How To Bring Focus To What Matters Most

Taken from Curated Career Conversations an interview with performance coach Joe Jacobi by Sarah Johnston 5 February 2021

I was talking to a friend last week who has spent the last 10-years building a successful company. She has everything from the outside– a six-figure income, a respected brand, and an office with her name on it. However, on the phone, she confessed that she is unhappy and unbalanced. Covid disrupted all of her “systems.” In addition to running her business, she’s been homeschooling her middle schooler and is trying to make sure her high school senior stays out of trouble. She is so overwhelmed that she’s considering quitting it all. She’s talking to someone soon about selling the business, and then she’ll figure out the next steps once that happens.

My friend is the definition of a high performer. There is a saying in our friend group “that if you want something done right, give it to Jill.” Her barometer for success is high– and she’s always been able to meet it. After listening to Jill talk about how buried in life she feels, I suggested that she work with a performance coach. I asked her:

What if it’s not “quitting it all”— but instead refocusing on what matters the most?

I want to introduce you, my readers, to Joe Jacobi. Joe is an Olympic Gold Medalist and Performance Coach who collaborates with leaders & teams by getting them outside the day-to-day rush of life and bringing focus to what truly matters most. He’s also just a really nice human.

His strategies and concepts help people to perform their best without compromising their lives by showing them how to slow down, do less, and embrace simplicity.

Joe continually refines and incorporates these principles into his own life at his Pyrenees mountains home beside the 1992 Olympic Canoeing venue in La Seu d’Urgell in the Spanish state of Catalunya – the same canoeing venue where along with his canoeing partner, Scott Strausbaugh, Joe won America’s first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in the sport of Whitewater Canoe Slalom at the 1992 Olympic Games.

Why Performance Coaching?

Sarah: Let’s start from the beginning. You were a member of the United States’ canoe team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. You were the first American team in Olympic history to capture a gold medal. After that, you became the Chief Executive Officer for USA Canoe/Kayak, the national governing body for Olympic level paddle sports in the United States, and served as an analyst for NBC Sports. And then what? What shifted for you? When was the moment you knew you had to make a career change? Was there a specific day or instant that gave you clarity?

Joe Jacobi: From the world career transition and career development, this is the critical question! Here I was with a CEO job in the Olympic movement leading the sport I love and that had served me so well for nearly 40 years at the time I stepped away.

First, through a creative exercise, I was doing as part of daily morning practice (and am still doing!) for about a five-week period at the start of 2014, I was reflecting upon other kinds of things I could be doing with my life, successes and failures at USA Canoe/Kayak, and implications of change. Finally, the theme was hitting hard enough with me that while I wasn’t 100% sure what was next, I knew that finding the next step would be extremely challenging if I stayed in my current role.

One thing that does stand out about this particular period though – by early 2014, I was about two years into my own changes and progress in health and wellness. It really seemed that for the first time in my life, I was implementing habits and choices that could not only stick around but that I enjoyed. There was a thought about expanding upon this in service of others but wasn’t exactly sure how to do this.

Sarah: How has your work/life balance changed after switching careers?

Joe Jacobi: When I left USA Canoe/Kayak without a new position in which to move in, a few “Quality of Life” adventures showed up. The first was an invitation to join a group of Olympians and professional athletes in Mexico to build a home for a family in need. I said, “YES!” to this and headed to Mexico where I saw such a different and pure sense of emotional growth and service within the Olympic and Paralympic community that would not have been developed through the traditional channels of the Olympic movements. The experience was so powerful and uplifting.

When I returned from Mexico, Davis Smith, the CEO of Cotopaxi, an innovative outdoor products company, invited me on an adventure to paddle sea kayaks from Havanna, Cuba to the United States. This adventure was built around forming mentoring partnerships and collaboration with Cuba’s start-up community. The experience and relationships that formed out of this adventure, including 34+ hours paddling across the Florida Straits, are still in place today.

These experiences were foundational in eventually moving away from the United States and to the Spanish state of Catalunya, where I currently live in the Pyrenees mountain town of La Seu d’Urgell. The three primary adjectives that describe my existence here are, “Simple, Slower, and Less.”

How to Slow Down

Sarah: I took a year off work when my first daughter was born. I envisioned a year of rest, but before I knew it, I’d signed up to be a volunteer youth leader at church, the Outreach Chair in a social club, I invented product I tried to take to market…the list went on. I did everything but rest. Like me, individuals who have “Achiever” in their Gallup Strengths Finder top 5 often have difficulty relaxing. Do you have any advice on “strategic rest”?

Joe Jacobi: One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past few years is Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, a book in which the theme is an equation for performing better at anything. The equation is:

Stress (good stress – like stressing a muscle in the gym) + Rest = Growth

Of course, people short change rest. Rest happens when they are exhausted. Rest happens when people have run themselves into the ground. This is a terrible way to rest.

People short change rest.

But, it’s very hard to put words to this action – we simply can not learn how to rest until we experiment with planned and purposeful strategic rest. Rest between Zoom calls. Rest for a real lunch break. Rest for an afternoon walk signaled by an exact time to push away from our desk. Better sleep is important too but a much longer story.

Sarah: If I have learned anything in 2020, it’s that change is inevitable. I did a Zoom meeting last week with an owner of a chain of high-intensity workout studios. 2020 was supposed to be his best year ever– and now (thanks to Covid), his membership is a 10th of what it was before. He’s divesting his assets and considering a career shift. His situation is, unfortunately, not unique. Right now, a lot of talented, successful individuals are making pivots. And some are emotionally struggling with making a change. I’ve learned that that high performers tend to be focused on goal achievement and outcomes– and when the result is different from the expected outcome, it can be confusing, painful –yet also rewarding. Talk to me about how you help people shift from Plan A to Plan B. What’s the key to being content with Plan B?

Joe Jacobi: Perhaps I am speaking from a heightened perspective of navigating whitewater river rapids, which is not only the essence of the sport I do and in which I grew up, but all we are doing in this sport, whether recreationally or Olympic level competition, all we are doing is adapting to change and correcting mistakes in the process of adapting to change.

I think there is a misconception about locking into an outcome or goal – I think it is a mistake. For me, I have only reached my best performance, close to my best performance, by putting my attention on the process, the variable nature of the river currents of business and life, and constantly making lots of small course corrections.

In January of this year, I launched a new writing series within my Sunday morning posts called, The Pursuit of Contentment On The River Of Uncertainty. Our lives and pursuits are constantly moving on the sliding scale between contentment and uncertainty. There is not a correct or incorrect place to be – only not checking in to see where you are on the scale. To imagine that there is no uncertainty in your pursuit of contentment is not real – I am a positive person but no amount of positivity can dismiss the ongoing presence of uncertainty. We need uncertainty. This is counterintuitive but true.

Sarah: I recently wrote a resume for a client who built, scaled, and sold off a successful niche business. We spent a lot of time talking about what’s next for him. The amount of energy he spent building a business was, at times, all-consuming. Looking forward, he knows he *could* do it again, but he’s not sure he wants to. He’s struggling with the idea of stepping back. For people reading this today who want to jump off the hamster wheel completely– or who want to slow it down– what should they consider? How do you determine if the pros outweigh the cons? 

Joe Jacobi: When a client is examining a challenge or a problem, it is easy to jump straight into that problem and start trying to build the solution.

Typically, when I collaborate on this particular topic, I am always thinking, “What is the smallest possible experiment we could run to test out the idea?” I am looking for an experiment so small that hardly anyone would notice. But the actions are repeatable and give us information and feedback to evaluate.

Such jumps do not need to be big. In fact, my writing – from Sunday Morning Joe posts to tweets to LinkedIn posts – are filled with the words, “Small steps forward every day.” Small steps are a healthy and more sustainable way to form habits and muscle memory while allowing the most space for adaptation.

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Importance of Breathing

Sarah: You’ve written about the power of breathing. You mentioned that “Good breaths performed daily have a unique way of circling back to space to breathe.” What are examples of good breaths?

Joe Jacobi: This exercise circles back to a previous question about rest but one of the exercises I recommend the most to promote rest is a mindful minute breathing break. It works like this.

  • Move away from your workspace – ideally to a different part of your office or home.
  • Sit comfortably and upright – in a chair or sofa works well.
  • To begin, inhale on a four-second count.
  • Then hold for a four-second count.
  • Then exhale for a four-second count.
  • Then rest for a four-second count.
  • Repeat the cycle four times.

In just 64 seconds, you have created a pattern interrupt – to thoughts, challenges, irritations, etc. If you can repeat this a few times throughout your day, this builds a good foundation for rest and a great way to use your breath to facilitate this.

Sarah: If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself five/ten years ago?

Joe Jacobi: I think about this kind of question a lot. While it could be easy to replay all the challenging and disastrous situation that could have been avoided or handled better, I then consider that had those situations been better, I would not have landed EXACTLY where I am today – living the life I love, doing the work I love, spending time with people I love, in a place I love.

Without those challenging and disastrous experiences, I don’t think we’d be here sharing this conversation.

Sarah: Last question (I ask everyone this question). What is the best career advice you’ve ever been given? Did you take it?

Joe Jacobi: I do remember a LOT of career advice when I first stepped in the CEO role at USA Canoe/Kayak. I am not sure I remembered much but probably tried to act on all of it. (A peek into the challenges and disasters, right?)

But, I have two thoughts to share:

  1. By my own design, I had a long run-out in the CEO job. A good friend and a fellow Olympic champion advised me to take more time while I was still employed to start developing the next opportunity. I didn’t do this and it was a mistake. If you have time to develop and grow and create opportunities while you are still employed, do it. More than likely, it will make you better for the work you are currently doing for as long as you do it.
  2. I’ll share a few words from the theme of my performance coaching practice: “Build a simple and clear plan that gets you outside the rush of life so that you can bring focus to what matters most.”

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