Finding Your Greatness With Adam Mendler

Penny ZenkerTake Back Time Podcast

TBT Adam Mendler | Finding Your Greatness


Finding your greatness is a matter of both looking inward and looking outward. It requires both introspection and learning from other people for you to finally hone in on what really makes you special. This is just one of the things that we get to learn from our amazing guest today. Adam Mendler is a nationally-recognized authority on leadership. As host of Thirty Minute Mentors, he has talked with many of the top leaders and successful professionals in different industries. He uses what he learns from these interviews to come up with highly-engaging keynotes that touch on every aspect of leadership that there is. Join his conversation with Penny Zenker on Take Back Time and learn things like the role of focus in achieving success, why leaders need to fundamentally love people, and how looking both inward and outward allows you to really understand what makes you stand out. Enjoy!

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Finding Your Greatness With Adam Mendler

I’m always looking for people who are going to challenge you to think differently, people who have achieved great success and being able to bring you the tips and tricks that are going to help you to think differently and to be more successful in what you do. In this episode, I’m super excited to have Adam Mendler with us. He is an Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Educator and nationally recognized authority on leadership.

He’s the creator and host of the business and leadership podcast, Thirty Minute Mentors, where he regularly elicits insights from America’s Top CEOs, founders, athletes, celebrities and political and military leaders. Without further ado, you can read more about Adam but let’s tap into his knowledge with all of these incredible interviews that he’s done to help us better our leadership and better our productivity. Adam, welcome to the show.

Penny, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here and to spend time with you. What better way to spend a day than spending it with you and with your readers? Fire it up.

Thank you so much. You have done incredible interviews with so many incredible people. There are so many questions that I could ask and want to ask. Out of all the interviews I’ve done, I found that one of the core things if I had to narrow it down, I often hear that focus is one of the core success factors from the people I’ve spoken to. I don’t know if that’s my bias and my lens of talking to them.

What would you say are three of the core success principles? I know that it’s crazy for me to ask that. They’re all over the place but if you had to think about some of the common themes of successful leaders and successful people, what might be three things that stand out for you in all those interviews?

Focus is extremely important. We could spend all day and all night talking about focus and I hope we do.

We will.

I’ll share some other things that I think are important for readers to think about. First and foremost, I’m a very big believer in the power of self-awareness. Before you can effectively lead others, you need to be able to lead your own life. Before anyone is going to follow you, you need to become a person worth following. It all starts with understanding who you are. I’ve interviewed hundreds of America’s top leaders and I’ve put together a list of the most important qualities that the most successful leaders have. Right at the heart of it is self-awareness.

Before you can effectively lead others, you need to be able to lead your own life. Before anyone is going to follow you, you need to become a person worth following. Click To Tweet

That’s one big topic right off the bat. When you look at everyone, that’s a big one. Something else that I think is interesting. I was doing a Zoom with someone who I interviewed, the CEO of a highly successful company. We were talking about this and this is a theme that comes up in so many of my conversations with so many great leaders. Humility, which ties into lifelong learning, go hand in hand.

It goes hand in hand with self-awareness, too, doesn’t it? I think when you’re self-aware, that brings you to a place of more humility as well.

I think all of these principles connect, tie in together and the characteristics that so many of the most successful people have are shared. You look at people who have been able to make it to the top in business, people who have been able to make it to the top in sports, entertainment, the military and the political world, you’re able to hone in on these same characteristics.

Going back to humility tying into lifelong learning, the most successful people don’t walk into a room and start speaking. They walk into a room and start listening. They understand that every single person that they meet is an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to grow. The most successful people are continually seeking out content that can make them better and that can help them get to that next level. It’s that growth mindset. That’s another big one.

The most successful people don't walk into a room and start speaking. They walk into a room and start listening. Click To Tweet

Penny, just because it’s your show, I can’t hold myself back. I’m staring at you. I see a focusologist. I’m going to have to go with focus. Focus is so important, especially for anyone reading who’s an entrepreneur. I feel like everyone nowadays is an entrepreneur in some sense. Everyone has a side hustle. Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, how many entrepreneurs are there?

Now, there are so many things that consume our time. There are so many things that pull us in competing directions. How do we manage that? How can you be successful if you lack focus? How can you be successful if you’re spending your day trying to accomplish twenty different things? You can’t. That’s a critical factor to being able to succeed.

If we turn it to some of the other things that you talked about, is that those successful people that you’re talking about? I’ve experienced that as well in the interviews that I’ve done and even in my own personal success. The more self-aware, the more curious and open to learn more things, be humble, and allow others to lead, sometimes, that’s the greatest form of leadership.

It’s to allow others to lead and be able to lead from the sidelines thing. That’s a focus that they have. It’s to focus on being, I think you said it in the context of being a better listener than the person who is telling everybody what to do. It’s always about where we’re focusing our attention and what is going to create the best result for us as a leader.

Great leaders are great listeners. Great leaders ask great questions. Great leaders fundamentally care about people. Something that I tell people all the time is you can be successful in life if you don’t like people. There are lots of people who are successful and darn good with people, hate people, but you can’t be a successful leader if you don’t fundamentally love people. Being a leader is all about helping others become their best selves. To your point, Penny, your job as a leader is to develop other great leaders, to help people get to that next level. That’s what it’s all about.

All of those leaders and successful entrepreneurs and athletes and so forth, if you had to combine it into one definition of productivity, what do you think it would be?

One singular definition of productivity that brings everyone together, I’m going to have to think about that.

We can come back to that if you want.

Penny, something that I always tell people is most people in life are bad at most things. We’re all good at a few things. We all have one thing about us that makes us special. It’s our superpower. You’re going to find out over the course of this interview, I’m bad at most things. You ask me questions like that, I don’t know the answer to that. I’m going to have to think about it. Let’s come back.

It doesn’t make you bad at it because you have to think about it. I think we also have to be a little bit more gentle on ourselves. I’ve come to realize in my lifetime that we don’t have to have all the answers, but we do need to come with a sense of curiosity to be open to the answers. What you said earlier about humility and ego and things like that, in my experience, the best leaders also don’t have all the answers and don’t pretend they have all the answers. They just want to do what’s right and work towards those answers step-by-step.

Penny, because we’re not in the same room because we’re virtual, I will accept your virtual pat on the back. I’ll take it. I agree with you 110%. One of the most underrated and critical elements of effective leadership is vulnerability. The most successful leaders are those who are not afraid of admitting, “I’m wrong. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know the answer.”

TBT Adam Mendler | Finding Your Greatness

Finding Your Greatness: The most successful leaders are those who are not afraid of admitting they’re wrong.


If you pretend to know everything, if you pretend to be perfect, you’re going to lose your credibility. Such an important topic in business now, such an important topic period is building trust. How do leaders build trust? How do people build trust? It’s one step at a time. It’s about being authentic, genuine, keeping your reward, not pretending to be someone you’re not, doing what you say you’re going to do, leading by example and being yourself.

I’m curious, how did all of this start for you? How did you start to do these interviews? What took you down this path?

I have a pretty unconventional path and that is part of the beauty. I don’t think that there is a linear path to success in life. My path has been anything but linear. For those of you who don’t know me or starting to get to know me, I’m a Los Angeles native, born and raised here in beautiful Los Angeles. It’s beautiful most days out of the year, but winter has been cold for us. Penny, if there’s anything you can do about that, I don’t know. You have some power around the focus. Maybe you could focus your energy and manifest some good weather for us.

TBT Adam Mendler | Finding Your Greatness

Finding Your Greatness: There is no linear path to success in life.


I’m not sure that’s within my focus realm.

You never know. Don’t be afraid to ask. Another important tip. I’m asking you.

I can see what I can do.

I did my undergrad at USC. I did well in college. I was Phi Beta Kappa, all the awards, honors and all that good stuff. When you do well in school, it sets you up on a certain path, a certain trajectory. After college, I went and got a big corporate job. I worked for what was then the largest hedge fund in the world. I did that for a couple of years and then took the next step on the journey. I got my MBA at a good school and then took the next step when I worked in corporate America again, a big Fortune Global 150 company. When I was 28, there wasn’t a term for it back then, but now everyone knows it as The Great Resignation.

I came to this realization that I wasn’t necessarily doing what I was passionate about, bringing me joy, happiness and fulfillment and I got off the train. I was trying to figure out what was next. What was next for me was starting a business with my brother. We started a few different businesses. We started two different eCommerce businesses and a software development company. Being an entrepreneur is crazy,. I think anyone who’s an entrepreneur will tell you it’s crazy.

TBT Adam Mendler | Finding Your Greatness

Finding Your Greatness: Being an entrepreneur is crazy. Anyone who’s an entrepreneur will tell you it’s a wild ride.


What happened along the way is I started doing some writing and my articles got picked up in major media outlets, Forbes, Inc. and Huffington Post. I discovered that I was much better at that than at running these different niche eCommerce businesses. I kept leaning into it. That led me to start interviewing successful and prominent leaders, doing lots of those interviews.

After doing that for a while, I came up with this concept called Thirty Minute Mentors, which is me going one-on-one for 30 minutes with the most successful leaders in America, Fortune 500 CEOs, founders of household name companies, Hall of Fame athletes and Olympic gold medalists. Through all of my interview work, I’ve now done interviews with more than 500 of the most successful leaders in America.

Penny, as you know, what I largely do is speak about the best lessons that I’ve learned from those conversations. I also do a little bit of teaching at UCLA. I teach a couple of graduate-level classes on leadership and it’s very different than what I was doing when I started. It’s very different than what I was doing years ago. Whatever you’re doing today might be very different than what you do tomorrow. Keep an open mind and follow your passion and keep going.

Whatever you're doing today might be very different than what you do tomorrow. Keep an open mind and just keep following your passion. Click To Tweet

What’s one of the stories that sticks with you that’s made the biggest difference for you in the way you look at things?

I’m going to be honest with you, Penny, which is every interview I do, there’s always that one and I don’t know it. I’m curious if it’s like this for you as well because you’re a great show host and had so many great guests on your show. In my case, every interview I do, there’s always that one nugget, that one gem, that one a-ha moment for me. It’s almost like on a guest-by-guest basis. I think of that one thing where it’s like a complete perspective shift for me. As of the recording of this episode, I’ve released 168 episodes. It’s hard to hone it on 1 out of all 168 where I could say this has been the one single biggest game-changer.

What’s the most recent? It might be the one that’s most in your mind.

I’ll share one with you. I did an interview with a person by the name of George Stevens Jr. and that episode was released, so that’s why I’ll bring it up.

It’s fresh in your mind.

George Stevens Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, cofounder of The Kennedy Center Honors and fifteen-time Emmy Award Winner, won the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. I asked, “George, you spent your life around the greatest of the greats, the greatest actors, the greatest actresses and the greatest directors. What can anyone do to attain greatness?” He said, “It is all the things that we’ve been talking about in this conversation,” which is all this stuff. We can get into all that if we have the time.

He then went into a story. He was telling me about a good friend of his who he got to know through nonprofit work, Yo-Yo Ma, the greatest cellist in the world. George Stevens and Yo-Yo Ma got to know each other because both were heavily involved in trying to bring the arts into inner-city schools in Washington, DC. Yo-Yo Ma is performing in an inner-city school in Washington, DC and brings George along with him.

George is observing what’s going on and he sees the students are completely mesmerized by Yo-Yo and blown away by him. Yo-Yo gives a performance and the performance is incredible. As good a performance as he’s ever seen. He starts talking to him afterward and Yo-Yo Ma tells George Stevens, “Anytime I give a performance, it doesn’t matter where it is, it’s the single most important performance I am going to give this year.”

To me, that was a powerful message, a powerful moment, a powerful takeaway, which is you could be performing in an inner-city school in Washington, DC, that’s as powerful and as important as performing in Carnegie Hall. You don’t need to be Yo-Yo Ma. You don’t need to be George Stevens. Every single one of us can take that and bring that to our own lives. What do you do? What is it that you do? Are you bringing that energy? Are you bringing that focus to what you do every single day? Are you doing that?

That presence, that love, that attention.

That passion.

He could have been like, “This is only twenty kids,” or whatever. I think that that is something that people who are great at what they do, that they are fully present in the moment and they see that. Every day is game day is an expression that I use. They show up at their best because every day is game day. That’s a great quote.

Your focus is the focus, which is being present, being in the moment, not being pulled away by your cell phone and by the millions of other things that could pull us away. Being with someone is critical. Don’t discount that, don’t dismiss that.

What haven’t I asked you yet that you feel is important? Something that you’d like to share with this audience who is looking to think, act and be more strategic in what they do. That they want to achieve that next level of success, whether it’s deeper relationships or bringing their business forward. It’s not only in business, but what other tips or things that you feel like we need to share before we end?

I used it as a little bit of a throwaway line, but I’ll dive into it a little bit more deeply. I believe very strongly that most people in life are bad at most things. I personally am bad at so many things, Penny, that if we spent as much time as we could going through all the things that I’m bad at, not only would we spend the rest of the day but probably, we go through all weekend. Maybe through the rest of the year. If you’re honest with yourself, you’re probably bad at most things too.

You can’t be good at everything.

We’re all good at a few things. We all have that one thing that makes us special. The more quickly you can figure out what it is about you that makes you special, the more successful you’ll be in life, in business and as a leader. My challenge to anyone reading is to get on that journey of discovering what it is about you that makes you special. What is it about you that makes you different? What is it about you that differentiates you from everyone you know, from your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues? What separates you? Once you understand that, in my experience, that’s how you can attain next-level success.

I hope you’re going to tell us how. You’re not going to just drop that question and not have a potential way for us to do that because if that were so easy, then everybody would be doing it.

That’s my keynote.

You’re not going to share even a nugget with us here?

I’ve shared a bunch of nuggets.

To answer that question.

This isn’t like your favorite TV show where they pause and end at part one of a two-part episode and then you have to wait a week. Think about the days before binging, where now you binge and there’s a cliffhanger, but there’s no real cliffhanger because as soon as the episode ends, you can start the next episode. Do you remember those days, Penny?


I don’t know how many of your readers remember those days. I will not do that to you. We can talk about it. There’s a three-step process.

We don’t want to give them everything, but if they can have a little taste of it, we’re going to send them to your website, where they can hire you to come and talk to them and tell them more. I’m sure that they’re confident a bit now. Tell me a little something that’ll help me to start that process.

I’m being a little facetious here, but I don’t know how well dry humor plays across the screen here. I hope it does.

I don’t know. We’ll see.

I’ve asked this question to tons of America’s top leaders. I’ll give you an example. I asked this question to Bill George. Bill was the former CEO of Medtronic. When Bill was the CEO of Medtronic, when he took over the company, it was a $1 billion company. When he left, we can look it up. I might botch the number here, but I want to say they’re like a $40 billion company.

He’s one of the great CEOs of our day. Bill told me, “How do you do it? Easy, do two things, look inward and look outward.” What does that mean? How do you look inward? How do you look outward? I’ll throw a few nuggets. Looking inward, get to that place where you do your best thinking. For everyone, it’s different. Where do you do your best thinking? That might be a rhetorical question. I’m not going to ask you rhetorically, but Penny, I will ask you.

TBT Adam Mendler | Finding Your Greatness

Finding Your Greatness: Do two things: look inward and look outward.


I think it’s good for the readers. I would say for me, believe it or not, I do it on a mountain bike. It’s when I’m in motion I do my best thinking or I love being in the mountains. When I’m in the mountains or in nature, that’s when I do my best thinking.

I love that. For everyone, it’s different. For me, it could be going to a baseball game. For someone, it could be going on a walk, talking to a spouse, doing yoga, meditating or taking a shower. Wherever it is for you, it starts with getting to that place then there’s a whole process. The second thing I want to talk about is looking outward, feedback. Another thing Bill shared with me. He said, “Feedback. It’s the breakfast of champions.”

TBT Adam Mendler | Finding Your Greatness

Finding Your Greatness: Feedback is the breakfast of champions.


I told him, “I thought Wheaties was the breakfast of champions.” The reality is that anyone who’s ever been featured on a Wheaties box has only gotten there because they’ve been able to not only listen to feedback but seek feedback. I’ve interviewed some of the greatest champions of all time, including some people who’ve been featured on Wheaties boxes who’ve talked to me about the power of feedback.

You want to talk about success factors, seeking feedback. Go out and talk to those around you. Go out and talk to as many people as you possibly can. Look inward, get to this place of deep introspection but also go outward. Talk to your friends, to your neighbors, to your mentors, to as many people as you can. For each of these things, we can spend an hour on each. At a very high level, that’s how I would start thinking.

Thanks for sharing that. It’s appreciated and I think people give them a little bit of something that they can start to look for that thing that makes them stand apart that’s their special sauce.

I didn’t want to leave on a cliffhanger. That’s such an unsatisfying feeling. You have episode one, it ends, then you’re like, “When’s episode two going to come?” I hated that when I was a kid, so I don’t want to do that.

Was there anything else that you wanted to share before we end the episode so that you feel complete and you feel that the readers feel complete?

I want to thank you, Penny. I want to thank you for having me, for hosting this great program, for the great work that you do, for helping people focus, understand how to focus and understand how to become more productive in their lives. At the end of the day, what is this all about? This is all about how do we become our best selves. How do we live life to the fullest?

Something that I try to share with all audiences that I speak to is that when you’re trying to figure out what you want to do, you want to try to check three boxes. 1) You want to try to do something that you love. 2) You want to try to do something that you’re great at. 3) You want to try to do something that allows you to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

If you do all three of those things, that’s it. You found it. It doesn’t feel like work. You could wake up first thing in the morning and keep going until you have no energy left. You’re fired up the next day to do it, but not all of us are there. In fact, most of us are not there. If you are there, then it’s much easier to focus because you’re locked in and you’re dialed in. If you’re not there, Penny, I’ll tell you, the work that you do is critical to helping people get to that next level and then get to that next level, so thank you for the work that you do.

From what you’re expressing, that’s what you do. You help people to focus. As you said, if you can’t check those three boxes yet, then you’re not going to be able to focus in the way that’s going to give you the greatest leverage, the greatest joy and the greatest level of success that you can achieve. It sounds like we’re pretty aligned there. Thank you.

Penny, we’re very aligned. That’s why I had such a great time. I only wish we had more time so that I could give you at least the beginning of the list of all the things in life that I’m bad at.

We’ll come back to that. That’ll be version two. That’ll be our next session.

We need to make sure we block out the whole time.

Where can they get ahold of you? Give us your website. Give us your best place to be contacted.

I try to make it easy. It’s my name, Adam Mendler, so you can go to You can find me on social media @AdamMendler on Instagram, @AdamMendler on Twitter. My podcast, Thirty Minute Mentors, is available on all podcasting apps. However you’re finding this great show, you can find Thirty Minute Mentors. Penny, thank you again. This was a real joy.

My pleasure. Thank you.

Thank you so much.

Thank you all for being here. I hope you took notes. I hope you decided for yourself, do you check all those three boxes? If not, what do you need to think about? Where do you need to go to that special place that you think your best so that you can think about how that can stir and inspire you to know what’s next for you in checking those boxes and find what makes you special. What are you good at and where can you make the biggest impact? See you in the next episode.


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About Adam Mendler

TBT Adam Mendler | Finding Your Greatness

Adam Mendler is an entrepreneur, writer, speaker, educator, and nationally-recognized authority on leadership.
Adam is the creator and host of the business and leadership podcast Thirty Minute Mentors, where he regularly elicits insights from America’s top CEOs, founders, athletes, celebrities, and political and military leaders. He has interviewed more than 500 of America’s most successful leaders and has written extensively on business and leadership, having authored more than 70 articles published in major media outlets including Forbes, Inc., and HuffPost. Adam co-founded The Veloz Group, where he helped build three different businesses in three different industries. Adam draws upon his insights building and leading businesses and interviewing hundreds of America’s top leaders as a keynote speaker to businesses, universities, and non-profit organizations. Adam teaches graduate-level courses on leadership at UCLA, serves on the board of UCLA’s Master of Applied Statistics Program, is an emeritus member of USC’s Board of Governors, and is an advisor to numerous companies and leaders. A Los Angeles native, Adam is a lifelong Angels fan and an avid backgammon player.



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