“My coach said to me once, ‘Stop worrying about making the right decision, and just make your decision right.’ It’s such a good way of looking at everything in business and life.” Sarah Robb O’Hagan is no stranger to tough decisions. After a string of management roles at Virgin Atlantic, Nike, and Gatorade, she became president of Equinox in 2012. This February, Sarah left Equinox to launch her own platform: ExtremeYOU, a book and supporting content that helps people realize and live up to their potential. A fellow New Zealander based in New York City, Sarah is a role model for me. She has the guts, grit, and grace to make her life her own, and help others do the same.
“My decision to leave Equinox was a good year in the making. My book, which started off as just a passion project, was the catalyst for it. I was at a point in my career where I was watching everybody else’s creative ideas come to life, and while I really enjoyed observing that, I needed my own outlet. That’s how the book came about. At first I was like, ‘Whatever, it’s just my little project.’ But once we started shopping it to publishers, we got significantly more interest than I ever anticipated. I always had it in my head that I would interview high profile people to explore their journeys and what had led them to be successful. But I started to see a lot of strong themes coming through—all completely different to the way we’re raising kids and young adults today. I saw it as a huge issue. The world was conspiring to tell me that this was a message that needed to get out there. But in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I will never leave my job. I’m a steady corporate girl. That’s what I’ve always been. That’s what everyone knows me as. And if I’m going to do this, it’s going to be my thing on the side.’ But the further I got into it, the more I realized that I had one shot, that I had an opportunity to make this impactful for people. I never wanted to look back and say that I was too busy. Half of my mentors said to me, ‘You’re nuts. It’s crazy to walk away from your big career job.’ And the other half said to me, ‘If you don’t do it now, you never will. You have to go for it.’ After a lot of input and time, that decision became very clear in my mind. From the minute I made that leap, I had no choice but to make it work.
You can either stay in that stuck zone of freaking out, or keep moving forward.
In the last six months or so, I’ve had a lot of moments where I’ve thought, ‘Am I crazy? What am I doing?’ But as soon as I put my head down and make progress, I feel that forward momentum. If you didn’t have people wondering why the hell you’re doing it, it probably wouldn’t be risky. That’s the nature of the game.
Everyone asks, ‘Is this ExtremeYOU idea just for the big extroverts?’ And it’s not. Anybody can be extreme. One of my favorite extremists is Susan Cain who writes about the power of introverts. She has found this incredible place in the world that only she can occupy because of her passions and experience. She is living the most extreme version of Susan Cain right now. As long as you are willing to figure out the ultimate manifestation of you being your best, that is extreme. A lot of people who resonate with our message are those who really want to figure out how to be there. There are a lot of people who spend their lives comparing themselves to others, and that’s not what we’re going after. People get so caught up in how they compare to the next person, but how much good is that going to do? I read something recently that said, ‘What’s the point of trying to keep up with the Jones’? If you’re going to be an imitation Jones, you’re never going to be as good as the real Jones, right?’
The people I’m interviewing for the book have all had enormous amounts of self-discovery and personal growth. What I’ve come to realize is that my career has been a mix of very big highs and crushing lows. There’s not a lot of middle ground. I’m very much drawn to the fire, and I’ve come to accept that that’s just the way I operate. But that’s not necessarily comfortable or right for everyone. If that kind of approach is going to put you in a state of anxiety, that’s not a good way to develop your career. You have to know who you are and what you feel comfortable with. I seem to thrive when shit’s really hard. Those situations propel me forward. I was pretty comfortable in my last job, and I knew I needed to turn my life upside down to be OK again. But I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody.
I feel very strongly that, culturally, the world of business can be misleading—we make heroes out of risky people and entrepreneurs, but that’s not necessarily for everyone.
I’m definitely a very driven, restless person. Restlessness is good in the way that it helps push you forward, but when it becomes, ‘I can’t stick with anything, I can’t commit to anything,’ that’s when it gets you into trouble. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had mentors throughout my career who have helped me hone that restlessness. When I’ve wanted to give up too soon, they have been the ones saying, ‘Stay where you are,’ and, ‘What more can we get out of this experience?’ One of the things I’ve learned about highly successful people is that they have an ability to sample a lot of things in their lives. They’re very open-minded to new experiences, but they’re also able to focus and buckle down for long periods of time to become experts in whatever area they’re in. Then they can say, ‘I’ve done that. Now, what’s the next area to explore?’
If you’ve experienced success, you’ve most likely also experienced loss and defeat. One of the biggest losses in my childhood was failing a piano exam. I missed out by two marks and it’s still burned into my mind. Whereas today, the same child would probably be told, ‘You did just fine.’ It devastated me, but it also made me decide, ‘I’m not going to feel this again. I’m going to figure out how to succeed.’ And I think that’s something that’s missing now. If you haven’t experienced wins and losses, and everything’s been averaged out, you will become more risk-averse. If you’ve been shielded from the emotions that come with success and failure, then I don’t think you have the same tolerance to make the big moves required to get your life to the next level. It’s statistically proven that younger generations are more risk-averse than previous generations. I also think our culture of instant gratification is related. If you tell kids and adults that they’re winners when they haven’t necessarily achieved something, then they don’t experience that feeling of fighting so hard to get there. When you’re working towards something big, and you get to the point where it has really blossomed beyond your wildest dreams, you, personally will remember the long march to get there. The fulfillment you’ll get from that will be lightyears better than if someone had come along and thrown a bunch of money at your business to bear the risk for you.
That’s the piece that I think we’re robbing young people of when we are told as managers to career plan for them, and to solve the biggest challenges for them: that genuine sense of fulfillment that can only come with the whole journey. I think it’s grossly unfair to overprotect young people and ‘protect them from failure’—because that’s the stuff it really takes to succeed. The classic, overplayed example is a young person, just out of college and in their first position, who expects a promotion just for doing their job. People get mad about that but I’m sitting there going, ‘It’s not their fault if they were given trophies for showing up in childhood.’ The fact is, the world just doesn’t work that way. There are winners and there are losers. Those who take risks, seize opportunities and out-work their peers are always going to be rewarded more than those who stay in line. So let’s give young people the lessons, messaging and freedom to go for it—to really reach their own true potential.
People say that talent only gets you so far, and that’s true across every field. It’s the work ethic, ultimately. Passion is an interesting one. I met with a PhD student from Columbia recently who is studying the whole area of what it takes to be passionate. He is fast concluding that the amount of work you put into something generates passion.
You create your own passions. You don’t just stand there and they come flying to you.
The more you engage in something, the more it becomes a passion for you. You don’t find it in a corner. You do it. We’re raising a generation to think that we should be seeking greater life balance benefits in the work place, and I think that’s important to aim for, but if you take away the work part, we’re not fulfilled. It needs to be a part of it. The balance thing is tough. I desperately wanted to have kids, but I had no idea how to have babies and keep working. I remember thinking, ‘If that happens, it will screw up my life plan.’ At the time, my husband and I had made the decision that I was going to be the bread-winner. But like everything, you sort of just blast on forward and figure it out.
I always think that the fear in our minds is so much worse than the actual reality. It’s never going to be as bad as it is in your head. It just never is. I always apply that logic. No matter how bad I think this could be, somehow or another I’ll work through it. Like, being a new parent and working. Looking back I think, ‘I don’t think that I could ever do that again,’ but that’s looking at it from the outside in. When you’re in it, you don’t know any differently so you make it work. What else are you going to do? You don’t have the option to say, ‘Hey kid, turn off the crying in the middle of the night.’ You just deal with it. I think in situations where others are relying on you there can be an enormous amount of pressure, but I also have a huge need to not to let people down. That pushes me harder than I think I otherwise would. There have been many instances where I’ve found myself in that situation, particularly at Gatorade, which might have looked like a comfortable corporate job, but there was a good chance I’d get fired if it didn’t work out. I can remember a few big meetings with the top execs from the company, knowing I was going into a conflict situation. I had to go back to the Gatorade team the next day and report back what had happened. If I hadn’t held my ground and stood up for my team in those meetings, I would not have been able to face that room of people the next day. That really drove me. I think if it was just me on my own, perhaps I wouldn’t have been quite so confident. The circumstance around that job was particularly challenging. I’d moved my family and I’d just given birth to my third child. I was working 90—100 hours a week and Gabby was three months old. I had all the raging hormones, feeling exhausted like I couldn’t go on, but I was in survival mode. I can remember my boss saying to me one day:
‘If you’re halfway across the river, it takes just as long to get to the other side as it does to get back.’
And I realized that when you’ve put so much effort and work to get to a certain point, you have to find another source inside of you to push you to the other side. In the same way, I have to be able to make ExtremeYOU work. There’s no one else but me.
For someone who wants to be living at their most extreme, I would say to get the most out of everything you do. It’s as simple as that. Instead of taking the road that everyone travels and standing on the middle ground, have the willingness to experience extremes good and bad. Own the consequences of those extremes, because those experiences are the ones that will shape you and help you find your most powerful self. I feel like we’re telling kids that life and success is about being on this conveyor belt of perfection. This could not be further from the truth. Allow yourself to breathe and say, ‘I might fuck up.’ And that’s OK. If you do, it will likely end up being a good thing. Stop thinking that you have to do everything perfectly in order to succeed, and instead let life come at you. Be curious and open to opportunities, and when they come your way, don’t be scared. Throw yourself at them.”