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Tips From The Top: One On One With Mark Sisson

I spoke to Mark Sisson, founder of Primal Kitchen and New York Times bestselling author, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Mark: I never stop playing. In some ways I’m working harder now than ever in my life, and for that reason play is even more important. Most days I’m the only 60+ out on the Ultimate Frisbee field, but secretly I think I have more fun than all of the others. My latest adventure is EFoiling—kind of like slacklining on a snowboard. 

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Mark: It’s been a circuitous route to where I’m at today, but in hindsight I see how every single phase and project formed the trajectory. I thought my life would be wrapped up in athletics, but after my health gave out during my peak elite years, I was forced to find a new path. Ironically, that physical breakdown moved me to my next vision—to get well and to use what I’d learned to help others achieve better health. 

Mark: I had other setbacks along the way, but they taught me more specialized knowledge that got rolled into my later endeavors. Nothing was ever wasted, even though some directions seemed like detours at the time. 

What I’ve learned through all of it is to never stop being curious—about the world or about myself. People underestimate their own capabilities because they get stuck in a certain self-definition. This is my role, or this is my speciality, or this is my business. Your comfort zone has little to do with your identity, let alone potential. The day I decide there’s nothing more to learn about my own capacity, I might as well pack it in.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Mark: The great leaders I’ve admired are continually driven by a sense of purpose. An effective leader does more than divvy out projects and check reports. He/she manages a vision and maintains stability en route to it. Sure, we alter our business strategies at certain points when circumstances require it, but a good leader doesn’t lose sight of the original vision. It’s a challenge to be both visionary and ballast for your company, but that’s what’s needed if you’re not to lose your way over every minor setback. 

As for taking leadership skills to the next level, the mistake is to think in loftier and more abstract terms. I suggest people take time to dig into the ground floor of their business again in order to see it anew. Take on a few projects you haven’t done for a while, work with areas of operation you normally don’t have time for, and talk to your everyday audiences and customers. I guarantee you’ll come away inspired with new ideas and motivation. A leader should always be the penultimate worker, not just the director, in his/her venture. 

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

Mark: Have a genuine mission. There are a million business plans out there but relatively few missions. If what you’re doing doesn’t feel personal to you, you’ll be working at a disadvantage at every turn. Not only will you be hard-pressed to find the motivation to put in the long days required to build and grow a business, but you won’t have an inner compass for when things go awry. Being committed to a mission steadies you and offers a constant sense of orientation in what can be a chaotic experience. Another major benefit? Working for something bigger than your own benefit automatically expands the dimension of your vision.

Surround yourself with good people. At the end of the day, you’re only one person. In the early days of starting a business, maybe you can do it all for a while, but hopefully your venture outgrows that scope quickly. From the beginning, connect with others who believe in what you’re doing and who find personal meaning in your mission, too. You’ll speak a common language, and you’ll be able to trust their perspective in addition to their skills.

Be willing to be surprised. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who had very fixed ideas about their potential success. Sure, there are people who overshoot, but more often than you’d imagine I’ve encountered those who had a forgone conclusion that they’ll stay (relatively) small in their industry. Maybe that’s the right choice for some people who don’t want to disrupt their lifestyle, but I doubt this describes most entrepreneurs. Build your dream on a solid mission and take each turn as it comes. If you do something every single day to grow that mission, the big picture will take care of itself. And don’t forget to live your mission in your own life every day, too. Keep close to it.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Mark: Invest in yourself. I heard this decades ago, and it’s never steered me wrong. People want to be cautious, and I get the logic there, but in most cases that restraint will inevitably hold you back. You are and always will be your number one resource. View your own well-being, your own knowledge base, your own skills, your own energy as commodities. Protect them and invest in them. Everything else flows from there. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Mark: Find an issue or organization you believe in and make it a consistent part of your life. There will always be a thousand good causes asking for your attention, but make sure you find one you can really invest in and help grow with your time, resources and advocacy over the long term. Seeing the results of your consistent contribution should be an inspiring and meaningful part of your life’s work.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you? 

Mark: Does “anything outdoors” count? Growing up I spent my days running the woods of my hometown in Maine, but I took my first wilderness adventure trip as a teen. Everything changed from there. Climbing boulders, learning wilderness skills—suddenly I was working with a new confidence that’s driven me ever since. These days I spend most of my time outdoors playing Ultimate, hiking or paddle boarding, but I’ve done it all at one point or another along the way…from surfing to heli-skiing. Those collective wilderness experiences, both euphoric and quiet, opened my mind to something fundamental about human nature and thriving, which later played a role in my personal (and now very public) health philosophy.

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