Warrior Monk Conversations 003: I Got You! Leadership and Resilience with Joe Musselman
Updated: Jun 17
Was there ever a point in your life when you felt like you had no options left, and someone says to you “I got you”?
In this episode, I talk to Joe Musselman, founder of The Honor Foundation (THF), a national non-profit and the first-ever career transition institute for the US Navy SEAL & Special Operation Forces (SOF) communities. Joe shares how one retirement of a Master Chief Navy SEAL, who became a close friend to him during his rehabilitation after he sustained a spine injury during his training, started The Honor Foundation.
He also talks about the concept of TLC or Teams, Leadership and Culture formula, becoming addicted to helping others, the difference between net worth and self-worth, the value of getting resilience from within, showing vulnerability and authenticity as men in a world of toxic masculinity, his relationship with his parents and his big sister, and more.
Connect with Joe Musselman on Twitter: @jmusselman1776 and The Honor Foundation on Instagram @honorfoundation, Facebook: www.facebook.com/TheHonorFoundation, Vimeo: vimeo.com/thehonorfoundation and website at www.honor.org
Intro and Outro Music: Hearts on Fire by Immersive Music
Read more about the Warrior Monk mission here: www.thewarriormonk.com
Warrior Monk Conversations 003: I Got You! Leadership and Resilience with Joe Musselman
Welcome to Warrior Monk Conversations, a treasure trove of inspirational discussions in personal and professional development.
I am Poonacha Machaiah. Join me on this journey where I have immersive conversations with the most thought-provoking leaders and everyday heroes from our communities to inspire, educate, and empower you to build resilience and reach your highest potential. Join me on this mission to create a positive societal shift through the compassionate transformation of humankind.
My guest today is Joe Musselman, who is the founder of The Honor Foundation, a national non-profit and the first-ever career transition institute for the US Navy SEAL and Special Operations communities. The Honor Foundation has campuses across the country, serving hundreds of families each year. He is a graduate from DePaul University and Harvard Business School (non-profit program). He is a veteran of the US Naval Special Warfare Command, and the 16th man in his family to serve in the US military. His current passion is Fathom Ventures, a venture fund focused on early stage technology. Join me today as we unpack his unique TLC (Teams, Leadership, Culture) formula targeted at the startups in the Silicon Valley, and the radical choice he had to make, offer his service at the US Naval Special Warfare Command.
Poonacha: Hi, Joe.
Joe: Hi. How are you, Poonacha?
Poonacha: Fantastic, Sir. So, firstly, I'm really excited to have you today.
Joe: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Poonacha: A few weeks ago, we met in your home, with your lovely wife and son, and I think in the first time---I've not known you for a long time, but I always felt like I've known you for a long time too, right? It's kind of strange.
Poonacha: Sometimes you meet and you're like, "what is this about this person?"
Joe: Absolutely. I agree.
Poonacha: So I'm fascinated by you.
Joe: Thank you.
Poonacha: Firstly, I'm very grateful for your service to this country.
Joe: Oh, thank you for saying that.
Poonacha: So let's start by, a little bit about, what was the first day like, when you-what is the day and the moment into the Navy SEAL? What did it feel like? Can you walk me through that?
Joe: Yeah. There's two firsts with this experience. So the first first is the first day you show up to go to basic training, you know. Despite having a background with education and a degree, and so I went, enlisted into the SEAL teams with every intention to become a member of the Navy SEAL teams. And that first day you show up, I went, enlisted. So we show up at boot camp, and we look to our right, we look to our left, and we know that we are, are all here for the exact same reason. And it's a very interesting feeling that goes unmatched, kind of, throughout life where you, you show up and everyone there is at the exact same moment in their life, everyone there is striving to achieve the exact same milestone. And there's this shared sense of humility. There's a shared sense of camaraderie. There's a shared sense of kind of this, this crazy patriotic competition kind of skepticism of like, "Oh," you know, "Who's that guy?" and "Who's this guy?” and "Where does he come from?" And then you go through this two month journey with these men by your side and you're all in the same compartment and you either learn how to work with each other or you don't.
And then all of a sudden, you get to know the personalities and, and you have the, the NCAA all-American swimmer in the rack to my right, you have the NCAA academic all-American soccer player, lacrosse player, we had professional athletes from baseball and football. And none of us knew any of this about each other. You walk in, you take the clothes off you're wearing, put the clothes off they give you, everyone shaves their head; and all of a sudden, like that! We are all exactly the same. And except for our past experiences and our bundle of stories that we're all walking around with, and then you get to know those stories. And it was a fascinating experience. So that first day was remarkable. That's the first first I wanted to share.
The second first is, so when you walk into what they call Basic Underwater Demolition School, to become a Navy SEAL, it's like you're walking on to, and I know members of the command, you know, they might not like the analogy, but for someone who is, has seen movies or has, you know, read books before you get to training, it was almost like you were walking into a very familiar place, like a movie set almost, because you're like, "oh, wow, there's, there's war com. There's the war command. There's the barracks. They're the, they're the actual SEAL teams, you run-
Poonacha: It's real.
Joe: He's real, and you're running past SEAL Team 1, 3, 5, 7 with your teammates, and then the first day, when you class up, it's what it's called, you jog, you get ready in the morning, you do your collateral duties with your teammates and cleaning and dressing and getting ready for the day; and then you jog on to what they call the grinder, which is a, I don't know, it's about a 200, 300 foot square kind of slab of concrete, and there are these duck feet on the grinder. And you line up on the duck feet. And you get ready for the day, and you get ready, really, for the instructors to come out and kind of meet you for the first time. It's very nerve-wracking, but at the same time, you're jogging, you're singing a navy song, as a group, and you're jogging under this grinder, and you're like, "Wow!"
Poonacha: What is the song?
Joe: It's, I mean, you say your class name.
Joe: So, your OIC will yell out. For me, it was "2-8-8!", and then you respond back, "Hooyah! Class 2-8-8!", and then you sing kind of a Navy song, whichever one they choose at the time. And then you kind of jog on to the grinder, and you just stand by, you get ready for the instructors to come out. I remember the three days distinctly in training that was the first day of boot camp, the day I have training as a class, and then my last day when I sustained an injury and then I had to transition out. I remember those three days like they happened moments ago. And they're always with me forever.
Poonacha: You say you sustained an injury, what happened? Can you like, what was it?
Joe: Sure. So, um.
Poonacha: Can you talk about it?
Joe: Yeah. I can talk a little bit about it, for sure. So, SEAL training overall is around two years. And I was about two years into my training, or what they say, I was basically the---a couple weeks before, a week before the---hell week experience, and I sustained a spine injury. And it basically took me, it took me out. And it was unfortunate, but it did. But I remember that day as well. I fell very, very, very far back on a run, conditioning run, and you slow the ambulance down and that's not good because the ambulance has to stay with the group.
So the instructor came up and was like, well, you know, I won't get into the language, but 'why are you falling behind' essentially and you know, I, I told him and explained what was going on, the feelings that I was having in my lower back and all the way up and down my leg and my, and he, this is a remarkable experience, he said, "well, can you walk?" And his tone changed instantly when I told him the pain I was feeling. And I said, "Yeah--yeah--yeah". I paused a little bit and I stuttered with my response, and he physically actually picked me up and he walked me to the ambulance with the kindest tone, he's like, "Don't worry, I got you. I got you."
So he flipped a switch of like, hey, making sure that I wasn't like lagging behind due to effort. Once he found out I was lagging behind due to an actual injury, he picked me up and he carried me to the ambulance, went to what they called BUD/S Medical, and then had a bunch of MRIs done and then that was, that was it. A couple weeks later, I was medically discharged from SEAL training, never having achieved my dream. I was the 16th man in my family to serve in the United States military.
Poonacha: That's amazing.
Joe: And it was, like that, it was over. So I thought God has different plans. He laughs when you think you have your own. And I know at that moment, I do remember how foolish, but cursing God and thinking, "You better have an---You better have a plan," right? Me cursing Him, "You better have a plan." So that was what led to the next great adventure of my life.
Poonacha: Yeah. So you are a poster child of resilience. Right? So when I say, "I got you." That's such a powerful thing! "I got you." I wish everybody had somebody when those moments, somebody to come, "I got you."
Joe: "I got you."
Joe: And I felt completely safe.
Poonacha: Yeah! And that I think, when I talk about this, this concept of loneliness as an epidemic, when people feel, at times, they're invisible, and oftentimes, inconsequential. And if somebody was just there and said, "I got you." That's amazing!
Joe: And you felt cared if you knew the person was competent, if you knew---I felt secure. And that was really, it's a great segue into, like, that next great adventure of my life because I went on to do about a year worth of rehabilitation. And with that time, I got to know a master chief in the community. Now a master chief in the SEAL teams are for the Navy, for those of you who aren't familiar with how the United States structures is, kind of works, inside of the military, a master chief is the top of the food chain. They are Command Master Chief (CMCs), highest ranking enlisted person in the United States Navy is a master chief. And I got to know a Navy SEAL Master Chief very well throughout my rehabilitation time. We became very close friends.
Now this is in a different perspective. If I was a student, I wouldn't have been able to have that relationship right with that Command Master Chief.
But because I was working at the command, it was different. You know, we talk to each other's peers. He never made me feel like I was less than or, or I didn't make it or like I was grouped in with quitters or anything like that ever.
And we became friends, and he invited me to his retirement ceremony. He served 26 years in the SEAL teams. And I went to the retirement ceremony, there hosted on the grinder, the sacred ground of Basic Underwater Demolition School. And the speech he gave is with my heart forever. And it was so forward-looking. It was so forward-leaning about we need to get more technology on the teams, we have to get more perspectives and diversity into the SEAL teams. And the whole audience packed of his family and friends, and at one point, I was in tears. It was just a very emotional thing to see someone come to the end of a journey like that. And some background on this individual, I mean-
Poonacha: And then it started your journey obviously.
Joe: That's right.
Poonacha: His ending was your beginning.
Joe: Was the beginning, and it was because of him that I found the beginning. So he went through, you know, looking at his bio real quick, you know, six Bronze Stars all with combat Valor, Combat "V". He was at SEAL Team Six or development group for nearly 15, 16 years of his entire career. He had served the highest levels of combat and operations around the world. He had been to 70 countries throughout his 26-year experience. He spoke French and some Farsi. He had a master's degree in global business. He parachuted into the final, the Ironman Championships in Kona. He parachuted in with fins and just swam to the starting line and started the race! So, all in all, a total epic, freak of nature on paper.
Joe: Like, quite frankly, just a freak of nature. And the next day after his retirement ceremony, he came into my office and he said, "26 years in the SEAL teams, what am I going to do now?" And he was crying. That was my moment to say, "I got you."
Joe: That's when it happened. And then the next 90 days, I worked with him on re-
Poonacha: There should be a book "I Got You".
Joe: "I Got You." Right. (both laugh) I know. When you feel like you don't feel got, read this book.
Joe: But over 90 days, we got his first job, and I became addicted to that feeling. And then Honor.org was born from that moment. That's the ground zero for Honor.org.
Poonacha: Think a little bit about Honor.org What was, you know, your whole thing is about career development, really bringing the retired-of people who are retiring back into the mainstream community, right?
Poonacha: What was your vision? And where is it today?
Joe: Yeah. So the vision and mission of The Honor Foundation are crystal clear from the earliest days of the interviews. In order to come to the vision and mission, I had to do a sequence of interviews. Because I became addicted to the feeling I felt, serving a Navy SEAL of that caliber, I went on to interview around 250 Navy SEALs in seven states in six months, all who had recently transitioned from their service. And what I found was incredible. Only 13% had jobs when they left their service. Their salaries were on average. Officer and enlisted were about 88,000, regardless of their background or service, years in, spent, $88,000. And they switched jobs two to three times in the first two to three years. This is the top 1% of military on planet Earth.
Joe: And only 13% of them have jobs. So I didn't need to be a burgeoning entrepreneur, you know, to say, "Okay, someone has to fix this."
Joe: And so basically, after all those interviews, I discovered a set of education and tools, formed an executive education pipeline that lasts around 12 weeks. And then I went, interviewed 151 Fortune 500 companies' CEOs, AVPs, SVPs, EVPs, all throughout the country, and said, "How do you look at talent?" Like, "What do you consider to be top talent?" Then I formed, because what really needs to be ha-what needed to be formed was a bridge.
Joe: I wanted to connect one community with another community. The first thing that had to happen was both of those communities needed to be educated on each other. So I had to educate the private sector on what's the difference between a veteran and a special operations veterans, what types of training and skill sets they have, how we translate those backgrounds, skills, abilities differently than an average veteran. Flash-forward, Honor.org, we've put in nearly 700 families in new jobs, and those direct statistics that I mentioned, 13% had jobs? Well, 97% of our graduates have jobs within 30 days of leaving their service.
Joe: The average salary was 88,000, our average salary is closer to 145,000, which exceeds all top MBA programs in the country, which they are deserving of that. And then the two to three years, they switched jobs two to three times, less than 10% of our graduates switch their job that we land them in within the first two years. Those retention and attrition statistics are outstanding for any organization. They've earned it. They'll never ask for help. And so now The Honor Foundation is out there, and to all Special Operations throughout the world, we say, "I got you."
Poonacha: Awesome. So now you're basically going after Silicon Valley, which I love.
Poonacha: Which I think, I do believe in organizations like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, build this leadership and this consciousness 'You can kind of change the world'. So tell me about TLC.
Joe: Yeah. So the birth story behind TLC, which for those listening, it stands for 'teams, leadership, and culture.' The birth story behind that is I am very much addicted to learning about people's past, where they come from, what they've done, who they love, what they love to do, and why they love to do it.
I absolutely am obsessed with people's individual stories. Everyone's walking around a bundle of stories. Everyone has something really special to share to the world.
And because I became addicted to interviewing all of those SEALs coming through, you know, in order to form the program, and now we've had an additional 700 come through the program since. Then I've interviewed over 1000 US special operators to date, learning about their background, their skills, their abilities. I came up with this interesting concept.
When I went back and reviewed my interviews. There were three major themes that all of those operators kept saying over and over and over again. When I asked them a simple question of, you know, "when you transition, what type of organization do you, do you see yourself being a part of?" And they kept saying the same thing to that question. I asked them all 33 questions, but one question in particular led me to a repetitive answer with an astounding frequency: "I just want to be a part of a great, of a great team. I want to have great leadership---leaders who know how to follow and leaders who know how to lead. And really, at the end of the day, I just want to be part of a great culture." I kept hearing that over and over and over again. I said, "Okay." And I started to highlight it. And finally, it kind of hit me that it was the golden thread that was woven, in all those interviews, was TLC. And then I thought to myself, "Okay".
So at The Honor Foundation, I began saying things as I was going to interview the employer because we interview our employers to see if they're a good fit for our fellows. So my question naturally to the leadership of the organization was "tell me about your teams. Tell me about the leadership and what type of culture do you have here?" And if they didn't tell me the same thing aligned up and down the organization, what I call alignment up, down and all around, I knew it wasn't a good fit. It's a simple test. "Tell me about your teams, your leadership and culture." And if you can't answer those questions, something else is off, what I call beneath the surface is misaligned. That led me to a new discovery. It's kind of like misaligned, TLC is a symptom. The actual disease is misalignment, and it begins with the leader.
So then I began reading more and more and more, and for some reason, in the last, you know, 20 years or so, we've had a record numbers of books published on teams, we've had a record number of books published on leadership, we've had a record number of books published on culture. All of these things were like a petri dish 30 years ago, like, "oh, they're in there somewhere, but we don't really know that it matters." And we do know that, you know, certain businesses and business mindsets are failing and dying. Those are the ones that don't care about people first.
Joe: It's not a surprise that banking is, all of a sudden, talking about, you know, their employees and how important their people are, and how they're trying to establish a global culture and they want to change the world, because they're losing the talent game to companies that do focus on that.
Poonacha: What is the one thing, if a leader comes to you and says, "I just have one thing I would like to change in my company or my startup," what advice would you give them?
Joe: If there's one thing, well, we'll start with startups.
Joe: Because every big company, at one point in time, was a startup.
Joe: No matter who they were. So I would say that if I'm sitting down with a leader or CEO, and they say, "Hey," you know, "This is a, you offer a lot to work on, but if there's one thing you offer on…" I would actually be playful and I would say, "The one thing I would like you to work on is, are your five forces of your business." That'd be the first thing I would say, without question.
And what I mean by the five forces, there are five forces that drive every single business on this planet: vision, mission, core values, guiding principles, or an ethos. Those five things, if you look at any single company, one of those five things, maybe if you're lucky, two of those five things are so crystal clear and aligned that the rest of the organization is a wild success. If your vision and mission—I have gold standards for each force, so I'll just give you an example of vision. Elon Musk is my gold example, gold standard example of vision, for all types of reasons. If you walk into SpaceX, for years, we're talking five years ago, seven years ago, there's imagery throughout the whole plant, at SpaceX, throughout the whole factory at SpaceX, of what the colony looks like on Mars that they will eventually create.
Poonacha: The visualization.
Joe: Everywhere. Everywhere! Now that came out of Elon's brain! He has been seeing this for decades. His vision? Crystal clear. All of his companies are designed.
Joe: Aligned to eventually form a colony on Mars. If everything's powered by the sun, let's invent the solar company. If everything's powered by the sun, let's invent something that'd be charged with batteries. That's---how are we gonna get around? Well, with cars! What happens if we have to go underground? Well, let's dig, let's bore. Like all of these things, his vision was so clear that everything has formed around that particular vision of what we will need to get there. His vision is crystal clear. It is actually formed and helped lift up the other four forces that the company then went on to create, but only if your vision was that crystal clear. And if he's a 10, on a one out of 10, and he is the gold standard, where are you as a leader and as a founder with your vision? And does that vision penetrate the organization up, down, and all around? That would be the way that I would approach the initial---any type of consulting or looking or strategy or brainstorming with any type of founder CEO. And then I will challenge them to, I'm going to interview everybody at your organization up and down the chain, up to the janitor, and if they don't have the same vision you do, you are not aligned.
Poonacha: Absolutely. So I look at Navy SEALs, I look at you, and the word which comes to me is always grit. Right? Right. David Goggins. You can't hurt me. Grit.
Joe: Yeah, sure.
Poonacha: So resilience. Where does Joe Musselman go to get his resilience?
Joe: Hmmm. Well, I, that's a great question. In that moment that you asked me, that I must have seen 30 memories in my brain. I could tell you one thing I was said this piece of advice a couple years ago, and it really stuck with me. "If you are not comfortable alone, you are in bad company."
Poonacha: Yeah. Solitude versus loneliness.
Joe: That's right.
Poonacha: Very two different things.
Joe: Very, two totally different things, right? And I thought to myself, I actually had been around people so much, being a founder, being CEO, always pushing the organization forward, trying to be at the forefront of touching as many lives as possible, getting the vision mission out there to the world that you don't have much time to determine and self-author your version of solitude.
And when you say, “Where does grit and resilience, like, where do I get it from?” You know, this might not be a big revelation to your listeners, but from within, and it's a battle when you are quiet. When you find your stillness and you sit within it, you'll see how many stations and radio channels are actually in your brain and how hard it is to turn them off individually to actually see things clearly.
Joe: So, and what happens with me when you say how do you find grit and resilience? Or where do I get it from? It was only until I found that quiet place where I, all my vulnerability surfaced, all my insecurities surfaced, everything, I felt exposed even though I was alone, and then you can actually begin to learn about you, and only until the whiteboard is erased and things are organized, and you can look at your home, to use Jordan Peterson, Peterson's example of your house is messy, you know, clean your room, and you have to go room by room by room, and get things organized, and, and look at you in a very self-reflective light. And during 2018, that's in 19, that's exactly what I was---what I was going to do was to turn some of the stations off, and then I realized that my attitude, unobstructed, my unobstructed, unfiltered attitude is I am a beaming optimist. I am a, I am a realist optimist. Like I am very much a rational optimist. That's the word I was looking for. Because what's the alternative?
Joe: And since I was a child, my, in due part, significant credit to my parents who, we didn't have much growing up, but man, did I always feel wealthy!
Joe: Wealthy in love, wealthy in presence, wealthy in being heard, I came out to a family that loved me, and I didn't actually know what money, wealth was till I was well into my high school experience. My freshman year is when I saw that we have this much. And one of my friends, you know, he had, Oh, my Lord, this much! And I didn't even know things like that really existed!
Poonacha: Net worth and self-worth.
Joe: That's right!
Poonacha: are two very different, polar opposite, right?
Joe: That's right! And they can be confusing for people.
Poonacha: Very confusing. I think sometimes you spend a lot of time on net worth. And when we realize that self-worth is really, is really where we need to be, that's pretty powerful.
Joe: That's right!
Poonacha: In your biography, you talk about, or your bio, you talk about your mom and dad, Joe and Wendy, and your big sister Jenna.
Joe: That's right.
Poonacha: That's very unique. So tell me, so you obviously talk about your childhood and growing up, which seems to be a big part of your DNA. It's who you are.
Joe: Oh. It is. It's everything. If my mother were sitting here next to me, not only would she reach across and give you a big hug, and she loves people, like I do, before we know who they are, what they stand for. We start at the time---
Poonacha: Just being human.
Joe: That's right. That's right. And then I realized that my mom was actually very---she had business models to her approach, and she just didn't know they were business models. Trust models, like, Uber is a trust model. It's not a democratization of ride-sharing model. It's like, it's a trust model! AirBnB is a trust model! And so growing up, big Italian family, small, immediate family, but large extended family, and man, we love really hard. We did. We love each other hard.
My mother told me simple lessons, "Take responsibility for your actions, do what you say." And if that's a commandment, I've probably broken it thousands of times. Like a commandment, they're commandments are values. They're actions. They're verbs! But I am never achieving them all the time.
And so thinking of my upbringing, I cannot think---and I was blessed with a father, who, he worked two, three jobs. He was a construction foreman and was a pipe fitter in Chicago, City of big shoulders. And I could tell you that there's not a single experience in my life, how blessed is this where, where when I think back to my life, despite his two, three jobs, him, you know, working his five to nine, not a nine to five and then coming home, sleeping for a few hours, and then going to bartend in restaurants here at night, and then come home at two, and sleep from two to six, and then do it again for his family. I can never remember a time, where anything important to me happened, where he was not there. That is incredible.
Poonacha: And I see that actually when I was at your home the other day, I could see your father play out in here, right?
Joe: Oh, I hope so. That's like very nice of you to say. That's the ultimate compliment.
Poonacha: If those are some of the traits you talk about, you definitely are an embodiment.
Joe: Oh, thank you.
Poonacha: May I add, it's beautiful.
Joe: Thank you. And with my father, we all walk around bearing the burdens and sins of our parents in some, with some degree.
Poonacha: We all do.
Joe: And one thing I would say, for my father, is growing up, I do remember the sense and feeling that he didn't think that he was enough. And enough for him at the time, meaning he you know, he wished he would have had either more money or nicer physical things, when in fact, he didn't realize he was providing us with wealth in every way that matters. In every way that matters!
Poonacha: Yeah, the self-worth.
Joe: The self-worth! And always telling me "You can do anything you want to do." And he always would say, you know, "Don't beg anyone else for anything you can earn yourself."
Joe: These simple like latitudes and longitudes that he would set for me growing up, they shaped me as a person, and my hope is to make sure I do the same thing for Jackson.
Poonacha: Yeah. My father is in the police in India, and he always told me when I was just boarding the plane to the US, he says, "You know what, whatever you do, you got to be the best at what you do."
Joe: That's right.
Poonacha: "If you're cleaning the kitchen or cleaning the toilet or you're running a company, the best!" Another thing he told me was that "Even if you're buck naked, you never lose your dignity. Dignity is something nobody can ever take it away from you."
Joe: That's right.
Poonacha: And at that time, I was 20, I didn't really understand it. But then every, all through my life, now it's about the three unnegotiable, you cannot negotiate these three things, right? Authenticity, integrity, and always having a higher purpose. Right? I mean, those are the three, I would say the, the compass, which I kind of gravitate towards in my life.
Joe: You said the last one was to gravitate towards a purpose.
Joe: Part of those five forces, part of TLC, it has a lot to do with discovering your individual life mission. My life mission, my wise statement is very clear. It's 'to light fire so others may see.' If I get to do work that allows me to light fires in others so they may see, it's not up to me, I've learned this.
Joe: I can't do that for them.
Poonacha: Everybody has their own cross to bear. They have to walk their journey.
Joe: That's right. So they may see is something that I don't think people walk around with the clear vision and mission in their life. My vision for the world is very simple. It's, I envision a world where people feel psychologically safe and compensated to do work they love. That's world peace to me. People going to work in jobs they love, like, it's not a gift!
Poonacha: Sign me up.
Poonacha: I want that world, too.
Joe: Right? Exactly! When people say, like, "Oh, so how's your new job?" "Oh, I love it!" And they're like, "Ah, I'm so jealous." I didn't win something.
Joe: I didn't win like a lottery. It's like, "Oh, you don't have to be jealous about that."
Joe: There's a process where people can feel fulfilled and compensated and safe. And that safety probably brings me to my, my sister. Jenna is a social worker in the city of Chicago. She works with victims of domestic violence, gang violence, gun violence, domestic violence, domestic assault, sexual assault and rape. Her empathy levels, all of our empathy levels in my family, fierce empathy levels, it's---that's a personal value of mine, fierce empathy. And it comes and stems from my parents on to my sister, she has had to take leave of absences for vicarious trauma disorder. It's a real thing. She feels so deeply for others, that she's an example to me on how to care so deeply for other people's and their lives and their hardships that she takes on that pain herself. So that's the home that I grew up in.
Joe: And again, it all stems from my parents.
Poonacha: That answers my question on resilience. I have this kind of framework I talked about, the ABC framework. One is your attitude. Always like, you talked about being a positive realist is an attitude, like everything is going to change. The day you, I'm imagining when you felt the spinal injury for the worst possible feeling, but then you had an attitude saying it's impermanence, right? And that's the belief. In the darkest, deepest winters, coldest winters, there will be spring and summer.
Joe: That's right.
Poonacha: Right. And if you can embrace that, and just write it out.
Joe: That's right.
Poonacha: Then you have a choice.
Joe: Yeah, that's right.
Poonacha: What is that choice you want-
Joe: You write it out. You just said it. That's very important, and people don't take that step.
Poonacha: And that's the hard one. You got, you just have to. And then, I mean, when that particular event with the commanding officer speaking and then he had a choice. And, obviously, the choice is, the choice you want to make is going to help somebody or you're going to hurt somebody. Is he going to help me or hurt me? I think those choices can have, are really pivotal moments. So the other question I want to ask you is what classical music, your classical violinist, right?
Poonacha: And how did you make this choice, like, you know, I can picture you as a classical violinist, and then also being a Navy SEAL? Yeah. What is the journey like?
Joe: You know, you'd be surprised when it comes to the SEAL community. Although I didn't get a chance to deploy, I did get to know a lot of the folks that are inside of the community at a very deep and intimate level. And we had a, we had a Broadway dancer in our class, we had a few classical musicians. I do think that there is something about the creative, daring soul, and those people are attracted to music. And for me, I can't take credit for this, it was again, my parents. I was a very hyperactive child, as you can imagine. My mother would set up obstacle courses for me when I would come home. All right. Now as a dad, I can't wait to institute this as a father. My mom, okay, "Run around the block. I'm timing you, and then come back, 10 push ups, 15 free throws, and then go inside, I need to hear scales of E, F," you know, "and G, and then you're going to do it again. I'm timing you." And also I came out with a fierce competition for my sister.
Joe: So she grew up playing the violin as well.
Joe: And so I heard—I cheated—so I heard her play the music. It helped me develop the ear very early, resonance of music went deep into my body and soul through her. And so I started to basically anger everyone that tried to teach me because I would listen to it, and then I'd be able to play it. And that translated to piano as well. But I'd have to say that there's a, I haven't been keeping up with it as much as I'd like. But there's something about an intrinsic connection, when we talk about, you know, that phrase, 'reading off the same sheet of music'. Like I want the whole team to be reading off the same sheet of music. I want the leader to be, to get the team on the same, and I was obsessed with, you know, Leonard Bernstein, from like the age of 10. I can't tell you why. The man was a creative genius.
There's another personal value of mine called practicing artistry, which he is a gold standard. And so when I think about classical music, and I think about a conductor, when he makes that walk on the stage, and he looks over at the first chair, first chair---everyone tunes their instruments to the first chair. It's like, "okay, we're all getting in the same sheet of music, right?" Then they kick off. There's different sections. There's the string section, the violin, viola, the percussion, the brass, there's the, the drums, there's everything that comes into making an orchestra. And to me, that's the role of a founder
Joe: A founder is standing up in front of an organization and trying to get everyone to read off the same sheet of music. I've spoken with Juilliard, professors who, who teach conducting, and everything they say it's like, "you understand TLC, that you can't make beautiful music in life without great teams, leadership, and culture. And you do---you're doing that as a conductor. You're setting the teams on a, on a platform for success, and you're being the leader and all this stuff, and then beautiful music arises.
So like, every time I went and sat in on an orchestra, I felt like I was part of something so much bigger than myself. And I could screw it up for everyone, like one flat when it was supposed to be sharp, one E when it was supposed to be an A. Like, I could ruin it. So I went home and practiced successively, because that's what happens when you're an entrepreneur, you're obsessed with making beautiful music for the world. So that---classical music, it's when people talk about "How did you go from like, being a non-profiteer to being a venture capitalist?" I think to myself, "Well, the industries are different, but the work is the same!"
Poonacha: Right. But also to a certain extent, I look at you as very much like a renaissance man, right? So you were in music, you went into entrepreneurship, you were teaching in college, NYU and UCSD as a---but also, what I want to ask you is a question which, which I always kind of think is an important question to first ask as men. How do we kind of get away from the narrative that grown men don't cry? Right? This is kind of---people talk about toxic masculinity, or like, how do we, how do we become more vulnerable? Especially as leadership and we are entrepreneurs, we have to lead, what's your thoughts on that?
Joe: Yeah. So being around a community, where I interviewed over 250 Navy SEALs around the world---around the country, you sit in living rooms, and you sit in bars and in booths with them and their spouse, and I saw grown men cry. And there was real strength behind those tears. They wanted to provide more for their family. They wanted to find their next great adventure in life and they were struggling, and I thought to myself, I mean, I was also raised in a household where my mother enacted the I feel method, like when I was zero to 10. "Use your words. Tell me how you feel." So from an earliest words, of earliest in life, I was my-"I feel angry." "Well, why do you feel angry?" "Well, because this happened," and "What would have made you feel happy?" "Okay, well, I would have felt happy if this would have happened."
So I started my whole life off with talking about emotion and feelings. And frankly, I've come to realize that being a part of a non-profit organization and getting to know philanthropy and philanthropists in the philanthropy space, I got to know a lot of multi multi multi millionaires and billionaires, and almost, I don't want to say all, but most are desperately unhappy. And I was exposed to that level of wealth in my---at my life at 26, 27, 28, 29. And I thought to myself, some of these folks are so troubled, and they're angry about things. And I'm like, before that, it was "how do you even get to that level of having a net worth of 100 plus billion, 50 plus billion?!" And then you go and meet with them. And they're the most sensitive, vulnerable, transparent people. I'm getting emotional, even, like, thinking about, on some of these stories that they would tell me, on what material things would actually do to their loved ones and their family and their lives.
And then thinking back to my beginnings, we didn't have much, but I felt wealthy in the complete opposite direction. That was like the biggest, you got me thinking now all these types of emotions and feelings, but when it comes to vulnerability, authenticity, and being able to, you know, how we did, choose, to think, act, feel and communicate as men. If it's not authentic, it's, think, it's the opposite.
So like, think about an alternative universe to everything I say. Authenticity. Do you want to be that or the opposite? Vulnerability. There's a way to be strong and vulnerable and then not be, not think the opposite is weak and frail and fragile. Soft is actually hard. When you think about approaching negotiations, it's you know, I love—there's an example of one of the wealthiest—the wealthiest—one of the wealthiest men actually in China, talks about how he always makes sure that his counterparts in any deal get 51% of the deal, no matter what. And he gets 49. And he said, "The reason why I do that is because, one, I don't need the whole deal. And two, now everybody in China wants to do business with me!"
Joe: So like, there's some real lessons to that.
Poonacha: There's a give and take in everything.
Joe: That's right. So I think that's, think about the alternative.
Poonacha: Right. Castellina had a very interesting quote. He said, "You could be ruthless, but always be kind. You could be cunning in wanting to get to, but don't be cruel, patient but never negligent, sweet but never foolish.” On that note, any closing thoughts on the world we're going to go into for your son. And what's, what's your, now being a father?
Poonacha: And what's, what's your thoughts? And he listens to this 20, 30 years from now.
Joe: Oh, my gosh. Now that's a pressure-infused question. I think you know, okay, so Southwest story.
Joe: Okay, very quickly. Southwest Airlines, Southwest story, I'm sitting next to a 19, 20, 21, 22 year old who's just exiting SDSU, local, I'm coming back to San Diego to my home here. And he saw me working on a couple pitch decks. And he asked me, you know, "What do you do?" And we got this conversation. And of course, he is the most enthusiastic, energized young man I met. Of course, he was like, this is the first time where I thought I actually aged myself internally. I said, "Wow, he reminds me a lot of myself back in the day."
And so we started talking, and he sent me an email follow up, and he said, "You said that you would think about the question that I asked you which are 'What are the three things that you would want your son to know about you?'
And for me, I took a while to answer that question. And I eventually got back and I, I wrote three things down for him. And this could be translated for those who don't believe.
So number one, I said, I hope, and I hope he knows God. And for all those listening, God is translated into whatever you'd like, anything higher than yourself, believe in that. I hope he knows God.
Secondly, I hope he knows love. And what I mean love, I don't just mean with a partner, I mean, with relationships in general. I mean, with people that sit across from you that—showing them love will go much further in life than starting with hate or aggressive anything. It's, it's love, and saying that doesn't make me soft. That doesn't make me frail. It makes me very strong. And I want to approach all relationships, and I want to lead with love. So I hope-
Poonacha: Because it's what we'll always have. Love.
Joe: That's right. It's a choice that we all have to make. So that's a second. I hope he knows love, and I hope he knows in all aspects of his relationship, with his partner, his children, his, you know, his extended network. And the third one was I hope he gets to know himself.
Joe: And that comes directly from everything that I just said. It's, if he can know God, if he can know himself, and if he can know love, he will live such a fulfilled life. And it's, by the way, those things, I get goosebumps saying it, God, yourself and love. Those seem like the three simplest things. They're actually the hardest things to know and are the hardest things to discover.
Poonacha: Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
Joe: Yeah, thank you.
Poonacha: It's amazing, I would say, 30 minutes I've had with you, and I've learned a lot in this whole journey. And more to come, right?
Joe: Thank you. Yeah.
Poonacha: I got you.
Joe: Yeah, I got you. I got you. Both of us. We got each other, man.
Poonacha: Thank you, Sir.
Joe: Thank you, Poonacha.
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Warrior Monk Conversations 003: I Got You! Leadership and Resilience with Joe Musselman