When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.
Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Wendell Potter: I have a morning ritual, which I developed to keep me from checking my phone first thing in the morning: brush my teeth, start the coffee, drink a cup of hot water before the coffee’s ready, do a few Carl Sandberg stretches, walk the dog, meditate for a few minutes, then fix some oatmeal or a smoothie for my wife and me. Doesn’t take as long as it sounds.
TG: What gives you energy?
WP: My family. And the certainty that my new journalism venture, Tarbell, will succeed and make a positive difference in people’s lives.
TG: What’s your secret life hack?
WP: Sneaking peeks at a picture of my eight-month-old granddaughter. It reminds me why the work I’m doing is so important and why when a lot of folks my age are retiring I keep going.
TG: Name a book that changed your life.
WP: I have to name two: A History of God, by Karen Armstrong: and, believe it or not, Screw it, Let’s Do It–Lessons in Life by Richard Branson. (It was published when I was trying to decide whether or not to quit my corporate job and hit reset. I hit reset.)
TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
WP: Not anymore. Thanks, to a large extent, to you, Arianna. In fact, if you had asked this six months ago, I would have had to admit that I did sleep with it. Now, though, I put it in another room to charge before I go to bed and I don’t look at it until after my morning routine. Looking at my phone is no longer a part of that routine. I used to look at it the moment I woke up. No more.
TG: How do you deal with email?
WP: I now have a virtual assistant who monitors my inboxes. She sends me a text when I need to reply to something urgent. At the end of every day, she sends me a list of important emails to take care of. I wish I had done this years ago. I’ve stopped looking at my emails first thing in the morning.
TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
WP: I go for a walk. If I’m working at home, I’ll take Charlie with me. I try to remember to give him the time to smell what he finds compelling. That’s a reminder for me to be present and not distracted by thoughts of what I need to do when I get back to my desk.
TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
WP: Toward the end of my corporate career. I came to realize I was burned out and tired so much of the time, and unhappy, because I was engaged in work I no longer enjoyed or felt was honest. That was in 2008, the year I finally left my corporate job. I have not felt that way since. I love what I’m doing now and get energy from it, rather then being depleted by it.
TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
WP: This was not the last time but the most memorable (and shameful). I was a partner in a small PR firm in Atlanta several years ago. I convinced myself that I was contributing more to the business than my two partners. I lost my temper one day and said hurtful, inappropriate and unfair things to one of my partners. That incident led to the breakup of the partnership and the dissolution of the business. I carried a grudge for years. Thank God I eventually realized how badly I had behaved and how wrong I was about my contribution to the business. After years of having no communication, I finally called my partners to apologize. They graciously accepted my apology and we’re friends once again. But I will always regret acting in such a self-centered way. And I’ll always wonder what might have been if I hadn’t been such a jerk.
TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
WP: I read this as part of my morning ritual: “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.” (That’s a Dalai Lama quote I came across a few days after my 27-year-old daughter, Emily, passed away. I read it at her memorial service, and I’ve read it every morning since then. It’s at the top of my electronic calendar.) Also this one, which Sen. Robert Kennedy wrote in the preface of “Profiles in Courage” was President Kennedy’s favorite quote: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” (Attributed to Dante.) But I love this one, too, which I wrote down after hearing it on the Today Show ten years ago, shortly before quitting my corporate job: “The last place you want to be is in a first-class seat going somewhere you don’t want to go.”
Wendell Potter is an author, former corporate public relations executive and founder of a new nonprofit journalism platform—Tarbell.org—which will launch later this year. Wendell was a reporter in his home state of Tennessee in the ’70s, covering local and state politics–including the Tennessee statehouse–for The Memphis Press-Scimitar. Then, for Scripps-Howard newspapers, he covered Congress, the White House and Supreme Court. After some years in DC, Wendell spent more than two decades in the health insurance industry, first at Humana and then at Cigna. He served as head of corporate communications for Cigna when he left after a crisis of conscience in 2008. Wendell has written three books: Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans (a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Ridenhour Book Prize in 2011); Obamacare: What’s in It for Me/What Everyone Needs to Know about the Affordable Care Act (an ebook); and Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It (published by Bloomsbury USA in 2016).