439 | Pushing Beyond Your Mental Barriers for Leaders with Joe De Sena, Founder of Spartan, the Obstacles Races

Mental barriers for leaders can stop even the strongest most committed. We all have mental barriers or if you prefer psychological obstacles. We can do the work to go beyond them, or we can let those mental barriers prevent us. I sought out someone that has pushed past many mental barriers and who has helped millions do the same. Today we have the founder of Spartan, Joe De Sena. Spartan is the world’s largest obstacle race and endurance brand. Each year more than a million people participate in 200 races filled with obstacles to challenge you physically and mentally. Joe shares with me his secrets to understanding mental barriers and how you can push yourself beyond them. Tune in today to go beyond your mental barriers.

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LITT 439 Featuring Joe de Sena

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Target Audience: Joe De Sena founded Spartan in 2010 and has since grown the brand to be the world’s leading obstacle racing company with over 170 events in 25+ countries, 1 million-plus global participants, key sponsors including two popular TV programs and numerous other lifestyle products. 

Joe De Sena: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

This is leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett.

Gene Hammett: [00:04]
Hi, this is Gene Hammett. I’m the host of leaders in the trenches. My question for you today is how do you push past your mental barriers? You know, those mental barriers that cause you to stop. Maybe it’s something where you’re fearing what’s on the other side, or maybe it’s just something where you think, I just, I don’t know if I can handle this. Maybe I’ll just hold back. Well, when I think about pushing past the mental barriers in my life, I’ve seen so much growth of not only myself but also in my ability to engage others to come along with me. So I have a team and I want to engage them to have courage and confidence to do the hard things inside of our business and not to avoid them. And you’ve got to be able to push past the mental barriers.

Gene Hammett: [00:44]
So I went up to figuring out who would talk about this. Joe De Sena is someone, you may not know the name, but you probably have heard of the Spartan races. The Spartan obstacle races are phenomenal. Like I did this for years and I really enjoyed it. I would probably still doing it, but I’m focused on my Brazilian Jujitsu and really getting that tuned in. But these spartan races are just amazing to push past mental barriers. Why? Because you’re running three or four miles, which is not that bad, but you’re doing about 20 or 25 obstacles and of course that time period. And that alone is something that will push you to your limits and challenge everything you’ve got because you’re gonna want to quit, but you won’t because others are around you. And if you do it with a team or if you do it with your work environment, it really will help you create more connection together and doing hard things really will change the way you do this.

Gene Hammett: [01:40]
Joe, share some of the insights behind how he sees the world and why you want to hire people that are willing to, to have the energy as a go-giver, I really love that he talks about, you know, people who give energy to a situation and not just take energy. And so inside this interview with Joe, we talk about some of those details. So tune in right now to the interview with Joe De Sena.

Gene Hammett: [02:01]
Hi Joe. How are you?

Joe De Sena: [02:04]
I’m awesome. Thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett: [02:06]
Well, I’m excited to have you here at leaders in the trenches. Joe, I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you. So I’d love for them to hear it in your own words. So tell them about you and who you serve.

Joe De Sena: [02:19]
Yeah, so basically the hero for us is our, is our customer, right? They transform when they cut out, come out and do a spartan race. So once they crawl under barbwire, climb over walls, jump over fire, they become, I think they begin to become the best version of themselves. So we’re in 42 countries, 275 events, and we are literally ripping people off the couch and transforming.

Gene Hammett: [02:45]
Well, I know my first spartan race was probably about five years ago and it really challenged everything I had. I was very nervous about doing it. Um, some friends were doing it and I wanted to, I wanted to compete with them but just showing up and finishing the race was a huge accomplishment and I got hooked and I did it for three or four years straight.

Joe De Sena: [03:06]
Every cell in your body got called to action.

Gene Hammett: [03:10]

Joe De Sena: [03:10]
We got to get you back out there. We’ve got to fix your shoulders and your knees. On the course because I’m, you know, a spartan never quits.

Gene Hammett: [03:20]
I’m not quitting. I just, I focus on Brazilian Jujitsu right now, trying to get to that next level and staying healthy there. Joe, I was looking into some of the things that you believe I’ve, I’ve had the audible book I guess a couple of years ago, so I’m excited to talk to you today about some of those things. But as business owners, we’re always pushing forth and really trying to, to grow ourselves as well as growing our business. When you think about growing yourself as a business owner, why is that so important?

Joe De Sena: [03:52]
I think when you’re when you’re building a business you’re dealing with an environment that’s always changing. And so, um, in order to adapt to that change you’ve got to grow as a person. Have you stick same with the organization. If you stick to the way things were or the way you think things should be you’re not going to be very successful. When I first went to Wall Street, I remember seeing very quickly that the business didn’t make any sense to me. There was a better way to do it. And surprisingly, all the people I spoke to about what I thought was didn’t make sense. They weren’t accepting it because they wouldn’t grow as individuals and they wouldn’t take a step outside of the norm and, and view a different way to do things. Ultimately I left and started my own business, which works really well for all the reasons I noticed.

Joe De Sena: [04:51]
And so I think we all have a tendency to kinda stay in our little comfortable bubble and not want to get outside of it and not want to grow and try new things. And I think that could be a death sentence. I don’t know if I answered your question while, but that’s the way.

Gene Hammett: [05:07]
It’s totally a death sentence. You know, you may not recognize this book. This is my proof that I wrote this book a couple of years ago. The trap of success and it really is about being complacent and not growing. So it is something that runs through me. When you think about, you know, before you started this, the Spartan movement, if you will, what were some of the things that were keeping you from actually starting it?

Joe De Sena: [05:34]
Commitment, you know, did I, once I commit, I’m all in and did I want to be dealing with another thing in my life? was it gonna work? So probably some fear. Did I wanna risk capital? Yeah. And so I have a philosophy in life that I operate on your wishes, fire ready, aim. Um, because I think if I sat around and was focused on aiming, I probably wouldn’t do a lot of this stuff. I do. you know, I’d get paralysis through analysis. So, I fire, I mean, I think all those things were, were holding me back for about 12 seconds and then and then I went for it and I quickly become pregnant and then you’re on the hook and then you’ve got to make it work, you know? This week I’m loving the discussion of Caesar and this idea of burning the boats while they were in there trying to attack the Vikings so that they didn’t have an escape plan. And I’m a big believer in burning the boats.

Gene Hammett: [06:42]
Well, I am too. I’ve seen those places in life where I’ve committed myself, whether it be a spartan race or even something inside the business, um, something changes when you know that there’s no turning back. Like you’ve, you’ve signed a hotel deal recently for an event I’m hosting. And they told me the refund rate was 90%.

Joe De Sena: [07:04]

Gene Hammett: [07:05]
Meaning there’s no refund, right? If you’re, you know, you’re in all the way. And so I committed to the rooms, committed to every, the whole experience and I’m all in. You have probably seen that benefit you in many ways in life. Where does that commitment, what do you take it from there? Once you have the commitment to keep going?

Joe De Sena: [07:24]
Well, so for me the first thing is to commit, fire ready, aim. A second thing is now you’ve got to start not wasting any time. Everything you do has to be focused on hitting that target. You are now or should be used specifically, should be thinking of all day, every day, how you fill those rooms. How do you get those people to that event at that hotel, otherwise you’re not getting your money back? And that’s not, that’s not fun, by the way. I mean, once now it’s serious. Now the rubber meets the road. And so, uh, it’s more comfortable to at, to not have made that commitment. But once you do, and I’ve done it enough times, you’ve probably done it enough times now. Now you’re all in. And so everything you do, everything you think about if you want to be successful and fill those rooms is things that will achieve that goal will hit short term, medium term, long term targets. So, yeah, you’re delaying gratification. You’re not hanging out with the boys on Friday night drinking beer, watching football. Like everything, you do achieve that goal.

Gene Hammett: [08:27]
I totally agree. And something has shifted in me lately because this is so important to me. You know, I was watching a video that you recently did with Gary Vaynerchuk and you talked about the power of being super focused. When you were, you know, getting this, the Spartan race up and going, there was probably a lot of things going on, but were you able to be super focused in order to make that work?

Joe De Sena: [08:51]
Yeah, I’m pretty focused. You know, as you’re going to be focused on this event, I subscribe to this idea. Will it make the boat go faster? It’s a great blog. You could look up or listeners can check out. I think it was the 2000 Olympics. They were attempting to win gold. It was an eight, eight men, a crew team, no way they were going to win gold. They just weren’t good enough. The coach said, listen, every decision we make, we’re going to ask ourselves, will it make the boat go faster? And so they became really focused to your point on only doing things that make the boat go faster. Hey guys, great day today. Let’s go grab some hog. Those ice cream won’t make the boat go faster. We’re not doing it. Hey guys, great week. Let’s go have girls this week.

Joe De Sena: [09:36]
Won’t make the boat go fast or not doing it. So I’m pretty focused on the stuff that will make the Boko fat, whatever that thing is. So spartan is, is all me all day, every day. And you know, that doesn’t make me necessarily a fun person to hang out with at all times. I’m not because I’m not shooting the shit or, you know, my wife says, Hey, you’re a lot of fun for about three days. Everybody thinks you’re so cool. But like, no, because I’m not, I don’t, you know, stop and smell the roses. Well, who’s fertilizing the roses? Who’s watering the roses? Who’s trimming the roses? Right? Not to sound like a crazy person, but that’s the way I look at life.

Gene Hammett: [10:15]
I want to talk about this and break it up into two pieces. So I want to finish with what we’re talking about is really this, this, this journey of self-growth. I see what you’re saying and I know that for sure, but I also know that I really enjoy downtime. Do you take a moment to recharge and if so, how do you do that?

Joe De Sena: [10:35]
So, I do best, recharging when I’ve completely depleted myself. So I like, I like, I don’t stop if the furthest we could go the fastest, we’d go as a hundred miles an hour. I don’t stop it. 70 to reset. I go to one oh five and then collapse, feel recharged and have added again. Here’s my feeling on that is, you know, 500 years ago, 200 years ago, a thousand years ago, we had pretty tough lives. Like, imagine being in the Lewis and Clark expedition, like that’s pretty tough, right? And I’m an aggressive person. I work out a lot and even me, when I look at my tracker and I see how many hours a day I’m idle, it’s like seven-plus hours and I’m active. I’m not the norm. And so what are you asking me to not you like again, like what are you asking me to relax from what to recharge from? Like I’m early, like idols, seven hours a day. Okay. I did a podcast. I wasn’t wrestling a lion. I dealt with payroll. I wasn’t like in a horse and climbing a mountain in the snowing in Colorado, like downtime, you know what I mean? Like, I don’t know. Yes, of course, you take downtime, but I’m taking downtime when I’m nearly dead.

Gene Hammett: [12:06]
When you think about, um, the impact that Spartan has had on people at a personal level. I’ve seen some amazing things. I think I saw a guy with no legs. I don’t think he even had hands. He was just kind of moving himself past him at one point in time on the race. He had some support team around him, but he, I know he finished the race. What, just give us one of the stories that really inspire you about the transformation of a person pushing beyond those mental barriers.

Joe De Sena: [12:36]
I mean, when you, when you see the adaptive athletes out there missing arms and legs or people with issues or heavy overweight, you, you have to just thank God that we get to do this. I mean, we’re completely able, like, it’s just unbelievable. And so there’s nothing to complain about anymore. And remember that we have 1.3 million people a year going through the system. So like there’s 10,000 people like that that are like, oh, I’ll inspire. Let me show you a book. Hang on. This is my buddy Casey, right to arms, no legs. Does, does, does the world championship. And Tahoe comes across 14 hours into it. I stop and see him. It’s cold by the way. I’m standing at the finish line waiting from, I’m a little cold. I’ve been waiting there for 30 minutes. Where the hell is he? He comes across no legs, looks at me and he says, Joe, is that all you got? Cause that didn’t break and give me something tough. And so I get chills, you know, just thinking about those stories because I’m, what do we have to complain about? That’s what I’m saying. Like of course everybody needs to recharge, but like not that bad.

Gene Hammett: [13:57]
Well, I want to switch gears here because you’ve built a team of probably phenomenal people and I’m wondering what you know about selecting the right people for your team. Um, you know, running my core values. What are some of the principles of growth and leadership that you aspire to?

Joe De Sena: [14:15]
Well, so we are not perfect by no means perfect at anything we make mistakes. I would subscribe to enthusiasm, resiliency, just get it done. This over domain expertise all day, every day. I want people that are just animals that just chew up challenges every morning and spit them out. And you take a person like that, you could teach them anything. Think about the waiter or the waitress or the taxi driver, whoever that just has energy, their energy givers, they’re just getting after it all day, every day. Those are people I want. Problem is the world is not filled with those kinds of people. So you’ve got to go through a lot of people to find those, those energy givers, those, those people that just suck up life.

Gene Hammett: [15:07]
What have you learned to, to identify them though? Cause you know, you don’t just like to give everybody a shot. You’re, you’re actually interviewing them and qualifying them. How do you find someone who’s an energy giver inside the organization?

Joe De Sena: [15:21]
Stuff? They’re very hard to do. I mean we have a couple of silly things here at the office. We have an elevator when you first come in and then there are stairs right next to the elevator who took the stairs, who’d say, you know, it’s four floors up or five floors up, depending on the floor, you’re coming to her six floors. Somebody taking the elevator, probably not our person. As silly, as silly as that sounds. You know, what do they drink? Do they want is that gonna carry on a soda or are they like, so, so what’s their health and wellness routine? And then, and then you could poke around in interviews, even though people are, hang on one second. You didn’t know, even though people are there, they’re trying to be their best self and they’re making that asking some things, but they’re in an interview. But you know, and then you got into a race. We got ’em out, we get them out there racing and, and, uh, you know, somebody’s not willing to do a race again. Look at Casey, no legs. He’s doing like anybody could do this.

Joe De Sena: [16:23]
So yeah. Are they resilient? Are they gritty? Are they full of energy? enthusiastic. Not Everybody. Yeah, but those are the people we want.

Gene Hammett: [16:36]
That’s definitely, you know, you’re looking at the culture fit there because those, those are markers of what you believe makes great people. And you, you had mentioned in there, I just want to come back to it, the experience of it. Like if you were hiring a marketing person, I mean obviously that’s important, but you can probably teach them that stuff, but you can’t teach them to be an energy giver.

Joe De Sena: [16:57]
I agree 100%. I agree. Like I didn’t know anything about Wall Street. I was cleaning pools, but I am full of energy and so I went there and I conquered that. I didn’t know anything about cleaning pools. I am full of magic. They taught me that and I conquered that. I don’t know anything about running a global brand. Right. I’m full of energy, so I figured this out. And so, I don’t know very much. I’m not that smart yet, but yeah, I’m resilient, relentless and I’m always full of energy.

Gene Hammett: [17:27]
Well, you’ve seen a lot of different organizations and team-building exercise. You’d have some special events that bring in more team focus. Is that correct?

Joe De Sena: [17:40]
Yeah, we do. We’ve got a hurricane heat. We’ve got a leadership conference. We do at a bunch of our events. I should connect you an actual, I’m with that group. And the idea is it drives me crazy that, you know, people are not functioning at their best self. It also drives me crazy. Companies are not functioning at their best. And look, it’s very hard to run a business. I run on them and, and you, you run them too. But, but if you can get people working together like the quickest way I have found over decades to 10 extra business, quickest way, not self-serving, I’m just telling you reality. You take your people and you do hard things together with them because, and you do that with your customers too or want to be customers. You do hard things with them. Spartan races were a marathon, whatever the things are. Yoga, you build bonds that are on breakable. You can’t do that at dinner or lunch or having a speaker coach, it’s not the same. You got to do things together.

Gene Hammett: [18:42]
When you think about like where do you take this next? Is there something that you haven’t accomplished yet that you hope that you’re going to bring into this whole movement of obstacle racing?

Joe De Sena: [18:53]
I want to get, you know, we will have to eat out some real focused on our truth and nutrition trends. They’ve got to train. Well, I’m really focused on training. I’ve got, we’ve got a merchandising business. We’re focused on businesses with our leadership programs and my dream, my personal dream silly one is, I want to build an I want to create a full-featured movie. But that’s, I got time for that. But yeah, if I can build a sustainable business that’s doing good for the world and doesn’t need me here every day, I’m thrilled. And then I’d love to go to Hollywood to make a movie.

Gene Hammett: [19:31]
Well, thanks for being here at leaders in the trenches, Joe. Where can I audience get more, more about you? If they are interested?

Joe De Sena: [19:38]
Anybody could email me anytime [email protected] I answer my emails. You can go to spartan podcasts. You’ve agreed to books. I can give you free entries if you don’t know, have the funds. Or you can meet me in Africa. Next week we’re going to be in Namibia.

Gene Hammett: [19:59]
That’s all right. Well this will come out and for a while, but I really appreciate you being here sharing some of your perspectives of what it takes to succeed in this world, which is to grow, to continue growing, to have grit and to really show up with the energy to give, not just to be taking. So I really appreciate your insight here.

Joe De Sena: [20:18]
You’re awesome. Thanks so much.

Gene Hammett: [20:20]
Wow, fantastic. Love the way he really talked about, you know, what he looks for in employees and what he really does from a standpoint of really tuning into who they are, not just the skills that they have. Because all those skills can be developed when someone has the right attitude. The mental focus. So this was all about kind of pushing past mental barriers. So really appreciate you tuning in here to leaders in the trenches, as always, lead with courage. We’ll see next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.



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