A Reason To Believe With Olympian Sarah Wells
Everyone has their self-pursuits and goals to which they dedicate a decade or more of their lives to progressively step further and reach fruition. Believe in yourself, that is what you say to yourself to get that impulse of optimism and enthusiasm to strive further the challenging road ahead of you. But is it that easy to repeat it in chorus in your head? Sarah Wells, the Founder of The Believe Initiative, knows that exact sentiment. She had her cup of experience of setbacks and failure but was still able to triumph as an Olympic semi-finalist and life motivator. Join her in this episode as she shares her thought and experience covering self-motivation and how she rose to impediments. Learn how to gauge yourself and improve your self-worth.
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A Reason To Believe With Olympian Sarah Wells
How Belief In What’s Possible Can Fuel A Powerful Outcome
It is my great pleasure to welcome Sarah Wells to the show. I was introduced to Sarah by the wonderful Ron Tite as he knew that not only do we have common names, but we have common passions. Sarah is this bright light. In her presence, you can feel the energy and optimism come through with everything that she shares. The Obstacle is the Way is the title of a book by Ryan Holiday but it’s also a very wise perspective as our true growth always comes from challenges. As much as we’d like it to be different, that is the truth. Obstacles do not scare Sarah Wells. As an Olympic hurdler and Pan Am games silver medalist, Sarah has become an expert in overcoming hurdles, both literally and figuratively.
Founder of the Believe Initiative, Sarah has used her story to help over 120,000 people in North America understand the importance of being resilient and the power of believing in yourself. In the corporate world, Sarah has worked with organizations such as Salesforce, Deloitte, Procter & Gamble, Kraft Heinz, Bell Media and RBC on how to build more effective and resilient teams. As someone who is used to exercising for a living, she is a powerful force of vitality and so passionate about making an impact. She truly is. In our conversation, we discussed the power of belief. Sarah will give us actionable advice on how to turn our own lights up a little brighter. If we all do that, some remarkable things could happen. Without any further delay, please enjoy the conversation with the amazing Sarah Wells.
Sarah, it is so good to have you on the show. Thanks for taking the time.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited.
It was great. We were on the phone talking to our good friend, Ron Tite. He was like, “The two of you have to meet.” I was like, “We have similarities. You’re Wells. I’m Twells.” We have this last name connection, which is awesome.
We’re going to be Santa’s elves or something. We’ve got the jingle.
Most people either think my last name is Wells or the number twelve. It’s one of those interesting names. Wells is more common. Let’s talk about something other than our names. Let’s talk about you and your journey. In every episode, I will start out and everyone is going to know your bio by the time we get to the conversation. They’ll know a little bit about how amazing and miraculous you are in so many ways. My job now is to get the real story behind the story. We’re going to start out. I always begin with your origin story. Give everyone a grounding. What is the origin story of Sarah Wells and how did you get to where you are now?
There are a number of origin founding moments. I don’t tell this story very much. It’s fun to play with it here. I have the most amazing siblings. I’m sure everyone thinks that about their own siblings. There are four of us. My eldest sister would plan these siblings’ days, where it would be just us kids and my parents couldn’t come. There’s an eight-year difference between my eldest sister and me. There’s a ten-year difference span of all four kids. When I was eight years old and my sixteen-year-old sister wants to hang out with me, it was the best day ever. She helped foster this bond between us that allowed me to have a sense of belonging out in the world because I had these incredible relationships with my siblings.
I’m so grateful for my older sister because she treated me that way, which meant I treated my brother that way and he treated my other sister that way. It created this incredible dynamic. Where I saw that come to life the most is people ask me all the time like, “How did you know you’d become an Olympian? Were you that kid who had that dream?” I was like, “No, I sucked at sports.” I didn’t come from basketball, volleyball, badminton, soccer, field hockey, everything.
When I showed up to ninth grade, I got cut from every team. I was like, “I’m not athletic.” My high school teacher saw me in gym class ran up to the ball, get there and do nothing with it, and then accelerate again. He was like, “I want to teach you how to hurdle. You’ve got to come out for the track team.” I was like, “I already got cut from every team at the school. You don’t want me on your team.” He was like, “No, I could teach you how to hurdle.” I went into the track team. I ended up finding hurdles and falling in love with it and being good. That high school teacher and I stayed coach-athlete until we made the Olympics nine years later.
Sense Of Belonging
People always ask me, “What made you keep going? How did you keep trying out for teams?” I didn’t know this at the time. Honestly, I don’t even tell the sibling story very often. I had this epic sensation of belonging and the support behind me that I could take those risks, go for a team and get cut again because I had these other foundational elements. I’m so grateful for that. I understand that not everyone has that. What’s cool about the way the universe exists now being so digital and even pre-pandemic, how virtual it could be is we can find that sense of community in Facebook groups or Meetups that exist and in different extracurricular stuff that you can be involved in. It doesn’t have to be family or even close friends. If you don’t find yourself fitting in with a certain group, you could find that community because there are many places where you can find that belonging. That’s what enabled me to be able to take these risks and find who I was.
This whole idea of belonging is very interesting because it is so important in our level of success. That’s interesting that you talked about Facebook groups and social media. There’s a lot of research out there that people have all these friends digitally, but yet they don’t feel seen or heard or they can feel alone. The family dynamic is different. I feel like you were born with an extra helping of grit. Seriously, you have all these obstacles. It doesn’t work out. How many people would say, “I’m out. I’m done?” You kept going. What do you think it was about your DNA? Maybe it is this incredible sibling group. Is there something else about your DNA that gave you that ability to keep going?
I’m cautious to attribute it to DNA because that would say it’s not possible to foster and grow. I do believe that nature plays a role, but nurture plays an even more integral role. As people would have learned in the bio, I had an injury before my first Olympics that I was supposed to go to. I sat out for what was supposed to be three months turned into nine months. I had this broken femur. My crack is going to the biggest bone in my body. On my first day back to training I said, “I could have given up and didn’t. I could have walked away and chosen not to. If anyone can do this, it’s me.” I got the word “Believe” tattooed onto my wrist.
I’m not suggesting everyone go out and get a tattoo of their goal. I do often encourage people to find their word, phrase or quote that reminds them of the obstacles they’ve already overcome. That reminds them of the support and the people who they have around them and to get back up. For me, that was “Believe.” I could look down at that and, what’s that word? Write it down. Put it on a sticky note on your desk. Make it your phone display background, your desktop on your computer or whatever that is. It can help trigger that response in your brain because we all get defeated and deflated as things don’t go our way and as obstacles arise.
Importance Of Journaling
If we can have something to remind ourselves, “Why yesterday I said I could, but now for whatever reason, I think I can’t?” It sets you on a different course. We need that external support. That can come from a word. That can come from telling someone what your goal is and saying, “I’m headed for this big aspiration. I want to lead this company one day. I want to make that next rank. As impossible as that may seem because right now I’m way down here, I want you to know that that’s where I’m headed.” When you put that out there, when you’re brave enough to believe in yourself so strongly to start telling people, when you recruit that support and have that accountability to someone, they also might help you get there. You have access suddenly to more resources.
When people say, “If you were deflated and defeated, how did you get back up?” There are three things I recommend. One is to find your word. The second thing is to journal. People always roll their eyes when I say journal. I don’t mean like, “Dear diary, this day was so great.” No one wants to do that. You’re not twelve years old. I recognize that. For me, in sport, what I would do is keep a log of, what was my workout? What time did I run? What else was happening in my life around me? How did that either contribute to a great workout or not so great workout?
We can do that in our lives. What was I working on this week? What helped me succeed? What was a hindrance for me? What made me focus? What didn’t make me focus? What was I excited about? What was I not excited about? What resources do I have available? What resources were taken off the table? You don’t have to do it daily as I did in my workouts, but you could do it weekly or at least monthly. When you get into those moments where stuff hits the fan, you don’t go into that place where you’re like, “What a terrible meeting. They must think I’m so stupid. I’m never going to get that job. What was I thinking before? Everyone is way further ahead than me.” You go into this epic spiral down.There are people with all these friends digitally, yet they don't feel seen or heard, and they actually can feel alone. Click To Tweet
The internal critic starts having a heyday with you, right?
Exactly. If you can go back to this journal, this log that you have, you can say, “That meeting sucked and I sucked. It went poorly but this was a bad day. Has it been a bad week? No. Has it been a bad month? Not really. I look at these things I’ve done. I did this last weekend and this the week before.” You create a science. It is qualitative science for you to prove to yourself why you should keep pushing and why you should keep moving forward. That was my workout book for me. In the corporate world, that can be a log of the steps you’ve made in a project on your pursuit of that big goal, or of the tier and job title you’re searching for. The second task I believe in is to journal. Log that stuff.
The first is to find your words. The second is to keep that journal. The third and another big thing is to buy into the idea. Buy into the concept that you are the person who could do that. Why not you? It’s that mindset. That’s something I’ve felt very fortunate to have as a perspective. I am very often to a fault at times like, “I could do that. Why not me? I want to do that.” When you buy in like, “Why not me? I can do this 100%,” I’m not saying go in so blind and loosey-goosey like you’re out to lunch and people are like, “Bro, this isn’t going to work for you.”
My coach and I would commit to certain training programs. We were like, “Let’s try this out. Training is going to look a bit differently. We’re going to focus heavily on weights and dial back the speed. Let’s try and see how this develops you as an athlete. We’d be all-in. This is going to work. This is going to be the next step forward.” We’d have to buy into the idea. If you have one foot out the door the entire time like, “No, I don’t know. Maybe I could, possibly,” you’re not even giving it your best shot. You have to buy into the concept. My coach and I would commit to these programs. That doesn’t mean we would never question it because we would give ourselves a time or a range that we would say, “For a month, we’re going to give this our all.” Another month, it’s a checkpoint. We could say, “Let’s rise above now. What was working? What wasn’t working? Is this the thing we want to keep doing?” You can do that with your goals.
When you’re head down two feet and driving towards something, I’m not saying you never let go of the dream, you always persevere. Gritty means you always keep your head down until you get it. That’s not it, but you do buy-in for whatever set time you choose to decide and then you take those moments, “Is this still the goal? Is this where I want? Is this still what I want?” That’s when you can take a step back or modify the trajectory slightly, but you have to. If you want to get it, give it your all when you are committed for that time frame. That’s how you can foster that sense of self-belief because suddenly you’re like, “Look how far I’ve come.”
For anyone reading, if you can already get the pulse on Sarah’s energy, she’s this giant, bright light of energy and you can feel that. I feel like I could stop the show now. You’ve already given people so much actionable wisdom to go do that is so valuable. A couple of things came up for me as you were talking that I want to explore. I want to do a full stop and do a rewind on the story that I want everyone to know about you that led to all this. What’s interesting is I talked a lot in some of my other conversations about this concept of being in the moment. The power of being present, mindful and aware of which I’m super passionate about.
Going Through Cycles
What I love about the journaling conversation we had is whether we know it or not, we go through cycles. We have times where we’re more emotional or we’re more productive. We have these cycles within ourselves. By doing this journaling and tracking, you can start to see it. By doing that, you’re giving yourself this fact-based accounting of your story and then you’re like, “I know. Yes, I’ve been here before. I know this is that day. It’s all good because I’m going to surf through the cycle and things are going to change.” I love that distinction for everyone. We can be in the moment. We can see the big picture of our story and how we tend to meet life with all of that.
Don’t Fall To The Pitfall
Also, you can remind yourself like, “The last time I was in this low-low, I thought it would never get better and it did.” It’s that glimmer of hope. The other thing it can do is it can prevent those future downturns because you know the factors that led to that, “I was never sleeping leading into this week. Of course, I was not focused and completely anxious because look at my lifestyle heading into that.” It’s like, “What changes can I make to avoid an epic downflow in a cycle?” I shouldn’t say avoid because they’re inevitable. It’s part of life, but you might not fall as deep into that hole. It can be so productive to track this.
The other thing I wanted to explore before I want to have you tell the second story and a little bit more about that is this idea when I was in training years ago. This company talked about the fact that we have a set point. Let’s put it in the terms of weight. Let’s say you have a set point weight and you typically are 130 pounds or something. There’s some science that we tend to, “We get over that. We tend to get back down if we lose weight. We tend to go back to the set point.” There is an emotional, psychological belief set point. I decide, “Here is my identity. Here is who I am not. I’m not going to be a top leader. I’m here. This is as high as I can go.” We know from neuroplasticity that that set point can be changed, but it’s all about your belief. If you are convinced that you can run this far and this fast and no further, you will be your own barrier. You’ve touched on this. Talk a little bit more about the power of changing your belief system.
I love this question because it’s exactly what you’ve described. Whatever you believe to be true will be true. I don’t believe that there is a set point. I do believe that we can all stretch beyond. Sitting injured with my stress fracture thinking, “I’ve never even touched the Olympic standard. How am I telling people I’m still going to try to make the Olympic Games?” I could have said, “My set point is that I’m a good collegiate athlete, but I’m not an Olympian.” How can I look beyond that? Here’s how you can find and push beyond that. You find someone to show you what’s possible. For me, that came up in a way where I truthfully never thought I could make the Olympics. I wasn’t good at sports, remember? I got cut from every team. I was always like, “Yes, sure. I’ll see what happens. Maybe I win a race. Maybe I don’t or whatever. I’m good, but I’m not that good, until.”
I had this idea in my head that to make the Olympics, you are flawless. You are perfect. You crush every workout. You never have an off day. You never get injured. You are always flawless. I had a teammate who I trained with. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I saw him leading into that year got injured, had some weeks he had to take off, had a bit of a roller coaster ride. He worked his butt off, eventually hit Olympic standard, then wins the Olympic trials and went to the Olympics. I was like, “You took some weeks off and got injured at one point, and you still made the Olympics?” It was suddenly this click of like, “You don’t have to be perfect to make the Olympic Games. Maybe that is in reach. Maybe that is possible.” Four years later, I made the Olympic Games because he showed me what’s possible.
Every single one of us can choose to find what’s possible. You can find that mentor. You can go and ask for that help. You can watch a YouTube video. You can listen to a podcast and find out what’s possible. It’s scary because suddenly we realize that it’s not a glass. It’s not a ceiling. I’m going to have to put in work to get there. That’s scary and frightening, but you can achieve that new height. I don’t believe in a set point. How you get over that set point mindset is you find someone to show you what’s possible.
As we’ve gotten into all the conversations about social justice, the world we live in, having models and mentors in high positions, all races and genders coming from all backgrounds, then kids start to see, “There’s me. There are a million examples of how I can be any number of things should I choose to believe in that possibility for myself.” Here’s what I want to do now because we’re going to get further into the power of the whole belief situation and the initiative that’s launched. I want to rewind the clock and go back to that tough adversity that you went through. Share the story with everyone about what happened.
As I shared with all of you, in the 2012 London Olympics, I overcame the injury. I made the Olympic Games and that was awesome. I was pumped because I told the story, “I got ‘Believe’ tattooed on my wrist and then I made the Olympics. If you believe in yourself, you achieve your goals.” Four years later, the Olympics comes back around, and just because you made the last Olympics doesn’t guarantee you make the next one. Fortunately, for me, I had been continuing to develop and get stronger and faster. At the Pan Am Games in 2015, this was the year before the Rio Olympics, I won a silver medal. I only lost to the number one ranked girl in the world that year. I was like, “Let’s go to the Rio Olympics. Let’s win that medal. Let’s retire from the sport and call it a lovely career. Listen to my perfect life.”
What happened because no one’s life is that great, two months before the 2016 Rio Olympics, I was in the best shape of my life. I was crushing workouts. I was so ready to go make this dream come true. I had a workout on a day I should have never worked out. The day before, I had run so fast that my hamstrings were super tight and sore. When I woke up, I was like, “My hamstrings are tight now. Maybe I shouldn’t work out but look at the workout schedule. This is another important workout. I can’t miss this. I need to do this workout because it’s two months before the 2016 Olympics. I need to do everything. I am Sarah Wells, the Olympian. An Olympian would never miss a workout and a week of training. No, I need to do this.”
I put all this pressure on myself. I had decided, “This is what I need to do.” I went and worked out. Halfway through the workout, if anyone can imagine this as you’re reading, imagine what it would feel like to have a Ziploc bag full of air and super tightly sealed. When the kids do that, they fill it up with air and then they put it on the ground. What do they do? They popped it and it exploded. That’s what it felt like happened in my hamstring, the muscle in the back of my leg. It exploded in the middle of the workout. It was so loud. It sounded like a gunshot. My muscle ripped open. I was devastated because I knew it was bad and I had eight weeks before the Olympic trials.
I did everything to rush back and I didn’t train. I did every treatment, acupuncture, cryo-chamber, laser therapy and everything. I can’t train because I don’t want to re-tear it. I was letting every muscle fiber try to get back in place by the time Olympic trials comes back around. At the Olympic trials, I went for it because I’ve been a four-time national champion and the top three will make the Olympics. I needed to get on that podium. I ran down that home straight away with every ounce of my soul. I felt like nobody wanted that more than I did. As we were approaching the finish line, I was running shoulder to shoulder with this girl. I was like, “No, I need to do this.” We met at the line and I got fourth. It’s top three to make the Olympic games and I got fourth. I missed the qualifying by half a second.
Reality As Motivator
When I did my keynote, I shared the story of leaving the track and pulling into the driveway of the house we were staying at and not being able to go into the house because I couldn’t accept that the pursuit was over. As anyone who’s perceived or tried to pursue a goal, you give it everything, your whole heart and mind. To watch it evaporate in half a second was the most discombobulating experience of my entire life. Instead of going into the house that day after leaving the track, I opened the car door, fell onto the driveway, laid into a fetal position and cried because I felt like I had failed everyone.
I quit track and field for a whole year because I couldn’t go back. It was too hard and painful. I also thought I had lied to people for four years because previously after I made the Olympics, I was getting invited to come on stages and talk at conferences, the Olympic pursuit, high-performing habits and, “If you believe in yourself, you can achieve your goals.” That’s what I would tell them. Four years later, I believed in myself and I did not achieve my goal. I questioned everything. I took a lot of time to think and challenge my thoughts.
What I realized is that I believed in myself more strongly after not making the Olympics even more so than when I did. That’s because you don’t build self-belief through achievements. You build self-belief through action, choosing to get back up and standing on your version of a start line, regardless of your circumstances. You don’t want that to define your outcome and even though you don’t always get the thing you wanted. The way I close every keynote is this line. I hope anyone who’s reading will write this down. This is my line. I am on a mission to teach anyone. Please only remember this, “Hard work won’t always lead to success, but being resilient will always lead to another opportunity for it.”
That’s what I learned after missing qualifying for the Olympics because I’ve taken that story. I’ve been able to stand on stages and have people tell me they are more inspired by the time where I didn’t make the Olympics over the time where I did. I’ve been able to impact well over 100,000 people because I didn’t make the Olympics. When we can realize that it’s not necessarily about that outcome, we can redefine our success outside of achieving the thing. Instead, by the skills and traits that led us to those opportunities in the first place, the world opens up for possibilities there.
I’m so grateful now to have gone through both sides of the story because I’ve been resilient and got back up. I believed in myself and I had the triumph to finish. I made it to the Olympic Games. That was awesome, but then I’ve been resilient and got back up. I believed in myself so strongly and it didn’t work out. Now, I know that you can still make an impact, be inspiring and be the leader you want to be without the outcome. That’s what I’m on a mission to help people learn now.There are many places where you can find that belonging, and that's what will enable you to take the risks and find who you are. Click To Tweet
Expecting The Unexpected
Your mission is powerful and authentic. I don’t know anyone who has that perfect story with the cereal box ending. That is not most of us. It’s not life. To use all these clichés, it’s like what happens when you are making other plans on what you think it’s going to be. We all want to control it. The whole year of COVID has shown us we do not have control. It is how we meet what happens because things are going to happen, crazy things that we never expected. Your incredible challenge like that adversity is what makes you so authentically relatable because people get knocked down all the time.
It is that ability to get back up because you’re going to get knocked down, but how do you get back up, how do you move forward and what do you make of that? I would imagine as you look back, you’ve talked to people who have been through some crazy adversity and you say, “Would you change it?” Most of the people I know say, “No, I wouldn’t change it because it’s made me who I am.” I would assume that would be the same for you. You would not change. Maybe you would not want to do this again. I don’t know. It’s like a toss-up, but I would think so much good has come from it.
It was like, “Are there moments that I wished I didn’t work out that day?” I was in such good shape. What I regret is not being able to see what I would have run at that Olympics because I was so fast. I never got to see what threshold I could push my body to in terms of a tangible time. Do I regret it in its entirety? Absolutely not because of exactly what you said. It’s made me who I am. It’s everything I do. It’s the entire essence of my career and what has become my future. For that, I’m so grateful I have both sides of the coin. I’m so grateful that I never made the Olympic Games so that I can empathize with people who have their goals evaporate in front of their eyes. I can stand on the stage and say, “Believing in yourself is important because I’m not just coming from a place where it worked out for me. I’m also coming from a place where it didn’t, yet I’m still telling you how integral that will be to your success.” There were moments that I was like, “What could I have run though?” but I don’t regret it.
There are always the what-ifs, the different roads and different outcomes. I wonder too if there’s a lesson within the lesson of this adversity. That day when you were like, “I have to do this workout,” and maybe something in your body was like, “No,” but you were like, “I have to.” How often do we also push ahead of whatever innate wisdom we have because we have to, and then the next thing you know, it’s a wrong choice?
When I talk to C-Suite executives or major leaders in companies, I talk about the pressure that we place on ourselves once we’ve achieved our highest level of success. This doesn’t just apply to high-level leadership. It’s everyone. Whatever your highest level of success is, we suddenly decide, “That’s my new baseline. I’ve achieved it before so there’s my new baseline. That’s my standard now. That’s ridiculous and so insane because success is not linear. It’s not a checkpoint. It’s not a video game where you can get to go back to your last checkpoint. It is this roller coaster ride.
Your highest level of success is not your new baseline. We have to be comfortable understanding that and knowing there are going to be days where we can’t show up as Sarah Wells, the Olympian. We have to be comfortable knowing we can’t show up as our best selves every single day. It’s okay to ask for help, to require an extra minute to say, “I need to not push.” Self-care isn’t selfish. We are taking care of ourselves so we can achieve our highest level of success in the future. As you said, there is a lesson in the lesson. I needed to learn that night that I am not at my highest level of success. That is not my new baseline. I hope anyone reading this feels that pressure, it just takes a second to breathe and know that having an off-day, off-week and off-month is okay.
This is something I’m talking about all the time. Anyone within Coca-Cola who knows me knows I talk about this all the time. We’ve done a lot of work with The Energy Project. I did an episode with my good friend, Andrew, who runs a company called Regenerate. His entire narrative and coaching are around this. I talked to so many achievers and we don’t give ourselves a break. With all the difficulty that COVID has brought, it has also brought in some ability to slow down and to maybe not be on this crazy pace, going everywhere and traveling everywhere all the time. We need to have that balance, that ebb and flow in our lives. If we don’t, we can end up way further behind. It’s a practice. We’ve talked about it on so many episodes, this ability to create space, give ourselves a break and not put this crazy pressure. In our conversation, I’m hoping we reinforced that for people. Whatever way you need to do to refill your energy source, you’ve got to do it.
Something we can think about is when we have so much chaos happening around us like we’re so spent. There’s this meeting over here, and then I’m going to have to take care of my kids over there. There’s that massive project I owe that person to. The laundry is piling up. Everything that’s going on feels so chaotic. Picture this. I’m drawing a tornado. I’m starting at the top and I’m doing spirals all the way down. That’s where we can drive ourselves. When it’s chaos and I’m like, “This and this and this,” it’s pulling us to the outside. We’re completely chaotic.
What we need to do is develop a catalog. You would know yourself best of, what does that anchor through the center that pulls you back in, that doesn’t allow you to be pulled to each side of this tornado funnel? Instead, it’s the thing that would be an arrow down the dead center of this cone. Maybe it’s running for you. Maybe it’s meditation and breathing. Maybe it’s reading. Maybe it’s drinking coffee or just admiring the park. It’s something that centers you and pulls you back from the chaos. In the moment when we do feel that pressure and stress, it’s something that pulls you back from the exterior of that tornado and anchors you back to whatever your center is.
Being aware of that and understanding that part of high-performance is managing the bumps and chaos. If you think about the way I sprint around a track, how I run my fastest is when you run as hard as you can around those corners, they’re sharp. Those corners are sharper than they look, especially on the inside lane. You are fighting and being pulled by the centripetal force that is pulling you to the outside. To run my fastest, I want to resist against that just enough to keep myself in my lane and not get pulled away outside, but not resist it so much that I’m wasting energy.
It’s like, “What’s that one thing that’s simple and easy? It’s something that helps resist you from being pulled out to that outside of the tornado?” It’s simple enough. It’s one conscious thought and one little activity. It’s something that you can do that’s going to allow you to come around that corner in a perfect efficient form that centers and anchors you. For me, that would be breathing and visualization. I can’t tell you how much I use that in sport. For you, what is that simple one activity? I’m not asking you to get out your yoga mat, turn on your Peloton and get in super centered. It’s a three-breath strategy or one simple thing you can do to anchor yourself back from that chaos. I don’t even know if I’ve answered whatever we were talking about.
You did. Your guidance is so actionable. I love that because I’m more like, “I’m tracking with everything you’re saying.” We’re onto this visual orchestration. I’m going to add to this. I’m going to give credit to my friend, Alex Woodard, who is a beautiful writer. He does these blogs. He was writing a blog. He was a big surfer and he loves to surf in the ocean. I always like to think about life like surfing the waves. You’re catching the wave and you get to surf it. Sometimes you’re wiped out and sometimes you’re like, “This is the greatest thing ever.” He said that his fin had come off his surfboard. The fin is what allows you to have a center of balance. If you don’t have a fin, you cannot surf life.
I think of everything you’re saying like the fin. Oftentimes, I’ll talk to people about doing their work on their core sense of values as their fin or compass like, “What matters to me?” When the tornado hits and every conflicting priority come in, you say, “I’m committed to presence, honesty or to this?” How are my values going to guide me as the storm circles around? Self-compassion, find that one thing. To your point, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be Olympic level. It just has to be the one thing that lets you know, “Don’t worry. It’s all going to be okay.”
It brings you back down. It gives you a minor sense of calm and allows you to perform at that level, maybe not right at this moment, but you’re investing in yourself for the future.
I hope that the world starts to open up again. When I was first driving on the freeways of LA in the early days of COVID, I thought I was existing in a different reality. There were no cars on the road. Anyone who knows LA, the traffic is infamous. Here we are in March of 2021 and the traffic is back. We’re thrilled and excited that the world is opening up again. Don’t we all want to go to the movies and have these experiences again? There’s a part of me that hopes we don’t lose the lessons that were learned, the lessons of pace, slowing down, contemplation or being present for the family. I hope as we go back into that pace that we used to have that we will temperate a little bit. I guess we’ll see how we do.
Recovery is so important. Going back to the sport, I can handle myself all day, but until I take a recovery week, that’s where my body super compensates and I’d fast-forward my development. Taking that recovery allows you to absorb to take leaps and bounds forward when you are willing to take that recovery. Through COVID, a lot of innovation and crazy, wild, new things are going to come out of this because we allowed ourselves a recovery week, where we weren’t filling our schedules every second and every minute of every day doing all the different things. We were forced to stay at home. That’s going to allow people to absorb some of their experiences, the knowledge they had and the idea they’d been sitting on forever. It’s going to allow them to super compensate as individuals and so much is going to come out of this in a great way.
I talk a lot about the whole chaos and order. They’re always taking turns. New things are going to be born from all life circumstances. Let’s switch gears on to the new things that were born from your adversity, and then where that propelled you in your life in this incredible program that you lead. Share with everyone a little bit about the Believe Initiative, how that works and the impact it’s making in the world.
As I mentioned, I took that year off from the sport. I questioned everything and I realized you build self-belief through action. I decided, “I want to help other people build self-belief through action so they don’t define themselves only by their outcomes, either.” What I started was the Believe Initiative, where we help students take a passion they have or a problem they want to solve. They use that passion to solve that problem and build self-belief through action. We’ve had well over 120,000 students go through our program to build out these Believe Passion Projects.
An example of a project would be we had these two students whose passion was robotics. They were like, “We love science and robots and all this cool stuff. The problem we want to solve is mental health.” We were like, “How do you want to connect those two things?” They had learned in Science class that certain wavelengths of light trigger the serotonin and happy hormone receptors in their brains. They were like, “Let’s create a light that only emits those wavelengths of light.” They created something called the Starlight. It only emits those wavelengths of light and helps fight depression and anxiety. That was insane and amazing.
We had another kid who was like, “I love sneakers. I’m a sneakerhead. Nike has this. Kanye has this and all of these things. I want to solve youth homelessness.” This guy went all over to collect shoes that people didn’t want anymore, got Foot Locker to donate sneaker cleanup kits, shined them all up, put them in boxes. He donates them to youth shelters and kids were unwrapping fresh new pair of kicks that they would have never thought possible. We were doing all of this in schools live in person. When COVID hit, I was like, “We’re not going to be able to help them. Everyone is off the grid. Teachers don’t have time for us. We have no access point to them.”
What we’ve now done is we’ve developed the Believe Leadership Program, which empowers other students, those wild students who are like, “What was I doing in high school?” Those students become the teachers or facilitators. They become a chapter head. We give them all the tools and resources. They find 30 peers that they are going to lead through this program. We help support the chapter head. The chapter head builds out the projects with the 30 other students. We’ve done this through COVID. We’ve had 450 students do these with 250 projects. Those projects have impacted 19,000 people. I was like, “This is the future of the program.”
If you have a student leader who wants to lead a chapter at their school, I have this crazy, wild dream to be in 1,000 schools in three years. I have no idea how that’s going to happen, but I’m hoping that the more people I tell, the more possible it’s going to be. Making the Olympics after a broken femur is also unreasonable, but I can hopefully pull on some of that and make this 1,000 schools in three years come true. It’s not even going to stop at students because we have companies and corporations. There are volunteer days that a lot of companies mandate their employees, “Get out there. Help the community. You pick whatever you want.” No one uses them. Maybe not no one. That’s extreme. A fewer people than we’d like use them.
In the Believe Initiative, we have the system and framework that we give. We’ve already helped 120,000 students take action on their Impact Project ideas. Now, I’m like, “It’s not just students. We can also go help with companies having employees on behalf of their brand in the workforce like retention and sustainability of that.” Suddenly, I’m helping all these people build self-belief through action. It’s coming in the form of employee volunteer days. It’s coming in the form of students in our schools. It’s reinforcing why every element of our story and every downturn you go through will be worth it. It comes from this conversation of how we pick up those lessons learned and apply them to our next opportunity. That’s the way this Believe Initiative Program has been developed, fostered and turned into one thing after the next thing. I’m so grateful.You don't build self-belief through achievements; you build it through action. Click To Tweet
Everyone who is touching this program is grateful because this is such a testament to one human being who sees the potential or goes through a challenge and says, “I’m going to create something.” The ripple effect is huge. I know in our previous conversations, we talked about how passionate I am about, “What are we doing to equip the future generations with something that gives them that strong sense of life skill?” There’s what you learn in school, but then there’s what you learn about yourself, what you can do and what life can be. I know since COVID with all the remote learning, there had been a lot of articles about the state of the mental well-being of our teenagers. They’ve lost some of that connection. Some of that hopefully will be returning as people go back to school. There’s a sense of being somewhat lost.
What this program is doing is allowing this platform for them to come together and make a difference. Who doesn’t feel great when you’re serving and giving to something greater than yourself? That’s a human need. I am inspired by what this is doing. I do hope for anyone reading that if you know whether it’s your school or any affiliation or company, you could tell with Sarah and her energy, she’s willing to go anywhere and do anything to bring this to life. It’s wonderful.
Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
We’re going to keep talking about how we expand this out into the world. I know sometimes when I’m listening to people’s stories, it’s very easy to be like, “They did this amazing thing.” Let’s go back to belief. You’re like, “I can’t do something that big.” It doesn’t have to be that big. It can be anything that you do where you look around and say, “I have certain gifts that I have to offer and if it’s for my neighbor, a friend or a work team.” I guarantee you, if you stop and look, there’s something that you can do that will make a huge difference for someone else.
I’m so glad you said that because I didn’t mention that and people might assume that these kids had donated probably 100 shoes, “I don’t have time to collect 100 shoes. I can’t make an impact like that. I can’t build a robot that’s going to emit certain wavelengths of light.” We’ve also had kids where their passion was art. The problem they wanted to solve was people kept leaving toilet paper on the ground in their bathrooms. That was annoying and disgusting. No one wanted that. They created these beautiful, silly, engaging signs that your eyes are drawn to. It said, “Stop being a jerk. Pick up the paper on the ground.” Can you do that at your company bathroom facility? 100%. Would it take you more than an evening? No. You make an impact. You make everyone’s experience at the office more enjoyable simply because you connect your passion for art to the problem that you encounter on a daily basis of the bathroom being not as clean as you’d like.
It can be that simple. We’re not talking about you have to solve global issues every time. By making someone feel comfortable in the office bathroom, you brighten their day a little bit. They might be a little less annoyed. They might have a jollier meeting with their manager. Every little bit adds up. We’re all contributing to creating a better experience for our coworkers, family members, friends, mentors, supporters or whoever. It’s those ideas that you can come up with like if you had to right now, what would that passion be? This is everyone’s favorite answer, “I don’t have a passion.” My mom did this to me. I was like, “Mom, you are my mom. You cannot not have a passion. You made me. I feel like you’ve got to have one.” That sounded like I thought I was amazing. I meant that she is the essence of me.
As people know by now, you are passion personified.
She was like, “I don’t have a passion.” I was like, “Mom, you do. What do you spend your time doing if you’re not doing your job? What is that?” We’ve even had kids in school who were like, “I don’t have anything ever.” I was like, “What do you do when you get home after school? If you don’t do homework right away, what are you doing? Is it video games? Is it whatever?” They’ll challenge me. They’ll fight me on it, but I guarantee you have something.
A great example of this is a student. We had this kid. He was like, “I don’t have a project.” He doesn’t care. His arms are crossed the whole Believe Summit. He was like, “This lady is out to lunch. She’s fluffy as day. Her head is in the clouds. Believe in yourself? Sure. Tell me how I’m going to believe myself into like 90% I need, Sarah?” I was like, “No, there’s something here. We’re going to build it through action.” I was like, “What’s your passion? Come on. Tell me what you do after school.” He was like, “Well.” I had the mic up to him with a gymnasium full of his peers so he’s ready to take advantage of this.
I was like, “Tell me what you like to do after school.” He was like, “I love to eat.” I was like, “You like to eat. You’re a teenage boy. That makes sense. Could we go as far as, do you like cooking? Do you cook it yourself? Do you do that? Do you look up recipes? Do you enjoy cooking?” He said, “Yes, I guess.” I was like, “You like cooking. Let’s go with that kitchen experience. What problem do you want to solve?” This guy does not care and does not want to be here. I was like, “Come on. Fine, give me a pet peeve then. Let’s explore things that annoy you because you’re a teenage boy. You for sure got some of those.” He was like, “My job after school. My chore is I have to walk my dog.”
I live in Toronto, Canada. Those of you who have ever been here in the dead of winter, you know it can get really cold and icy. You sprinkle salt all over the sidewalk and roads to melt the ice. Your little dog’s paws do not respond well to excessive salt littered on all of it. It hurts their paws after a while. He was like, “After school, I’ll go walk my dog, but there’s so much salt on the ground. My dog hurts his little paw so I never walk my dog. He makes me pick him up.” I was like, “You have a passion for cooking and you can’t walk your dog. There’s our passion and problem. What are we going to do?” The gymnasium was full of 900 kids. I was like, “Let’s crowdsource this stuff.” I was like, “What do you think you should do?”
Eventually, we got to a solution. What if he could find another kitchen ingredient that’s not salt, but something else that wouldn’t hurt his dog’s paws that he could sprinkle down that would increase the freezing temperature of the water? It would be like salt but it would be different from salt. I was like, “Dude, if you did that, that’s an industry. This is a thing. Why don’t you explore? Maybe it’s a compound. Maybe it’s a few things.” We finished up the summit day. The kids were all going home. They were leaving the gymnasium.
This guy who was taller than me, lanky in a baggy and T-shirt, walked up to me. He was like, “Miss, I’m excited about my project.” I was like, “Mic drop, this is the best day that ever happened. I can retire. This is amazing.” Even the things that you’re like, “I don’t have a passion. There’s no problem I care about. There’s no way to connect them,” I promise you if we could get Buddy to make this happen, then we can help you. It’s possible. No problem is too small. No passion is non-existing. It’s there. Just look for it.
You were talking about teenagers, but we go through our lives and decide what we can and can’t do. Hearkening back to where we started this conversation. If we start to ask ourselves the question, “What could be different?” because we get into our ruts and grooves. It’s amazing what our habits make us. There are lots of books about that. How do we start asking different questions as you did with Buddy to start shifting the way that he thinks? How can I ask a different question about how I could link some things in my life that could improve not only my experience but the experience of those around me? It is a form of expanding your mind into a form of contemplation.
An exercise you could do if you genuinely were like, “How could I connect some passions? Where could I connect those things to solving a problem? What in my life are those things for me?” I would encourage you to write down titled “passion” and then dump out things you enjoy doing, “I like designing graphics. I like writing. I like talking with my friends. I like exploring how I can make plants flourish.” All the things you might love to do. Some can be work-related like, “I love working on big problems. I love looking at the nitty-gritty of the efficiency of things” or whatever that is. On the flip side, make another column that’s completely unrelated like problems worth solving.
These can be big or small. A safe place to start is a pet peeve because it’s an interesting angle. We all have them. There are things that annoy us. Look back at your calendar and it will trigger some thoughts for you. Play a game where from one passion, draw an arrow over to every single problem. Let’s say your passion is art or graphic design. The problem we’re solving over here is, “My team is a bit chaotic at times. There’s not a clear sightline on who you should talk to for what.” Maybe you gather some research around like, “Let’s make criteria or a rubric around when we should go to this person or to that person.” You use your passion for art to make this beautiful graphic that’s so well understood and simplified that you’ve solved that problem for the rest of your team.
You connect it to every single problem that’s listed in that problem. Some of them you might be like, “I’m stumped here. I don’t know how I’m going to move on, find the next one or go to the next one.” You’ve done that for every problem with one passion. Now, you go to passion number two. Connect it to every problem on the other side. Out of that list be like, “Which of these excites me the most? Which of these do I want to sink my teeth into?” Go do that. Start doing it.
Even if you start doing it and you’re like, “I hate this,” finding out something is not a thing is a thing. By you eliminating the things you don’t want to spend your time doing is a thing. An activity you can exercise on this is to dump out those passions and problems, and connect them. Simply play with your brain on how you can connect the two things. The artwork and the team thing, I came up with that. You can find a way. It’s playing a game. Play with someone else if you want and talking it out loud if you’re that kind of person. Get to it out loud on a fun activity.
We underestimate our creativity. When you do start looking at unlikely pairings and things, we underestimate how we can come up with something quite surprising. Let me ask you this as I pan back out. We’ve been giving such wonderful, tangible examples of how people could think about this concept. If I brought it back out, you mentioned your goal around the number of schools and time frame. You have so much energy. You’re young. You’ve got this passion. If you were queen of the world, as you look forward and you look ahead, what would you like to see blossom out of all of this? You’ve touched on this. How would you sum that up of what you’d like to see emerge from this type of thinking?
The biggest thing I want people to understand is that line that I mentioned for people to remember like, “Hard work isn’t always going to lead to success.” You’re going to explore these passions, take actions or start moving forward and you might not get the thing, even if you work your butt off. I want these students to work their butt off. I want them to understand they can work that hard. They have the skillset, grit and ability. Sometimes I want them to not get it because then they’ll realize that they can still pick those lessons and they are resilient. If they remember the things that led them down that path in the first place, they lean into those things. That’ll always lead them to another opportunity for success. I’m conscious of saying the same thing I’ve already said. I want to give a new angle on it in some capacity. It’s, “Hard work won’t always lead to success, but being resilient will always lead to another opportunity for it.”
The second thing is being comfortable asking for help. There’s something I’m exploring. I don’t have a keynote on this, but I want to develop one. I want to call it the Fairy Godmother Principle or something like that. If you think of any person, every athlete, every major CEO or whatever, when they share their story, every time they talk about someone who believed in them before they ever believed in themselves. Someone who helped them think about things differently or someone who said, “You can do it.” There’s someone who’s enabled them who has provided them resources, support or something that’s allowed them to achieve that next thing. Sometimes it takes us saying our goals out loud and asking for that help to find our fairy godmother.
By these students being brave enough to set their goal and commit to a project, but I also don’t want to say just students because the person who is reading, is not just a student. It’s also you. By you being brave enough to set your goal and put that thing out loud, you might find your fairy godmother. You might suddenly realize that asking for help is more well-received than you ever thought. It’s not a burden. It’s not a pain in the butt for someone but instead, innately, we are fulfilled by giving. You never want to be entitled like, “You’re welcome for letting you help me.”
You are establishing a reciprocal relationship because as they help you and you are grateful for it, they are receiving dopamine and serotonin. They are learning through teaching as well. It’s twofold. Learn that hard work won’t always lead to success and being resilient will always lead to another opportunity for it. Learn that asking for help is one of the best things you can do to help you achieve your goal, and suddenly understand that people want to help you.
Sarah, those are such wise words. I can think about people in my career who believed in me before I truly believed in myself. They were like, “You can do this job.” We talked so much in this conversation about belief in your innate abilities and what’s possible. That takes us expanding our minds into if you do have a set point that you’ve been locked into, know that that set point can be blown up. There is an entirely new set of possibilities out there in the quantum field.
I hope we’ve blown up someone’s set point.
I hope we have. We will be successful now if someone’s completely changed that for themselves, but then believing in each other. This is not a solo game. This is a together game. The origin of the CMO Summit is around the connection. We talk about leadership and connection because our fundamental belief is that we’re better together contributing everything that we have. How can you believe in what you can do and also look around and offer a hand to someone else, or where you see just like that coach who saw you that day ran and went, “Wow.” Look what that one observation on one day of seeing you and now what that’s created. That’s powerful.
I love that that’s the theme of the CMO Summit. You’re right. You can be someone’s fairy godmother. By you being that person for someone else, we create that culture, and then your fairy godmother comes along. We only help each other reach new heights. That’s brilliant.
We all need to get some magic wands to make it more fun and a little bit of fairy dust for hats. Sarah, this was such a pleasure. Thank you for being a light in the world, for believing in yourself, believing in others and making that ripple effect. As one of us does something to raise the light, then we all go with that. It has a huge impact. I want to acknowledge you and say thank you for all that you do and for taking the time to share your story with us.
I appreciate you having me. Thank you so much, Kathy. You’re the best.
It was so fun and awesome. Until next time.
- The Obstacle Is the Way
- Believe Initiative
- Sarah Wells
- Andrew Deutscher – previous episode
- Believe Leadership Program
About Sarah Wells
Obstacles don’t scare Sarah Wells. As a 400m hurdler, this Olympian’s reputation was forged through overcoming challenges and achieving the incredible. Take her debut at the London Olympics in 2012, which came despite an injury that had her sidelined her for months just the year before. Outside of competitive sports, this athlete is coaching people to pursue excellence through the Believe Initiative, an organization founded on—fittingly—a message of resilience. Most recently you would have seen Sarah pushing her limits on the latest season of The Amazing Race Canada. Evidently someone who understands the importance of building resilience and self-belief, along with the power of purpose, you’ll want to listen-up when this Olympic semi-finalist and Pan Am Games silver medallist takes the stage.
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