How do you bounce back from an early setback? Our guest today knows. He was on the path to do what many people dream of doing, making it into the big leagues as a professional athlete, and then an injury cut his pro career short.
Mike Robbins, who has reinvented himself a number of times, shares his personal experiences and what he's learned about the importance of being true to yourself.
Meet the Guest
Mike Robbins is the author of four books, Focus on the Good Stuff, Be Yourself Everyone Else is Already Take, Nothing Changes Until Your Do, and Bring Your Whole Self to Work. He delivers keynotes and seminars that empower people, leaders, and organizations to be more successful, appreciative, and authentic.
Prior to his current work, Mike played baseball at Stanford and then professionally with the KC Royals. After his athletic career was cut short by injuries, he worked in the tech world, before starting his consulting business in 2001. His clients include Google, Wells Fargo, eBay, Gap, Microsoft, and others.
Beth Davies, host: How do you bounce back from an early setback? Our guest today knows. He was on the path to do what many people dream of doing, making it into the big leagues as a professional athlete, and then an injury cut his pro career short.
Welcome to Career Curves where we talk to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are today. I'm your host Beth Davies.
Today we're joined by Mike Robbins, who has reinvented himself a number of times. First as a baseball player, then as an account executive selling online ads, and now as an author and motivational speaker. Mike shares his personal experiences and what he's learned about the importance of being true to yourself.
Mike, welcome to Career Curves.
Mike Robbins, guest: Thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Beth: One of the places that we like to start is at the beginning and how your childhood influenced your career. Any connections?
Mike: My parents split up when I was three, so I was primarily raised by my mother, but some of my earliest memories that have to do with work are about my dad. He worked at a series of different radio stations, but the last station he worked at, it was here in the Bay Area in San Francisco at KFOG. I would go in and he would sit me in the recording studio and I loved it, all the equipment and everything. I put the headset on and I would get to talk into the microphone. I just remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever. So, the earliest memory I have of thinking about what I want to do when I get older was I wanted to be on the radio like my dad. So now I have my own podcast and I'm sitting here doing this. Whenever I get a chance to do this, I'd often think about my dad. He died in 2001, but that was definitely an influence.
My dad also suffered from bipolar disorder and his depression and his mental illness. Ultimately he lost his job and then wasn't working from the time I was probably about seven. So, I was raised by a single mom. We didn't have a lot of money.
I knew from an early age I wanted to do something that's important to me, that I'm passionate about, and I also would love to make a lot of money because nobody around me in our family made a lot of money and there was a lot of stress about that.
Beth: What were some of the early strategies that you had for how you would make that happen for yourself?
Mike: Very soon, actually, probably by the age of about six or seven... My mother was a PE teacher and so sports were really important to her and to my dad. We watched sports, particularly baseball and the Oakland A's. I started throwing a ball around. My mom taught me how to throw and catch and I started playing tee ball at seven and I was pretty good at it. And then I was like, "Okay, I'm going to play for the Oakland A's and be in the major leagues." I was pretty focused on that at age seven and then stayed on that track for a number of years.
Beth: Did anybody ever say to you things like, "Hardly anybody makes it into the major leagues, Mike. What's your plan B?" And, did you as a result have a plan B?
Mike: You know, it's funny. I had some sense it was hard, but also as a kid, it wasn't that I was overly cocky per se, but I just had this inner confidence.
Education was also really important. My mom had gone to Tufts, my dad had gone to Wellesley. They're both from the east coast and there was this sense of, "You're going to go to college and you're going to go to a good college."
I remember asking my mother, this is around eight years old, "Mom, what's the best college in the country?"
She says, "Harvard."
And I say, "Okay, I'm going to go to Harvard and play baseball."
Then, I must've been at school or in the school yard telling the other kids, "I'm going to go to Harvard and play baseball," and some kids said, "Harvard doesn't have very good baseball team."
I went home and said, "Mom, you didn't tell me about Harvard's baseball team!"
She's said, "Well it's the Ivy League. They're really good schools but not known for sports."
So I said, "What's the best school in the country that has a really good baseball team?"
And she said, "Well that would probably be Stanford."
And I said, "Okay, then I want to go to Stanford and play baseball." I was like eight.
I was a pretty goal oriented kid, so that was my goal and that continued to be my goal as I went through middle school and high school and then, ultimately, I got a chance to play at Stanford, which was pretty cool.
Beth: Have you continued to be that way, goal oriented, as an adult as well?
Mike: Yeah, I would say so. It's evolved for me over the course of my life. There's a light side and dark side to that, right?
I mean the light side is you're focused and go make things happen. The dark side is, at least for me, I can get overly obsessed with the outcome and not always enjoy the process as much as I'd like.
I often tell the story that the day I walked on campus at Stanford was simultaneously one of the most exciting days and most humbling days of my life because I had been focused on this goal for so many years. I found out I was going in the fall. So November of my senior year in high school, I'm going to Stanford. So, I'd been the kid that's going to Stanford for the last 10 months and then I show up on campus at Stanford and here I am. Then I look around and I had this really basic but profound thought and I realized, oh, everybody else got into Stanford too. All of a sudden I was terrified and like, "Oh my God," and then I started meeting the other kids. I thought these people are way smarter than me.
That's how I felt about all the people on the baseball team. They were way more talented than I am and I immediately started to experience what I now understand we call the Imposter Syndrome when I was like, "How did I get in here?"
Then I started to see, especially as I got a little older, having goals and going for them can be great, but sometimes accomplishing them can both be exciting and stressful and they almost always, I think this is true with a lot of things in life, they're not what we think they are. At least that's been my experience. I get there and it's like, "Yeah, it's great" but this wasn't the thing that magically transformed my life and took away that part of me that thought, "This was going to be the thing that would fill me up." You know what I mean?
Beth: It didn't fix everything. It didn't fill you up.
Mike: Not at all.
Beth: Tell me about Imposter Syndrome. Here you are, in college, you made it. You said you had Imposter Syndrome. Do you remember what you did back then to work through that Imposter Syndrome?
Mike: It's a good question. One of my challenges in school always – I remember this even in junior high school and high school and I was a good student – the whole thing seemed weird to me. Like, why are we learning all this stuff? What's the point of all of this? When am I going to use this? And especially as I'm going through adolescence and feeling all the fear and doubt and insecurity that I felt, that of course every other kid was feeling too, that nobody was talking about...
Beth: Yeah, we don't talk about that.
Mike: And the same thing when I get to college. There was all these really smart, talented kids at Stanford, but I was yearning to be having deeper conversations about, "Is anybody else feeling all of this stuff inside that I'm feeling?" I was able to find a few friends in a few places, both guys I played baseball with and a couple of the women that I dated, and places where it felt safe enough to open up to talk about some of these things. Those were always the most meaningful relationships that I had and that's where I felt the best and the safest. I could be real with them and then, usually what I noticed is, when I admitted my own fear, they would respond in kind. I didn't think they were doing it just to be nice to me. I think they were genuinely feeling that too, which made me feel like, "Okay, I'm not crazy."
When I look back on it now and I think about the work that I do and my passion for realness and authenticity and vulnerability, I think it started early in my life. Once I started to realize, "Oh, everybody else has their own story and their own struggle and their own challenge," it both made me feel more connected to people and it made me feel less like I was crazy or something was wrong with me.
Beth: I imagine, too, that strategy for overcoming Imposter Syndrome has carried forward for you.
Mike: Yeah, I think even to this day, one of the things that I try to do is just tell the truth about how I'm actually feeling. I've now learned if I'm feeling it, I assume someone else is, if not a lot of other people in the environment. You know?
I remember when I was first starting my business, I would go to networking events and I would often go find someone and one of the first conversations I would have, even was a stranger, was, "Hi, my name is Mike..." and I would just tell them how scared I was about being at the event. They would look at me like I was crazy and they'd be like, "Can we talk about that?" and then they'd say the same thing too. That would calm me down to know I could say that out loud. This person didn't think I was crazy and they responded similarly.
Beth: And, I'm not in this alone. I'm just not in this alone.
Mike: Yeah, exactly.
Beth: Going back to college... So your goal was to get into Stanford and play baseball.
Beth: Once you got there, did you create a new goal? What happens once you meet a goal like that?
Mike: The ultimate goal, as it related to baseball, was to make it to the major leagues.
I did get drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school...
Beth: Out of high school?
Mike: Yeah, which was a very interesting experience. When people ask me about that, it was 1992 and the New York Yankees are the New York Yankees. Even if you're not a sports fan, you know the Yankees were a big deal. But the Yankees were in the midst of a stretch between 1981 and 1996, where they did not go to the World Series. They did not go to the playoffs. They had a really rough stretch. That said, it was a huge deal.
I wasn't really contemplating actually signing with the Yankees at that time for two reasons. One, I really wanted to go to college and get my education. The baseball at Stanford is really good and I figured if I went there and played, I'd get a chance to get drafted again out of college. But it is a little bit of a risk.
The other thing was I had a minor injury to my arm my senior year in high school that I was able to pitch with that not very many people knew about. So it was a reality of, "Hey, I hope I can do this for a long time, but if not, it's really important that I get my education."
So I went into Stanford with the idea, like most of the guys that I played with at Stanford, we all wanted to be there and get our education and play there. But every single person who plays baseball at Stanford wants to play professionally. That's the next step. The goal was to get drafted – be able to play at Stanford and play well. You become eligible to get drafted if you go to a four year school after your junior year. So it's kind of a three year plan to take as many classes, get as many units as possible, try to get a little ahead so you can graduate a little early, so if you get drafted as a junior and sign, you can come back your senior year and finish up before you go off to Spring Training the next year. That's ultimately what happened for me.
Beth: The end of your junior year, you do get drafted. What was that experience like?
Mike: Well, it was amazing in general, but we were in Omaha, Nebraska at the College World Series. It's the national championship of baseball. My junior year we made it to Omaha, which is a huge goal. None of us on our team had ever been there.
So, we're in Omaha and the night of the draft I get a phone call in the hotel room where we're staying to find out that I'd been drafted by the Kansas City Royals. It was super exciting. Although the funny story behind it is in those days, this is 1995 and the information in those days wasn't in real time. We didn't have smartphones, so finding out if you got drafted and where you got drafted could potentially take more than 24 hours. They sent telegrams. It's almost like the Stone Age. I knew that some of my teammates were going to also get drafted, but they may not yet have known. So, I told my roommate, "Listen, I don't want to tell anybody." We were on our way to a banquet that night for the College World Series. Another one of our teammates, who was also a junior, who was on pins and needles wanting to know if he got drafted, calls our room. I pick up the phone and he's like, "Robbins, did you find out if you got drafted or not?"
I couldn't lie. So I told him and I said, "Don't tell anybody." Then, 10 minutes later, we go down to get on the bus and he had told everybody, so I get a standing ovation on the bus from everybody except for the couple of other guys who were waiting to see if they got drafted who were so stressed out.
Anyway, it ended up being an amazing experience being there in Omaha and getting drafted and finding that out. It was a dream-come-true moment.
Beth: Unbelievable. One of the things that's interesting about professional sports is that you don't get to pick your team. It's not like business where I get to decide, "Do I want to join company X or company Y."
Beth: Are there any feelings there about "is this the team I wanted or didn't want" or is it just the fact that this is major league baseball.
Mike: For the most part, we all just want to get drafted and, sure, it'd be great if I got drafted by the Oakland A's, the team I grew up rooting for, that would be really exciting. The practical reality though in baseball in those days, and even now, is you want to get drafted by a team in a small market like the Kansas City Royals or the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Minnesota Twins, because if you sign with a team like that, you have a good chance to make it to the major leagues faster. If you get drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Yankees or the Chicago Cubs or the Boston Red Sox or one of the big market teams, they spend so much money – they go and basically buy free agent players for their major league team – it's very difficult to make it up through the minor leagues to get there.
So I was in a good position. The Royals were really bad and it was like, "Hey, that's a great team to get drafted by," because I got a shot. If I can play well in the minor leagues, I could get to the major leagues much quicker than if I had actually signed with the Yankees. Does that make sense?
Beth: It makes total sense. So you get drafted and the way baseball works is they send you to the minor leagues first?
Beth: Is that something that you take in and say, "Okay, this is great because it's part of the learning path," or is it like, "Oh, but I'm still not playing." Tell me that experience?
Mike: Well, it's interesting. There's actually six levels of the minor leagues. The highest level right before the major league, is called AAA. Then there's AA. Then you have three levels of what's called A Ball. And then there's Rookie Ball. The kids that sign out of high school will usually go to Rookie Ball. The guys that sign out of college will go to what's called Short Season A Ball, and that's where I went.
I went up to Spokane, Washington, and most of the other guys on my team were all guys who had just gotten drafted out of college. I ended up getting moved up about a month in. They moved me up to the Low A Ball team, which was in the Midwest. I go there and it was really different because some of these guys had played minor league baseball for a few years. It was just a different vibe.
It was great to get moved up, but you start to realize this is a grind. This is not very sexy. We're making hardly any money. I made $850 a month my first year in professional baseball. That's it. You get a little signing bonus if you're lucky and then that's what you have to live on. You only get paid during the six months of the season, so you have to get a job.
My first off season I had to go back to Stanford to finish my degree, but then the next couple of years when I was still playing, in the off-season I had to get a job. I was a substitute teacher. I did other random things to try to make a little money. If you get to the major leagues, it gets very sexy. Very interesting. You make a lot of money. The ballparks are beautiful, you're in big cities, but in the minor leagues, even at AA and AAA, which I never got to because of my injury, it's not that glamorous.
Beth: How do you maintain your self-esteem in this kind of an environment where it seems you go from, "Hey, I'm the top. I'm the best in my college. I'm being drafted." Then you go down to the bottom and you're competing against all these other players. You're getting this kind of message of you're good, but you're not so good. How do you maintain your self-esteem?
Mike: It's tough. I think one of the things that I don't miss about sports is there's a constant pecking order and you're only as good as your last game. It's so numbers driven and statistically driven. In pro baseball it's also your height, your weight. As a pitcher it's the velocity, so every time I'd go out to pitch, there are all these scouts with radar guns and they're literally watching every pitch and writing it down. You feel like a piece of meat that they're evaluating and it's like, "Well that piece of meat is bigger and better than you, so we're going to take that one and not you."
It also isn't very team oriented. I did make some friends and connected with some of the guys, but in college there was some sense that we were focused on trying to win. We wanted to win the PAC 10 conference. We wanted to win, go to Omaha and win the College World Series. In pro ball, the focus is to make it to the major leagues. So, the truth is, your teammates are actually your biggest competition; the other pitchers on my own team. They're not going to call all of us up to the next level, they're only gonna call one or two of us. So I want to do better. It was pretty intense and I had to learn how to train myself to not root against my teammates because personally, it didn't feel good to me.
I also became more introspective in those days. I started reading more, I started writing in a journal, which I'd never really done much of. It was interesting. I look back on it now and realize it was a lot of personal growth for me during that time, but also a lot of fear and angst, because I really wanted to make it and I was also really scared that I wouldn't.
Beth: Then you had an injury that took you out.
Mike: Yeah. I was pitching...Did you ever see the movie Bull Durham?
Beth: Do I dare admit that I have not.
Mike: Oh, it's a great movie. It was late eighties, Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. It's a great movie. I highly recommend it.
Beth: I've heard great things about it, but don't know why I haven't seen it.
Mike: Well, it takes place in the town of Durham, North Carolina and the team is called the Durham Bulls. My last year in pro ball, I played for the Wilmington Blue Rocks in Wilmington, Delaware. It was in the Carolina League and the night I got hurt I was actually pitching against the Durham Bulls. I'd had some injuries previously and then the night that I got hurt, it was pretty significant and I knew it. I threw one pitch and it literally felt like someone shot a gun through my elbow and I couldn't even straighten my arm. I came off the mound, I went home that night with ice on it and woke up the next morning. And then I, ultimately, had what's called Tommy John Surgery or reconstructive elbow surgery that summer.
This was '97 and I knew I was going to be out for about a year-long rehab. People do come back from it. There's a lot of pitchers in the major leagues who've had it done. Even 20+ years ago, there was a pretty decent success rate. At the same time, it's pretty significant, so I knew there was a chance my career was in jeopardy.
I went back to spring training the next year and the Royals ended up releasing me, which basically means they gave up on me. They said, "Well, you might recover from the surgery but, good luck, see you later."
So now, I was still rehabbing from the injury. I came back home and ended up having another operation on my elbow because I was still having some pain. I had also torn the labrum, which is the cartilage in my shoulder. So, I had a shoulder surgery and then rehab from both of those with the idea that maybe I could still come back but I now was not under contract with any team.
That was a whole journey and a whole process that I had to go through both physically but then mentally and emotionally.
Beth: Yes, because you've been released. You've been making essentially no money even though you were in the minors. You're back now at home. You're injured.
Mike: Yes. Yes.
Beth: So here you are, this highly goal oriented person who's probably had a personal low at this at this particular point.
Mike: It was rough because it was my identity. My life had been oriented around baseball. On an ego level, I had a really good story to tell and then, all of a sudden I get hurt and it's, "Oh, I don't have a very good story to tell." Even as I say it now, as shallow as that sounds, I realized so much of my life had been run by this thing that I had a good story to tell whether I was really happy or miserable. Even if I met you at a cocktail party or at a family gathering or a barbecue, I could say, "Oh blah blah blah...," and people are interested even if they're not sports fans. It's still an interesting story.
When I ultimately got a job in the fall of '98, working in technology, I still had not fully acknowledged that I wasn't going to play baseball anymore. I still was holding out hope that maybe that spring of '99, I would go down to Arizona, work out for some teams, get picked up, go back and play. Then I'd quit my tech job and go back into baseball.
Beth: Because you were still "Mike the baseball player," right now biding a little bit of time, but "I'm still Mike, the baseball player."
So I get the job for this company called 24/7 Media in the fall of 1998, this is dot com boom time. This company basically reps a bunch of like 600 different websites and sells their ad space, their banner ads. I don't know anything about working, let alone even like using a laptop...
Beth: How did you get the job?
Mike: The guy who hired me, a guy named Stephen Comfort, great guy, I got connected to him through someone from the Stanford Alumni Network. Steven had gone to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and was a left handed pitcher at UNC. We get on the phone and he looks at my resume and he's like, "Baseball,? What position? Pitcher? Lefty?"
Then we have the interview and we talked baseball the whole interview and he's like, "I love hiring athletes. You can figure this job out in sales."
He offered me a sales assistant role and then I negotiated because I got some coaching from someone else and he was impressed that I negotiated so he gave me an inside sales job. And I'm like, "Okay." I was excited, but now I don't know what the heck does this mean? I don't even know what to do.
I was still hoping that I can go back and play baseball. Three months into that job, I was back pitching. I had rehabbed from my surgeries, but I was in so much pain. I went out to dinner in North Beach in San Francisco the night of my 25th birthday with my mom and my sister – I don't think my dad was with us – and my girlfriend at the time. I told them very teary-eyed, "I'm retiring from baseball. I can't do it anymore." It was really hard and that was how baseball ended for me.
Beth: Did it help at all that you had this ad sales job or were those really compartmentalized for you in two different things?
Mike: It did in the sense that I had a job, I was making a little bit of money. It was a practical way of moving on with my life, but I didn't know what the heck I was doing. I didn't know why I was doing it. It seemed like, well I'm in the Bay Area and this is what's happening, the dot com thing.
I was more focused, quite frankly, on the girlfriend that I had at the time. She and I had this really on-again-off-again, rocky relationship and I was just didn't want to lose baseball and get my heartbroken back-to-back, which is ultimately what ended up happening. But I was trying to hang onto the relationship for some sense of stability.
Through that whole process, within a few months, baseball ended, my relationship ended and I was living at home with my mother, which is what a lot of kids do coming out of college these days and there's no shame about it, that's just what happens, that's the economic reality. That was not the case for me at that time. People didn't go back to live with their parents unless there was a problem.
So, I was living with my mother in the house that I grew up in in Oakland and driving into San Francisco for this job doing online ad sales, which I didn't really know what the heck I was doing and why I was doing it.
Beth: How did you ultimately pull yourself back up?
Mike: What happened for me in that process was I got really interested in personal growth and development. I had seen a good therapist when I was in college. I had struggled with some of my own depression and knowing about mental illness from my dad and my family. I also got really interested in reading books. I was reading books by people like Wayne Dyer and Marianne Williamson and these spiritual teachers, Thomas Moore and Carolyn Mason. It was all personal growth, metaphysics and health.
I also got interested in how come my arm didn't get better when I went to the doctor and they did the things and the surgeries and gave me all the medicines and all the exercises. It was like maybe there was some mind-body connection to that. I just started asking some deeper questions.
I started taking a bunch of personal growth workshops – it's where I ultimately met my wife, Michelle – and I just got really interested in that work because it was helping me as I was going through all of this difficult stuff. Also, there was a community of people and people were getting real and they were talking about real stuff and how they really felt and I was like, "Oh my gosh, you can talk like this? You can engage like this?"
Beth: "I've wanted this since I was in college."
Mike: Exactly, and not only were people doing that, there are people that teach this. I was like, "How do you get to do that? I want to do that," and then I started getting really interested in what are the qualifications of people who write books like this? What does it take to be a speaker? I'd go to one of these workshops and someone was facilitating the workshop and I'm like, "How did they get trained to get up there and lead the workshop, because I think I want to do that?"
That's what started to really pull me through. It's like when you get your heartbroken in a relationship, you have to go through the process of grieving the loss, but usually, at least in my experience of heartbreak, it ultimately ends when you fall in love with someone else. Right? At least that's been my experience.
It took me a few years, but falling in love with my own growth and development and then wanting to do that to inspire other people was what helped pull me through. And you know, to this day I'm just so grateful for that.
Beth: And so what were some of those steps that you needed to take to get yourself into this field of writing books, speaking about personal growth, speaking about authenticity, authentic self?
Mike: Well, I worked for 24/7 for a year and a half. Had some success there and then got hired by this company called Rivals.com that was a sports website based up in Seattle. They were expanding, they were going to go public, and they wanted to open up sales offices in all the big markets around the country. They hired me and paid me twice what I was making and all of these stock options and it was like, "Okay, cool, I'm going to get rich."
Some of my friends were working for these companies that were going public and they were all getting rich and I was like, "Well, that'll be cool."
Beth: And that was one of your goals as a kid.
Mike: Yeah. I'll make some money. I didn't love what I was doing, but I'll keep doing this, learn some skills. If I can make some money and leverage that.
The long-term goal was maybe down the road, in five years or so, if I have some success and learn some things, maybe I can start writing and speaking. I don't know what that looks like. I still don't know how one gets qualified to do that.
And then, the dot com bubble burst in the spring of 2000 when the Nasdaq crashed. That was right when I got the new job and I got laid off in July, so three months after getting this new job. We were going to go public, it was all going to go great. Not only did that not happen, but I was out of work.
By that fall and into early 2001, everybody who was my age who was working in technology was getting laid off, but when I got laid off in July, it wasn't yet cool. It was like super scary because now I'm like, "Well, what am I going to do?"
Then a mentor of mine said to me, "Well, if you could do anything, what would you do. If you didn't have to worry about paying the bills and you could just do what you wanted?"
And I said, "Well, I would speak and I would write and I would share anything that I've learned and anything I'm learning and anything from my story with other people in a way that might inspire them."
He was like, "You seem really clear. You should do that."
And I was like, "Now?"
And he said, "Yeah, well why not?"
And I said, "Because I'm 26 years old and I don't know anything and nobody knows who I am and I don't even know how you make money doing that."
And he's like, "You could wait until you figured it out or you could just do it now."
So that was the beginning of a process for me. The rest of that year I was half-heartedly looking for a job. It was hard to find a job. Everybody my age was out of work, nobody was hiring.
Then I met Michelle, my wife, who had started her own staffing company a few years earlier and she really encouraged me. She was like, "Look, starting your own business is not that easy, but it's not as hard as you think and you have a real gift and you're really passionate and you can do it."
With her encouragement and a few other mentors, I just decided in the beginning of 2001 to start my own business. I had a little bit of a plan. People were giving me advice: go back to school, get a masters or a PhD in psychology or organizational development. I love to learn, never loved school, and so I thought if I have to, I will, but my idea was I was going to design my own curriculum for a year. I would take every workshop I could afford, read every book, listen to every cassette tape (in those days I still had my Sony Walkman that I loved) and write. Learn as much I could. Meet people.
Anyone I met who was coaching, who was teaching, who was speaking, who was writing, who was facilitating. I'd take them out to coffee and just pick their brain. How did you start? How do you make money? Who do you know? I'd use the network that I had from baseball, from Stanford, from sales, and just do whatever I could for a year.
I figured at the end of that year, I'd probably be broke and I might even be in debt. But if I went back to school, I was going to be broke and in debt anyway. I figured at the end of it, if I couldn't get any business and I wasn't generating any money doing this, then I'll go find a job.
It was lean the first couple of years, but I did get lucky in the sense that there were a ton of companies here in the Bay Area, like Wells Fargo, Kaiser, Chevron, who were hiring people who were young like me. They'd want me to come in and speak about how you work with people who are different and how we create a culture of teamwork and collaboration, which was something I was just interested in from my years playing baseball and growing up in Oakland and diverse environments. Things went well in some of these places and they liked what I said or how I said it, and they'd ask me to come back. I'm like, "Really? Okay." So then I just kept coming back whenever I could.
I literally would go speak anywhere. I'd go talk at the Rotary Club in Mill Valley, California or wherever. And it was amazing. I spoke at a Little League event in Palo Alto and one of the dads comes up and say, "I'm the CEO of this company and my team's really should..."
That was how it started to happen and I just kept following where it was taking me.
Beth: So it sounds like, initially, you weren't even necessarily picking your exact topic. Like you're saying here, they're looking for somebody to help break down some generational barriers, you'll talk about that. At what point did you recognize that you were able to shift it and start to say, "You know something, I can actually craft my own message and go after that?"
Mike: What's interesting is for me is I'm passionate about all the different topics that I've written books about. For me, it's always been about the relationship and the connection with people. It's not to say that I don't think the content is important or the topic is important, but it's always been when I connect with a person or a team or a group, getting a sense of what's needed, and do I have anything to offer that I think might benefit this person, if I'm coaching someone, or this group if I'm working with a team.
When I started, I was telling my story and the thing with my story about baseball, what I realized in reflecting on the experience after it was over, was the only regret that I had from it wasn't that I didn't make it to the big leagues, wasn't that I didn't end up pitching at Yankee Stadium and making millions of dollars. I mean those were disappointments, but I didn't regret that, because I had given it everything that I had.
Beth: That's such a great distinction.
Mike: Yeah, the difference. You can be disappointed. I was deeply disappointed. I was devastated. I was super sad. I really wanted... To this day, I wish I would have had the experience of pitching at Yankee Stadium. That would have been cool. I have dreams sometimes that I'm in the major leagues pitching and I wake up in the morning and my first reaction is sadness. It's like, "Oh, that would've been really cool." I wish I could have had that experience and I didn't. However, I didn't regret it because I gave it my all. I put my heart and soul into it.
The only regret that I had, though, is I didn't fully appreciate it while it was happening. I was stressed out. I was worried I wasn't going to make it. I was comparing myself to everyone around me. I was holding my breath trying not to screw up. It was like when it was finally over, I was able to say without being arrogant, "You know what? I was pretty good at that. I worked really hard at that."
I should have enjoyed that more because like it took me to places I never would have... Even to this day, I'm so grateful for my baseball career because in a lot of ways it's allowed me to do some of what I do now, but I was so goal oriented. This is the dark side of being so goal oriented. I said to myself, "I'll appreciate it when I make it."
My coach at Stanford, who I respect, used to say, there was a saying, he would say, "Get there, then rest." That was the mentality of you get there, right? There's some wisdom in that: work really hard, get there, then you celebrate. But it was that mentality that actually kind of bit me in the butt, if you will, because I didn't rest, I didn't relax, I didn't enjoy it enough.
So I said to myself, I want to learn from that. I don't want to do that as I move forward in my life. And you know what? I know a lot of people can't necessarily relate to playing professional baseball like me, but I bet a lot of people can relate to not appreciating what they have while they have it until after the fact.
That became, "Oh, this is universal." So my work around appreciation became how do we appreciate what we have while we have it.
Then I started thinking about who are the best coaches I played for? What were the best teams I was on? The best teammates? They were always the ones who I felt like they valued me and they cared about me. So that became part of the message.
Ultimately, the first book that I wrote Focus On the Good Stuff was about that, but it's continued to evolve. The topics – authenticity or compassion, or how do we move through and create change, and then some of the topics around leadership and things – they've more evolved just from my own growth. I still look at it from the standpoint of, "I'm just trying to figure some things out. I'm just paying attention to what I see out there. Let me offer to you my perspective and, hopefully, it might be helpful to you and then you can take it and do whatever you want to do with it because you have a different life and a different set of challenges and goals than I do. But let's see what works."
Beth: It's such a great story because you shared how you overcame the Imposter Syndrome in college, which was by making the connections, and here you are and you figured out how to keep fueling yourself and fueling others by making that connection. But now, sometimes you do it in larger group settings as opposed to one on one, but it's still human-to-human connection.
Mike: One of the things that I've learned and that helps me now, even when I find myself in situations where I am a little nervous or intimidated, is I think at the end of the day about something I heard Oprah say many years ago that I thought was so great. She said, "I've interviewed all these people – presidents, prime ministers, celebrities and all types of people. After almost all the interviews I've ever done, just about every single person asks me some version of the same question. When the interview's over, the camera shuts off, they lean over and they say, 'How'd I do? Or was that okay?'" And she said, "Early in my career I used to be really confused by this question because I'd be sitting across from someone who's really successful and accomplished and wondering are they really that insecure? Do they really need my validation? Then I realized something, they're not actually asking if they did okay. They're asking, 'Did you see me? Did you hear me? Did what I say matter to you?'"
She said, and I agree with her, everybody's asking those questions. What I try to remind myself, and not in some holier than thou way or in some hyperbolic way, but just can I see people and hear people and let them know you matter and can I encourage or inspire other people. If we do that for each other, that's what people really want.
So do you want to be a great leader and have impact on people? Well see them and hear them and let them know they matter.
Do you want to go do something really great in your life? Whatever the goal may be, well see how you can engage with other people in a way that it's beneficial to them.
The things that are the most important and the biggest things, we can't do them alone.
I think back to my desire from childhood of wanting to connect with people, human to human, that it always makes me feel better and safer with other humans. Even if I really respect and admire and am impressed by someone in their accomplishments or their intelligence or what they've done. It's when they, as I like to say, lower the waterline on the iceberg and we get down to some deeper stuff of what's really going on. Then it's like, "Oh, you know what? We're not that different."
There's so much connection that we have as human beings. As simple as that is, I actually think in today's world with how fast we're moving and all the great technology we have that allows us to have this conversation and people can listen to it all over the world instantaneously on different devices, the art and skill of being able to connect human to human is so important and I think it's going to continue to be one of, if not the most important things for all of us.
I watch myself too. It's easy to almost forget because I'm staring at screens all day and I'm interacting with technology and I'm trying to move at the pace that life is moving. So, it's a challenge.
Beth: You mentioned before that when you were on the baseball journey, you weren't recognizing that you were on the journey and you were so focused on the end goal.
Beth: Where are you in the journey now?
Mike: That's a great question. I would say I definitely still struggle with it. I know better and I would say there are definitely aspects of my life and my work that I'm more mindful and I'm more conscious.
One of the things I notice as a father – we have two girls, Samantha who's 13 and Rosie who's 10 – and I have these moments, and I'm sure this is true for anybody who has children, but I just wake up and look and go, "Oh my God. How did that happen? I swear it was last week I was swaddling them as babies and wondering about when are they going to walk?" And now Samantha's three inches taller than Michelle and these things happen. So it has me stop and pause, but at the same time I can see that my own tendency to be really focused on the goals and the outcome and the success.
I'm working on a new book right now and wanting to be great and I have to constantly manage myself to stop and slow down and pay attention to what really matters. Sitting here in my office where we're doing this interview, it's to sit and look out the window and from time to time go, "Oh my gosh, be grateful for this."
Beth: I do have the pleasure of sitting in your office right now and I hope as you sit here and you look around that your eyes go to this picture that's here on the wall.
Beth: Hand painted by one of your daughters.
Beth: I don't know which one.
Beth: And it says, "Daddy, I know you loved me since I was born, but I've loved you for my whole life."
Beth: Talk about appreciating the moment and also passing your message of appreciation to your children. That's just such a special, special piece of art that you have there.
Mike: Thank you. I appreciate your pointing it out. When she gave it to me a few years ago, so sweet. And then putting it up. That's another like physical reminder or even this behind me asking the question...
Beth: "What do you appreciate in your life right now?"
Beth: For me right now, what I appreciate right now is you giving us this time and sharing your story. I've really enjoyed it. I know there's been a couple of times for me where I've had a hard time finding my next question because I'm in the moment, sucking in what you just said. And I'm like, "Wait! I've got another role I'm supposed to play. I'm supposed to be interviewing.
I do have a couple of final questions for you.
What would you say was the smartest career move that you made, whether intentionally or accidentally, and why?
Mike: I think starting my business as young as I did. It was scary. I wasn't really prepared, but I had people say to me, "You're young, you're not married, you don't have a mortgage, you can take some risks. If it doesn't work out, you'll be okay." I kind of got it intellectually, but I get it now, at 45 years old with two children looking back. If I were trying to do it now, not impossible, but a lot harder and a lot scarier.
Beth: If you could have one do over, what would it be?
Mike: You know, ironically I would say earlier on, I wish I would have joined a team or built a team. I'm such a team oriented person, but I couldn't. Nobody was hiring at that time. I really started because it was like the last resort. I was looking for a small consulting firm that could hire me and mentor me and I could apprentice or something. I think because things were lean and because I have this scrappy personality, I just did it myself. I wish I would have teamed up and partnered up in a way earlier on and built something of my own but also with other people.
Beth: What's one piece of career advice that you would like to give your younger self?
Mike: Relax. Just relax and trust yourself. Enjoy every step of the process. I think that I'd give that advice to myself at a younger age about career, but also about parenting, about marriage, about just about everything.
Beth: And the last question, how do you define success?
Mike: Hmm, that's a good question. I think I define success by doing what you love and loving what you do.
Beth: Wonderful. Mike, thank you so much. Again, I so appreciate this moment and having you in my life right now, so thank you.
You're welcome. Thanks for having me.
Beth: A quick epilogue. Mike has written four books: Focus On the Good Stuff. Be Yourself. Everyone Else is Already Taken. Nothing Changes Until You Do, and his most recent, Bring Your Whole Self to Work. He's also the host of the podcast, Bring Your Whole Self to Work.
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