Get clear about what you’re trying to achieve. It’s important to have a clear understanding of what success looks like. This allows me to refocus myself and my team on our goal. Your energy becomes focused on the future and on success.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aniefre Essien.
Meet Aniefre Essien. As a marketing executive for CLIF Bar, and having previously worked for major corporations like Clorox and Starbucks, he has been privileged enough to find much success in his career. However, as a Black man, he finds often that he has to fight harder than most.
While institutional racism has reared its ugly head pre-COVID and amid COVID, Black men have been slain by police daily,, and racial and civil unrest continues all around us, Aniefre has produced and introduced a much needed and timely podcast, BOOTSTRAPS. BOOTSTRAPS highlights journeys of successful Black men, in their own words and dialogues, to give hope to other Black men to improve the quality of lives and the lives of their peers, families and communities.
It was important for Aniefre to share narratives of his fellow brothers in their voice, for their benefit. His mission is to shine a light on successful Black men while inspiring other Black men and young boys to be their best selves. He states: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
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 was like navigating a maze, or trying to level up in a video game. I am the youngest of three sons, raised by a single mother in Harbor City, California; a tight-knit community in the southern end of Los Angeles, plagued with gang violence and drugs. But in spite of what you might assume, my childhood was happy; hard, but happy. I was a three-sport athlete in a family of athletes, and I loved to compete at everything. Whether I was on the football field, basketball court, or in the classroom, I was competing.
At some point, that competitive energy began being channeled into me competing against my goals. The competition was getting to where I wanted to go, given my starting point in life. My oldest brother left home to attend U.C. Berkeley when I was only 8 years old, and that prompted me to become laser focused on attending college as well. So when I would face the types of adversity common in neighborhoods like mine — losing friends to gang violence, doing homework by candlelight because our electricity was cut off — I just embraced it as an obstacle in a video game; then went harder. By the time I was in middle school and high school, taking college track courses, I took pride in being one of the top students in the class…not because I needed to feel better than others, but because it was proof that I was tracking towards my goal of making it to college and escaping the pitfalls that were pervasive in my life.
I often think about the many kids I grew up with who, at a minimum, were as intelligent as I was, but they seemed to be missing that one thing to keep them on the right track. There were others, who suffered one too many tragedies, throwing their young lives off track. It has inspired me to keep going…to keep leveling up.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
Ice Cube. It was most definitely Ice Cube. I know that’s not the most intuitive, but I grew up on his lyrics in real time, both while he was part of NWA, and later after he embarked on his solo career. I understood what he was fighting for as an artist and a creator of Intellectual Property. I understood what he was fighting for as someone who was creating economic value. It was the first concrete example I can remember of the two foundational variables in business: creating value and capturing value. The music industry has a history where those who create the value (artists) don’t capture their fair share of said value. Ice Cube left NWA when I was in 7th grade, and I understood his frustration with not getting his fair share, given he was the driving lyrical force behind the group. With each successive solo album release, his rhymes weren’t simply validating my life by rapping about my everyday experience, they also showed me the power of entrepreneurship. Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, Lethal Injection, etc. were business cases that I got to watch unfold in real time. I was able to watch the greatest rapper alive leave the greatest rap group ever assembled to embark on a risky solo career, then, with each successive album, capture a greater share of the value his lyrical abilities created.
In terms of the type of business leader I am, I’d say I’m the most inspired by Simon Sinek. He’s truly a compelling speaker and writer, with probably his most famous work being his book Start with Why. But for me, his most impactful speech was “Why Leaders Eat Last.” The thesis of the speech is that leading means to serve those that you lead so that they can do their respective part to achieve the collective goal. Not leading from a place of service is a violation of our genetic hardwiring because we evolved as a species to bestow more on our leaders, with an understanding that they will look out for the rest of us.
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 am blessed with a wealth of great relationships that I don’t take for granted. I believe authentic relationships are not only the key to long term success, but they’re also the meaning of life. Of the many relationships that have helped me grow into the man that I am, I’d have to say my oldest brother, Michael Essien, has had the biggest influence on me. Michael is 10 years older than I am, and has been a role model my whole life. With the age gap, he was able to do for me much of what he wished people would have done for him. Having successfully made it out of our neighborhood to attend U.C. Berkeley, he taught me what I needed to know in order to make it to college as well. Having been through adolescence in our neighborhood, he knew martial arts would be a massive benefit to my personal development and sense of balance, so he taught me martial arts. Having been through the financial struggles of going to college full time on financial aid, he allowed me to live with him in undergrad.
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 used to be the Brand Manager for La Crema Winery, and I took my team out to Austin, Texas, to kick off a new influencer partnership with the highly fashionable Camille Styles. The morning started off fine. The team and I met in the hotel lobby, then we hopped in our rental car and arrived on time for our meeting at Camille’s immaculate open-concept mansion. After a tour of her home and some small talk, Camille invited us out to her patio to discuss content ideas.
The seating on the patio was spacious and plenty comfortable, but it was June in Austin and the temperature was over 90 degrees. Worst yet, I sweat easily and I was wearing a light blue dress shirt. So here I am, sweating profusely while discussing fine wine with one of the most stylish people I’ve ever met. So after several dark blue sweat patches formed on my shirt, I sheepishly asked if we could move inside. The ladies obliged and they all had a laugh at my expense. I went out to the car and grabbed a tee shirt out of my luggage to change into, then returned to the cool, air-conditioned dining room to finish the meeting.
What I learned from this is to plan your wardrobe on business trips with a keen attention to detail; and to speak up early and often when you see a problem on the horizon.
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?
Your mind is the single most powerful thing in your life. Based upon your perspective and inner-monologue, you can find things to complain about in the midst of immense privilege, and conversely, you can find light and hope in pretty tough circumstances. To be successful, it’s important to adopt a growth mentality. With a growth mentality, you either succeed or you learn; there is no failure. With a growth mentality, you focus on what you have instead of what you don’t have, and you figure out how to use what you have to move towards your goal. This all lives in your mind.
When I figured out what I wanted to do with my career, I was living as a martial arts instructor and I had just torn a ligament in my knee for a second time. I had a modest income, no savings, and I lived in a really rough neighborhood. Oh, and I hadn’t completed my undergraduate degree because I stopped going to school several years earlier so I could work with at-risk youth in East Oakland. I had a long list of issues to complain about, but instead I focused my mind on where I wanted to be in five years, then deployed all of my resources and talents to achieve those goals. Four years later, I had completed my undergraduate degree in Business Administration, I had landed one of the most competitive and prestigious marketing jobs in the country, working for The Clorox Company, and I had become a published author. Your success lives and dies in your mind.
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?
Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher, which is a must-read resource for anyone who negotiates anything. I didn’t grow up in a culture of negotiations. My world had really clear delineations of what should and shouldn’t be, and not a lot of ambiguity. There were adults and there were children; and what adults said in my family was law. There was getting into college and there was not. There wasn’t much negotiating, and in fact, I had an aversion to it. It felt inherently sleazy.
But most things in life are not black and white, and reside squarely in the gray. Getting to Yes helped me understand how to wade into the ambiguity of negotiations, how to maintain my principles, and how to create a win-win situation for all parties involved. And when a win-win isn’t possible, I learned how to not negotiate against my own best interest, because sometimes not reaching a deal is a win. The book taught me how and when to concede, as well as how and when to draw a hard line. Before reading Getting to Yes, it felt like I was walking through the world with one hand tied behind my back.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“When people show you who they are, believe them.” Depending on your perspective, this quote can be read as negative, but I read it from a neutral perspective. When I meet people, they’re a blank slate to me, and based upon how they show up over time, that’s who I believe them to be. The cynical view could read this quote as pertaining to when people show you that they have poor character, then accepting that’s who they are. And I’ll concede that’s definitely an apt application of the quote. But I also think it’s important to not project your past onto people. If someone shows up in your life and they consistently act with integrity, you should believe them to have integrity. The moral behind this quote is to not project yourself onto people and accept them for who they are, based upon what they do over time.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Bootstraps Podcast! Prior to the mass awakening sparked by the murder of George Floyd, I had noticed there weren’t many places to hear unfiltered, nuanced perspectives from Black professionals; even less so from Black male professionals. So I started Bootstraps Podcast to give voice to the journeys of Black men in their lifelong battle to navigate systemic racism. And starting the podcast has proven to be both timely and deeply relevant.
Our stories and lived experiences as Black people provide invaluable lessons on how to navigate uncertainty and how to lead under pressure. In any good narrative, there’s the surface story and then there’s the bigger lesson. When you look at the narrative of Black people, there is so much useful knowledge to extract.
In terms of uncertainty, nothing is really a given for Black people. We walk into rooms never knowing who is biased against us because of the color of our skin, but knowing that it’s highly likely that someone is, yet we walk into those rooms anyways. We put ourselves out there to receive feedback, not knowing when racial bias is fueling the subjective feedback we’re being given, but knowing that it’s highly likely. We do this in pursuit of success and progress, knowing that for most of us, there isn’t a safety net if we fail. There isn’t a family company to go work for, or a rich uncle to call in a favor for us, or a nice inheritance to mitigate any career setbacks. So when a Black person “makes it,” you are looking at a master of navigating uncertainty while delivering under pressure.
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?
First, slow down; take a beat to breathe and properly assess what is going on. The unknown produces fear because anything can be a threat. But when you are able to identify the root of the problem you’re facing, uncertainty diminishes, and you can focus your energy on the actual issue.
Next, get clear about what you’re trying to achieve. It’s important to have a clear understanding of what success looks like. This allows me to refocus myself and my team on our goal. Your energy becomes focused on the future and on success.
Lastly, figure out what needs to be true to be successful, then control the controllables that lead to success; e.g. execute. Once you have demystified the problem at hand, and have come up with your strategy for success, the quality of your execution is the difference between winning and losing. People often become enamored with their PowerPoint or Excel model or memo, but the difference between success and failure is actually in how well you execute. Instead of focusing on what could go wrong, focus on doing the little things that produce success.
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?
Meditate. Given the importance of the mind, it’s important to clear your mind of the clutter that can build up on a daily basis, leading to suboptimal performance.The quality of your achievements is directly linked to the health of your mind, and meditating is key to keeping my mind functioning at a high level.
Listen to music that matches the energy I need: everyone loves music, but I need music. Almost every activity in my life can be enhanced by music. Sometimes I’m stressed out and I need calm, so I’ll listen to Jazz or R&B; Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue might be my favorite album when I’m in this space. And when I need a bit of a boost to power through an assignment, I listen to Hip Hop. I’ve already shared my love of Ice Cube, but on any given day you can catch me listening to Nipsey Hussle, Marv Won, or Rapsody.
Game out the worst case scenario: understand the steps that would lead to the outcome you fear, then develop a mitigation plan. There’s a famous Sun Tzu quote, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” That’s because when you don’t take the time to game out the impact of your actions, taking into account the obstacles you’re up against, you will have no way of knowing if your actions are bringing you closer to defeat or closer to success; which can add to stress in a high pressure situation. But if you can minimize uncertainty, you can minimize stress.
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.
As a long time practitioner of Shaolin Kung Fu, I still retain some hold over breathing techniques that I use to center myself. One is the 7–3–10 breathing exercise; that’s to breathe in for seven seconds, hold for three seconds, then exhale for ten seconds. That’s three breaths a minute. It not only slows your breathing way down, which naturally reduces anxiety and stress, but it also focuses you on the simple process of breathing. While doing this exercise, I’m focused on every bit of air that enters and leaves my body, and whether or not I’m breathing properly; that is, filling up from the bottom of my lungs that feels like the bottom of my stomach, then up through my solar plexus, chest, then finally my upper back.
I also go to the ocean. Being from California, I’ve been gifted with access to the Pacific Ocean as a birthright. Whether it’s a drive along the coast, a walk along the beach, or taking time to sit with my toes in the sand, spending time near the ocean washes away the stress of whatever I’m carrying and re-energizes me to move forward.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
It depends on what type of focus work I need to do. If it’s quantitative in nature, then it’s headphones on, music up. The type of music doesn’t matter, but it’s usually Hip Hop.
If it’s not quantitative, then it’s all about my physical environment. I need a relatively quiet place with a great view. When I was at Clorox, there was a conference room on the 16th floor that had a great view looking down Telegraph Ave into Oakland’s “Uptown” neighborhood towards the Fox Theater. I would book that conference room for a couple of hours, then hide out up there to focus on my pressing project. The grandness of the view freed my mind from the to-do list that was distracting me, and it prevented people from interrupting my flow by dropping by my desk to chat. I think finding a physical environment that helps you focus is important.
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?
There are so many, but two of the biggest have to do with organizing my weekly work plan. I’m an ideas’ guy and brainstorming is somewhat effortless, which can become a problem if you let it. So early in my career, I learned to block off the first hour of the day on Mondays, then I’d come in an hour earlier than normal, that way I would have two uninterrupted hours to start my week off. With those two hours, I would map out the workload for my major projects, and I would focus on the key deliverables for the next two weeks.
These two simple habits around planning my work was a major hack to being a more productive and impactful leader.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Know your good habits as well as you know your bad habits. We often focus on what we’re bad at when trying to improve, but we’re all unique with a unique set of gifts. Lean into your strengths and things that come naturally to you to address things that don’t come naturally to you.
For example, I have a bad habit of procrastinating on menial tasks. Not because I’m lazy, but because I feel like there is little return on time invested. Conversely, I jump right into work that is going to have an impact on a desired outcome. That said, I try to understand how tasks that can be perceived as insignificant are in fact vital to the bigger picture. When I’m able to do that, I attack tasks that I’d normally put off with urgency.
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?
I think it’s really important to be self-aware and to understand your energy levels throughout the day. For example, if I were to break up my work day, I have a natural energy spike between 7–10 AM, then there’s a bit of a lull from 10 AM until 2 PM, followed by a second wind from 2–6 PM. Work that I can do as an individual and that takes a lot out of me, I try to do in the first part of the day. Work that requires collaboration or meetings with others, I try to schedule from mid-morning to early afternoon. Lastly, work that involves ideating, which gives me energy, I schedule for the afternoon.
I’ve found this approach to be more conducive to sustaining a state of flow, or feeling like I’m sustaining peak performance. When I can align my work day like this, I feel like I can get two or three days worth of work done in a single day.
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.
Racial equity. Imagine how much better the world would be if the best and the brightest were able to reach their potential. The cure for cancer could be living in the mind of some little Black girl, or the key addressing climate change can be sparked by a young Latino boy. When systemic racism is allowed to flourish, we all lose. Also, systemic racism is wholly immoral and should equally offend all of us.
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 🙂
LeBron James. Most people would think it’s because he is one of the greatest to ever play basketball, but that couldn’t be less true for me. I’d want to pick his brain to learn what makes him tick. I remember his high school games being nationally televised, then one of the announcers criticized LeBron for being on national TV, as if it was his choice at 17 years old. I remember him being on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was in high school and I thought to myself, ‘I hope they don’t crush him with all of this pressure.’ Pressure bursts pipes, but it also forges diamonds. And with all of the pressure he was placed under, he never buckled, and instead has built himself from extreme poverty into a global brand.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
@bootstrapspodcast on Instagram