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Want to Be More Successful? The Best Interviews of 2018

Some of my favorite conversations and takeaways from conversations with highly successful people.

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BY Jeff Haden - 01 Jan 2019

best interview of 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I love to talk with incredibly successful people. I always learn something.

And I'm always reminded that success is never pre-ordained. Success is the result of hard work, persistence, and and doing the right things -- over and over again.

In short, success (however you choose to define "success") is something we can all achieve.

Here's a look back at some of my favorite interviews from this year, featuring excerpts about each person's approach to achieving their goals:

1. Embracing sacrifice: Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time.

An excerpt from our conversation:

I did miss some high school dances and parties. I did lose the chance to hang out with people. But I didn't care, because I knew I had the opportunity to do something no one else had ever done. That made me willing to make those sacrifices.

If you really do want to do something significant, you're going to have to make sacrifices. You have to. That's just part of it.

So I wouldn't change anything: Not the good, not the bad, not the ugly. All those experiences helped mold me into who I am... and for the last two years, for the first time in my life I like who I am as a person.

For the longest time I looked at myself strictly as a swimmer and not as a human being.

But still: I wouldn't change anything because I am so happy with my life today.

Was it hard and grueling and brutal? Yes. But if you look at the most successful people, they do things when they don't necessarily want to do them.

That's what makes you great: Doing things when you don't want to do them... because you know that is what it takes to get you to where you want to go.

(For more with Michael, check out the complete interview.)

2. Meet in the middle: Billy Corgan

Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins is also the owner of the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance.)

An excerpt from our conversation:

You have to have a deep appreciation for who is in the room. If you look past the people in the room, you set up your own destruction.

Approach it like, "I want the people in the room on this journey. I'll do everything to the point of rationality to keep this thing going. But I will also have the integrity to admit when it's not working, the integrity to approach the people it's not working with, and give them an opportunity to correct it, or move on peacefully...." then everything will work out.

Even if that means special people decide to leave, that's still a better business formula than trying to control every person and every outcome.

Like in wrestling: I will help someone become a top guy, and when he is, I may not overpay him to stay. But I also won't be upset if he leaves for a better opportunity, because he earned that opportunity.

I work from that ideological framework. I'm clear about what I need. I ask other people to be clear about what they need. If we can't meet in the middle, that's cool. We'll find another solution.

Expecting other people to cater to your needs -- and to ignore their own needs -- is a terrible way to keep a team together.

(For more with Billy, check out the complete interview.)

3. Define success: Kerri Walsh Jennings

 

Kerri Walsh Jennings is a three-time Olympic gold medal winning volleyball player and the co-founder of p1440, an event series and digital community.

An excerpt from our conversation:

Success is a job well done -- doing something well, and doing it the right way. And never losing sight of myself and my priorities in life.

Success is deeply personal. At (the Rio Olympics) I failed to get what I wanted but ultimately it was a huge success because the journey was successful: I let that loss, and winning a bronze medal instead of a gold, make me better in life.

I live my life in quadrennials, and in one of those quads I was only end-result focused and I almost lost everything near and dear to me.

I learned the hard way that you can't wait until the end result to figure out if you're happy or not. You need to work towards the end result in a way that makes you happy.

For more with Kerri, check out the complete interview.)

4. Seize opportunities: Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon won four NASCAR championships and has 93 career wins, the most in the sport's modern era. He also owns a Chevrolet dealership and a winery, is an equity owner and executive at Hendrick Motorsports, founded a charitable foundation... is a race analyst for NASCAR on FOX.

An excerpt from our conversation:

A few years before I retired from driving, I knew approximately when that time would come. And TV was a big part of what I wanted to pursue. I thought it would be a fun challenge --and I was right. Luckily the timing worked out for me.

I'd like to say it was part of a grand plan, but Live With Regis and Kelly (as it was then called) was an opportunity that came my way. I had been on several times as a guest and became friends with Art Moore, the producer. He's a big NASCAR fan. When there were guest host openings my name was somehow on the list and was able to do it -- and I had a blast. I enjoyed doing live TV.

Ultimately I was just grabbing a good opportunity: A chance to learn, to build a skill, to enjoy a different experience, to get my name and face out there more, to have fun... when you can get all that from an opportunity, it doesn't need to be part of a master plan.

Racing is a lot like business: You set goals, work as a team, know your strengths and weaknesses, know how to rely on other people, know when to take smart risks and when to be patient... and also just like business, racing is about making and seizing opportunities. A lot of what I learned in racing helps me with TV, helps me with the business of racing and business in general...

While I do pursue a variety of things, they actually fit together really well.

(For more with Jeff, check out the complete interview.)

5. Tap into resilience: Joe de Sena

Joe de Sena is a serial entrepreneur and the CEO and co-founder of Spartan Race.

An excerpt from our conversation:

Nothing I did was textbook. Nothing I did was smart. I did just about everything wrong. Sheer resilience: that's how we became successful.

That's true for many businesses. Businesses require you to push beyond places where most people would quit.

For a long time, almost nothing went right for us. The timing was bad; people weren't ready for what we were doing. The only luck we had was that I just wouldn't quit.

It was partly because I truly felt we had something, but also because I became so invested and so upside down financially that success really was the only option. I had to get to the light at the end of the tunnel or I would get buried in the tunnel. (Laughs.)

(For more with Joe, check out the complete interview.)

6. Maintain a great team: Stix Zadinia

Stix Zadinia is the drummer for Steel Panther, the wildly entertaining metal band that has thrived for decades by turning the hair-band lifestyle up to 11.

An excerpt from our conversation:

Communication is crucial to being a highly functional and high-performance band. We have a meeting before and after every show. It's just the four of us.

We get a chance to tell each other how our days went, what's going on with us, and talk about the show we're about to play. Then, when we get offstage, we have another meeting to review the show and talk about what went well or didn't go well.

After all, it's like being married to four middle-aged men. [Laughs.] We respect each other and each other's space.

The band is our source of income. We respect it. We protect it. Each of us realizes that people are coming to see the band -- not one guy. They come for the event, for the feeling... they come for the whole thing.

We're a band. We're equal partners. Why wouldn't we treat each other with respect and kindness?

Plus, it just doesn't take much effort to be nice. [Laughs.]

And if you're upset with someone in your band, that's when communication is really important: To be able to tell someone, "Hey, you're bumming me out..." and just as importantly, to be able to take it when that gets said to you. To say, "I see your point, I'm sorry...." If you don't, little resentments linger and eventually blow up.

And then you have to go get a job at Ikea selling home furniture. [Laughs.]

Don't get me wrong, I love IKEA, but that doesn't mean I would rather work there instead of playing kick-ass rock and roll for a living.

(For more with Stix, check out the complete interview.)

7. Leverage trust: Tony Stewart

As a driver, Tony Stewart won three NASCAR season titles and an IndyCar championship, making him the only driver to win a championship in both series. As a team owner he's won NASCAR championships. His teams have won more than 20 championships in USAC and World of Outlaws. He owns Eldora Speedway, is a part owner of Paducah International Raceway and Macon Speedway, and founded TrueSpeed Communications, a marketing and public relations firm.

An excerpt from our conversation:

We get opportunities presented to us all the time. But opportunities pop up for everyone. Maybe the difference is I don't have that risk averse gene that automatically makes me think, "Oh, I can't," or, "Oh, that will never work."

But there are two major advantages I also have going for me: Eddie Jarvis, my business manager, and Brett Frood (the President of Stewart-Haas Racing who also oversees True Speed Enterprises, the company under which all of Tony's business interests fall).

Eddie and Brett and I make up three sides of a triangle. Say someone has an opportunity they think is right for us. Brett looks at it from the business side. I consider the financial investment. Eddie considers whether it's right for our brand. Of course those roles overlap as well, but that triangle lets us look at every opportunity from three different perspectives.

And since we all trust each other, we have a policy that the three of us all have to agree, or we don't do it.

Of course that means there have been a lot of projects I thought were awesome, and Eddie was on board, and Brett didn't think it made good financial sense. Or Brett and I loved a project, and Eddie felt it wasn't right for our brand.

We have people that I know have my back, and that know I have their backs... and by now we have a really good sense of what works for us and what doesn't.

Probably the biggest thing I learned from Joe (Gibbs) -- and really the most valuable thing anyone in my position can learn -- is that I don't have to know how to run everything. I just have to know how to hire the right people to make the right decisions.

(For more with Tony, check out the complete interview.)

8. Dream without limits: Caitlin Crosby

Caitlin Crosby is an actor, singer, songwriter, social entrepreneur, and founder of The Giving Keys.

An excerpt from our conversation:

My favorite part about business is the beginning: The grass roots, guerrilla marketing, steep learning curve where you can explore, discover, be creative -- and not fit into a box. I love when the product hasn't been created yet. That's what I thrive on.

We understand the jewelry business now. We have our products in over 1,000 Nordstrom stores around the world. We have an incredible partnership with Starbucks. I still can't believe that happened -- they're one of the biggest companies of my generation, and I'm so grateful.

But now that we've accomplished so much in jewelry, I'm eager to have that feeling I had at the beginning. This year we'll have a new product launching every few months. Wooden meditation beads, candles, journals... we're developing apparel... tomorrow we're going to plan out all of 2019. We're finally getting on a fashion calendar so we can go to trade shows.

I don't know exactly how it will all work, but I'm going to be creative and grass roots and guerilla-style and make it work.

That really is the fun part: To dream without limits.

(For more with Caitlin, check out the complete interview.)

9. Put others first: Tom Condon

As the head of CAA's football division, Tom Condon is one of the most powerful and widely respected agents in the National Football League. He represents stars like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and J.J. Watt. Last year, his group represented 11 of the 32 first-round selections in the NFL draft.

An excerpt from our conversation:

My job is simple: To take care of my player. That's also how I define success.

I feel the same way about clients as I did about teammates. The loyalty, the availability, the determination to step up in tough situations... it's the same way I felt about the guys I played with.

It all starts with a conversation with the player. What are your goals? Where do you see yourself on your next contract? How long you want to play? What are your goals off the field while you're a player? What are your aspirations when football is over?

Where do you feel you add your biggest value?

We've been very fortunate: We did the first $20 million guaranteed contract, the first $30 million guaranteed contract, the first $40, $50, $60, $90, the first $100 million guaranteed contract.... and we've had the highest-paid player in every single position on the field.

Face it. Everyone is concerned with how much money they will make. And they should be. They're risking their bodies and their heads.

In return, they want financial security. My number one job is helping them get there.

Financial security certainly results from their player contracts, but also from helping them generate marketing dollars, and from what they will do when they're finished with football.

Our relationships with general managers, executives, and owners are very important to us.

But at the same time, you always do what is best for your client.

(For more with Tom, check out the complete interview.)

10. Find your North Star: Synyster Gates

Synyster Gates plays guitar in the Grammy-nominated, multi-platinum selling rock band Avenged Sevenfold and is the founder of the Synyster Gates School, a free online guitar tutorial service (and the one I'm using to learn to play guitar.)

An excerpt from our conversation:

My (investment) portfolio includes a lot of high-risk startups, but now that I've put money into myself with this school, it's kind of bewildering that I didn't do that before.

If I'm going to make a high-risk investment, why not make a high-risk investment in myself?

But that seemed too narcissistic. Or maybe I didn't have enough confidence. Or maybe I was just too shy. But I believe in what I'm doing, and the happiness of the community is incredibly rewarding, especially with the beginners and what they're gaining from it.

So yeah: If you're going to take a risk, take a risk on yourself. No one will care as much as you do. And it's a lot more fun.

I recently met a cool guy who used to work at a huge tech company, and he said, "They're extremely successful, but they don't have a north star."

I've found a really bright north start with the guitar school. I want to put guitars and education in the hands of lots of people. With a keyboard and a laptop you can make killer music, but there's so much expression and soul in playing a guitar that I don't want to see go away.

(For more with Syn, check out the complete interview.)

11. Bet on yourself: Michelle Wilson

Michelle Wilson is the co-President of WWE and was named to the Forbes 10 Most Powerful Women in Sports list, the Adweek 50 list, and Sports Illustrated's 10 Most Influential Women in Sports.

An excerpt from our conversation:

Ten years ago we felt we were one of the best-kept secrets in sports and entertainment. When I talked to Vince about rejoining the company in 2009, the year before that WWE had shifted to TV PG. Our TV product was family entertainment. But the business community had no idea.

I had no idea. When I was interviewing and he said, "We're family entertainment," I said, "I didn't know that. We have to get the word out on what WWE really is."

Our audience, and the number of viewers, beats every sports property besides the NFL. And we have scale. We're turn-key. Our talent works for us: We can write, produce, deliver creative content across platforms... versus sports leagues where if you want to do a deal with, say, Serena Williams, you have to deal with the tennis association, agents, managers...

We had scale and could deliver turn-key, cross-platform, family friendly... and no one knew.

So we set out on a journey to do the B2B work. Stephanie (McMahon) was out on the road, I was out on the road... and after we got a couple of great wins under our belt, after well-known brands like KFC and Mars Snickers came on board, after agencies saw the results we delivered... that really built momentum.

NBC Universal has also been a terrific partner. They recognized they had to tell our story to the advertising community, too.

Now if you look at the roster of advertisers, we have over 200 blue-chip companies. Ten years ago our major advertisers tended to be video games and theatrical releases. Not anymore.

Our sponsorship revenue has quadrupled since 2010. I told Vince when I took over that we should be doing 5 times the sponsor revenue we were doing, and he said, "Okay, let's see you do it." And we're almost there. (Laughs.)

But a lot of hard work brought us to this point. To borrow Vince's words, we bet on ourselves a lot. We knew if we got a brand in the door we would deliver for that brand... and that would start the dominos falling.

(For more with Michelle, check out the complete interview.)

12. Be an "and": Gregory Alan Isakov

Gregory Alan Isakov is a farmer, a record label owner, a recording studio owner, and an acclaimed musician and songwriter with seven albums under his belt.

An excerpt from our conversation:

When I went to college I studied horticulture because I was scared to take a music class. Music was what I did in my room -- I wanted to protect the personal side of it and definitely didn't want a music teacher in my head. (Laughs.)

No one else can give you that feeling. And that's what drives you to the next gig, and the next.... But that feeling only comes when you love something.

I play the long game where making records is concerned. Early on I assumed I needed a new record when I toured so I would have something new to sell...

Now, the way I think about our records is that they will be around for a long time -- hopefully long after we're gone. So if they take years to make, that's okay.

If you do good work, it lasts. So I try to make music that will live on.

You never know how people will react. You can't know. But if I know I do everything I can to make an album great... I don't wonder. I don't look back. I know I did the best I could.

Plus, my lifestyle affords me the time. I've always liked farming, I can make a small living doing it, and it lets me do the best I can with my music, too.

(For more with Gregory, check out the complete interview.)

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