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How to move on from failure and kick ass at your job

Sarah Robb O’Hagan climbed the corporate ladder at Virgin Atlantic, Nike, Gatorade and Equinox – also becoming a wife, mother and endurance athlete – and though in her twenties she was fired twice, in her thirties she led the turnaround of a $5 billion sports drink business. Her approach has stemmed from personal experience and inspiration from the band of highly accomplished ‘Extremers’ that she has met along the way: entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, TV personalities, an Olympic champion downhill skier, a former secretary of state, and even a world-famous tattoo artist. These Extremers helped her recognise that success doesn’t come from conforming, hiding weaknesses or reaching some pre-planned destination. The bolder choice is to embrace Extreme You: to bring all that is distinctive and relevant about yourself to everything you do.

Here she provides the background of everything Extreme You and a few extreme moves.




One of the great benefits of my career journey is the amazing opportunity I have had to meet and work with so many successful people from many different walks of life. I’ve had the chance to observe how they do what they do. Behind the accolades and the glowing media articles that say how awesome they are, you’ll find that they have had an extraordinary impact by embracing every aspect of themselves—the good and the bad—because they took risks and worked through the sometimes tough negative consequences. They didn’t expect their greatness to just happen; instead they worked their asses off to outperform everyone around them with a potent mix of drive and humility. They are Extremers, those who reach the summit of their potential by developing their unique mix of abilities in their own personal way.


Anyone can do this. I call it developing Extreme You—becoming the best you can be as only you can. Extreme You is not one fixed goal. It doesn’t depend on the typical early indicators of success (high test scores, star turns in sports or the arts, membership in elite social and professional networks) or on flashy short-term achievements. The fact is, most of us don’t make a big splash early, and most achievements, as the world judges them, soon fade. Nor is Extreme You just a style or an attitude. Extremers have a ton of attitude—do we ever!—but it goes far beyond surface dazzle. Extreme You is a lifelong method for discovering and making the most of what’s in you, starting from wherever you are with your own diverse mix of interests, skills, and experiences—and yes, that includes setbacks, losses, weaknesses, and failures. Extremers discover that the more they develop themselves, the more new potential they find. They learn to embrace the support of others in
making their Extreme efforts and to collaborate by bringing out the Extreme in others.


Have you had a success? Let it inspire you to find a bigger mountain. Does someone close to you support you completely? Give that person a big hug—and then let him or her help push you even harder. And if others don’t support you, if they don’t understand you? Fight even harder to prove they were wrong not to recognise Extreme You. And whatever they understand or don’t understand, whatever they say or fail to say, let it fuel your Magic Drive. Here are some ways to keep it going.


1. Keep Finding Higher Mountains to Climb

It’s up to you to keep finding that next mountain—the one that calls to you, challenges you, and is the right size for you. No new challenge? Your drive will plateau, or worse. Too big a challenge? Frustration, exhaustion, discouragement. You have to keep looking for that next mountain to climb, the one that will bring out more of your personal best. In my more recent life, I’ve run half marathons with a group of women friends who are all significantly faster than me. The truth is that as a runner I’m about as slow as an ocean liner. So my girlfriends all reach the finish line way ahead of me, then text me to make sure I’m still alive. And I feel just fine about it. I’m on a journey of my own improvement; I’m not comparing myself to anyone else. Could I ever get back to a two-hour finish? I don’t know, but when I get even a step closer on my time, it feels good.


And that’s not just me. Dan and Chip Heath, brothers and coauthors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, have suggested that even “whisker goals” (a hairsbreadth from the status quo) motivate greater long-term accomplishment. So if you’re looking for a good challenge, your best bet might be to start with a physical challenge. It’s the easiest way to get your engine turning over, so you can quickly feel the addictive fulfillment that comes from succeeding and finding a bigger mountain to climb. Your physical challenge can be small or big, but it’s got to be something that stretches you beyond what you’ve achieved before. It doesn’t matter what it is—just set the goal, come up with a training plan, and post it on Facebook. Once you’ve declared it to the world, you’re so much more likely to achieve it and feel the awesome beginnings of your Magic Drive momentum engine kicking in.


2. Make Your Goals and Methods Your Own

It’s so easy, and potentially so costly, to drift into accepting the goals that other people or indeed society in general pick out for us, or to limit ourselves to the usual and expected ways of reaching the goals that matter. That to me is one of the things that makes Bode Miller so inspiring. He became, objectively, the best American alpine skier in history, but at every step, from the decision about what sport to take up to the little decisions about what to require of himself, day by day, as he worked up serious competition, he set his own goals and judged his own results on his own terms. As he explained to me, back when he was first making a name, “Even making the Junior Olympics was not a goal of mine. Sure, I wanted to be there, I knew that I should be there if I was performing the way that I could, but I looked at the things I could control. Am I being vigilant on my training? Am I paying attention to my equipment? Those were things that only I could judge. Did I tune my skis the night before? Goal met. That was what mattered to me.” His goals, his methods, his personal integrity were what kept it all working. Others may have trained as many hours as Bode or had as much personal grit, but they didn’t set Bode’s training goals, didn’t do it Bode’s way, and didn’t get Bode’s results. Individuality matters: Extremers using their Extreme gifts in their own Extreme ways.


How do you think you fare when it comes to setting your own goals? Are the steps you are taking and the goals you are setting objective (need to land the job) or subjective (need to take an online skills course to prepare me to get the job)? Make sure you have your subjective goals plan put together, and get ready for action!


3. Put Your Balls on the Line
Every kid has at least some experiences of feeling like the oddball who doesn’t belong. Every adult has the fear that we might just fail, humiliatingly, in front of our peers. It’s tempting to try to hide our differences and potential setbacks, but there’s nothing like coming right out and owning it to fire up your drive. You will be questioned, doubted, told you’re making a mistake, so you might as well expect the blowback and accept, even welcome, the chance to put your balls on the line. The more you are on the line, the more you will go to extremes to succeed. That’s when your drive will go to eleven.


I know that a huge part of my drive to succeed was that it was my dream, funded by my own savings. I’m sure if I’d had a financial safety net to call on for the days when I literally ran out of money and could not afford to eat between paychecks, I would not have had anything like the same drive to rise up from the toughest challenges. The first time I lived in New York—when I went from a weekend of near starvation to triumphantly leaving with some savings in my account to go on to my next job—I remember listening to the brilliant Frank Sinatra—“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”—and knowing that I’d made it. Would I have carried the same kind of confidence forward if my parents had bailed me out when I needed it? No way—that hunger was a huge ingredient in my Magic Drive.


So now back to you. Think about your experiences to date—your approach to your big dreams. Have you truly put yourself out there, telling your loved ones, your bosses, or your friends what you aim to achieve and how you’re planning to go about it? Are you working at a job that your parents wanted you to take instead of putting your own balls on the line? It’s easy to cast blame when you are following the decision that someone else made for you. When you ladder up from one challenge to the next and those challenges come from your own Extreme interests, skills, and passion, you can develop the drive to climb farther than you would have thought possible.



Sarah Robb O’Hagan is an executive, activist, and entrepreneur, and the founder of Extreme You, a movement to unleash high performance. As the global president of Gatorade, she led its reinvention and turnaround, and she is the former president of Equinox Fitness Clubs. Named one of Forbes’s ‘Most Powerful Women in Sports’ and one of Fast Company’s ‘Most Creative People in Business,’ she has also held leadership positions at Nike and Virgin Atlantic Airways. She is now the CEO of the fitness company Flywheel Sports. A sought-after expert on innovation, brand reinvention, health, fitness, and inspiring human performance, Sarah lives with her family in New York.