Do you want to live life with gusto, meaning, and purpose? Learn the art of living. Host Adam Markel welcomes Aaron McHugh, a podcaster and author of the best-selling book Fire Your Boss: Discover Work You Love Without Quitting Your Job. He is also the Founder of Work Life Play and an Affiliate Advisor to McKinsey/Aberkyn.
The art of living involves showing up wholeheartedly and pursuing an integrated life with no containers. Ground yourself in fierce reality, live an honest life, and be more acquainted with who you are and how you want to show up in the world. Join in the conversation and learn all about the art of living from Aaron.
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The Art Of Living: Happiness Is An Inside Job With Aaron McHugh
I am sitting here feeling very blessed, lucky and grateful to be in this moment. I find lately that I’m thinking about gratitude all the time. There are many reasons to be grateful when I start to search. There’s no limit. I could pretty much do nonstop for an hour thinking about all the things that I’m grateful for. As many things as there are for me to be grateful for, I’m in love with this moment. I hope you feel that way wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, that you can fall in love with this moment. I don’t know that we have much more than that, and I believe that is enough.
I have a great privilege to be introducing a new friend. His name is Aaron McHugh. He is a writer, podcaster, adventurer, bestselling author of a book, which I love the title of, called Fire Your Boss: Discover Work You Love Without Quitting Your Job. How cool is that? It’s almost irreconcilable. We will unpack that a bit more. He is mastering the art of living a sustainable work-life balance, which we’re going to find out whether or not work-life balance is a myth or it’s a fact or fiction. He’s constantly working on interweaving the rhythms of play and adventure into his life. Aaron, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. Welcome.
Thanks a lot. I appreciate you having me, Adam. I’m stoked to be with you.
I love your bio because it’s short, sweet and succinct. I also want to ask you, what’s not written in the bio that I read? What’s one thing that you would love for people to know about you?
I’m a lifelong runner and I love black French press coffee.
You and I are, as my wife said, simpatico. We have a lot of things in common. I’d like to get a sense of your history. I don’t want to start right with the book. I want people to get a sense of the person you are, the road that you’ve traveled and then we’ll dive into these other concepts as well.Love people and enjoy what you’re doing in life. Click To Tweet
Maybe the way I’ve learned to answer those questions is by starting with what I love. I love people and I always have. I’m curious about people. My brother will give me a hard time and say, “You can have a conversation with any stranger you ever meet and you mean it.” It’s true. I have a curiosity about people. That’s always been true about me.
I grew up in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, not too far away from you when I was a little kid. My grandfather worked at Disneyland. I had these playland places I lived. My real world was in the Sierras and we didn’t have a lot of resources. My dad was a pastor growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money, but I found the natural world and adventure in these creeks, rivers, streams, fish and things to climb to be interesting.
I would go to visit my grandfather at work and we’d go through the back alleys of Disneyland because he had this golden pass. He started working there the year after the park opened in 1956. To me, work was a place you’re supposed to be stoked about and enjoy what you’re doing in life. Those are things that formed my early formative years and who I’ve become. Over the years, I’ve been a dad. I have three kids. I’ve been married to the same woman that I still love and enjoy for years. That’s not free and hasn’t been easy. There’s been lots of highs and lows.
In my work and career, I found my way into sales early on in my career. I was selling 60-second radio commercials to liquor stores and bars in my first beginning. It was a commission job. It was like, “You could make more money and it came with health insurance.” I was like, “I’ll give it a try.” What I’ve found knocking on the door, I’ve never had a linear path of a five-year plan. “This is what I’m going to do and achieve in five years.” I never had some wow pedigree. I didn’t go to MIT. I wasn’t valedictorian. I barely graduated high school because I was out in the parking lot with my buddies, skipping class.
There’s a certain way to show up to your life regardless of circumstance. In my beginnings, we had lots of bumps in the road and unfortunate events that’s continued throughout a lot of my adult life. I’ve found that your word of resilience and pivot stand out to me. I’ve discovered there is an art and way of living regardless of our life circumstances. The people that I admire most are the ones that show up with some zeal, gusto, guts and an open heart, as you say.
I’d love to dive into the art of living. I remember reading an old metaphysical book by Emmet Fox on this term of the art of successful living. I’d love to get your take on what that art is or what components, let’s say there are involved in artful living.
I was in Hawaii at a friend of mine’s home. For a living, he developed Lava Rock Realty. They turned a lava rock flow into $1 billion worth of real estate for guys with last names like Dell and Schwab. I found him a cool cat. In his bathroom, it etched in the sink, whatever it was marble or granite was this little pattern then it had a quote above the sink that was about the art of living. The essence is you be the judge. When is the master of the art of living at work? When is he at play, worshiping, efforting and loving?
What I learned reflecting on my own life, having a couple of weeks in Hawaii to get away and extract myself from my normal routines or normal ways of being, was I lived in compartments. This compartment was work, play and call my wife. This part was friends. I had worked in a well-organized Ikea closet. I have a container and a label for everything.
When I was done with it, I would put it back on the shelf, seal it tight and then move on to the next container. What I found was it was an attempt at a grasp at control. It turns out I wasn’t very good at it, but I had lived with the illusion that if I could get ahead, get the next thing done, achieve the next conquest, earn a certain amount of money, race this race, climb this mountain or achieve this relational 27-mile year marker with my wife, then I’ll equal happy, content and successful.
What I’ve learned is this art of living, this mastery of in the dailies at the moment. What would it look for me to show up open-hearted, wholehearted and pursue an integrated life where I don’t have any containers? It’s all one beautiful, big mess, concoction, creation where it’s a light and easy way of living versus tight gripping of control and insisting on outcomes.
This is such an interesting thing that we stumbled upon here. I never believe in any accidents. We stumbled, but we are we’re led at the same time. Control is an interesting topic. I’ve known a few control freaks in my life. I see a recovering control freak in the morning when I look in the mirror. I’ve known a lot of successful people that I would also say are highly controlling people.
The question I want to put out there to the folks that are reading this, questioning whether they fall into that category themselves or whether maybe they haven’t been “successful” because they aren’t as controlling as others around them have been. I want to get a sense of that from you. Do you think that control is a feature that contributes to success? Maybe it’s a compound question that even if it does, does it rob a person of feeling good about their success even after they’ve achieved it?Get curious about your hidden depths and see a whole picture of yourself. Click To Tweet
Like you, I don’t know that I’d go as far as to call myself a control freak, but I have had issues with control. The journey I’ve been on the last decade is getting curious about my internal world or inner life and looking at that as information about my external life. What I mean by that is there are the things I do in the world and oftentimes, with leadership teams who I work with, we talk about using the metaphor of an iceberg. You can see the tip of the iceberg because it sticks out of the water and that’s where we can see the observables, behavior, house, cars, and whatever LinkedIn says.
Below the waterline is the 90% you can’t see. We call them the hidden depths. I’ve been spending a lot more time these last years getting curious about the hidden depths and then trying to see a whole picture of myself of what my motives are. Why do I do what I do? Control is an example. Why do I want to grip onto things? What I realized is it was an attempt to minimize pain.
Growing up as a kid, my parents had split and I was the oldest of three. I could live on food stamps as we did as a kid. I could be in the free lunch line or say I’m going to avoid that pain by controlling an outcome. My brother calls it the thousand-yard stare like someone on a racecourse. You can see somebody has a look in their eye and they are headed somewhere. That was me early in my career.
I wanted to do it in a way that didn’t leave a lot of casualties and wake behind me because I care about people, but I was happily willing to make myself a casualty. Unknowingly but I would push myself through. I refused to give myself a break and to rest. You talk about resilience. A big part of what I’ve learned is I have limitations. I didn’t do that. I didn’t like it. I still wrestle with the fact that I have limitations.
I don’t want to be a robot because that’s not wholehearted. I am an endurance athlete. In San Diego, where you are, you see a lot of triathletes training along the coast. I was one of them. On a racecourse, I would tell myself over and over as I would pass someone or even as I would get past that I suffer better than you. That was my internal mantra.
That was my programming. My daily program is I’m good at enduring suffering. I can take it. I can go further, but the part that was unkind to myself, my body, mind, soul and relationships was that it’s true about me and at what cost? Below my iceberg, I would do those things because I was afraid of being weak, asking for help and of no help ever coming.
What I’ve learned is that each of us is a fascinating creature and we have great reasons why we do what we do. Above the waterline picture is only a small bit. To be on this path of mastering the art of living, I have to be a lot more clear and conscious in my view of what’s going on here. “Why am I doing these things?” Make sure I’m clear about it. It still may be that I tell myself a story of suffering but that it’s clear. It’s not autopilot. My life’s not happening to me. I’m co-creating the life that I’m living intentionally.
It’s a very different approach. Being that much more aware, as he said, of both what’s above and below that waterline visible and invisible is a finer distinction. It is simpler not to be concerned with what’s below the waterline or invisible. There are enough hours of the day or enough ways to spend focused on what’s above the water so people can see that we never have to spend a whole lot of time on what’s going on below.
People live their entire lives in that way. Maybe only have a glimpse of what that lost opportunity is at the point when they’re making their transition. I don’t know that for certain. I haven’t been there myself. I know that what you said resonates with me. I spent a good chunk of my adult life and my professional life mostly focused on how to build that structure and that presence above the waterline that the world will validate, approve of, reward, pay and all of those things and what’s below is so much deeper.
I’d call it an honest life. I have a deep faith and belief that God’s life is real. There’s this great quote from this guy, Parker Palmer, that I love and he talks about being grounded in fierce with reality. It means it’s truthful, above the waterline, below and all of it is truthful, integrated whole, no compartments.
What’s oftentimes scary for me and others is that it feels like if I take a peek or open and crack that lid to see what’s in there, I’ll be like, “How about I’ll spend time on the above?” We have some dear friends that come to mind and they moved from vacation to vacation, new home to new home, job to job. That’s the part you can see on LinkedIn. The part that’s below is almost tragic.
In what sense?Ground yourself in fierce reality. Click To Tweet
Broken relationships and they’re lovely beautiful people. Developing a willingness to take a look at what else is going on down, there is driving why we do what we do. That is a courageous act. Brené Brown calls it so much of it as we engineer smallness above the waterline. I don’t want to live in smallness. Your new book is about how to live in abundance in love or a life you love. When you stare at the mirror and look back at yourself, you love in earnest, not the one that gets up on some social media feed about how great it is.
I’ve been to some wonderfully exotic places. I had a buddy of mine that’s a billionaire developer tell me, “There are some amazing people who come to this place that is soulfully dying. They’re miserable.” This is another attempt at distraction from what’s below. For me, all of that is what it looks like to approach our life with curiosity and be integrated. What does it look like to do the hard work of prioritizing our inner work as well as our outer work? We want to enjoy it. The upside is freedom, joy, fun, intimacy, connection and adventure. That was what I was after in the first place. I didn’t mention that I went through burnout and our middle child died. Our son was in a recovery center for drugs and alcohol. None of this is a theory for me.
What’s scares you?
We’re on the eve of our daughter’s passing. I feel afraid at times that I’m going to give up. Not like giving up in life or in my life or anything like that, but it’s like there’s zeal, drive and passion about me for living life with gusto, meaning and purpose. When I feel sad, the weight of grief and worried about the state of the world, I have moments of, “I can’t imagine spending 10, 20, 30 or 40 years if I don’t have that through-line or fire in my belly to keep going. I’ve not experienced long bouts of that happening, but I’ve had a couple.
Do you have a way out? What you’re describing can be analogized in many ways. A lot of people feel that way. At this moment, I asked you that because I feel that it’s a hidden thing. It’s below the waterline that many of us feel. We don’t have the luxury to be that real with the world. I’m not saying we don’t ever share it with people that are close to us or in any circumstance people sometimes do. Things impart to focus light. Brené Brown made it more aware. We feel more permissible
To my knowledge and experience, it’s still something that people keep themselves very much. It is way below that waterline. I appreciate that you shared that. It’s a great way to enter this conversation of what are we doing on a ritual basis to pull ourselves out of the cave, that darker place or from below the waterline?
I’m super passionate and I noticed from your work, you are as well about daily practices, rituals and habits. A couple of things that I’ve found as a rescue for me is a buddy of mine I called the beginning of pandemic and he had been in prison for thirteen months for a white-collar, IRS violation stuff back in the day. He’s uber-successful above the waterline planes and houses. He’s an amazing dude, a great friend and mentor.
I asked him, “What do you think about this?” We were in a house where he stayed home orders. He said, “I learned to build ritual into my day to give me some semblance of normalcy.” He said, “When I was in prison,” “I’m listening.” This is someone I admire. “We had game time every day.” He goes, “I read my Bible at the same time every day. I wrote letters to home every day. I went for a walk.” He had this ritual. Since this pandemic work, I learned how few of us, me included, have what I would call an everyday muscle that we use.
My son has been in recovery for almost six years, clean and sober. My wife did the math on the total number of days he’s been sober. I was like, “Over 2,000.” I stared at that along with my friend’s advice. I’m like, “What have I ever done for 2,000 days? I don’t even brush my teeth every single day.” Can you imagine? Every single day, I’m a meditator. I pray, even in that I’d noticed giving myself free passes. “I won’t do it today.” Fast forward, I started running as a mini-experiment. I’m not sure if you know the work of James Clear on Atomic Habits.
I do. I’ve recommended his book on the show.
I’ll echo your recommendation. As a runner, what if I ran every single day a minimum of 1 mile? He talks about making it small you can’t fail. A mile for me is so small. I can’t fail. I’m 307 days in a row, rain and shine, snow, sleet or whatever it may be. To answer your question, I believe that sometimes it’s important to put action first and evaluate later.
Put something small into action, shut up, don’t ask too many questions, do it, think about it and evaluate it later. In the recovery world, one of the recommendations they make is to go to six of them in a row and then evaluate if you like it or not. There are 30 meetings in a row for 30 days and then decide if it helped you or not.Be more acquainted with who you are and how you want to show up in the world. Click To Tweet
Something that we lack as a culture is that everything is under constant evaluation of how I feel about it. How do I feel now? What do I want to do? What we’ve done is we’ve shortcut some of the rebar that gives our life some structure and through lines that we stopped talking about and do. As a result of how I get out of the cave, sometimes when I go run 1 mile, I shut up and don’t think about it. I feel a lot better afterward.
For me, it’s getting in the pool or ocean. It’s the same thing. The ritual is something substantial that can be counted on. I can count on my rituals to be a rescue. When I speak with organizations and do keynote work for companies, I use this analogy of the rescue. The first story I tell during my TED Talk and in many subsequent talks is the story of a rescue that went bad when I was a lifeguard at a beach when I was nineteen years old.
This idea that rituals are a buoy or rescue tool is not a small thing in my world. It hasn’t been. To hear you say that, it drops in. I love a lot of what is conveyed in James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. Change can be either easy or difficult. You can make anything as easier or as difficult as you like. I don’t care what it is.
Part of that art of living successfully is that we look for ways and create ways to make things easy. I don’t mean easy in the shortcut. When I was 25, that would have meant taking shortcuts. It would’ve meant cutting corners or whatever it means, cheating, lying or whatever. Now, it means what we’re talking about, which is you make it easy on your soul.
It’s not easy on your soul to cheat, lie, hurt other people or barrel over other people in the pursuit of your success. You may achieve something in the process and end up with that house car or whatever, but the price is your soul. That’s not making it easy for yourself. You’re launching that book right around the time that COVID hits. What great timing.
This new book, The I Love My Life Challenge, which you were referring to, is an interactive 28-day workbook for the purposes we’re talking about. How do you create rituals day by day, one day after another, one foot in front of the other? We had that idea shortly after COVID started. We knew that we wanted to put this concept out into the world and make something tangible people could use.
You had the idea for your book before COVID hit and then had to launch it amid a pandemic. I’d love to get a sense of what the book is about and what that journey has been like for you. Launching a book on a good day is as much of a pain in the ass as almost anything I’ve ever experienced in the business. On a pandemic day, I’m not sure what that would be like. If you want to see this on YouTube, you can check that out.
What I’ve learned about myself real quick is that I’m a mariner. For instance, I’ll read the same book 2, 5, 8 times. I’ll watch the same movie over and over. It comes down to I love getting it underneath my skin. I view books like friends that and not all of them are that way. I’ll know 2, 3 or 4 chapters in if this is a friend I want to hang with and spend some time with or if maybe I’ll put it in the comeback to later or no this isn’t for me for the season.
For me, this book is about the integration of the inner and outer life and in the context of work. The only reason it’s in the context of work is that it was the frontier in which I was exploring. That was the classroom in which I was participating so that I could become more acquainted with who I am fully and how I want to show up in the world.
Gallup does an annual survey on employee engagement. It’s referred to a lot, but the bottom line is 1/3 of people who go to work every day in the US are engaged, 2/3 are not. That 2/3 that are not means that you go and punch a clock and 1/3 of those are actively disengaged. I view that as a crime of humanity. It’s not okay. On my watch with my life, I’m going to take a swing. Whether that’s the Berlin wall, we’re trying to get some cracks in the concrete. I don’t care what I got to do. I am swinging at that wall because it’s not okay.
We, as humans, are made for more. Phoning it in before you even walk in the front door, sitting in the parking lot or rolled into Zoom, that apathy and resignation are not okay ways to spend our life. As a senior executive of a global software company, I’ve spent my career in business, sales, commercial, and innovation software startups rang the opening day trading bell, London stock exchange. I’ve gotten to experience a lot of that stuff.
I also got to experience what it was like in commercial or in consulting in different companies all over the planet. Will you stare like you and me, eyeball to eyeball and you see if the lights are on and anybody’s at home or if it’s a pretty dull flicker? I got curious. “Why? What is going on here? This is not okay.” My book is about this idea of Luke Skywalker wanting to defeat Darth Vader and he has to go on an inner journey to become a Jedi before he can go up against Darth Vader. This idea is repeated in stories about how do you become a person who could move from fear to freedom?Take ownership over your engagement and passion. Click To Tweet
I use that arc and structure across my book. “How do you become the person to move from fear to freedom, from compartmentalizing to wholehearted, from rule-follower to heretic?” I walked through a series of core ideas. How do you become the person who can thrive in any situations you find yourself in your career?
That’s why an important subtitle is discovering work you love without quitting your job. Often with the title Fire Your Boss, people assume that it’s entrepreneurial. “I can finally be on my own.” The case I make in the book is to start where you are, wherever you are, entrepreneur, intrapreneur, employee. I want you to show you how to start a revolution at an inner journey level that will take shape externally. If you go off to be an entrepreneur, I can show you how to have a greater impact on that. I walked through these stories of my career liberation, in the end, it’s about being free. How do you be fully engaged? How do you live with joy and freedom? How do you have a life that I love? Happiness is an inside job.
If you could put the through-line of your book, can you summarize it in one sentence? People would love to know that.
Happiness is an inside job and the agency of your life and career starts with you. No one’s going to permit you.
I use my kids as an example because we have 4 and 2 are still in college but are on internships and 2 are out and working for startups and some more mature companies. I’ve seen that they’ve become disillusioned with the companies they’ve worked for after some time. It could be 1 year or 18 months. Millennials, on average, are switching jobs about every eighteen months. For somebody whose light is flickering in terms of their passion, commitment and engagement with that employer, what’s in this book for them?
The biggest a-ha for most people when they read my book and engage with these ideas is back to Atomic Habits and tiny steps by James Clear. There are lots of on-ramps and handholds for small things that you can do. The thing I’ll link that to is most of us cannot answer the question, “What do I want? What do I desire? What do I need? What do I value?” Most of us can say, “What I don’t like or what bothers me. The reason I’m not engaged is because.” It’s usually a statement of associated blame and responsibility of someone else.
We very often deflect and defer any personal responsibility to ourselves on, “Are you serious? Is my engagement dependent on someone else’s response, the environment that you create for me or compensation?” Those are important things, but if engagement is that fragile that outsourced our happiness, contentment and engagement to other people, then that will go with you to your next job too. That was a pattern I found in my career.
If I can put a stake in the ground wherever I am, begin to take ownership over my engagement, passion and swing for defensiveness, then I can take that wherever I go. I worked for one of the most premier global consulting firms on the planet. It didn’t happen because I was sticking around waiting for someone to engage me.
It turns out that once I decided, “I’m swinging for the fence. I’m going to bring my A-game.” Regardless and independent of others’ responses because then all of a sudden, you’re in a creating mode, causation mode, influence mode, but while you’re in a reactive mode, living in that pit of despair, that’s where most people stay. The challenge with disengagement dialogue is it’s always centered around what our employers can do for us versus what we must do for ourselves first.
Trying to control what’s above the waterline is a great definition of insanity. You have almost no control. This is a great irony and why God has a great sense of humor because everybody’s trying to control their outer circumstances. Not realizing that that’s the only thing we have any measure of control over is what is below the waterline.
There is a distinction between control and influence. We may not be able to control our externals. I’m exhibiting A of that or a poster child of that. We can have tremendous influence. Influence doesn’t equal control, but when we begin to own the distinction between influence and control, then that’s another form of way we’re liberated. We’re like, “I’m going to show up and do this because it’s good. I value it. It’s important to me. It may influence other people.” It goes back to how you start a revolution as everyday people like me and you decide, “We envision a world that’s better than the one that we have.”
It doesn’t matter what work you’re doing or what job you’re in. On some level, you can choose to be unconditionally happy in that work or situation. That sounds incredibly odd because there are some shitty situations, poor paying jobs and awful bosses. All of that is true. For one second, to be clear, I’m not suggesting anybody should tolerate anything that they don’t wish to tolerate.
The responses are to blame, justify or complain. When that’s how we’re spending our time and precious life, it’s no wonder there’s no energy to light the bulb. I love this conversation. I would highly recommend at this point that people go out and check out Fire Your Boss: Discover Work You Love Without Quitting Your Job. You can go to AaronMcHugh.com. You can find out more about his work as a speaker, author and thought leader.
Aaron, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for that. As we depart, I will remind all of us how it is that we can decide to love our lives. Not to be in love with someone else’s life or someone else’s possessions or their success but rather simply love ours in this very moment, regardless of it not being everything that we think we want or expect it to be. As you were pointing out, it’s possible that we can be more unconditional. That’s something ironically or maybe paradoxically that we have control over. We get to choose that.
I am fully in love with this moment and with my life at this moment. I hope it’s been a great conversation for you, Aaron, and for everybody reading this that you’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. We would love to hear from you. You can leave a comment at AdamMarkel.com/podcast. If you love the episode, subscribe and tell a friend. We love the fact that the community is growing as it has. I look forward to connecting again soon. Ciao, everyone. Thank you again, Aaron.
Thanks, bless you.
- Fire Your Boss: Discover Work You Love Without Quitting Your Job
- Atomic Habits
- The I Love My Life Challenge
About Aaron McHugh
I write a blog and podcast about restoring balance and finding your path to a well-lived life on Work Life Play.
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