Starting Over And The Power Of Perception: An Interview With Jordan Harbinger

Jordan Harbinger is known as the “The Larry King of podcasting.” He’s a former Wall Street lawyer who remade himself as one of the best interviewers in the podcast game. For 11 years, Jordan was the host of the Art of Charm —one of the most successful podcasts in the world with over 4 million monthly downloads—where he interviewed influential personas such as Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, and Kevin Rose. When an amicable split from his business partners went awry, Jordan was left with nothing, having to rebuild his career from scratch.

We were curious to learn how Jordan remained resilient in the face of such an adversity. And as it turned out, he relied on many of the Stoic principles he read about in Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way, saying they “helped me solidify a new course of action.” That course of action included creating The Jordan Harbinger Show, which debuted with some 3 million downloads and over 1,000 reviews on iTunes.

In addition to his transparency about those initially devastating events, Jordan goes in depth about preparing in advance for setbacks, what he has learned from interviewing hundreds of successful people, his advice to everyone in any career, and much more.

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Over the last 12 years, you’ve interviewed so many different people—successful entrepreneurs, writers, politicians, athletes, and thinkers. What’s a common trait that they might share when it comes to, say, resilience or even routines?

What I’ve noticed over the past decade-and-change of interviewing some of the most brilliant minds in their field on The Jordan Harbinger Show is that nobody had it easy. I think there’s some appreciable creative boost that comes out of running into and through walls. I also think that there’s a bit of survivor bias here. While some folks seem to come from nothing but privilege and end up successful, we never really see the whole story. When we do find someone who has made it ‘despite’ their upbringing, etc, we only hear from those that made it to the point where they’ve got a platform and I’m sticking a microphone in their face to have a conversation about it.

When we get down to the brass tacks of their work-life balance, I find these people are 1) often obsessed with their craft to the point that other things in their life take a back seat (including family, friends) and 2) they don’t view their work as work. In other words, they feel compelled to sit down every day and write/sing/draw and they don’t view this time as ‘putting in the hours’ but as a performance, even if they don’t explain it in those words.

This mindset of a craftsman is what gets them through the hard times. If a writer runs into a block, they don’t just give up on writing entirely and never try it again, they seem to pick up right where they left off the next day. These people aren’t writing/singing/researching new scientific concepts because they want the rewards of their work; they’re doing it because the work is a reward in itself. Even when the work is a compulsion or even a borderline sickness for the craftsman, it’s still the process that they’re seeking and not the outcome.

This means that the routine of the successful craftsman is not as simple as ‘schedule time to write a book’. In fact, these people are more likely to have to schedule time for their significant other and their friends than to engage in their work.

You had a pretty rough last twelve months, right? Tell us what happened and what it felt like.

The past 10 months for me have been pretty insane on many levels. The short version is that I negotiated an amicable split from my old company and my former business partner decided not to honor the deal even though it was his idea in the first place. So, I found myself having to start over from scratch with a new brand, new website, and new business. For a few days, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and had what I assume people call “crippling anxiety” which is very aptly named. Soon after this all went down, I did a few key things:

1) I decided that the only way out is through. Sound familiar? I got some emotional support from those close to me and thought about what I wanted to do from that point forward. I know I’d never have hit the reset button on my life like had just happened, so this was actually an opportunity and I needed to take it.

2) I decided I’d whined enough and sought advice from some close friends of mine. I spent the next few days, solid, on the phone with other successful people who I figured had also been through something traumatic in their businesses. Not only were these people helpful in the relaunch of The Jordan Harbinger Show, but they also showed me that what I was going through would make me a clearer thinker, a better entrepreneur and a more empathetic interviewer. They were totally right.

3) I realized that not only was there a bright side to all of this, but we got the better deal. Despite being knee-deep in litigation and starting from scratch, I no longer work in a toxic environment, I don’t owe anyone anything and I can rebrand from scratch with my skill set, network and relationships all intact. This is probably the best thing that could have happened to me, despite how jarring this all was at first.

In the end, I’m still only 10 months into The Jordan Harbinger Show (and our sister training company, Advanced Human Dynamics) and while I’m still going through the legal drama and the stress is omnipresent, I’ve actually never been happier. My team all came with me to the new venture, and our Slack group is regularly filled with jokes and happy, friendly conversations—nothing like it was where we were before. The financial and emotional health of everyone involved has improved, and I really feel like a bar of ore put through a blistering fire that came out steel on the other side.

How does somebody maintain a philosophical outlook through something like that? It seems like it would be so easy to become bitter, to get dragged into some endless fight or just to lay down and quit on yourself.

What helped first was to realize that my emotions weren’t a reflection of reality, but were only temporary feelings. I read Conspiracy, which helped me feel some gratitude about my own situation, having seen what happened to Nick Denton. Robert Greene would call this a downward comparison—and it worked.

I also spoke to a lot (-A LOT!) of wise people who had been through situations similar to what I had, and more. These people gave perspective on how they felt when they went through this, and how they feel about those events from where they now stand. Not only was it comforting to know others had gone through something similar and thrived, but it was actually exciting. Most of the people I had spoken with had realized the same thing I’m seeing now: they needed to leave their businesses. And even though it didn’t happen “how it was supposed to,” it was the only way they would ever have let go of the comfort they had to start something new. I ended up becoming so excited for the future that I worked 7 days per week for months on end, not because I had to, but because I really couldn’t think of doing anything else.

As for becoming bitter or getting dragged into an endless fight, I think the reason this hasn’t happened is because I truly believe I’m better off in my current situation and have a feeling of excitement about where I’m headed that I never had with the old business. Upon reflection, deep down I think I always knew I’d outgrown my former partners, but the getting was too good for me to begin again. Now that circumstances and the actions of others have essentially forced me to start anew, I am actually thankful that it happened. I realize how hard this might be for someone to believe, and I wouldn’t have believed it myself a few months ago, but it’s the absolute truth.

Were there any books you turned to as you were going through it all? Any quotes—perhaps from the Stoics—that were of value? Get any good advice?

Absolutely. I won’t pretend I’ve done my own original research here. I largely rely on your works like Ego is the Enemy and Obstacle is the Way. It’s funny—when I originally read these two books, I thought they were interesting but I couldn’t relate on every topic. When I started to go through this business trauma, what was written in here was so apropos that it helped me solidify a new course of action.

Some of the major takeaways for me that helped with the traumatic split and reboot:

“No thank you, I can’t afford to panic.”

This was pretty much what got me through the first week. I won’t lie, I panicked but then quickly got over it, knowing I couldn’t afford to let it take up too much of my time, and I needed to build momentum and keep it going if I was going to start The Jordan Harbinger Show with a bang.

“Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.”

I took this to mean that I am the one who gets to decide what this split means. Is this something that ends my career or is it the beginning? Is this the worst thing that has happened in my life? If so, does that even matter? How big of a setback is this? I realized I have the power to decide what this event means in my life, because events themselves are neutral and dependent upon my perception to take on meaning of any kind.

“The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher.”

There’s no way that starting over would mean doing something easy. I saw no reason to do mediocre work simply because I could do more of it at a faster rate. That for me is a personal vision of hell. I wanted to actually RAISE the bar from my previous work when doing The Jordan Harbinger Show and use my new freedom to be the best I could, not compromise because I felt entitled to do so. It was time to grow, and I wanted to go all-in on that.

One of the things Seneca spoke a lot about was anticipating, even meditating in advance about setbacks or reversals like yours. Was that something you ever did? Or was the surprise the hardest part?

I did do this. I was still a little surprised by what happened and how it went down, but I’d also been preparing for such an event for years in advance. When I say preparing for this, I simply meant I always knew I’d outgrow my business partners so I made my own relationships, focused on the craft of doing the show, and learned different business skill sets on my own since I knew they weren’t interested in growing with me. So, when this all went down, I was still shocked and saddened by it, but the bounce back took days or weeks instead of months, and my team, friends and family have all been pretty surprised by how quickly we rose from the ashes, so to speak.

Despite the adversity you’ve been through recently, overall you’ve been really successful. You have a big following, you have a successful business, and you’ve got access to a pretty elite peer group. How do you prevent that from going to your head?

It’s funny to hear/read this question here. When I look at what my team and I have created, I see some success for sure. But it’s come over SUCH a long time and with so much work that it seems almost impossible to let this go to my head. I feel like patting myself on the back for growing a show that people listen to, or for the friends I’ve made, is kind of like a child saying, “look! It only took me a decade to build the Lego fire station!” In other words, I see what we’ve done as a lot of stumbling and learning, with some success mixed in. There are far more failures and mediocre “I-hope-no-one-sees-this” type of work than there is success. Since I’m so keenly and PAINFULLY aware of that, it seems almost impossible to get a big head about it.

As for access to an elite peer group, I’m thankful for this, but I use it to motivate me to achieve more by comparing myself to those same peers (in both healthy and unhealthy ways). In this respect, having access to friends like mine actually humbles me every day, often in ways that aren’t necessarily welcomed at the time. Just imagine coming home after a day of work and your neighbor is having a “Super Bowl party” BECAUSE HIS TEAM ACTUALLY WON THE SUPER BOWL. Or you get a call from your friend who’s sold over 2 million books and is going on vacation to watch the World Cup before settling down to write a memoir of Will Smith. After you hang up, you have to clean your cat’s litter box and figure out why your mixer broke down in the middle of a show.

We’re always comparing our blooper reel to someone else’s highlight reel, and when your friends are all-stars, their highlight reels are pretty freaking amazing. If anything, this type of peer group keeps you inspired but very, VERY firmly grounded.

If you had one piece of advice to give to someone starting out either with a podcast or with some other creative career right now, what would you say to them?

I would strongly encourage anyone in ANY career, especially that of a creative, to focus obsessively on your craft and your skills. I don’t care if you’ve got a great radio voice—get a coach. Doing YouTube? Take acting classes. Learn film technique and stage presence. Launching a voiceover career? Do every single type of VO work you can get your hands on, just to get the experience.

In addition to this, help other people at every opportunity so that you can grow and maintain your network. If there’s ONE thing that saved my behind when I had to start off on my own again it’s that I had a decade of relationships behind me to help me with everything. Your relationships are the one thing that you don’t lose when you get fired, get sued, change careers, or hit any other sort of setback. Unless you plan on doing everything yourself, your relationships are the best insurance policy you could ever have, and it’s coincidentally the only one that you can’t purchase.

When it comes to relationships, you can never make up for lost time and you can never create a relationship at the time you need it. The best and ONLY time to put a spare tire in the trunk of your car is before you get a flat tire. Building strong relationships isn’t a nice-to-have, and it isn’t something you do when you’ve got everything else in your life together.

I cannot recommend enough that people stop procrastinating and start building a VERY strong group of peers because a rising tide not only lifts all boats, it’s the ONLY way to lift the boat in the first place.