Rich Roll On How to Evolve, Reach Your Goals: Take Action Before You Feel Like It
The prospect of getting on the phone with Rich Roll is intimidating. What could I possibly ask him to solicit insights that his 11 million listeners (who have downloaded his podcasts 26 million times) have not already heard, our soaked up, or leaned… from the modern master of self-help, self-realization and self-reflection?
Rich Roll has already told the world about his squandering a talented swimming career that got him recruited to every Ivy League college, and a place on the revered Stanford team, where he discovered a love of drinking and hatred for 200-meter repeats. He finally quit out of a lack of commitment, and it was the beginning of a relationship with alcohol that nearly destroyed him.
Roll has also shared his painful journey into addiction, ill health, lethargy and finally bouncing off the floor, entering rehab and starting along the road to recovery. And he has told the story of rebuilding his life, rock by rock, step by step, and finding a new passion for running, eating healthy, and eventually going vegan. During his rehabilitation, he lost 40 pounds and rediscovered a love of competitive long-form endurance sport: Swimming, running, biking and eventually competing in the longest and most grueling endurance races on the planet. Ten years ago, Roll competed in the Epic5, the unfathomable series of 5 Ironman races in five days on five Hawaiian islands. It's the kind of thing you read about in fiction books when the hero has to cross land and sea to save his civilization. Only this insane event is entered by choice. The distances–grinding out 2.4 miles in the water, then 112 on the bike against sheering headwinds, and then running 26.2 on punishing volcanic terrain, and doing it all over again the next day, five days in a row–bend the arc of reason. No human should be able to do this, much less enjoy doing it, just for kicks.
So I am getting on the phone with this epic athlete who while spending all those hours in motion also spent mental time examining his life, thinking and writing his story, which led him to start his podcast, interviewing athletes and actors, gurus and other seekers, and in the process learning more about humanity to the point where he switches from being the student of human behavior to teaching recovery and redemption to anyone who listens. So that inner process of evolving is ultimately what Roll is known for, even more than the physical feats.
The excuse for the interview is his new book, Voicing Change, a compendium of his conversations with others over a microphone, but even though I am not one of his most devoted listeners, I know that Rich Roll has things to teach me, all of us, and I was eager to learn. You don’t go into an interview with Roll lightly or ask him for "5 tips for keeping your diet on track." Expectations for enlightenment are high: You ask him the deep, lingering questions that come to you on a long run or ride, the kinds of things best-selling books are written about. Like his first book, Finding Ultra, which I have read.
I knew my first question, which was both personal and universal, and it had been gnawing at me for months, all during quarantine when time appeared to stand still, but in fact, the days were ticking by and the earth was turning as fast as ever, and I knew this because the moon came up over the eastern horizon every night and set in the west, moving across the bay sky as I would lie in bed, unable to sleep.
Here is my question: How can we evolve, as humans? What is our best chance at becoming a better person, forgiving ourselves the stupid, regrettable acts of the day, and starting fresh tomorrow, and try not to make the same mistakes over and over again? How can we “get it right?” I feel like I've dropped off a cliff, training-wise, eating-wise, and though I'm plant-based, I regularly choose sweets over salads and let myself off the hook too easily. I have completed 3 Ironman races, trained for 4 (dropping out 3/4 of the way through due to a tendon tear in my left ankle). But even writing that last sentence makes me cringe since I am barely fit enough to run 4 miles. I miss being light and on my game.
I don’t expect that everyone can relate to being determined enough to finish running an Ironman race on a broken foot, which I did once, but perhaps everyone can relate to self-destructive behavior, and Rich talks about that too and how to deal with our patterns, whether they be compulsive shopping or drinking or sugar-binging. He relates personal behavior to emotional and spiritual behavior. Everyone can relate to wanting to be a better person, friend, spouse, parent, or daughter. Or just finding joy. (Most of us have an endless to-do list that nags at us when we should be enjoying ourselves at a family night of games or movie watching.) Roll explains how he has gained an acceptance of his extreme "all in" personality and how we can find our own authentic selves and play to our strengths.
In short, I wanted to know from Rich, how do you keep evolving, to be more community-minded, planet minded, get out of your own way and jettison self-destructive patterns, to be a better person? If, as Roll writes in his first book, Finding Ultra, we are all sitting on a mountain of untapped potential, how do we reach that potential, physically, emotionally and spiritually? If we have a song to sing, how do we have the courage to sing it?
No surprise, he gave me a lot to think about. He always gives us all a lot to think about. Here is Rich Roll, on evolving, changing and coping with the fact that not everyone around you is on the same journey. His new book is a gorgeous coffee table-sized compilation of these conversations. Here is what we learned: You can evolve without pain and it can happen incrementally .... not just through dramatic and meaningful schisms. Here is our interview.
The Beet: Everyone I know is jealous of my being on this call. I have about six people who are all either Iron people or vegan or both, who would pay to trade places with me.
The Beet: You have evolved. So few people evolve. What’s the secret to evolving?
Do you think it only really happens when someone has to change… is forced to, because of a medical or other urgent health or psychological event? How can you get someone you love, who is not being healthy, to evolve (to go plant-based or quit smoking or change other self-destructive behavior) or do we need to be the ones to evolve, to a state of acceptance?
Rich Roll: You actually have two questions here. I think the first part of the question -- can one evolve without reaching a crisis point, is yes. It's certainly easier to change, when you find yourself in a pain point, whether it's physical, financial or existential. When you are up against it...your back is up against the wall like you find yourself in rehab or the cardiologist's office, then the choice is made for you. You can't see your way forward. Certainly, that was true for me. That's how I became sober and changed my relationship with food and drink.
When the fear of the unknown is outweighed by the fear of the present, it makes it much easier to change. These fears can be toggled and calibrated but here's the truth: Nobody gets out of life alive. We all face challenges and urgencies. The key is to recognize those moments when you can, because when you recognize that moment when change is needed, and channel it and take that momentum and turbocharge whatever change you are about to make, then you recognize that it has to happen to go forward.
The Beet: Why don't we change by choice? Can we change because we want to?
Rich Roll: Change is always available to us. We don't have to wait until something happens to take advantage of it. For whatever reason, as we get older we get calcified and it's harder to change. The podcast is my own exercise in holding me accountable for that.
It does not need to be a big sweeping dramatic change. You don't need to go vegan overnight, you can do it gradually with small steps. We can decide to make tiny little micro-changes that we can make each day. It doesn't have to be these lines in the sand. Like going vegan. It can be small tweaks. You can decide to give up dairy and then expand from there.
Rich Roll: For most people change is a linear process, done incrementally. You really can take one step forward and two back. If you can make one small change and then hold yourself accountable to that, in the day-to-day, that seems imperceptible. One example is, "I am just going to put almond milk in my coffee and no one is going to notice that," but if you do that for a month, then you add more little decisions like that every day or week or month and over the course of a year or a decade, you are going to be a different person. It's not sexy or noticeable, but it's the grunt work you do (like getting up every morning and going for a run) to make yourself into a different person.
How do you change once things are going well? It's harder. Now, my life is really good. I am happy and I am not meeting those pain points and I have to make myself take these little iterations to move forward. That is where discipline comes in.
Rich Roll: If everything is going well you don't have to change, and people will tell you "Don't change!" But I always look at it from the perspective of a counselor in my treatment who said something I'll never forget, which is that most people fall under the delusion that their lives are essentially static. But that is a complete delusion because every behavior you make or conversation you have with another person is either moving you toward growth or away from it. For me, that means every decision I make is either moving me towards a drink or away from it. What is the next choice I am going to make, or movement I am going to take? And the more you root yourself at the moment and not focus on the long term the more successful you will be. Think about the immediate next step. It's fine to have goals, and important to have long-term goals of the idealized version of what you want to be. But goals are temporal and once you achieve them it's easy to regress.
Rich Roll: But if you focus on what is the next right thing you need to do, and keep that long term goal in the back of your mind, just take the next step. Goals are there, in the background, but they should not be the first thing you think about. In training for an Ironman triathlon, you think, "I am going to have to get in the water." But don't worry about the 5,000 meters you have to swim today. Just jump in the pool. Then just take a stroke. Then just swim. Don't let the bigger goal overwhelm you. Just do the next right thing.
The Beet: I know that addiction is different from self-destructive behavior.
Reading your book I could relate to the idea of not always doing the right thing, and undermining myself. I am not saying I am addicted to sugar, but at times it feels like it! How do you stop doing things that are unhelpful, that undermine the goal? Like I want to save money and I go online and buy three sweaters. What do you say to this kind of self-undermining?
Rich Roll: Addiction lives on a spectrum and everyone can identify themselves on that spectrum, from the guy who can't pull the needle out of his arm, to the compulsive online shopper, to the person who ends up in a toxic relationship, or the person who eats the pint of ice cream... It is a sense of not being in control of what is soothing you in the moment. And we are unconscious to the extent that we medicate our emotions, from our relationship with food or shopping or alcohol or emotions. Anything can be classified as an addictive tendency.
The Beet: What do you think of the fact that we replace one addiction or with another, like training?
Rich Roll: It is messy and complicated and all those things. There is something to be said for stepping outside your comfort zone and expanding your limits and yet at the same time you can use Ironman training to run away from things. We have all heard of the Ironman widow. It's about your motivation, You can use Ironman to validate yourself. But when you do that, you are really obfuscating and cutting corners, because you can be doing it just to get the pats on the back. What are people are going to say? When I am an Ironman? Ask yourself why do you need that and who are you trying to prove yourself to? Maybe you can get that validation another way.
The Beet: You seem to be someone who is "all or nothing" when it comes to training, podcasting, writing, even food.
The question is: Is there a place for balance in your life? You’re podcasting and writing, and training. How do you balance these—a passion for work and a dedication to training?
Rich Roll -- I hate that word balance. Can't stand it. It sets up this imaginary bar that we are all supposed to measure ourselves against. It implies these imaginary buckets that we are all supposed to fill up equally, and have all of these different things humming along at the right levels. There is no way my life is in balance. It's completely out of balance and I used to try to force myself to adhere to this imaginary equation. Then I had an epiphany and realized this is not who I am, and I started letting go of it. I need to live the way I'm wired.
I appreciated the fact that I have this motor that allows me to go all-in on something and now I no longer try to apologize for that or change how I function. Instead, I try to use that to my advantage. When I am doing something, like decorate the tree, I am all in on that. And I am completely focused on it, and then when that is over I switch gears. And when you look at my life on a day-to-day basis it seems out of balance, but then when you look at my year, you realize I am in balance.
I am cognizant of the fact that most people are not wired that way, and I am cognizant that I can't cross over and give advice since everyone is different and I can only tell you what works for me.
The Beet: What do you find the most joy in? What do you find tedious? Is there something you would like to give up?
Rich Roll: Joy is tricky for me. That is kind of a final frontier. My wife is always saying to me: "You've done all these things and now can you just enjoy it?" I get satisfaction out of the grind and trying to do the best work that I can. I would not classify it as joy. The same is true with training. I don't want to just go out there and enjoy it. I need to go all out. Can I train for the joy of it, without some expectation that I will be better, or faster? As I get older I am trying to do that. As a recovering alcoholic, I am trying to be upbeat and not reclusive and work on all of these tendencies I have to overcome. I bump up against it. But especially amidst the chaos going into the next year.
The Beet: Your new book is a compilation of your podcasts. Do you have a favorite?
Whose words do you remember most? Who sticks with you? Who have you learned the most from? Your relationship is a formative new conversation.
Rich Roll. You are asking me to choose between my babies. It's always fun to talk to aIt's fun Russell Brand or Matthew McConaughey. But the ones that are probably the most memorable to me and most meaningful are the interviews where someone who has an amazing story tells it and that story has not been widely told. When I am able to bring it to a new audience, that's meaningful. My favorite podcast is when I uncover somebody with an amazing story who is living anonymously and I get to be the one to say, "You guys have to hear this!"
The Beet: What advice can you offer someone who is trying to help someone they love to evolve?
Say there is someone I love and I would love for them to change and evolve? And maybe I wish they would go plant-based, but they reject every effort and tell me to stop pushing "that vegan stuff" on them. Maybe it's a sibling or a spouse or a parent. How do you deal with someone unwilling to try?
Rich Roll: So your attempts - how are they going? (Laughs.) Not well, right?
You are powerless when it comes to other people's behavior and life choices. So the more you develop an expectation around that, the more you suffer and will get hurt. When I was drinking, everyone wanted me to stop. You can lead someone to water but you can't make them drink. And in the context of relationships, it's important that you do an inventory for yourself around the dynamic. Everyone has their flaws, and you have to ask yourself if this person never changes, do I still love that person and want to be with this person?
As for changing someone else's behavior, you have to let it go. You can be a lighthouse and live by example. But let go of any expectation that it's going to slide downhill and make them change. It's none of your business. It's not up to you to judge someone else's way of living. The minute you drop the judgment, it changes the dynamic. It's healthier.
The Beet: How do you see plant-based eating evolving since the pandemic?
Rich Roll: I think that all the trends suggest that plant-based is continuing to explode. And more people are jumping on the bandwagon, and I don't see any ceiling. With the pandemic, you are seeing companies like Beyond Meat have take over the fast-food industry...You can get Beyond at Carls Junior and it's about to launch at McDonald's. But does that mean everyone is going to make the switch to plant-based? Maybe not, but the Gen Zs are so much more a-tuned to the planetary implications. For them, they have no qualms at all with switching to meatless food. It's not a big deal. They just think: this is better, visa vis the planet.
As for the health of these meat alternatives, I do have concerns about the meat and dairy analogs. It has never been easier to be a junk food vegan. You can get vegan ice cream that is just as sugar-filled, and not good for you. I myself delude myself that I can eat coconut cream ice cream because it's healthier. So I would like to see more people taking up a whole-food, plant-based diet. But these items are a good way to understand you can eat what you want and give up meat and dairy.
RR: You have to meet people where they're at. And there is a contingent of the vegan community that gets ruffled by the fast-food options that are meatless but not vegan, I get it. But if people are eating this stuff as a way in, to becoming more plant-based or plant-focused, then I think it's worth it.
The Beet: Do you have a mantra? Words to live by? You probably have many.
Rich Roll. Do I have a Mantra? I do, and it harkens back to that question of how can you evolve?
My Mantra is: Mood Follows Action.
Rich Roll: What that means is we have this human tendency to try to make a change, and then we wait to do the hard, uncomfortable thing. We wait until we feel like doing it. But that day never comes. But to me, Mood Follows Action means the action precedes the mood. If you wait to take the action when you feel like it you may never do it. That helps me take the first step, like jumping into the cold water when I may not feel like it, or not hitting snooze on the alarm. And that approach has helped me in many contexts. It has helped me since I first heard it back in AA many years ago. Does the mood follow? Well, yes. You never do the thing and think, "I wish I hadn't done that."