Photos Alexandra Borbolla
In the first part of our interview, Paul Vaden spoke to Paul Zanon about his career inside the ropes and the talent that propelled him to become San Diego’s first ever – and to this day – only boxing world champion.
Now a successful author (‘Answer the Bell’ – Inventing Your Life as a Champion’) and award-winning short film producer, Vaden is a much sought after motivational speaker. He spoke to Luca Rosi about his work with corporations and individuals, helping them develop the winning mentality that served him so well in the ring.
ON developing a champion’s mindset …
“I’ve been preparing for this since I was 8 years old when I started boxing. Having the fabric of a champion means that you’re willing to do whatever it takes. It’s about separation – what’s going to separate you from the pack. In today’s fiercely competitive world, you need to stand out, for example, when going for a job interview or trying to get your next promotion. That’s akin to the championship rounds in boxing, the latter stages of a contest that can make all the difference between winning and losing. I call it the joy of repetition, it takes immense dedication, discipline and endurance.
“It’s those moments when you might be stressed or in a slump, that’s when the party starts for me. I’m able to draw on my personal life experience to help my corporate clients break down these issues and look at how we can resolve whatever the situation or scenario may be. And then we look at how we can improve – when you get through something, you go to another level, which then means you can cope better with the next, bigger hurdle. The people I work with are often highly accomplished business men and women and I teach them to go that extra round and believe in themselves and their ability – to think and be in the mindset of a champion.”
ON having pride in what you do …
“I believe that we all have a special talent in the motion picture of our lives. I never look at anyone as ordinary, I don’t care who you are, we’re all unique, we can all make a difference. It’s how you go about doing it and the mentality you adopt that’s pivotal. My late father couldn’t read or write, he’d get up every morning at 4am to catch the bus to the local hospital where he worked as a housekeeper. I was only young at the time and I’d hear him talk about the 4th, 8th and 11th floors, how spotless and clean they were. His floors stood out from other floors. I used to wonder why he kept talking about this and it wasn’t until I became older and I was starting to get my purpose in life, that I started to get it.
“Despite being at the bottom of the career totem pole, he took a lot of pride in what he did. So, whatever your job or role in life may be, make sure there’s no discount version of you. Don’t just exist, create, be a part of something, be a pioneer. You can be anything you want and go as far as you want. Take your mind and your mental approach to another level.”
ON being a great leader …
“The best leaders are those that empower their people and have that rare ability to get people to go beyond their capability. People want to perform for them and give their all because they don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk. They’re authentic and are always there for their people. Having charisma or ‘executive presence’ as we seem to like to call it nowadays helps to bring the walls down.
“When you know that someone believes and trusts in you because of your talent and hard work, acknowledges that you’ve stepped up your game and embrace new challenges – when that leader passes you the ball, beautiful outcomes can happen because of that. As a leader, you also want to be challenged so you should seek out and hire people who may have the skills you don’t. Often what happens is that you look for the same person as yourself, that looks like you and thinks like you. This makes you miss out on a potential star because you’re too enamoured with yourself, and you might perceive this other person as a threat.
“A blinkered vision will prevent you from seeing the full picture of a person’s talent and the many other qualities that they have. You need to embrace uniqueness.”
ON the benefits of a diverse workforce …
“Hiring should always be about competence, not colour or creed. We know that different backgrounds and different thinking will benefit your organisation’s bottom line. The evidence is conclusive. Why is it that we don’t we have a female NBA head coach? We’re losing out in these situations where people with exceptional qualifications miss out on these opportunities. It happens all the time in the business world where people are hired because they fit a certain stereotype.
“We’re told that working hard and treating people right is the recipe for success, yet there are all these other factors that come into play that are not part of this toolkit. It’s a meritocratic myth and it’s hard to take. Not everyone is the same. Whether you’re a manager in business or a coach in sports, you must cater for different people and the unique qualities they bring to the table.
ON getting ahead in your career …
“My advice is to read and study the great, work to be greater and study people. Read up on the positive stories about people who transformed their lives, the winners who had to endure storms and defy the odds. Put that all into your toolbox, align yourself with like-minded people and put yourself in positive situations – don’t let the negative folk drag you down, defy and douse that negativity.
“Start to build yourself and who you want to be, the course of life that you’re seeking. What a great journey to be on – start to improve yourself. How others see you is also so important. You need to work on perception and improve your visibility. You must be strategic in your approach and make sure that your talent is seen by the people that count.
“Sometimes that may not be enough, and you may have to go elsewhere to showcase your skills – your current environment might not be the best one for you. What ends up happening in most cases is that people end up staying because that’s the easier option and they’re afraid to take a leap of faith. Just like a bad relationship, that’s not a healthy place to be.”
ON the value of mentoring …
“You need to find someone that you gel with and who complements you. It’s useful talking to someone from a different department or even company. A good mentor will listen and encourage you to think more laterally and look at solutions you may not have considered. They will steer you in the right direction without doing all the work for you.
“Be very selective in terms of who you choose and the number of people you seek counsel from. Sometimes you can hear too many voices and things can get chaotic, disrupted and confused. I’ve always sought people who have endured and overcome obstacles in their lives and who have a certain level of common sense.
“That’s a real big deal to me because common sense is not common at all. I like to learn and hear stories, I want to put myself in that situation, what would I do in that time and place. You don’t want a ‘yes’ person as they can walk you off the cliff, rather someone who can help you grow as a person and professional.”
ON mental health in the workplace …
“The struggle is real. Everyone is going through some storm or battle. More needs to be done and employers need to take this issue very seriously and do everything they can to support the wellbeing of their workers. I’ve been there myself, so it’s a subject that’s close to my heart. It could be something that you’re experiencing at home, in your family life that will parlay into your job and vice versa – and it then affects all aspects of your life.
“We’re paying too much lip service to mental health and levels of depression and anxiety keep rising, so we need to continue to add resources to help those affected. The long hours and presenteeism culture that we have doesn’t help – organisations need to promote and encourage a better work-life balance. I’ve just started a new talk, which I’m super excited about called ‘Answer The Bell – pursuit to KO depression and anxiety’, which I’ll be delivering to corporations and individuals.”
ON being too nice to succeed …
“I don’t buy into all the ‘nice guys finish last’ stuff. They used to say I was too nice, that I had all the talent but not the ruthless streak needed. I wanted to prove that you can be nice and become a champion in this sport. Sure, I always smiled and did my best to treat everyone with respect, but you won’t find a more competitive person. I wanted to be exactly who I am, staying true to myself – it was very important that I was a gentleman in everything I do. So, the answer is a resounding yes.
“However, you can’t just be passive, you need to promote yourself, and often word of mouth is the best way – your achievements will speak for themselves. Be honourable but also have confidence in who you are as a person and your skill levels as a professional.
ON talent vs ambition …
“We all have a God-given talent. I grew up on a street corner and saw the most insane talent you could ever imagine. But you’d never know about it because these guys weren’t willing to put in work. Ambition is someone following up on those dreams, harnessing their talent – someone who wants to be around talent and to escalate where they currently are.
“We all have a talent, sometimes we don’t know what it is, but when you find out, don’t just live off it. Remember what I said about separating yourself from the pack. You need to cultivate and enhance that talent. Ambition is more important.”
ON coping with adversity …
“If the stress or pressure is getting too much for you, you need to talk to someone, don’t store it all inside. Whether it’s a family member or your line manager at work, get it out in the open. If you’re worried about money or you don’t have the insurance, again there are people who can help. I was at a place where because of who I was, I didn’t want to see anyone, as it felt like a defeatist attitude. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you’ve got, we can all be affected.
“And if you’re in a situation where you can help, provide that support – don’t leave that person on the emotional highway. Each case is different, we all have different thresholds and triggers – what’s acceptable to one person isn’t to another. Don’t keep it bottled inside, talk to someone.”
ON setting an example …
“If there would be one piece of careers or life advice that I would give, it would be to try not to simply exist in what you’re doing but really treasure the full process. Don’t just do but go beyond and really exercise your talents to the highest level.
“Don’t take people for granted, and realise that what you do may have a profound effect on your family, friends or colleagues. Remember, someone’s always watching you, you’re always being ‘interviewed’, so set the right example. That someone may well be learning from you and putting into practise what they see you doing.
“You have a great opportunity every day to make an impact on someone – and that person might then impact the world.”
ON ‘Answering the Bell’ …
“In fulfilling a lifelong dream, I answered the bell. When I gave up on life for a while, I answered the bell. I came back to life and reinvented myself to become a champion again and rediscover those winning instincts. But I’m constantly striving to get to the next level – I’m still answering the bell.
Follow Paul Vaden on Twitter at: @AnswerTheBell
Pictured: Paul Vaden. | Photo courtesy of Answer the Bell.