a gold medal performance because anything less risked somebody getting hurt or drowning. We had to be at 100% all the time, so we worked an hour in the lifeguard stand and then we were off for an hour to take care of ourselves. This was the first time I experienced what I now refer to as resilience training. We were working an hour on the stand in a very intense, focused way and sometimes making rescues. And then we were down an hour to take a break or eat our lunch. Often, we’d head to the lifeguard shack to work out, take a run or a swim, read a book, or take a nap. That toggling back and forth between intense activity, focus, performance, and the rest and the recovery period is how we produce resilience.

Resilience is not about endurance like most people think, or simply about how you bounce back up from getting knocked down. Resilience is about recovery. Our own research as well as the research that we’ve looked at all suggests that this is true — to be resilient, you have to be able to recover. And it’s in the recovery process that you become stronger. Just like with weightlifting. You don’t go to lift weights every single day. You have to have recovery periods in between, and that’s when your muscles get stronger and grow. That’s the part that companies are missing, that people don’t necessarily understand. They don’t take care of themselves, so they don’t recover. They don’t allow their employees to recover. They are mostly perpetuating what we refer to as an exhaustion model. But if we had used an exhaustion model on the beach, people would have died.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was first getting into public speaking, I thought that I was pretty good at it already. And I got called for an audition in front of the owner of a training company. And when put under pressure in front of the owner and a few other people who were also trying to become full-time trainers, I became so nervous and shaken by the constant interruptions. They kept stopping me and asking me to start again and stopping me and asking me to start again. At one point, they asked me to tell them a little bit about my family; I was so flustered I couldn’t remember my kids’ names for a minute or two — but it felt like forever. I was just standing there, trying to visualize holding the babies in my arms, and couldn’t even pull that together. The irony of that is I ended up becoming the CEO of that company a few years later. When that audition was over, I thought my career in public speaking was over. But I ended up running that company.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is.

Thought leadership is sharing insights that are not necessarily unique but are based in real-world experience in business and personal matters, and sharing them in a way that is simple for other people to understand. Socrates said all learning is remembering. I take that mean to we are part of the greater evolution of consciousness on the planet. And that’s so important because we learn through analogies and metaphors and the stories that we share. So it might be that somebody hasn’t been able to pick up a certain insight or concept until they relate to a story that someone shares. As a thought leader, you’re sharing your story with other people in a way that creates relevance for them at the moment.

How is a thought leader different than a typical leader?

A thought leader is intentionally wanting to teach, and they use their stories and their personal experience and their interpretation of things as a way to teach. If you’re the kind of a leader that doesn’t have any desire to teach, I’m not saying you can’t lead, but you’re probably not a thought leader. You’re not maximizing your opportunity to positively influence the people who you lead. And that’s a missed opportunity.

How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

A thought leader is definitely an influencer, but an influencer is not always a thought leader. The way we look at influencers today, we mostly are talking about people using influence they have through social media or celebrity status. An influencer or somebody that wants to be an influencer is looking for people to follow them and like them and be influenced by them for whatever reasons. It could be so they can get sponsorships or they can get paid or because they just want to have fame. The person who’s looking to have influence isn’t necessarily looking to share thoughts with people that will produce some positive change or outcome for those people. A thought leader intentionally wants to teach. And they use their stories and their personal experience and their interpretation of things as a way to teach.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

One way that a business can grow right is to grow its audience. There’s more potential to do that right now because so many people are looking for inspiration — they’re looking for tangible tactics to help them through this massive change, or to help them to maximize the opportunities presented by this kind of a change.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

When we think about growing an audience, we’re talking about utilizing social platforms, meeting people where they are — and right now they’re at home. So the video is very effective as a tool. Our business uses quite a bit of video, typically through YouTube. But we’re also sending out videos to our list. There are strategies that you can employ to grow the size of your digital audience on social media as well as the audience of people who’ve opted to be in communication, relationship and conversation with you. Typically, we refer to that audience as your list or your database. Nurturing the list is a key strategy that we use and that many other astute businesses are using today. Nurturing the list means sending them relevant, meaningful, valuable, relatable content that they can consume and find some value from. Those could be articles or research items in the newsletter. It can be thought leadership from the brain trust of your own company. It can be content that’s produced in conjunction or in collaboration with other thought leaders in this space or other people with valuable insights to share. For instance, we recently put together a “Resilience-a-Thon,” a day-long webinar with eight other leaders in personal and business development. By joining forces, we were able to reach more people than we could have reached on our own.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

One iscoming together and collaborating versus maintaining a competitive mindset. Where can you join together with other people to provide combined value? We did that with the Resilience-a-Thon and we were able to reach more people than we could have reached on our own. We were able to leverage the brain trust of nine experts versus just one. We had hundreds of people attend, and we were able to multiply the value that we provided to our audience by a magnitude of at least nine, but probably quite a bit more than that.

Another benefit of collaborating is cross-promoting. We were able to leverage the lists of nine versus the list of one, the audience of nine versus the audience of one because we were all promoting it on our social channels. So if you imagine nine Facebook pages, nine Instagram pages, nine Twitter feeds, and nine LinkedIn pages, the influence of all those things becomes exponential when you collaborate and you cooperate versus competing.

You can use social media to nurture and grow your list because those two things cross-pollinate each other. By sharing valuable content on social media you encourage people to be in a relationship with you, to opt into your email list, or to consume content on your website or on other social channels. You can also provide people with videos that are educational, informational, inspirational, and that meet them where they are.

Creating and sharing useful content is key. In our business, we are finding we can increase the size of our audience by providing genuinely valuable information, being of service, and focusing on engagement and building relationships. We use that as a catalyst to create new fresh content on a continuous basis, then to share that content with larger and larger groups of people. That helps to build our brand. Building brand awareness ultimately leads to deeper, more meaningful relationships with those same people. At some point along that continuum, those folks that are part of that audience become clients. It’s very much about creating a transformational opportunity versus looking at it strictly through the lens of transaction.

You can also deliver online virtual training, which we do as well as training people to present webinars. The virtual training environment has just blown up and it’s always been a rich, fertile ground to reach people and meet them where they are. Remote learning can be very transformational and very impactful, in addition to being very convenient. Nurturing people and delivering content in ways that meet them where they are ultimately bringing those relationships into a deeper, more meaningful place where sometimes business is also transacted.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader?

Seth Godin is somebody that is really well respected who has been around for a long time. A friend introduced me to Seth Godin’s work about 12 years ago. And she was a huge fan of his blog and his humor and sage advice about business and marketing in particular. So I would say he’s had a longstanding, well-regarded presence as a thought leader, and an enviable brand that deserves the credit that it’s received.

Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

I would say he is a testament to being resilient in the face of many ups and downs. He’s been around long enough to have seen the markets rise and fall through the financial collapse of 2008 and to see business models succeed and fail. He’s been consistent and persistent. And he models something that I find very valuable, which is tenacity. He’s humorous. And that’s something I want to embrace more of myself. I think that when you can find humor, even in really serious situations, there’s an element of peace and perspective that you get from being able to find the humor in things. Also, I like his haircut. It reminds me of someone else I see in the mirror every day.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

It’s a term that’s been used a lot, like servant leader. At some point, they get used so much that they lose some of their authentic meaning. I’m not too hung up on how other people are using the term. I use the term to describe somebody that has stories and experiences from their own life that provide insights for others and has the courage to share those stories and those insights. That’s it. If you’re somebody who does that, you’re exhibiting a thing we could call thought leadership. We could just as easily call it other things too, but there’s nothing wrong with that definition. When we come up with a better definition, then it’ll replace that.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Exhaustion and burnout come from a lack of recovery. That was the premise we identified earlier — that resilience is about how we recover. It’s about creating a plan for your recovery — recovery rituals or a recovery map if you will. When we speak about mapping out somebody’s recovery, our research and our work share a premise. And the premise is that we are holistic and our resilience is created through recovery in at least four definable areas our lives: emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. Those four beings or states comprise the whole of us.

This means that when we think about mapping out our recovery, it’s not just mapping out time to physically recover or rest. It’s also about how we recover mentally, how we recover emotionally, how we recover spiritually, and the rituals we create to promote that recovery on a consistent basis. If we’ve taken the trouble to attend to these rituals consistently, we won’t get burned out and exhausted. Because resilience is something we create before we need it. The best type of resilience training is training before the actual event. You don’t think about training for a marathon when you’re running a marathon. You prepare and train for it beforehand.

Right now we’re in a state of extreme challenge. In any ordinary day we will have challenges: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Relationship challenges, health challenges, money challenges, business challenges, marketplace challenges. There’s no end to the list of things that that will challenge us. So leaders that want to show up as the best of themselves consistently have got to make resilience training a ritual. Resilience may have been considered a soft skill in the past, but it’s a hard skill now and will continue to be in the future.

You are a person of enormous 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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This goes back to my TED talk about loving your life no matter what. Now is a really important time to be able to embrace loving your life. When you think about this subject, this idea of being a thought leader, it’s for the purpose of giving something valuable to the world, to others. And if you are not at peace yourself, you can’t contribute peace. You can only contribute what you have. So if you want the world to be more peaceful, you have to give yourself peace. If you want the world to be a more loving and kind place, you have to be more loving and kind. If you want the world to be less judgmental, then you have to be less judgmental starting with yourself. Ultimately all roads lead inside, within ourselves.

This time that we’re in, it has given people a lot of time on their hands to be with themselves. And that’s a grand opportunity. And yet at the same time, I see it around me and I see it in so many places that people are really busy right now, almost more busy than they were beforehand, except without the travel component. It’s interesting because there’s the space that could be there for a lot of people to be able to go within and utilize this time in a creative space that’s not cluttered and is actually spacious. Yet there are a lot of people who’ve invited a lot of clutter and busy-ness in so that they can feel comfortable that they’re doing something and that somehow the wheels aren’t going to fall off the bus. I am watching myself there as well. I don’t know that being busy is really maximizing the opportunity that this giant reset, this giant timeout that we’ve been given by the universe, presents.

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

My dad told me when I was in my early teens to trust my instincts and it was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten. And I’ve given that advice to our kids since then and to others as well. And this goes back to the last answer, which is if we’re not quiet inside — if we don’t make opportunities during the day to be quiet inside — it’s tough to hear the guidance. It’s difficult to get any real sense of what our instincts are speaking to us. I don’t really believe you can ever go wrong with this advice. Not in the long run.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Well, I’ve never met Seth Godin. I’d be happy to meet and have lunch or breakfast with Seth.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can subscribe to our YouTube channel, follow us on Instagram, check out the TED talk, and visit the website, www.adammarkel.com. I think now more than ever, the book “Pivot” is really relevant. It’s going to meet a lot of people where they are in transitions of various kinds and looking for a process to check in with who they are and what they want right now. We’re doing a lot of virtual trainings. We want to really serve the corporate community with our virtual trainings on the art and science of pivoting, as well as with respect to resilience and producing more resilient leaders and more resilient cultures within companies.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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