In this Episode
- [00:09]Stephan introduces today’s guest, Brian Johnson, creator of Optimize and the Founder and CEO of Heroic. He’s spent half of the last twenty-five years as a Founder/CEO and the other half as a Philosopher.
- [02:15]Brian shares the origin story of how he got so focused on the idea of optimization.
- [03:17]Stephan asks Brian to talk about the meaning of ancient wisdom.
- [04:39]Brian discusses the practical tools we can use in our modern lives from ancient wisdom, shares his admiration for Marcus Aurelius, and talks about cultivating Heroic Meditation practice, where he invites heroes into his practice.
- [09:59]Stephan shares having conversations with Gandhi and King Solomon.
- [13:04]Brian expresses his experience is less the past souls reincarnate or appearing in different forms; it is more of deep knowledge of what is called for him and what to do next.
- [14:46]Stephan asks if Brian has paranormal or supernatural abilities or experiences of having prophetic dreams or visions.
- [18:34]Brian explains his perception of virtue, authenticity and integrity.
- [21:07]Stephan asks Brian’s process of taking this virtue, applying them to raise the $5 million and how they embodied the company.
- [26:05]Brian believes in slowing down long enough to allow the truth to settle in, and it’s what good meditation does to him.
- [27:20]Stephan asks Brian to explain the phrase, “sometimes you open doors and instead of bliss, you get a fiasco.”
- [29:42]Brian talks about the books written by Steven Pressfield, which are The War of Art, Turning Pro, and Do the Work.
- [31:41]Brian’s breathwork experience that led to a shift in his life.
- [34:14]Brian talks about how he addressed his migraines and anxiety effectively through nutrition.
- [36:19]Brian talks about the Oura ring and doing cold plunges.
- [39:05]Brian’s experience on the red light therapy.
- [42:46]Brian talks about how he created the PhilosophersNotes.
- [44:36]Visit and register to Brian’s two companies: Optimize has what used to be a premium offering. It is now free, and it also has a coach certification program. And then the Heroic, which is launching in April with a founding heroic membership for only $35 a year.
Brian, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Stephan, thank you for having me on the show. I’m looking forward to our connection.
Yeah, me too. So let’s first of all start with a bit more on your backstory, your origin story? How did you end up getting so focused on this idea of optimization?
It’s a great question. And I was raised in a conservative Catholic family, a first-generation college student. I was recruited by a large firm, went to a leadership event, and was introduced to Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is 1995, maybe? And was introduced to the idea that you can optimize your life, that you can deliberately, consciously, proactively shape your life, and that led me on a journey of trying to understand what it is that makes great people great, kind of that .001% that go out and make a real difference in the world. And that thinking evolved into how to integrate ancient wisdom and modern science to create your best, most heroic life. There are tons of details we can go into there, but that was the pure origin.
Okay, now what is ancient wisdom mean to you?
I’ve got a few guys on my wall back there. We’ve got Aristotle. We’ve got Epictetus. I’m a huge fan of stoicism and student of stoicism, but ancient wisdom across all cultures, so not just the ancient stoics, but the ancient Greeks, the ancient Taoist thinking, Confucian thinking, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. I’ve immersed myself over the half of the last 25 years in studying that, and then bringing it into modern science and showing that the positive psychology movement was founded on the core virtues of each of those wisdom, faith, and traditions. So that’s been kind of my quest is integrating those two things, creating practical tools we can use in our modern lives. But yeah, ancient wisdom, stoics. You have to love good Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, little Aristotle, here and there.
Yeah, Marcus Aurelius, in particular, I resonate with. Awesome. And are you familiar with Ryan Holiday‘s Books? I’m guessing.
What qualities do they embody that you would aspire to embody more in your life?
Of course. We featured a bunch of them. I traded emails with him today. He’s pretty close to us here in Austin. And The Obstacle Is the Way, The Daily Stoic, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key. I haven’t read his newest one, but a huge fan of Ryan. The Daily Stoic, if you want to get into stoicism, I always say go to the dailystoic.com. Check out the Daily Stoic. And yeah, huge fan.
Yeah, he is awesome. Cool. And let’s talk about these practical tools that you can distill out of ancient wisdom. What would be an example of that?
You know, it’s interesting. I’m curious, what do you love about Marcus Aurelius? Just to flip it around, we can go into some practical tools. And actually, I was reading something this morning, which is an interesting segue, but I was kind of hit by a, “Oh, cool. What do you love about Aurelius?”
You know, I don’t know. Were you setting this aside of like, past lives and all that kind of woo-woo stuff? I’m very much on that. Even though I’m a biohacker, a scientist, and all that, I sway woo-woo. So, to me, Marcus Aurelius is somebody who resonates with me. I just have a knowing that I had some sort of interaction with him or that he was somebody important. And I don’t have – like it’s not like a site of a favorite quote, book, or something like that. It’s just a knowing. I don’t know. Does that sound too out there?
No, I love it. Idiosyncratically, iconoclastically you, which is always a good thing. So that’s fantastic. It’s funny because I’ve got a wall of heroes, right? And I’ve got kind of Aurelius is actually in one of the pole positions for me. I admire his integration of his philosophical practice and leadership and look to him as one of my ideal sages. And it’s funny because in terms of practical tools, my favorite author. Ryan’s amazing in framing it, and he offers a lot of practical guidance as well. But Donald Robertson is probably the most practical stoic philosopher, practitioner and therapist. So he wrote two great books that we featured in the PhilosophersNotes. One, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor on, of course, Marcus Aurelius. He gives some biographical sketches and a cool book. And then his earlier one was called The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And I went away; I reread my notes all the time. So I was just reading this, and he talks about one of the practices in ancient stoicism: to imagine the ideal sage, and the qualities, and the virtues that they embody, that are latent within you that you can express more and more consistently.
So I’ve cultivated something called Heroic Meditation practice, where I literally invite my heroes into my practice. I meditate for an hour each morning, do some breath work, and then each of them literally if you want to go woo-woo here. Minus the woo-woo more of just kind of channeling the wisdom of my favorite teachers, but they speak to me. So they each have something to say to me every morning. So Marcus Aurelius tells me to play my role well and step in between stimulus and response, choose your optimal response in a given situation. Epictetus used to demand his students. Epictetus is my favorite teacher; he demanded his students show me what it looks like to be heroic. He said, “I’m tired of talking about these characters from history; show me in your life what heroism looks like.” And then Aristotle got a tattoo, or a tie, which is his one-word summation of how to live. So that’s what he tells me every day is live with, we translated as virtue or excellence. But be the best version of yourself moment to moment. I’m saying a lot. But that’s a practical tool to think about who your top one, two, perhaps three heroes are, and what do they have to say to you? What wisdom can they offer you? What qualities do they embody that you would aspire to embody more in your life? And don’t do that once in a while, do that day in and day out, moment to moment.
That’s amazing. And so do you hear them in their voice? Or do you hear them in your voice? Or you just get this feeling of this knowing that they’re saying, what they’re saying to you, how does that work?We optimize three aspects of our lives: energy, work, and love. Click To Tweet
Goosebumps. Great question. They’re all on a first-name basis. So when we have fun, I’ve got a start-up here with Ralph Waldo Emerson, then I’ve got Abraham Lincoln. Then I’ve got my own heroic image. When anyone starts in our team, we send them an image of themselves and the heroic thing; we’ve got Steve Jobs up there, we’ve got Marcus Aurelius, we’ve got my beloved Coach Phil Stutz, who’s the only other living person on there. I’ve got, again, Joseph Campbell at the bottom. So they all were on a first-name basis. So I’d try to connect with them as if they’re alive. And we’re having a conversation, and then they’re very directive, so they’re very sometimes demanding. And I do it in the morning, and I do it at night. So in the morning, it’s pretty, “What’s go?” At night, it’s a review. Often, it’s, “How you do this well? You can work on this a little bit,” which is another ancient practice. By the way, start your day with intentionality and end it with intentionality. Use the data from the day to get just a little bit better so you can get yourself optimized. It’s me speaking on their behalf, but I feel their presence and feel their directedness and the declarations and demands in what I perceive to be their kind of tonality and all that good stuff.
That’s great. I’d love to hear what Gandhi and King Solomon said to you.
Well, okay, so King Solomon. I love this story. So I don’t know if this touches something for you. But King Solomon was so pleasing to God that God offered him whatever he wanted. “Just name it, it’s yours.” And Solomon replied, “Thank you, and all I want is wisdom.” And it’s like, “Wow, that’s amazing. Amazingly, you have asked for that because within that is everything; in fact, I’m going to give you everything in addition to wisdom.”
So King Solomon can show up in an animal. When you’re on the other side of the veil, my understanding of how this works is that they can show up inside of an animal. Kind of taking over that animal for a period of time, like you’ll see Facebook videos and things of a bird, like a cardinal landing on an old lady’s arm and just staring her down. And then she tries to get it off, and then it comes in flies right back on her shoulder. And that’s because that’s her mom, her loved one that is coming to visit.
This was a fun one I shared on a previous podcast episode. So my EA had this incredible experience where she asked when she was having a conversation with her mom. And then she asked her mom to send her a without a doubt sign that she was actually in conversation with her because mom had passed. And she was by herself in the car talking herself, but it was her talking to her mom. And her mom did hear because as soon as she turned to turn the corner, there was an owl in the middle of the street, blocking her path, so that she had to stop. And then the owl stared her down for; I don’t know, at least five minutes, she sent me a video of this owl that was staring her down. So it took over. Like her mom’s soul took over the body of the owl for a period of time so that they could connect anyway.
And so King Solomon can show up his as a lizard, as an example, or as an eagle, or a hawk up in the sky. This is something that happened to me earlier this year. That was profound. He communicated with me multiple times. The unseen world is more real than the seen world. And I had no clue not until this year how real it is. So I don’t know, have you had any kind of without doubt signs, or it’s like, “Wow, this is much more than just physical reality that we live in.”
Start your day with intentionality and end it with intentionality. Use the data from the day to get just a little bit better so you can get yourself optimized
Yeah, my experience is less the past souls reincarnate or appearing in different forms and more just a deep knowing. So just a deep sense of this is what is called of me and what I need to do next. And so we can talk more about that. And I will also celebrate the fact that you mentioned “cardinals,” which is interesting; that is my favorite bird by far. So the cardinal virtues is what we found in our new business, Heroic on wisdom, self-mastery, courage, and love, which of course, is the essence of Solomon’s wisdom. Is that embodiment of these ideas and ideals.
So anyway, when I see a cardinal on our property here in Austin, which I often do, it’s always a beautiful reminder of the importance of being in integrity with that. For me, I’ve had several moments in my life that were just clear, both on the negative and the positive. When I started my career, after that company successfully recruited me, the first week driving home from work, pulled off on the side of the freeway and threw up very physical just experience of that, “This is not my path.” That’s happened to me a couple of other times, and then stated positively just deep sense of knowing that this is what I am here to do. And then that willingness to pay attention more and to take that next action, so that’s kind of, I find myself fully occupied by this reality and then connecting in my own way through my own stillness in my own practice. But yeah, in a little different kind of my own idiosyncratic and often iconoclastic, trusting of that experience but yeah, beautiful stories. Thank you for sharing
Are there certain abilities paranormal, extrasensory, supernatural kind of abilities that you’ve noticed have appeared in your life at all? I’m just curious if you’ve had any prophetic dreams or visions, anything that sticks out as, like a knowing that turned into something that may be saved your life or, save somebody else’s life or, something that’s like, “Whoa, that that’s wild.”
Yeah, I’m not sure it’s going to pass your test of wild, but I find it wild, and it’s funny. Because you mentioned Gandhi, he’s on my wall back there as well. If there’s any superpower, our new business is called Heroic, which I can tell you about the knowing I had on election night. 2020 woke up at one thirty-five in the morning. And, again, politics aside, I am just appalled and do better than this. And practice my philosophy, which is anytime I find myself off-center, I do something I call targeted thinking, which has two parts. One, get clarity on what you want. Don’t complain about what isn’t working, but get clarity on what you want, have a clear target. And then to ask yourself, what do you need to do to take the next step toward that?
So at one thirty-five in the morning or so, it was clear that I wanted to help create a more noble and virtuous world. And it was one of those epiphany life-changing moments. So I wouldn’t say it saved my life; I would say that it could save many people’s lives in terms of what we’re going to do on the other side of this decision. But just got clarity that I wanted to help create a more noble and virtuous world. My background is I built and sold to social platforms before Facebook; I’ve waited a very long time for someone to create an alternative to Facebook, kind of answer to the social dilemma.
So anyway, it became very clear that’s what I wanted. And it was time for me to leave the Hermitage where I had been reading and writing and teaching for years and create that. And that’s a Marcus Aurelius thing, too, by the way, play your role. Well, Viktor Frankl is on my wall. He’s a therapist in a concentration camp. He was also a practicing stoic and said, “It’s time for me to play my role well.” And so, I felt called to play that role. A few days later, I learned that the crowdfunding regulations were changing from a million-dollar max equity financing to 5 million, and it was another one of those. I didn’t think it; I just knew we would be the first company to do that. And then, six weeks later, we filed with the SEC, we sent out an email, telling people the story, let’s go out and make history then change the course of it. And we had $5 million in 24 hours. And we had $11 million of commitments in 100 hours. So we wound up making history and doing that.
Get clarity on what you want.
So there’s this series of events, but again, it’s my own role for me. I believe, is very, very, try to live 51% from the spiritual plane while executing well in the material plane is my practice. But ultimately, the superpower I try to cultivate is what Gandhi called soul force. Martin Luther King used the phrase soul force in his I Have a Dream speech to Satyagraha, which we translate as soul force, but it’s truth force. It’s love force, its virtue force. The truth, love, true soul integrity, it has a power to it, there’s a force to it. And that’s what I strive to cultivate every single day, by living with virtue as consistently as I can. And that’s ultimately what we’re striving to help people create in their lives is their own kind of physical, spiritual superpower that we call soul force. So it’s a long answer to a short question, but there are a couple of things that have been pivotal in feeling inspired by something much bigger than myself.
Yeah, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, don’t we?
So what would be the difference between virtue and something like authenticity, congruence, or integrity? Why virtue?
I would say that those are each beautiful examples of virtue. So there’s a constellation of virtues the ancients, particularly the Greeks and Stoics. However, all cultures across all time had the same basic cardinal virtues. Wisdom. King Solomon wasn’t the only one that prized wisdom. This is a true philosopher, a lover of wisdom, and then self-mastery in the ancient world, they call it, or we translate what they talked about as temperance, but that’s a very weak translation of what they meant. Can you cultivate the ability to do what needs to get done? Whether you feel like it or not, moment to moment moments. We call that – I call that self-mastery. Courage is a universally revered virtue, of course. And then love is the ultimate purpose of everything. It’s the hero’s secret weapon, etc.
And then, positive psychology has a set of 24 virtues that include hope, gratitude, curiosity, and zest. And I would offer that authenticity is an important virtue. It comes from the same root as author, so to be the author of your own life, that is your authenticity. And then integrity, for me, is being in integrity with the virtues that you say are important to you, which is in and of itself, also a beautiful virtue worth aspiring to. In my work, it’s helping people get clarity on what is the best version of yourself. We optimize three aspects of our lives, energy, work, and love. And sum it up and say, “Look, if you can get your energy, your work, and your love, right, you’re doing pretty well, if not more than 80% there. Who are you at your best energy-wise? Work-wise? Love-wise?” See from that identity, live from that identity.
And then what virtues does that version of you embody, again, in your own idiosyncratic, often iconoclastic way, and then the ultimate purpose is to put those virtues in action, not once in a while, but today, moment to moment. And you do that in ancient wisdom, modern science that you have you will flourish is what Martin Seligman describes it as in his book by the same name, or what Aristotle would describe as you will have, eudaimonia, which eudaimonia which means good soul. So that soul, that best version of you, when you consistently show up as that best version of you, it’s as if that inner soul is being expressed, and there’s a light to that. And so anyway, virtue to me is the conduit through which we can more and more consistently hit the right targets and show up with integrity to our highest selves.
Integrity, for me, is being in integrity with the virtues that you say are important to you
How did you take your virtues and apply them to raising the $5 million? And getting that that whole thing started? How are they embodied in that company?
What a great question. So in my meditation, I start with 60 minutes, so do about 12 minutes times five. So the first 12 minutes is breathwork. The second 12 minutes, which has become a little longer, is inviting my heroes to give me some wisdom that day. And then the third set of 12 minutes is walking through. So we created a virtue compass, in which we place wisdom in the North position, self-mastery in the South position, courage in the West position, and love in the East position. And then we have hope, gratitude, curiosity, and zest in between them. So I have declarations in my meditation on each of those virtues. And literally, my most ardent commitment is to live in integrity with that.
So my virtues influence everything that I do and strive to do. So wisdom, the declaration that goes with that is, “I know the ultimate game and how to play it well.” And then self-mastery is, “I have structural, reactive, and expensive discipline,” We can talk about courage as, “I am willing to act in the presence of fear.” And then the love declaration we use is, “I am present, connected and encouraging.” And then hopefully, we’ve got declarations, gratitude, curiosity, access, and I’m aspiring to use each one of those.
The virtue of courage is that willingness to act in the presence of it
So this specific example is before I sent out the email, after we filed with the SCC, six weeks after about a pivotal couple of moments, it required the virtue of courage to send a very long letter to our community, I was pretty confident we could list and get some support from our community, you just don’t know until you do something like that. So literally, it was a very deliberate act of practicing the virtue of courage to be willing to act in the presence of fear and hit send. Again, many times in my life, I have approached a door that had fear on it, and I left it shut. So the virtue of courage is that willingness to act in the presence of it, open it up, and then magic happens on the other side of it often. But not always, as Joseph Campbell says, sometimes you pursue your bliss, there’s a good shot for bliss, but there’s also a chance of fiasco. According to Campbell, that willingness to say yes to at all is a key part of a good life. But courage was an easy virtue to explain.
Love, the hero’s secret weapon in ancient Greece, the word here on that protector. So a hero’s secret weapon is love. According to all the scholars and common sense, great leadership is love. It’s love for the opportunity to serve the people you’re blessed to serve for the people with whom you do it. So there are all these opportunities to embody them more and more and more when I sit down for my meditation, there’s self-mastery. When I envisioned my ideal future, that’s hope. When I appreciate my wife and kids and you in this conversation, that’s gratitude. When I look at what’s working in my life or what’s not, that’s curiosity. When I show up and do my workout and eat well, that’s zest, which, interestingly, by the way, and then I’ll be quiet.Virtue is the conduit through which we consistently hit the right targets and show up with integrity in our lives. Click To Tweet
According to the positive psychologist, zest or energy is the virtue most highly correlated with flourishing, which is a fascinating thing. So taking care of your physiology drives your psychology to a much greater degree. It’s interesting to see modern science affirm. I’m striving to practice those all day, every day, which, again, is why I’ve got this tattoo. Which is kind of the meta virtue of if you’re capable of doing this in any given moment, and you’re doing this, and there’s a gap. That’s where regret anxiety dissolution will exist; your eudaimonia’s here, your demon, which is this just the diminutive of daimon, you let them take over. But if you close the gap loop, then you high five; your inner soul is how I playfully describe it. And you experience eudaimonia, which is that deep sense of energized joy and fulfillment that comes when you’re living in integrity with your deepest values.
And a way that’s like you’re above everything in perspective of being aware of your awareness. So you see the bigger picture.
And then all in committed to the next moment with zero attachment, and a commitment again to that something bigger. So it’s that beautiful dance that’s impossible to describe, but why I meditate for an hour every morning stuff in. On my good days, I do another hour in the evenings, that’s hard these days. So I got to get back to that, but another 10, 15, 20 minutes to stay connected to that source. And as a lot of great teachers say, just keep yourself screwed in, you’re just a little bowl, but you got to keep yourself screwed into the ultimate light. And I think it’s all these practices that allow us to do that.
Yeah. They say that praying is talking to God and meditating is listening. So I’m curious to hear your take on that. Is that how the conversation works?
I think so; I believe slowing down long enough to allow the truth that’s so forced to kind of settle in. It’s astonishing to me what good meditation practice does. And I do it because it works on a very practical level. I’m a very practical guy. And I want to show up and play my role well. So the dissolution of many stressors becomes apparent in the midst of it, the clarity of the vision becomes clearer. And that erodes; if I am plugged in too much, I don’t read digital news. I get The Economist once a week, perfect. I know the state of our world right now. I don’t need to be in a cacophony of an echo chamber blowing my consciousness up.
Just embracing that willingness to learn and experiment and have a true growth mindset is important.
I want to separate from the material world enough to connect to something bigger than myself. And then I forget who said it, though. A great suffragist said, “I pray every moment of my life with every action I take,” this is every moment of our lives becomes an act of prayer. So I think when we approach it with King Solomon’s mentality of that genuine commitment, again, to bring it to Aurelius to play our roles, well, not once in a while, but moment to moment, where every moment of our lives is dedicated to that deeper purpose. And we would say heroic service.
Yeah, you mentioned a little bit ago that sometimes you open the door, and instead of bliss, you get a fiasco. Can you share an example of a scenario like that for you?
Stephan, I can share many examples, and I appreciate the invitation to do so. I went to law school, knew I didn’t want to be there. That was another one of the moments where I threw up on my way, moved into the apartment. I knew I didn’t want to be there. But you know, I lived this is 25 more years ago now. Get a stamp from a top 10 law school saying I’m a smart guy, but I knew it wasn’t right. Boom, the fiasco dropped out. I followed with little bliss and coached a minor league baseball team, which lead to my first business, a whole nother chat. And then I created a business, had breakfast with Steven Pressfield. He said, “Hey, have you ever thought about the great writer of The War of Art and other creative books? Have you ever thought about creating a modern-day Plato’s Academy?” And it was one of those choir of angels moments, which I’ve had several different instances, and I’m like, “Oh, that’d be amazing.” And then I went home and proceeded to do exactly the wrong thing. I raised a couple of million dollars. I spent a couple of years of my life building something that was just the wrong direction had to blow that up. It’s a fiasco. Again, as I like to play for you here, I’ve earned these gray whiskers.
So I think that the wisdom is embracing that, embracing the imperfection of life and the importance of mistakes and allowing that to be part of the process rather than something that we’re shaming ourselves about, etc. Those are two seminal ones for me. And again, on the other side of it, you can see that that was exactly what we needed to catalyze our growth. And I can give you all kinds of micro ones. We teach our kids that there are no perfect human beings, Abraham Maslow, who’s down there, says, and the way I joke is, “You and I won’t be the first.” So we teach our kids this, nine and four, and literally, my son will be like, “I’ve made like, 10,272 mistakes in my life, nobody’s perfect.” So just embracing that willingness to learn and experiment and have a true growth mindset is important.
Yes. You mentioned Steven Pressfield and his seminal book, The War of Art. Is there something from the book that speaks to you? Do you want to share with us right now?
Firstly, highly encourage, if you’re a creative artist, which would be all of us, I think you’d love the book, The War of Art, he’s got Turning Pro, Do the Work. He’s got so many other great books; I highly recommend his stuff. And we do have philosophers’ notes on those too, where I talk about some of my challenges. He talks about resistance. My coach Phil Stutz would call that part x; the ancients would call that your daimon is the best version of you. Your demon is the diminutive of that; it’s the proverbial good guy, bad guy, or whatever on the shoulders.Zest or energy is the virtue most highly correlated with success and flourish. Click To Tweet
But he talks about resistance and that voice in your head that’s telling you that you can’t do it. And becoming aware of that, realizing that it’s not because you’re you that you’re experiencing that it’s because you’re human. And that simple is getting two or three inches outside of yourself, as you said before, and seeing that this is just part of the human experience. And then the thing that arises, the loudest voice, is often a signal not to stop but to go there. So that’s actually where the treasure is. And that’s where the greatest opportunities to serve exist—so reversing your desire rather than avoiding that stuff to see it as a sign rather than a stop sign, right?
Yeah, there’s a great quote from Joseph Campbell. “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
It takes self-mastery to get yourself in a position where you can hear that wisdom more and more consistently and then the courage to confront it.
Stephan, I was thinking of that quote when I said what I said; that’s so good. We are attuned to that same well of wisdom. That’s it, right? That darkness is, again, often where the treasure the gold is, and it takes a lot of courage to go back to the – it takes wisdom to know that. And then it takes self-mastery to get yourself in a position where you can hear that wisdom more and more consistently and then the courage to confront it. And then the ultimate power is love; you do it for something bigger than yourself, then all of a sudden, you find you got a lot more power than you think. And it’s not just about you.
Yeah, you’re either in service mode or in self-service mode. So if it is all about you, you’re in self-service mode, and nothing works when you do that. So what would be an example of a breathwork experience that you had that maybe led to some sort of epiphany or shift in your life?
Yeah, so I’m a huge fan and student of Patrick McKeown. So the Oxygen Advantage is his seminal book, although I think there’s a new one out now. And his basic idea is to breathe right; the paradox is we need to breathe less. And you need to get good at tolerating a high level of carbon dioxide, so it’s a longer chat. Most people breathe through their mouth rather than their nose; you want to breathe through your nose exclusively. I wear tape on my mouth at night to ensure that I’m breathing through my nose; my wife does, our kids are starting to. When I train and breathing through my nose, it allows for much more impactful oxygenation of your body and, again, longer chat there, but I’ve practiced that for years.
And for me, I’m less about epiphany moments per se, and I’m more about showing up and doing it consistently. I find that when I do that, then my peak moments, I can build up scaffolding such that that becomes pretty close to a baseline. And if I get off, I know how to get back to that. So I practice that. I’ve meditated every day. But one day, over the last 15 years, I’ve practiced that this breathing less to breathe right for maybe five years now. And I used to be a super anxious kid, scared of everything. I had chipped away that with meditation practice. And nutrition, surprisingly, changed my anxiety levels dramatically when I removed the grains, which were something that didn’t work for me personally.
But the breathwork is actually what did the most. Just cultivating that deep sense of energized tranquility, that calm confidence, it’s what all the Navy SEALs teach. It’s what all the great spiritual teachers teach us to connect to that. I mean, soul in many languages is breath. So our breath is the most powerful conduit to that best version of ourselves and that ultimate ethereal; as you said, the invisible world is much more powerful than the visible world. And that breath is almost like that perfect conduit in our most direct way to connect to that invisible world, which is why it’s such a fundamental part of my practice.
That’s awesome. And thank you for sharing all that. The anxiety was addressed very effectively through breathwork and nutrition. What was it specifically in terms of nutrition that made the biggest breakthrough in your anxiety?
Sleep is my number one fundamental. Sleep is a sport for me.
Grains. Removing grains, vegetable oils. I was a low-fat vegan for many years. I had migraines and anxiety. It worked until it didn’t work for me, and I respect everyone’s path. And that’s a very slippery slope, which I don’t go down. In my work, I talk about general food rules. But for me, my wife had some skin issues that she needed to address before we had our first son. So she was willing to explore something called Whole30, which seemed insane to me at the time, which invited you to remove grains and reduce inflammation and do this and that. Within days, the issues I had on my skin were resolved. My consciousness dropped down a lot when I had been meditating for years and years before that. So again, for me, that was a fundamental life-changing thing. It Starts With Food was the book that would change my life in that context. But again, idiosyncratic pathways, we all have them. But that was a big deal for me.
Sleep. I didn’t mention, and I should mention, because sleep is my number one fundamental. I prioritize that sleep is a sport for me, I’ve got an Oura Ring, and I go to bed with the kids. We go to bed around seven in the evening. It’s winter, so it’s an hour and a half after the sunset. But sleep is a sport for me. That’s actually by far my number one. Then nutrition and breathwork were sequential things, and of course, meditation. But if you’re not doing the physiological things, you can meditate all day, every day. And if you’re not eating, if you’re not moving, which is another obvious thing I didn’t say, but eating, moving, sleeping, breathing, focusing your attention. Those are the top five fundamentals that we teach in our work, each one of which triangulates to a place where you have that calm confidence center point. And when you inevitably get off it, you know how to get back to it by dialing in those fundamentals.
So you’re using your Oura ring to help you determine if you hit your numbers. And if you didn’t, what do you need to improve to your numbers the next night. I see your ring; there’s a really big watch. Is that also monitoring stuff, or is that just a watch?
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Yeah, this is a Suunto watch. So I do heart rate training. I’m a big fan of Phil Maffetone in training and aerobic zone. So burning fat for fuel is another idea that I’m a big fan of, so that’s why that’s a big goal. That’s a heart rate monitor kind of connected watch every single day throw that guy on, except for today. It was recovery day. You’ve been a biohacker just that; what are the analytics we can use to help guide the process to know the concrete way? There’s the qualitative, which is always going to be, frankly, most important. Still, the quantitative data will help elucidate what’s working and what’s not working. And yeah, I’ve gotten a lot out of both of those.
I just got a cold plunge. Cold is my big thing. These days, that’s insane what that does for resting heart rate and heart rate variability, as easily measured by an oximeter, which I use every morning when I start meditating via the Oura ring, etc.
So how often are you doing cold plunges? And for how long? And is it into ice baths? Or is it into a cold lake? Or how do you do it?
Yes, I used to go to the local store and get the ice bags and put it into the bathtub, and then we just got something called the Cold Plunge. I’m not paid to promote them, but coldplunge.com is a beautiful plunge you can get into. You can set the temperature; I think we got to set it like 56 degrees right now, which is a good kind of entry-level temperature; my wife is getting into it. So we’re going at that. I do it for three to five minutes at a time. And I’ve found that it’s a great reboot if I do it during the day. And then I do it an hour, hour and a half before I go to bed. And it truly is astonishing 15 minutes out of getting out of the thing in the evenings, provided I didn’t eat too early before, my heart rate will drop from mid-high 50s to mid-high 40s, just like that. I mean, it just is one of the fastest ways to just relax your body and go into recovery mode and flip that parasympathetic nervous system switch. So we get a cold plunge. Still getting it regular, but most days, so last couple days off I do with my four-year-old daughter; she comes in and gets in knee-deep, and then we’ll get her back wet and stuff, and she has fun doing all these things breathing through our nose exclusively. We use red lights all night. You know, it’s fun! You can make all this fun, and we certainly are.
That’s awesome. So the red light therapy. What have you found from doing that?
Well, I follow my wife’s lead on many things, including this, and the number one thing for us is we just don’t turn on lights. Frankly, ever. We do once in a while in the winter, but not at night. So our four-year-old can tell you that bright lights will regulate your melatonin, mess up your melatonin. And, of course, there’s a seesaw relationship between cortisol and melatonin. And we didn’t evolve to have the blue light stimulation, etc. So we call it a digital sunset. All electronics go off, no bright lights on in the house. And we’re just attuned to the circadian rhythms and allow for darkness to be present. When it’s time for darkness to be present, my wife can speak better to the therapeutic benefits. I know that we got to do flight or whatever it’s called; I just know that I don’t like bright lights. So we’ll use the red lights when the sun’s down.When you live in integrity with your deepest values, you achieve a profound sense of energized joy and fulfillment Click To Tweet
That’s cool. And you mentioned how you go to bed early. Especially during the winters like that must be hard to do when people want to talk to you in the evenings. Or there are events where you’re being invited to a networking function, some mixer event, and it’s in the evenings, and you’re like, “Nope, I’m going to bed.” So tell me more about that.
Yes, Stephen Covey comes to mind; he says, “When you have a deep enough, yes, it’s very easy to say no.” So I have become very clear that the game I’m playing is to Aristotle eudaemonia VR to have a good soul by living with virtues, showing up, and serving heroically. And I know when I’m at my best, and I know how I will cultivate soul force. I have very bright lines. We live in a country; we’re 30 minutes outside of Austin. And I have a very simple life. I show up; I train like an athlete. I strive to be a noble leader and be a soulmate to my family and my team. I don’t do networking events or anything outside of the things that I’ve decided will be part of a life that I’m committed to living, and I don’t apologize anymore. That’s been the big shift. There’s a phase where you’re the weird one, and I’m way past that phase. Yeah, I am that guy, and I get paid to be that guy.
As Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” So because the majority of the population is suffering from either weight issues, or anxiety, or depression, or diabetes, or cancer, I mean, these are signals that it’s not a good idea to be like the average person these days, frankly, it never has been. But it especially isn’t these days, so that to me, that’s another reverse indicator that, “Oh, everybody does it perfectly.” So I will pause and check in and decide whether that’s in integrity with what I think is best for me and my family. So it’s easy for me at this stage; I’m done.
Working late for me is like five-six, and that’s too late during the winter, frankly. I need to cool my brain off, and the ancient Romans Senate got this; they didn’t allow anything into their calendar of the day after what they call the 10th hour. 4 pm, depending on the season because they went with sundials and all that good stuff. But I don’t do any of those things; you can count on me being in bed, and I’m that guy that doesn’t show up. So people have learned that you want to hang out with me. Perfect. Saturday morning, Sunday morning to come out and walk on our property and enjoy our time together. So yeah, that’s how I’ve evolved to get to that point.
Very cool. And you mentioned earlier about PhilosophersNotes. These are what? Kind of checklists or cliff notes about different books that you’ve read? Or how does this apply to our listeners? How do they utilize the PhilosophersNotes that you’ve created?
Yes, a mini cliff’s notes are one way we’ve described it in the past. But, 6-page PDF, 20-minute mp3 is you can access on the web or our app, iOS, and Android. Optimize.me is where you can find all of it. And when you read a great book, there are those sections you asterisks, and you underline and mark all up. Well, I pull them out. So that example that I’ve shared with you of the ideal sage, that’s a big idea from this great book that is part of a six-page PhilosophersNotes. So the idea is more wisdom and less time; most people don’t have time to read full time, which I did for the better part of 10 years. And I created 600 PhilosophersNotes.
So basically, all of the great books on stoicism, on modern science, you’ve got 70 books on modern science, you want to understand what positive psychologists have to say? Perfect, distill nearly every single title in that domain. So it’s more wisdom and less time. Those big ideas, you asterisk, underline, mark up, they can change your life, anyone’s idea can change your life. So we have 600 times 5000s of big ideas. So that’s the PhilosophersNotes. And we’ve been blessed to have tens of thousands of people; actually, hundreds sign up for it. It used to be a premium offering. So it used to be $250 lifetime, $100 a year; it’s now free. We unlocked it a couple of months ago, and 100,000 people signed up in the first 75 days since we did that. And feel blessed to support people with that, and we’ve gotten a lot of great feedback.
That’s amazing. That’s very generous of you. And so now, if somebody signs up for free on optimize.me, what’s the ascension model or the buyers’ journey so that they can monetize and get some revenue from this?
Yeah, so two things. One, the Optimize entities, we have two companies Heroic is my new business, which I’ll share more about in a moment. And then Optimize has what used to be a premium offering. It is now free, and it also has a coach certification program. 50% of the people who go through it go through it because there are coaches who want to be coaches; the other 50% go through it because they want to understand how I have distilled all this wisdom into a 300-day program. It’s been scientifically proven by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading well-being researcher in her lab, to change lives and help you be more energized, more productive, more connected. And she said if she didn’t do the research herself, she would have felt the data was fake.
Let’s move from theory to practice to mastery in services.
So that’s optimize.me/coach. It used to be $1,000, which we were told was a very good price at that point for the 300-day program. It’s now $300. And you can bring a friend for the next class that starts January 3, and there’s a little late enrollment on that. So we’re excited about that. So that’s one way that people can choose to pay for something within the optimized community, which helps us afford to give optimized away for free.
And then the real game we’re playing is Heroic. So Heroic is launching in April. And we’re excited to offer a founding heroic membership for only $35 a year. So it’s kind of like Calm but for heroes. rather than teaching you how to reduce your stress, we want to teach you how to eat it like an energy bar and give the world all you got. So we’re excited to launch that and just appreciate having the opportunity to share and have a great conversation with you, Stephan. Thank you.
Yeah, you bet. And so, if our listeners are interested in becoming a founding member, what are the perks of doing that now rather than come April or sometime in the future?It's important to pause and slow down to allow the truth to settle in. Click To Tweet
Currently, we’re offering it for $35. We’re figuring out what the actual price will be. That’s, an anticipated 50% discount on $70. We may be a little bit higher than that. We’re still figuring it out. But we’re excited about that. We think that’s a great price point to kind of give it a shot and excited to welcome any of you who may feel inspired to join us. And again, let’s move from theory to practice to mastery in services; something bigger than ourselves is an unapologetically ambitious goal to change the world. And this is how I raise money is; let’s change the world one person at a time together, starting with you and us today. One virtuous act at a time, the app is architected entirely around what we talked about in terms of putting your virtues in action. That’s the basic idea.
Awesome! Oh, very exciting; I’m tempted to sign up myself. So, thank you so much for sharing from your heart and a place of vulnerability and authenticity and for being who you are in the world and making that an everyday occurrence, moment by moment, not just a one-off here.
Stephan, I appreciate your kind words. And thank you for all the hard work that you do. And I appreciate your courage just to be you. But, you know, even just that beautiful, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic embrace is authenticity. I mean, this is it in a world right to be ourselves in a world that’s often trying to push us in different directions. So thank you for having me on. And thank you for all the hard work you do.
Thank you. And thank you, listeners. Now get out there and make a difference in the world, and we’ll catch you on the next episode. I’m your host Stephan Spencer, signing off.
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Do the Work
Ego is the Enemy
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
It Starts With Food
Stillness is the Key
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
The Daily Stoic
The Obstacle Is the Way
The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
The War of Art
Checklist of Actionable Takeaways
Find the answers many are seeking today, learn more about the connection of Ancient Wisdom with Modern Science. Many recent advances are heavily influenced by the discoveries and beliefs of the past.
Become familiar with the works of ancient stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, etc. Their old ideologies can help me understand how the world is the way it is today.
Get to know the works of modern philosophers as well. Brian recommends reading the Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday.
Practice regular meditation and breathwork. Doing these at least an hour daily is the goal, but starting at a few minutes every other day is a good start.
Think about my top three heroes or inspirations and internalize what they would say to me if we get to have a heart-to-heart conversation. This is a game-changer.
Always start and end my day with intentionality. Declare my affirmations as soon as I wake up and witness the power it holds over my day.
Embody the ideas that promote wisdom, self-mastery, courage, and love. Then, share the good news with others, so they get to do it for themselves too.
Pay attention to messages sent by nature, the animals, and my guides. Sometimes they only appear when we choose to see them.
Learn the art of zero attachment. The secret to happiness is to accept things as they are, whether good or bad.
Get the $1,000 Optimize Coach program for just $300 (and bring a friend for free). Check it out and join now.
About Brian Johnson
Brian Johnson is the creator of Optimize and the Founder + CEΦ of Heroic. He’s spent half of the last twenty-five years as a Founder/CEO and the other half as a Philosopher. As a Founder/CEO, he’s raised $20M+ and built and sold two market-leading social platforms. As a Philosopher, he’s served tens of thousands of people from nearly every country in the world with his Optimize membership and trained over 3,500 people from 90+ countries with his Optimize Coach program—which has been scientifically proven to change lives.
His YouTube channel has 200,000+ subscribers and 20 million views and his podcast has another 13 million downloads. He was also featured in the documentary Finding Joe on Joseph Campbell and the modern hero’s journey alongside Deepak Chopra, Laird Hamilton, Tony Hawk and the late Sir Ken Robinson.
Most recently, in March 2021, with the support of 2,500+ Founding Investors from 75+ countries around the world, his business, Heroic Public Benefit Corporation, made history as the first company to close a $5M Reg CF equity crowdfunding as part of their $11M Seed round.
Disclaimer: The medical, fitness, psychological, mindset, lifestyle, and nutritional information provided on this website and through any materials, downloads, videos, webinars, podcasts, or emails is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical/fitness/nutritional advice, diagnoses, or treatment. Always seek the help of your physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, certified trainer, or dietitian with any questions regarding starting any new programs or treatments, or stopping any current programs or treatments. This website is for information purposes only, and the creators and editors, including Stephan Spencer, accept no liability for any injury or illness arising out of the use of the material contained herein, and make no warranty, express or implied, with respect to the contents of this website and affiliated materials.
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