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James P. Owen: “You are the author of your own life story”

…One of the best ways to promote healthy habits is to model them yourself. Research shows how much we are both consciously and unconsciously influenced by the habits and values of those around us. We may know that smoking or excessive drinking or being sedentary are harmful. Whether we act on that information depends a […]

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…One of the best ways to promote healthy habits is to model them yourself. Research shows how much we are both consciously and unconsciously influenced by the habits and values of those around us. We may know that smoking or excessive drinking or being sedentary are harmful. Whether we act on that information depends a lot on what we see and hear from our friends and neighbors.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James P. Owen, an inspirational author and speaker.

James’ latest book is Just Move! A New Approach to Fitness After 50 (National Geographic, 2017), which the Wall Street Journal named one of the year’s best books about healthy aging. He is also the author of Cowboy Ethics. His current project is producing a half-hour documentary film, The Art of Aging Well. He can be reached via his website, theartofagingwell.com, and @theartofagingwell on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I feel blessed and extremely lucky to have grown up in a loving, supportive family in Lexington, Kentucky. Both my older brother and I were adopted at birth. My father came from a hard-scrabble background, but he was smart and went straight to dental school after serving in the U.S. Cavalry in World War I. His commitment to the values he believed in and upheld on a daily basis was a huge influence on my life. I doubt I would have come up with the notion of Cowboy Ethics if it weren’t for him. He was the kind of man I still aspire to be. As for my mother, she was the salt of the earth — someone who’d had a farm-girl upbringing and was utterly devoted to church and family. She always encouraged me to believe I could accomplish anything I set out to do.

My older brother, Charlie, was also a big influence. He won the Yale Cup for being the top scholar-athlete at our high school, which was one of the three or four best schools in the state. Talk about a tough act to follow! Especially since I wasn’t athletically gifted like Charlie was. But my studies came easily to me, and I found I had a knack for communicating. I think that’s why I realized early on that the best way to stand out is “create, don’t compete.”

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?

At some point in my early adulthood, I read The Organization Man by William Whyte, which was hugely influential back in the late fifties and early sixties. It was one of the first books to take a hard look at corporate culture and the “groupthink” and mediocrity it fostered.

That book bolstered my resolution to steer clear of big organizations and any kind of regimentation. That’s not how I wanted to spend my life. You could say I was restless…always looking for the next challenge or adventure. One summer I joined the circus as a roustabout. I even drove a motor scooter from Boston all the way to Santiago, Chile; that was my first time on the Today show. I hitchhiked cross-country, fought fires in Oregon, and worked on a king crab boat in Alaska. Because of these experiences I had no fear when it came to taking risks or trying new things.

Don’t get me wrong — I had no problem wearing a suit and tie, and ultimately spent 35 years in the investment business. But that feeling of “What’s over the next mountain?” never went away.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve always loved the quote “You are the author of your own life story.” To me, it’s double-edged. On one hand, it means you can become anything you want to be. But it’s also a reminder that we are each responsible for our own destiny. While our lives are always influenced by luck and the circumstances we’re born into, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of blaming external forces for things we could change.

Our power to shape our own lives has been a central theme of all the projects I’ve undertaken in my “second act” as an inspirational author, speaker, and social entrepreneur. Self-reliance is a core tenet of Cowboy Ethics, the set of principles I distilled from the unwritten Code of the West. It’s just as relevant to the “Just Move!” campaign I’m now focused on. A lot of older adults believe there’s nothing they can do to counteract the aging process. In fact, science tells us you can slow down and even turn back the clock by making smart lifestyle choices. I’m living proof of that. At 70, I was a physical wreck and in constant pain. Now I’m almost 80, and I’m stronger and more energetic than I was at 50.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

After my book, Cowboy Ethics, came out, I was astonished by the enthusiastic response it got from readers and audiences of all stripes. I kept hearing “this is the kind of inspiration our country really needs.” So in 2006 I set up a small 501 ©(3) foundation as a vehicle for projects and organizational partnerships that could help me spread the book’s messages. The foundation’s mission is to inspire people of all ages to reach for the best in themselves and realize their full potential.

I never dreamed that the Cowboy Ethics project would blossom the way it did. By working with schools and groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs and 4-H, we created a character-and-values program that has trained hundreds of instructors and reached many thousands of middle- and high-school students across the nation. We also developed a program of workshops to help business people define the values they stand for.

By 2010, both of those programs were well established and I was ready for a new challenge. As I worked hard to shed my couch-potato ways and finally get fit, I realized that millions of Americans were in the same boat. That led to my book, Just Move!, which was published by National Geographic and has become the platform for a much broader campaign. Right now my primary focus is on the half-hour documentary film I’m producing. Titled The Art of Aging Well, it is an effort to reach a large audience of older adults with a can-do message: no matter what your age or physical condition, it’s never too late to get healthier. We’re still working on distribution, so stay tuned.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I am grateful to have had two “aha” moments that reset the course of my life and gave me a level of energy and purpose I never felt in my business career. Believe it or not, my first pivotal moment came from seeing the movie, Open Range. I was profoundly moved by the characters played by Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner — two ordinary cowboys who led a grueling life, but valued loyalty and honor above all. As I thought, “this is the kind of inspiration we need in executive suites and on Wall Street,” the phrase “Cowboy Ethics” popped into my head. I started writing the first book in my Code of the West trilogy, hit the speaking circuit, and never looked back.

My second life-changing moment came after I saw a video of myself on my 70th birthday. I was so shocked that I resolved then and there to get into shape, no matter what it took. But as I began researching how to go about it, I was initially overwhelmed by the huge quantity of fitness-themed books, magazines, videos, and blog posts out there — then dismayed how little of it seemed relevant to someone my age.

I thought, “Someone should put together a simple, realistic guide tailored to people in my age group.” My next thought was, “Why not me?” That was the genesis of what has evolved into a multi-pronged, ongoing public health campaign. Inspiring older adults to adopt healthier lifestyles is a tough challenge, to say the least. But I’ve learned that if I stick with something and put in the effort, the results can be greater than I ever imagined.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of the first speeches I gave after my book came out was a meeting of a women’s luncheon club near my home in Austin. It was perfect chance to try out my material and see how it resonated with an audience of older adults.

Their reaction was far beyond anything I’d expected! They applauded every accomplishment I mentioned, and gave me a standing ovation at the end. I was even more surprised when I received five handwritten notes of thanks in the following days. One said, “I’m 66 years old, and your talk inspired me to start going for daily walks in my neighborhood.” Another one said, “I’ve been trying for years to get my husband off the couch. When I told him about your talk and your transformation, he said ‘If that guy can do it, I can do it too.’ He has finally agreed to sign up for an exercise class. I can’t thank you enough.”

To me, those notes were pure gold. Because they boosted my conviction that what I’m doing is worthwhile and really can make a difference.

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

One of the best ways to promote healthy habits is to model them yourself. Research shows how much we are both consciously and unconsciously influenced by the habits and values of those around us. We may know that smoking or excessive drinking or being sedentary are harmful. Whether we act on that information depends a lot on what we see and hear from our friends and neighbors.

Each of us can become an advocate for more exercise-friendly communities. It turns out that people who live in walkable urban centers have significantly lower rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease than those who live in suburbs, which are car-centric. So let’s all do whatever we can to encourage more walking and biking trails, outdoor exercise stations, and community fitness programs.

Finally, ask your local PBS station for a prime-time airing of The Art of Aging Well, the documentary we’ve just completed. Think of how many thousands of people we could reach and potentially inspire in that half-hour alone!

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership has nothing to do with a position or title. A leader is someone who can inspire people to act or change. Effective leaders are galvanized by a goal or a need, and embrace it as their purpose. They stand up and speak out, even when their message is unpopular. They also find ways to leverage their efforts by joining forces with others who have compatible interests. True leaders serve the greater good; they’re not in it for their own gain or glory. That kind of leadership is what we’re missing at a national level right now. Luckily, all across our country we now see people being leaders in their own communities. They are demonstrating how much difference one person can make.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

There’s a thin line between success and failure. Every financially successful person I know has at one time or another been on the brink of losing it all. There’s always a point where something critical could go south. Business school doesn’t teach you that success isn’t linear. If you know that from the start, you realize there will be times when you’re in over your head. That’s why resilience is so important. You need the guts and the heart to keep going even when you’re head says “no way.”

Work on what you can control, and don’t sweat the rest. When we’re managing a complex project or juggling many tasks, we tend to worry incessantly about what might go wrong. But your energy is finite, so don’t squander it on things you can’t influence. Stay focused on what you need to do and the levers that can help you get it done.

Attitude trumps ability every single time. It’s great to be smart or talented. But if you have a negative, unhelpful or apathetic attitude, you won’t go far. You’ll be leapfrogged by others with less natural ability, but more positivity, enthusiasm and confidence.

Create win-win-win solutions. Too often, we think of life as a zero-sum game– if you win, I lose. If you want to succeed in what you’re doing, figure out how to make it a win for all the key parties involved, and make that central to your business model.

Surround yourself with people who share your values. Avoid getting involved with people who are toxic, selfish, or untrustworthy, no matter what they can do for you. At the very least, they are dispiriting and difficult to deal with. At worst, they can do irreparable damage to the reputation of your organization and your cause.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I’d tell them that “Leave it better than you found it” is the way to live a good life. If more of us lived by this principle, we’d be living in a much better world.

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

One of my favorites is “We can all be heroes in our own lives.” A hero doesn’t have to be someone who does great deeds or overcomes enormous obstacles. There’s a quiet heroism in being a positive role model, doing an exemplary job, or choosing to do the right thing when that’s hard. The true test of character is what you do when nobody is looking.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are many people I admire, but one person I’d really like to meet is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The story of his success and what he overcame along the way is incredible! Here’s a guy who comes to America without even speaking the language. Not only does he manage to break into films, he becomes a huge box office star. But he doesn’t stop there. He gets an MBA, makes a fortune in real estate, and then gets elected governor of California, twice! Undeniably, he’s had some personal and family issues, and I’m not minimizing those. But they don’t negate the positive elements in his amazing life story. Besides getting his inside view of that journey, I’d love to get his advice on how we can motivate older adults to make positive lifestyle changes.

How can our readers follow you online?

My website is www.theartofagingwell.com. You can also follow me at @theartofagingwell on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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