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“Communication is important.” With Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated & Isaiah McPeak

I believe there is a movement missing in the world and I would love to inspire or bring it to the world: martial arts meets scouting meets communications. Communication via Toastmasters or most speech classes is merely rehearsed trauma. Neuroscience-driven classical rhetoric is relational, authentic, prone to mistakes in delivery while yet achieving maximum success. […]

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I believe there is a movement missing in the world and I would love to inspire or bring it to the world: martial arts meets scouting meets communications. Communication via Toastmasters or most speech classes is merely rehearsed trauma. Neuroscience-driven classical rhetoric is relational, authentic, prone to mistakes in delivery while yet achieving maximum success. That’s because it puts critical thought patterns and depth before presentation.


As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Isaiah McPeak.

Isaiah McPeak knows how to create success. He is a Master Yoda of digital product creation, product management, high executing team dynamics, communications, and cross-disciplinary influence. The source of his force is his mastery of the neuroscience behind behavior, motivation, and dropping guard, met with a classical rhetoric and ancient philosophy twist.

He is co-author of Upside Down Debate: A Deeper Why to Persuasion and a frequent speaker and trainer in Austin, TX’s tech and startup communities.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My childhood backstory is literally all over the place! I lived in at least 10 homes or military apartments and visited most states plus 13 European countries as the 2nd son of a career soldier (who went to war twice, in both Iraq conflicts). Homeschooled in a “learn to learn” classical liberal arts model, I was free to master quite a few things. Trumpet performance and debate led to my two scholarship offers and I took the debate one to study Strategic Intelligence at Patrick Henry College.

One unique thing is we weren’t allowed TV, movies, or video games, except my family would rent a TV every four years for the olympics. As a result, I’ve read more books than most people I know, carrying on my father’s tradition of building out a home library.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.

I had no idea I’d be an entrepreneur and, as a military kid, didn’t know what business even was. I did strategic intelligence work out of college. But it turns out, I’d been entrepreneurial since high school and didn’t have the words for it! I acquired one of those online forums at 17 and ran an international site, then at 19 started a business I’d later run for 15 years focused on teaching high school speech and debate. The thing is, it took me two years to even incorporate, despite making and distributing a product to hundreds of customers… I just didn’t know.

As I slowly moved out of government — first as a high school logic/rhetoric/writing teacher, initiating a private school’s online teaching in the 2000s, then as the first team member on a new Homeland Security practice for a federal contractor — I started thing after thing. I had to do business development (closing $36M in federal contracts!), build a team from 0 to 55 people on 4 sites, figure out health insurance, conduct 400+ interviews, and… well, everything you have to do to build and grow a business.

Eventually I became first employee of a 5x CEO who was building a tech startup from his basement. That was rocket fuel! We went from table to $4.1M Series A in just a couple years and I was “CEO of the Product,” which I later learned was called a Product Manager.

What or who inspired all this? Honestly all the stories of Inc. Magazine, my coaches and mentors, and my Mom’s educational philosophy. I just had to pick up the words for what was already in me in order to enter the fast-paced world of tech hyper growth startups.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My high school debate coach had a profound impact on my life. She taught me how to get to the bottom of any matter, with diligent research far beyond cursory searching. I found myself not so much changing but nuancing my opinions on literally everything as we went from researching Niger Delta to Medical Malpractice Law to Trade Policy to over 30 topics I’ve now researched as a debater or debate coach. She helped me experiment with being all kinds of versions of myself and supported me through life’s ups and downs far beyond high school.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

There was that one time… my team called me at 11pm on a Friday night from nowheresville Ohio. “Hey Isaiah, we’ve got some bad news.” I had sent four college-age debate coaches to Ohio to run a debate camp. Only thing was, they ended up being hosted at this farm house with really strange people that, among other things, woke them up at 5am to make them help milk goats! (They said no)

That host resented them so much for focusing on debate coaching and then going to McDonald’s for Internet to study at night (a clear expectation of our debate coaches!). Meanwhile the coaches were angry and bought a 24-pack of beer (argh!!!!) and brought it into the house (extremely against our policy). Then the host house searched their stuff (argh!!!!).

So they come home from teaching camp on Friday and there are cops, guns, the whole nine yards and they’re required to get their stuff and leave at gunpoint because the parents are convinced the coaches are also doing illicit drugs and who knows what.

So I’ve got a team who went off the rails in another state, an angry client, and a really awful deck of cards in my hands. At 23 or so, I was terrified.

I learned that when I’m stuck I call people who have been there before and then do what they say. In this case it was to listen to the angry client for as long as she wanted to yell, continuing to ask “what else?” until it’s through and the customer feels understood. And to let your team who makes survivable mistakes clean up their own mess — double down on trust with good people who make mostly good decisions and one bad one. They’ll be loyal for life.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Listen to Steve Jobs’ commencement address to Stanford and embrace the idea of “connecting the dots” in reverse. Be interested, interesting, curious, take every risk you can, don’t extract fair pay for your work — do whatever it takes to work on the most amazing things and earn just enough to survive. You can increase the ceiling of where you play your entire life if you embrace a lower floor for awhile.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a reader. Plato’s Republic taught me that every single thing I do will shape my soul and so I do not want, even theoretically, to entertain persuading someone into something that’s not valuable. I decided to only do things that matter and quit jobs that are merely for economic opportunity.

Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics taught me that there are five kinds of knowledge: knowledge (nous), first principles (epistime), skill (techne), wisdom (sophia), and practical wisdom (phronesis). No education will connect all five without the combination of coaching, mentors, peers, self-guided work, real experience, and a disdain for passively receiving education.

Five Dysfunctions of a Team taught me that the same things that work for communication work for leadership: say what you mean, mean what you say, be firm, be vulnerable, commit.

Other favorites include Never Split the DifferenceThank You For Arguing, Effective Coaching, S.C.O.R.E. for Life, and 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Expectations are resentments waiting to happen. I’ve been let down. I’ve been divorced. I’ve wanted to stop trusting people.

Therapy, counseling, and great mentors have helped me take responsibility for only that which I can: myself. There’s a cynical “don’t expect anything from anyone” and a generous “I will do my part and expect and accept what comes” that challenges me to ensure I stay connected to the reality of others. We all commit to things we cannot do and need space to recommit, change, and manage expectations. Therefore, setting, managing, and changing expectations are the most powerful thing you can do.

Another is from a novel called Snow Crash: “extracted fact from the vapor of nuance.” I love that because my superpower is to synthesize on the fly and see ahead things that others don’t. At first I thought it was a problem with me because I’m often unable to justify my 6th sense. I’ve come to accept my gift as a unique kind of sight (and believe me, I’m missing some ways of sensing that others think is “normal” and I find mysteriously awesome).

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m part of Pinwheel, designing a wellness-centric phone for kids. It’s insanely exciting because we’re baking wellness into it from every angle, solving the “handheld casino” problem of what smartphones have become. There is so much brain science, behavioral design, work with therapists, attorneys, kids, and parents to tackle this monumental challenge.

I believe we can help people thrive and increase their wellbeing when encountering technology with even young children, instead of adopting a “wait as long as possible” plan. This approach has potential to bring children and parents together in healthy ways.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?

I actually train people in these “high stakes conversations” and moments! I’ve been in a bizarre number of them from much younger ages than most are used to: negotiating multi-million dollar deals, 4-hour oral evaluations, national-level collegiate moot court and debate rounds, VC pitches worth millions, going head to head against McKinsey consultants in Fortune 500 executive offices, and all kinds of personal interactions with executives and employees… hiring, firing, cheating, selling out, breaking the law, death threats, all of it!

One time a 5x CEO was berating me and flexing his power (“I’ve got a three million dollar check, do YOU have a three million dollar check?”) from 9pm-1am while hovering his mouse over sending a terminate Isaiah email or not. Twenty-six year-old me didn’t know what to do. I breathed, centered on my intent for him (provide value, wanting no harm), prayed, and accepted that not even death can really hurt me. Being a disciple of Jesus is a great strategy, because it means love is stronger than death.

Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Once I had to analyze a data set for four days straight under a deadline, preparing a briefing that would end up at GE’s NYC complex where executives were flying in on helicopters and we had UN-style placards in a raised-row desks, TV, 3-screen room. It was INSANE. How do I prep to brief the top 32 CMOs and #2 exec at a Fortune 10, under the gun with over 5,000 respondents’ data to analyze and turn into a briefing?

I dive into classical rhetoric’s 5-stage framework for these moments and they really help me stop being afraid.

  1. Discovery — observe and write out every idea I’ve got.
  2. Arrangement — storyboard my stuff for that audience in that moment at that time. What do they need? What is their starting point (A)? Where can I take them (B)? What minimum amount of material will grip them to help them get to B?
  3. Style — figures of speech, illustrations, jokes.
  4. Delivery — how will I start my first 60–90 seconds? Good. Everything is downhill from there
  5. Memorization — what 3–6 main things MUST I get to? Ok. Good.

Now I’m ready.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.

Intention. Whenever I coach stage fright to speakers or musicians (have I mentioned I also play trumpet in some legit bands?), I help them change focus from their behavior to their intentions. I haven’t been nervous to speak in years because as I go on stage I go through this mantra: they’re here because they believe I have something to offer, I have something to offer, it’s their choice to love it or not, and I can make this experience great. Changing intention to put your audience first can immediately reduce the tension and stress on yourself (if, that is, you believe you have something to offer).

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

I remind myself something I learned from Dr. Stephen Stosny (a nationally-renowned therapist and author, including of one of my favorite books, Soar Above). Stress is fear. I used to think “fear” was something for cowards or something. No, we all experience fear. Want me to prove it?

Next time you’re stressed just ask yourself: what are you afraid of happening? See? That’s fear.

Once you can name your fear and name it as fear, for some reason its power diminishes. Then I go through the acceptance (see The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck): let’s just assume what I’m afraid of DID happen (I failed the deadline, I didn’t know what to say, my stuff wasn’t good enough). Live it out as if it’s happened instead of trying to avoid it, and accept the consequences. Usually you can pick yourself back up in your imagination. Your life isn’t over. You can get another job. You can go be a beach bum for a week.

I can now clear it away as a distraction by focusing on my solution to what I’m afraid of, while knowing that fear is a terrible motivator and I’m not afraid of it anymore.

We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

My Dad told me that they say in the Army that if you read just 15 minutes a day — of anything — you’re on the path to General. I read every morning. The times in my life that have been the worst are when I lose this habit. I have so many dead friends in books on my shelves, and so many friends who don’t know they’re my friends!

I also connect with my own purpose daily and pray for inspiration and guidance on my toughest challenges.

Lastly, I don’t accept what others think are barriers. I inspect them myself. “No” was the first answer to every great idea. The key is to turn a “no” into a “yes”!

What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Replace bad habits with good habits. Do it for six weeks. And train the correct brain state. Again from Dr. Stosny, it’s pointless to train your calm brain the skills it needs to operate well under duress. That’s why he focuses on imagining and getting your body into an aroused/stressed state and then using the tools you need to pull things back together. You can quickly train your brain into these positive habits!

The other key is the idea of deep practice (the real meat of the 10,000 hour rule if you read the original research). My trumpet teacher taught me “when you practice, you’re supposed to suck.” You don’t practice what you’re good at, you practice what you’re bad at! Don’t gloss over! Go back and slow down, break into pieces, study the pieces, then put them back together until you get it.

As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

Flow is achieved when you’re fully connected to all parts of your brain! You’re operating out of joy, not fear, usually, and therefore connected to the faster-than-rational parts of your brain (in the limbic system) which think and communicate in imagery. Words almost aren’t fast enough! The part of your brain that goes into flow state both doesn’t know time and clocks at faster megahertz than the part of your brain that processes rationally.

That’s why it’s a “letting go” and martial artists will tell you things like “no-mind” (The Last Samurai). We don’t want to go a slow as calculation. (As an aside, that’s why I believe healthy organizations cultivate flow by resisting over-measurement and metric/KPIing everything — you just guaranteed 1x instead of 10x culture. I’m looking at you, McKinsey)

To achieve flow in a company you need to equip people with the problem statement rather than telling them what to do, and give uninterrupted time to do it with maximum responsibility spread between fewest numbers of people.

To achieve flow myself I have to resist the pull to morning meetings that interrupt things and keep me from starting or completing that challenging 3–6 hour project. I can move 1–3 big rocks each day and need to turn off all interruptions while I’m moving my rock.

Oh, and I’ve curated a “Workin Rhythm” playlist on Spotify over the last 10+ years that has rhythmic music that can occupy my rational brain and language center, which sings along and knows every word, while the beat connects my brain deeper into my brain stem.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I believe there is a movement missing in the world and I would love to inspire or bring it to the world: martial arts meets scouting meets communications. Communication via Toastmasters or most speech classes is merely rehearsed trauma. Neuroscience-driven classical rhetoric is relational, authentic, prone to mistakes in delivery while yet achieving maximum success. That’s because it puts critical thought patterns and depth before presentation.

Our world needs to think deeply enough to deserve to open its mouth. I want to see people master the individual mechanics of communications and practice them in a communications dojo that recognizes and cultivates their real skill to be themselves as communicators, and connects rhetoric-stage students (around 14–15 year old and up) with seasoned veterans (age 80+) and everyone in between.

I believe that if businesses connected that all the 21st Century missing people skills (adaptation, critical thinking, expectation setting, and so on) were what were available in real communication and rhetoric disciplines, they’d line up to fund the greatest talent pipeline you’ve ever seen: millions of young people learning to think deeply through speech and debate that connects to business instead of college.

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

I’d like to have lunch with Brené Brown and tell her that if she’d designed a phone for kids, it’d be what we’ve designed at Pinwheel.com.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Join my email list at isaiahmcpeak.com

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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