Take a cold shower. Grit builds over time as you overcome obstacles and gain confidence. What are small steps to start the positive feedback cycle going? For me, a good one is taking a cold shower in the morning. Not only am I more awake than after the first coffee, it is a physical act that my emotional brain doesn’t want to do but when my thinking brain takes over and makes me do it every morning, I build confidence that I can overcome larger obstacles.
As part of my series about the leadership lesson of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Tobias. Martin is a serial entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. He has been CEO of four companies, invested in over 70 startups and been an early investor in many large markets including software (Microsoft), streaming media, renewable fuels and now the intersection of health, fitness and technology. Martin became passionate about tech-advancing health after reversing his cellular age by 20 years over the last two years, by utilizing the various services available at Upgrade Labs — his next generation health and wellness facility, and he is determined to inform everyone of its benefits.
Thank you so much for joining us Martin! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It first started when I was five. I really wanted this cool space age AM/FM radio shaped like a satellite on a keychain — it was $27. My parents wouldn’t buy it for me despite epic displays of cuteness and a couple tantrums. Soon after, a kid at my pre-school showed up with the hottest new sneakers and told us he had earned the money to buy them at his Kool-Aid stand on the weekend: problem meet solution. The next weekend I sat at a table in front of our house and earned enough for three radios and that’s when I became hooked on entrepreneurship. My life since then has been a series of personal problems that I have worked to solve through a combination of investments and entrepreneurship. When I find a company solving a problem in a field I’m interested in, I invest. If I feel like no one is doing it right, I may start the problem-fixing company myself.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I graduated Oregon State University with a degree in Business and Computer Science. I was interested in solving business problems with computers and I really wanted to work for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) who were the leaders in Enterprise technology implementation at the time. I landed an interview in the Portland Oregon office but they said I wasn’t qualified and there were no relevant positions available. They suggested I explore Proctor and Gamble but I didn’t want to drive around a station wagon full of toothpaste or stock grocery shelves, so I drove up to the Andersen office in Seattle after I was offered an interview there. I didn’t tell them I had been turned away from the Portland office, and I was offered the position. A couple of months later I met the manager who had interviewed me at the Portland office, and despite being surprised to see me, he commended me on a good job, and said he had made a mistake in not hiring me. Part of Grit is not taking no for an answer.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Curiosity and my grandfather — Reverand Tobias, who was a big inspiration to me. He was a self-made banker and minister, a Quaker. Growing up he would always tell me I could do or be anything I wanted if I worked hard enough and I believed him. His voice was going through my head as I drove to Seattle for my second Andersen interview. I have also always been very curious and loved learning new things. I put myself through college, and came out with a lot of debt as most graduates do and it was on me to pay it back and I wanted to do it as fast as possible. As I started to get some financial success, I remained very curious and continue to find interesting problems to solve. That curiosity has continued to drive me into new fields and new ventures that keep things interesting.
So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?
Things today are amazing, but not because of any ‘eventual success’ — that sounds like a destination. I achieved a level of financial success that would have enabled me to not work for the rest of my life in my mid-20s. Success is not a destination, it is a process. For me, success is being in a constant state of flow with interesting problems to solve which are challenging enough to keep things interesting. I have ‘retired’ three times for periods of 2–3 years but I always get bored without challenges. I have found success by continuing to grow, learn and hang around interesting people that are (hopefully) smarter than I am.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In my first start-up after Microsoft, Loudeye Technologies, I wanted to blow up as many traditional corporate norms as possible. As part of that, I wanted to do away with traditional titles of CEO, VP, etc., and opted to give everyone Minister titles. I, as CEO was, The Minister of Order and Reason, my CFO was Minister of the Money, and so on. The titles were meant to be funny, cheeky, and self-deprecating. Every business card exchange or customer/investor presentation drew questions about the titles and our culture. The SEC wouldn’t let us use them in the S1 to go public. We had to grow up they said (really). While I did grow up, I learned that it is better to be remembered and to spark an authentic discussion about the values and culture of the company than to conform. Don’t try to gain credibility by doing what your parents or others think you should do, show yourself and your unique value in the world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Upgrade Labs is taking the health and fitness secrets of those at the top of their game and bringing them to everyone. We are one of the first to integrate the worlds of health care, fitness and wellness with a data-driven platform supported by advanced technology that enables our members to achieve the results they deserve. The Healthcare industry is really about fixing you after you have become broken, not about keeping you healthy. The Fitness industry has not delivered fitness (obesity in America is growing faster than gym membership). The Wellness industry has traditionally sold alternative experiences with very little scientific support or accountability. At Upgrade Labs we can measure how healthy you really are across multiple markers including physical, cognitive, and cellular health. Our technology designs a personalized journey through advanced training technologies which is guaranteed to measurably improve your health. Two years ago my cellular age was roughly the same as my calendar age (53). Today my cellular age is 20 years younger than my calendar age. That is the kind of radical transformation we are bringing to the world.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
If you are near an Upgrade Labs facility, join. Seriously. If not, meditate. Meditation builds the mental resilience one needs to handle lifes stresses. You are not going to get rid of stress in life, instead you need to train to deal with it more efficiently and resiliently. Three years ago I added meditation to the requirements of any CEO in any company I consider investing in. If they don’t meditate, I don’t invest. Being a CEO is very hard and you need to be resilient. Meditation builds resiliency and anyone can, and should, do it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Bill Gates. The vision of a computer on every desk and in every home was one I shared and was very honored to be a part of the early days of that industry. When I started at Microsoft, Ashton Tate owned the PC database, Word Perfect owned word processing, Lotus owned the spreadsheet, Novell owned networking, and Microsoft’s Windows was struggling. Yet we all kept on the mission, following the smartest guy we knew with a crazy dream that was against all odds. It was not at all clear at that time we would succeed, and plenty thought we would fail but the passion and grit kept us going. While my part in Microsoft’s success was very small, I learned about passion and long-term thinking and solving problems you are personally invested in. That is the difference between great founders and average ones.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Many of the technologies we have at Upgrade Labs, the 1% have in their homes. When I first discovered them for myself, I was just going to buy everything for my own house. Dave Asprey, the founder of Upgrade Labs pulled me aside and said “sure you can do that, but you aren’t helping anyone. Let’s figure out how to make this stuff available to everyone.” In the last couple of years we have helped so many people transform physically and mentally. It is my mission now to bring these new ways of health and fitness to the world. When people are healthy and happy, goodness is possible.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
I have thought quite a bit about Grit. Grit is the magical combination of perseverance and passion. On my blog you can take the Grit Test and see how you stack up against the population. I have also written about how to recover your grit after a setback. While I have tried many things to build grit, here are the top five things I have found built grit the fastest to a sustainable level.
- Purpose. Notice I didn’t say passion — passions come and go. Purpose is longer-lasting and it is easier to have grit for something larger than yourself, something with purpose. To help find yours, check out this handy dandy Five Step Life Purpose generator. Only attempt to apply grit to a high value purpose.
- Learn your strengths. I have a friend who went to medical school because his parents told him he had to, but he sucked at studying. It did not end well. Ben Horowitz gave an amazing commencement address one time telling student’s not to follow their passions, but to follow their strengths. Then the questions is what are my strengths? Well someone has figured out what the top character strengths are and how to rank your own. Take the test. Follow your strengths.
- Be selective. Grit is very cognitively expensive and it takes a lot of work. I have a budget for grit because it is a limited resource. You could spend grit to complete a binge of every Soprano episode ever. Or to stay in a job you hate. Or to stay in a relationship which is abusive. But why? What to spend grit on? See #1.
- Take a cold shower. Grit builds over time as you overcome obstacles and gain confidence. What are small steps to start the positive feedback cycle going? For me, a good one is taking a cold shower in the morning. Not only am I more awake than after the first coffee, it is a physical act that my emotional brain doesn’t want to do but when my thinking brain takes over and makes me do it every morning, I build confidence that I can overcome larger obstacles. My favorite hack to add new habits is the Tiny Habit method.
- Get a coach. Life is going to knock you down, that is a given. The question is, will you get back up again and keep going. A gritty person will keep getting back up and a coach will help you get back up faster and more frequently. This doesn’t have to be a formal paid coach, these people can be friends, advisors or mentors. When you are pursuing a bigger purpose, have a couple people you can call when the going gets tough who will buck you up, remind you of your purpose and get you back in the fight.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Dave and I kind of already have. The core insight of biohacking is that you have the ability to influence your health and fitness directly, and choose a different biological path for your life. Part of this is waking up to the influences around you, questioning the path you are maybe unconsciously on (likely driven by commercial interests without your best interests at heart), and actively choosing the path. Many people blindly follow paths or ping-pong around, following the latest trends without really stepping back, collecting some data about themselves and making considered choices. The more people who pause, question the path, then set out on an intentional path, the better we all will be.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram: @martingtobias, @upgradelabs
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!