“How to clear your head.” with Matthew M Merrill

Three strategies before a “big day” whether that be giving a seminar or arguing to a judge or jury are: (1) get lots of sleep; (2) exercise beforehand; and (3) eat a big breakfast and don’t go into a stressful situation hungry. Preparation is crucial as well — you are the expert, so be prepared. […]

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Three strategies before a “big day” whether that be giving a seminar or arguing to a judge or jury are: (1) get lots of sleep; (2) exercise beforehand; and (3) eat a big breakfast and don’t go into a stressful situation hungry. Preparation is crucial as well — you are the expert, so be prepared. You don’t often get “lucky” by chance. The appearance of “luck” is the by-product of work and preparation.

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

Matt is a civil litigation attorney with the Kansas City, Missouri law firm of Brown & Ruprecht, PC. Having been with the firm since 2001 and elected partner in 2007, Matt and his team help businesses and individuals resolve legal challenges, up to and including pre-litigation and litigation processes throughout Missouri and Kansas.

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?

Yes indeed. I was born in Kansas City but fairly quickly moved to a neighborhood in a wooded area of Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived until age 12 while my dad was teaching at Indiana University. It was a fantastic childhood growing up during that time — a time when my friends and I would come home from school and our parents expected that we would stay outside and play until it was time for dinner. Best parents in the world, in my opinion — my sister and I got very, very lucky in that regard. Of course, back then (in the mid-80’s), there were no cell phones. I remember having a pair of maroon Kangaroo shoes with a pouch. My dad gave me a quarter to put in the pouch and told me, “use that quarter to call me in case of an emergency,” meaning, purportedly, from a phone booth somewhere. (Where I might have found a phone booth in the woods, I have no idea.) Believe it or not, we actually had to memorize our home phone numbers. Luckily, I never had to use a quarter for that purpose. I spent the majority of time up to age 12 riding my bike while my dog ran beside me, playing soccer and running around in the woods with my friends with camouflage face paint shooting bows and arrows and fake rifles. My childhood revolved around Red Dawn, the Cold War, Rambo, The Terminator and James Bond. We built forts in the woods and called ourselves the “Wolverines.” I remember getting spray paint in my eyes while spray-painting the word “Wolverines” on a piece of wood for one of our forts. My parents, younger sister and I moved back to Kansas City in 1986 and I’ve been here ever since, having attended a high school in Overland Park, Kansas. Middle school was skateboarding. High school was track, soccer and weightlifting. That was followed immediately by The University of Kansas and The University of Kansas School of Law.

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

My father, who earned a PhD, was in the United States Navy, taught as a professor at Indiana University, and later owned a marketing research company until he retired. My mother earned a BA and worked for a software company. She was also an awesome chef for us, and we had dinner as a family every night. It was a “given” that everyone in my high school would go directly to university and prepare for business life. In fact, I do not know one high school friend who did not go directly to university. As might be imagined from my backstory, as a child, I mainly wanted to be a United States Navy Seal. Ultimately, I would say that my parents — as caring, compassionate, rational, intelligent and loving individuals — instilled in me that I could do whatever I wanted as an adult so long as I worked hard and kept my head up. I have an extremely high respect for our United States Armed Forces, and think that had I not become a private sector attorney, would have ended up being a JAG lawyer, at least for a time. So, to answer your question, both of my parents. They would have been proud of my career choice no matter what. I ultimately ended up becoming a lawyer in the private sector and owning a law firm.

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?

As to becoming an attorney in the first place, not particularly. There are no other attorneys in the family. My law partner Steve Brown mentored me during my early career and taught me ethics and professionalism. We still run ideas by one another, and I’ll call him for advice. I feel that weightlifting and exercise have always been a huge part of, and have greatly improved, my life as a whole — all aspects, so in that regard, my weightlifting coaches Joe Amos and Tim Serbousek who taught me discipline, weightlifting and athletic mindfulness in high school in Kansas City. Coach Amos and Coach Serbousek showed us exercises, sets and reps. We got the feel of the knurled metal bars and thick, steel discs in our hands for the first time. All of my friends and I got stronger and encouraged one another. I wanted to bench press more than my friends, and they wanted to bench more than me. Our coaches said, “you will do this today,” for example, “today is bench press and squats, this many sets of this many reps” and we followed their instructions precisely — they were no-nonsense and we treated them with the respect they deserved and had earned through their careers. I still wake up thinking to myself, “I will do this today … I am going to run two miles, hit chest and some accessory muscles, then provide value to my clients during my workday.” I work hard for my clients, and I lift hard. “Those weights aren’t going to lift themselves, boys and girls” is something I remember hearing. Working and weightlifting go hand-in-hand. Being the best lawyer that I can for my clients follows naturally from the discipline I learned from sports, weightlifting and undergraduate and law school coursework. You exercise, and then if you are lucky you become an apprentice to a master at work. For me, at work, I was apprentice to Steve Brown.

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?

The funniest mistake, which was actually funny at trial I think the jury would tell you, was when I did not “do the math” beforehand before making an argument to a jury. Simple arithmetic. I was trying a case involving cattle in Wichita many years ago as a young lawyer. Making an argument to the jury with a witness on the stand, I had a dry erase marker and marker board, and was multiplying number of cattle times cost per head of cattle. It went something like this. “So, Mr. Farmer, you had this many cattle [writing on board] and each head of cattle cost this much [monetary figure] so you lost [insert incorrect dollar figure here.]” I was looking at the person who I thought was probably the jury foreperson, and she smiled and shook her head to the side, indicating, “Nope, your math is wrong.” I looked at some other members of the jury and they were all smiling and agreeing that my math was incorrect. The witness was very politely disagreeing with my math as well. After a little blushing, I re-did the math correctly, and everyone giggled a little bit. It might have endeared me to the jury due to my youth, although it would not be so funny at this point. A friend of mine the other day said, “there are three kinds of people in this world: those who can do math, and those who can’t.” I fell into the latter at that time. As you might imagine, I never made that mistake again. Math is done beforehand.

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?

Exercise, nutrition and lots of sleep. Get up early, and go to bed early. Keep your environment tidy, put things where they go, and make your bed immediately after you get out of it. Eliminate non-productive elements and unhealthy people from your life. Most people have some type of exercise that they prefer over others. For me, it is a little cardio (running from 1–4 miles) followed by weightlifting (bodybuilding and powerlifting) and stretching. Some people like yoga, or swimming, or a stationary bike. It doesn’t matter what it is, although certainly resistance training should be incorporated to keep muscles thick and bones healthy going into later years. Exercise provides both a physical and mental sense of wellbeing, which promotes not only health but productivity. Hormones are released that make you feel good. Further, we all need to be sleeping 7 or 8 hours a night, and if you are lucky, take a nap during the day. I personally wake at 4:30 a.m. and go to bed at 9:00 p.m. almost every day. Sometimes I close my office door and take a cat nap. Your body needs “real” food, which in my opinion means a balance of foods that came from the Earth (water, vegetables, nuts, fruit, legumes, eggs and meat). A disciplined day that includes exercise, nutrition and sleeping 7–8 hours will, most likely, lead to a productive and prosperous future, no matter what obstacles one encounters. There are good and bad times, but nothing that can’t be overcome with a healthy lifestyle. And lots of “squats.” Put heavy weight on your back and do back squats at least once a week folks.

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?

It took me about a year, but I managed to get through the non-fiction book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich authored by William L. Shirer, first published in 1960. It chronicles the rise and fall of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany. I think that every country has scars — events that it absolutely wishes did not exist in the past. Events that one cannot imagine happened, but in fact did. That type of situation is not unique solely to Germany. What happened to Germany during that time happens to be recent and well-documented, much more so than in past eons in other areas of the world, and it happens to be particularly horrific and unimaginable. People are the same everywhere whether here in the USA, in Germany, Russia, China or anywhere else on this planet. We want shelter, food and to love our families and children. We have prosperous times, and we have times when we need help from other people. Reading details about horrific points in history, such as during wartime, can serve to help us all not repeat the mistakes of the past. That particular book impacted me from a philosophical standpoint and as a result, I may have a more compassionate view of the world and hope that citizens of the various countries, including our own, will be able to notice signs when bad ideas start to arise before things get completely out of control. The atrocities of WWII can be prevented if we are all, as humans, cognizant of this. We can learn from history, or we can let it repeat. I hope for the former.

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

Treat others the way that you want to be treated, or whatever version of the “golden rule” you prefer. This goes for your family and friends, adversaries and strangers. Why does that matter? It will lead to healthy relationships with others, including your business relationships and contractual agreements with other people and businesses. My clients look to me for guidance during the litigation process, and I strive to communicate with them often and provide good advice. On our deathbeds, we will be looking back judging ourselves on whether we managed to live a life worth living, and the number one data point will be how we treated others and our relationships with other people.

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

Work-wise, leading my team of litigators and mentoring them with regard to how best to provide the most value to our clients while at the same time being professional and courteous to opposing counsel. This will help them with their careers the same way that my mentor helped mine. Home-wise, I am almost complete with my “home gym” project, which will benefit the health of myself and family. Most of the equipment is here already, with the exception of the glute-ham developer, dumbbell rack, kettlebells and open deadlift bar.

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?

Three strategies before a “big day” whether that be giving a seminar or arguing to a judge or jury are: (1) get lots of sleep; (2) exercise beforehand; and (3) eat a big breakfast and don’t go into a stressful situation hungry. Preparation is crucial as well — you are the expert, so be prepared. You don’t often get “lucky” by chance. The appearance of “luck” is the by-product of work and preparation.

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?

At the risk of repeating myself, peak performance in any situation is the product of exercise, sleep, nutrition and preparation, plain and simple. First, do all the preparations necessary — learn the material and prepare your presentation. Then, eat a big meal and sleep all night.

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. Mindfulness and mindful thought.

My mindful meditations are achieved through focusing while lifting heavy barbells and dumbbells. Some people achieve mindful focus during yoga, sitting or walking meditation. Whatever you are doing, there ought to be 1–2 hours per day when your mind is focusing on nothing other than what you are doing physically, whether that be breathing, lifting weights or thinking thoughts of compassion for others. For me, it is turning the ringer off the phone, ignoring all incoming texts and emails and doing nothing but thinking about weightlifting and exercise for a couple of hours a day.

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

Luckily, my mind is very focused naturally. If I’m focused on a work project, I won’t hear you talking to me or even a screaming baby on an airplane. I can tell you, though, that at 8:30 p.m. every night my phone is placed in the corner of a faraway room, not to be touched again till morning. Observing others, it seems that the phone is a huge distraction and that a lot of non-productive, brain-damaging time is occurring. The human mind is not equipped to mindlessly scroll through thousands of points of unimportant, aggravating stimulus without having damaging results, not the least of which is lack of productivity. While working, there is no “texting” and the phone is hidden away and forgotten. If someone texts you, you do not need to get back to him or her right away. It can wait.

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?

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” I just came up with that. Also, don’t send “nasty” emails. Don’t put anything in writing that you don’t expect to be published on the internet or read to a judge. If a stimulus causes you to become irritated, that feeling will pass. Don’t lash out with a hateful email or text. Remember: your opposing counsel or adversary in any business situation has similar goals for their team. Both sides want a winning result. Getting to that result does not need to be acrimonious.

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

Stopping bad habits requires “wanting” to stop. To desire to stop the bad habit, you may need to emulate someone who you respect. So it may come down to hanging with the right crowd instead of the wrong one.

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 achieve a state of flow by working hard and focusing on whatever may be the current litigation task, and organizing thoughts and projects. We can achieve a state of flow by hiding our mobile telephones and not looking at them until some allotted time during the day, preferably after all the work is done.

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. Kids need role models. My “movement” would be to inspire children of various backgrounds to take up weightlifting as a competitive sport, particularly powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. Opening “free” gyms in poorer areas, for example, with good coaches to teach technique and discipline. Get the word out, and invite kids from all around to learn how to lift weights. Not only would the population as a whole become more healthy, which would drive down the economic burden of obesity and diabetes, it would provide a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Kids would compete with themselves and one another in the gym and at competitions — they can brag about how strong they are and are going to become rather than bragging about other “unhealthy” things. It would also naturally lead to the promotion of various alternative food sources and less recreational drug and alcohol use. Athletes want to eat healthy. A greater population who wants healthy food will lead to more availability of healthy food sources.

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 🙂

If I were to say to you, “Guess who it is?” given my answers thus far, you’d have a good chance. Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a huge impact on my life. I can honestly say that I would probably have had a different life had I not had him to observe. In my opinion, he is a truly self-made man. Someone who had his own big idea while being a kid in Austria (to be the best bodybuilder and to become a movie star in Hollywood), followed it through great discipline, and ended up being an immensely-successful businessman, bodybuilder and Governor of the State of California. I’m sure his friends thought he was crazy, but he did not care. He’s still lifting obviously. I wouldn’t be “cheesy” or anything — I’d just lift some weight with him and get in a good workout, and listen to his wit — he’s a very witty, “quick” guy from what I can tell. Basically, if I could spot Arnold on bench press and he could spot me, it would be a moment of Zen to make my life complete. ☺

How can our readers further follow your work online?

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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