“Focus only on the things you can control.” with Michael “Medium Rare” O’Donnell

Focus only on the things you can control. Often times we create unnecessary stress in our lives by worrying about the million different variations of how things could play out. Yes you need to be aware of what may happen in certain situations, but you should direct your focus on the things you can control […]

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Focus only on the things you can control. Often times we create unnecessary stress in our lives by worrying about the million different variations of how things could play out. Yes you need to be aware of what may happen in certain situations, but you should direct your focus on the things you can control so you can position yourself for the best outcome.

As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael “Medium Rare” O’Donnell.

Michael “Medium Rare” O’Donnell is the owner of Cave Tools and Grill Master University. The strategic combination of direct to consumer manufacturing and online educational masterclasses has propelled his company into becoming one of the top players in the barbecue industry. His companies have earned numerous awards including being ranked as the #453 fastest growing privately held company in the US in 2018 by Inc Magazine.

Michael’s mission is simple, to use cooking as a tool to bring people and families closer together. He believes that when you’re confident about cooking you cook more often. When you cook more often you end up spending more quality time and forming in-depth relationships with the people you love.

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?

I think one of the more notable aspects of my childhood that bubbles up into who I am today is the fact that we moved a lot growing up. We weren’t a military family or anything like that, it’s just the way things played out as my dad advanced through his own career and capitalized on opportunities.

Being the new kid in town forced my brother, sister, and I to become outgoing people so we could meet friends. We had to be able to adapt and become comfortable with uncomfortable situations.

At the same time, the experience of moving taught us to truly value family. No matter what was happening in the outside world we always knew that we could fall back on and rely on each other to be there for support.

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

I think my dad planted a lot of seeds in my mind early as a child. I’m paraphrasing here, but he would say things like “You are one of the smartest kids in your entire class. You’re so intelligent, but what I love about you is that you’re able to relate on the same level to everyone regardless of how smart or successful they are.”

Whether that was actually true or not at the time isn’t the point. What matters is that I grew up with the mindset that I was an exceptional person, yet at the same time I was humble and relatable.

My father never started his own business because it was too risky when he had a family at home to support. Growing up he always encouraged me to take risks and start a business when I was young because as I got older and had more responsibilities it would become so much harder.

I think that having strong family support paired with the core internal belief that I was exceptional is what inspired me to become an entrepreneur.

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?

I’ve had many mentors that have come into my life at the various stages of my career and continue to do so today. It’s impossible to look back and pick one person or one story because even seemingly minor decisions that were made years ago could have set me off on a completely different direction from where I am today.

What I will say here is that I think it’s incredibly important to have someone in your life that you desperately do not want to disappoint or let down. They don’t necessarily need to be the person that is teaching you or giving you a specific opportunity.

All that matters is that they believe you have the potential to be better and you care so much that you will do whatever it takes to not prove them wrong. If these conditions exist, then the mechanics will work themselves out.

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?

I remember back in 2013 when I first started Cave Tools. I was living at home and working out of my parent’s basement. Nowadays you hear tons of stories about founders of successful companies starting out in their parent’s basement and the media kind of romanticizes it. Well I’m here to tell you don’t listen to the media on this one, working out of your parent’s basement sucks.

In the early days you need to find a way to get an edge. For me, that edge came unexpectedly when I jokingly changed my Facebook name to Michael “Medium Rare” O’Donnell to promote my new side business Cave Tools. Everybody thought it was hilarious and started calling me Medium Rare.

What started out as a joke became a self-proclaimed nickname that actually stuck around. So I incorporated “Medium Rare” into the company communications and next thing you know we had customers responding all the time making up their own nicknames like John “Extra Marbled” Smith.

I also started getting text messages any time someone I knew ordered a steak at a restaurant. When the waiter asks you “How would you like your steak?” any rational human being responds with the words Medium Rare. I wish I could take credit for the business genius in this, but I can’t. I unwittingly linked my personal brand and Cave Tools with steak. Now whenever someone I know orders a steak they immediately think of me, even if it’s for the briefest second. Next time you order a steak try not thinking of me, I bet you it’s harder than you think 😊

As Cave Tools grew from a side hustle into a real business, it was time to incorporate. My accountant pre-filled the documents out with Cave Tools as the company name, but at the last second, I thought, “How funny would it be to own a company called Medium Rare Industries?” And even better, that would mean I would get to have a credit card that said Michael O’Donnell — Medium Rare Industries on it, further immortalizing my new nickname.

I remember the first time I had to say the real name of the company over the phone to a service provider. I was so nervous when I said the words “Medium Rare Industries” but the guy on the other line immediately cracked up and told me how awesome he thought the company name was.

So that’s the origin story behind Medium Rare. Today, Medium Rare Industries is comprised of Cave Tools (physical grilling products), Grill Master University (educational barbecue masterclasses), our Meat Smoking Journal and Grilling Recipes Exchange (learning facilitation tools), and in the middle, we have The Grill Master Family which is our tight-knit community that connects everyone together.

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?

Focus on taking Right Action every day and detach yourself from the Outcomes.

Sometimes people get lucky and strike gold right away. Most of the time you need to try and fail in tons of different areas before you finally start to see success. If you gauge your success based on other people or how quickly you are seeing results then you’re most likely going to quit when the going gets tough. Focusing on Outcomes gives you an external locus of control.

Instead, you should gauge success based on whether you took the right actions and spent your time appropriately that day. The cumulative result of taking the right actions day in and day out is what ultimately leads to success. As you ride the roller coaster of entrepreneurship you’ll be able to withstand the downtimes because you’re gauging your success based on the things you can control.

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?

The Slight Edge by Jeffrey Olson made a huge impact on me early in my career. The story of the Water Hyacinth illustrates just how important it is to make the right decisions each day regardless of the direct outcome you see.

The Water Hyacinth is one of the most productive plants in the world. It grows out by doubling itself in every direction. If you have a large pond, you will barely even notice the Water Hyacinth on day one.

On day 15 the Water Hyacinth will cover maybe only a single square foot of the surface of the pond.

On the 20th day you would notice a small patch floating on the surface, maybe about the size of a small mattress.

On the 29th day the Hyacinth will have grown to cover half of the pond.

By the 30th day it will have grown to cover the entire pond and you won’t be able to see any water from the surface anymore.

This story was the inspiration behind the name of my first company I started in 2011 called Hyacinth Marketing. Over the last 9 years, I have focused on taking Right Action every day regardless of the directly visible outcomes. In the grand scheme of my career I’m only about 20% of the way through so I still have quite a lot of pond to cover!

Sidenote: Hyacinth Marketing had a great story behind it, but I don’t recommend giving your marketing agency a name that nobody can pronounce or spell 😉

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

“Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.” — Ayn Rand

Everyone has a different relationship with money and assigns a different meaning to it in their life.

Are they the type of person that would compromise their virtues in exchange for money or are they the type of person who is firm their convictions?

In both my business and personal life I try only to associate with the second type of person.

Surrounding yourself with people of high moral character is one of the secrets for long term success and happiness.

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

We have been running a monthly contest where people reflect on and share stories about how barbecue has made a significant impact on the relationships in their lives. Some of the stories have been absolutely inspiring.

I believe that even though technology has connected society in amazing ways, deep personal relationships have never been weaker. This is an underlying issue in our culture today and it is driving people apart.

Everyone can get together and bond over food regardless of your race, social class, politics, etc. That’s what I love so much about food is its amazing ability to bring people together.

We’re able to use our platform to amplify these stories for maximum reach. The goal is to inspire more people to put their phones down and start connecting with each other on a deeper level.

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?

  1. The best way to handle stress is to become a student of Stoicism. You want to cultivate the skill of controlling your emotions and approaching situations from a rational perspective.
  2. Focus only on the things you can control. Often times we create unnecessary stress in our lives by worrying about the million different variations of how things could play out. Yes you need to be aware of what may happen in certain situations, but you should direct your focus on the things you can control so you can position yourself for the best outcome.
  3. Get out a journal and handwrite your answer to the question of “What would this look like if it were easy?” This will help you visualize what the solution to your problem would be in an ideal world. By removing the uncertainty that is causing your stress you can start taking practical actions to make the solution a reality. You may not implement the exact perfect solution, but at least you will have certainty of direction.

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?

  1. Connect with Nature. For me, this usually comes in the form of going on a long hike or adventure. During the hike, I’m not specifically focused on the upcoming situation, but over the course of the hike my subconscious usually works things out and I return with creative solutions and new ideas.
  2. Regular exercise is always important for peak mental performance. The mind and body are connected, so I don’t believe you can optimize one without the other.
  3. Get a very good night sleep in a dark room.

All 3 of these strategies have to do with giving your brain a break. It may sound counterintuitive, but you can’t think clearly when you spend all of your time doing. As Keith Cunningham would say, you need to schedule in “Thinking Time” into your schedule.

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.

Meditation is something everyone should be practicing on a regular basis regardless of if they are facing a high-stress situation or not. I don’t get caught up in the idea of special meditation tricks or techniques. I think that is more of a function of marketing than anything else. I would recommend experimenting and finding what works for you and then being consistent in your practice.

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

The key to focusing is deciding that you actually want to focus before it’s time to focus. If you’re serious about scheduling in focus time then you’ll put up barriers ahead of time to force yourself to commit. That may mean putting your phone on airplane mode and placing it in the other room until a specific time of day or it might mean that you use a newsfeed eradicator type of plugin. Whatever your main distraction is, there is some type of barrier you can put up to block it.

If you find yourself going around the barriers you set up, then maybe your problem isn’t focused. It could be that your priorities are out of alignment.

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?

I think people need to get into the habit of always thinking about the long game. Especially in high-pressure high stress situations, it’s not uncommon for emotions to flare up and mistakes to be made.

In the grand scheme of things people will forget the smaller details of what happened, but they will always remember how you reacted to the situation.

When you’re playing the long game, you realize that’s it’s almost never worth it to burn a bridge.

The business world is smaller than you think and as the saying goes, “It can take 20 years to build your reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

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

We all develop bad habits from time to time or we get into a mental rut. It’s a natural part of life. I think the key to identifying these behavioral trends is to have regularly scheduled check in times with yourself.

We could debate back and forth about how frequent you should do this, but the important part is that you do it. I would also argue that you should write it down in a journal.

You want to get clear on who you are and what you want to accomplish. Then each time you do a check in you need to be brutally honest with yourself.

Each check in becomes a snapshot into who you were as a person at that particular time. Think of it as your personal balance sheet. Over time you’ll start to see trends appear that correlate with your progress towards your goals.

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?

Knowing what makes you tick is the first step. For me, I actually thrive in dynamically changing environments with lots of unknowns. This is a very rare trait and I’m sure would give most “High Performance” types a heart attack just thinking about it.

If I look at the times in my career when I have experienced the most growth and success it’s almost always during a period where I am traveling a lot. I have my daily routines and habits to ground me, but outside of work I am meeting tons of new people, eating new foods and experiencing new cultures and environments.

I’m a sucker for new and unique experiences. It charges me up and puts me into a flow state. When it’s time for me to work, I show up with complete focus ready to tackle the tasks at hand.

Obviously, this particular advice will only work for certain personality types like mine. The reason this works for me is that I know myself and I’ve spent time reflecting and checking in to learn about what makes me tick.

Some people are primarily motivated by security and stability. If that’s your ideal environment then you should work on adding as much routine and certainty to your life as you can because that will pop you into your unique flow state.

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 kind of touched on this with the contest we are running through Grill Master University. There are many studies that point towards the trend of Declining Social Capital in America.

Participation in things such as sports leagues or religious or community groups are on the decline. At the same time there is an upward trend in solo activities.

While both solo and group activities have their own benefits, this trend is illustrative of the lack of community and loneliness that many people are experiencing today. This is what I’m talking about when I say that technology has connected society in many ways, but deep personal relationships have never been weaker.

If I could inspire a movement it would be that more parents encourage their children to spend less time staring at a screen and more time participating in real human interaction.

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 would love to meet Ryan Holiday. His books have had a major influence on my life and in many ways have helped shape a lot of the ideas I shared in this interview.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I would recommend they check out or If they would like to join our community, The Grill Master Family, they can do so here

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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