Frankie Russo On Breaking WHY: The Road To Acceptance And Finding Purpose

Penny ZenkerTake Back Time Podcast

TBT 200 | Breaking WHY


Life is full of things we can’t control, and things don’t go as planned. We must learn to adapt and evolve and bend, not break. Joining Penny Zenker is Frankie Russo, founder of Russo Capital and The School of WHY, keynote speaker, and author. In this episode, Frankie enlightens us with insights from his book, Breaking WHY: Hacking and Rebuilding Strategic Emotions for Authentic Success, and shares the highs and lows of his journey to finding authentic success. He opens up about his struggle for control and his history of substance abuse and navigating through his recovery and finding his purpose. Learn some strategies and techniques that he’s used to overcome and achieve by tuning in!

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Frankie Russo On Breaking WHY: The Road To Acceptance And Finding Purpose

I’m always looking for people to challenge you and help you to get to the next level of wherever it is that you want to go. We are going to talk about the next level of your purpose and how you find your why or at least the different elements of your why. Frankie Russo is here with us. Through his Russo Capital firm, he has developed a portfolio of companies across multiple industries, including technology, advertising, marketing, automotive, music, agriculture, publishing, and finance. He’s out there. He and his team have led two of his companies to become some of America’s fastest-growing and privately-owned organizations for eight years in a row.

This guy has done a lot. He also talks in this episode about his first book, The Art of Why, and more importantly, his latest book, which expanded into the rule-defying Breaking WHY. He talks about Breaking WHY and how we have to break our why to build it back up and get clearer on the next level of our why. We have an interesting conversation that starts around some research that I have been doing and some work around the essence that, as human beings, we have this need for control. How does that come back to us, helping us find our why? This is me and Frankie having a discussion about Breaking WHY.

Frankie, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me. I’m excited.

We are going to do something different. I have been thinking a lot about the whole idea of how we are driven. You talk about drive and breaking the why. I have been unpacking the idea that we are all control freaks. Are you a control freak?

Yeah. In my own way, I am. I have done a lot of work around that. Ironically, you mentioned that.

The reason that it doesn’t seem new to you or anyone else is that we all are. It’s woven into our makeup and desire and need for control. With your experience, why would you say that about you? Tell us your control journey, and then we will explore how that might have to do with Breaking WHY.

The interesting thing about control is that it’s tied to my relationship with the things I’m powerless over. My first experience realizing that I did not have control was when I tried to control drinking and doing drugs years ago and failed. That was the beginning of my journey. I never thought of myself as a control freak, and I still don’t think of myself as a control freak but when you peel back all the layers, we all are a little bit of a control freak in our way. Some are a little more obvious.

I want to ask you a question, though, about what you said because I don’t want to get it too far because there’s something in that. You said you tried to control drugs and alcohol. Did you use drugs and alcohol to control something else that you felt powerless over?

TBT 200 | Breaking WHY

Breaking WHY: Hacking and Rebuilding Strategic Emotions for Authentic Success

I didn’t use drugs and alcohol to control anything. I did them to escape the true things that I’m powerless over, which is not drugs and alcohol alone. I am powerless over that. Now that I have overcome the drugs and alcohol piece and whatnot, my ongoing struggle is related more to my powerless over people and others. All of us struggle a little bit with that. My powerless over others, situations or things that weren’t going my way, the drugs and alcohol were medicine to cope with that. They were an escape. I wouldn’t say I used them to control it. For me, drugs and alcohol were more of a solution than a problem.

It’s a means to control. When things are out of control or we feel like we can’t control a person or a situation, it’s unconscious. I’m not saying that we do it on purpose.

It’s conscious because I’m thinking, “I’m getting more out of control.” I drank and drugged to get out of control more than in control. It’s all wrapped up together. This is interesting because what you are talking about is tied very closely to my whole philosophy on strategic emotions and how it relates to everything that we do, especially our purpose. I have been exploring the idea that strategic emotions and emotional intelligence are similar. We came up with the term strategic emotions when my publisher and I were writing the book because my first book was about purpose. Breaking WHY is also a lot about purpose and how to fulfill that.

What we realized was that the real core of my story and experience has been the relationship to emotions, good and bad, as it relates to fulfilling your purpose, not giving up, not flinching, and taking it all the way to the end of whatever the end looks like that you are starting with. What it boils down to is acceptance of the things that I am powerless over and learning how to adapt or accept them. In Breaking WHY, there are ten steps, and one of them is to adapt or accept. Knowing when to do that and when not to do that is a huge part of long-term authentic success.

I talk a lot about acceptance as well because that’s the thing. When we try to control something that we can’t, we are in resistance. We are not accepting. We exhaust ourselves in that struggle for control. Acceptance is important to see things for what they are and where they are. What you said triggered something for me. Is accept and adapt, one stage or both? We have to accept so that we can be flexible and adapt but you can’t adapt until you accept, yes or no?

Yes, if you break it apart in that way. It’s one step in the book but the thing is that we have already accepted it in step one. Step one is, “Why are you here?” That’s where we work out, what’s my mission with my business, my personal life or both. In many cases, it’s both. I have to accept that where I’m at is not good enough, so I want to evolve. Early on in the process of breaking our why, we are going to go through an acceptance and adapting journey. In the second half of the 10 steps, step 7 is to accept or adapt, either way, you are going to be doing both every day.

There are going to be certain things that I accept and adapt to. Knowing the differences, all of our experiences, where the wisdom comes from, mentorship, and the team are so important, and doing things like we are doing here. There are some things that are unacceptable that we should not accept. A lot of times, if we hold on to too many of those things, we break. Even though it’s Breaking WHY, the idea is that I’m going to break my why before it breaks me. That’s where a lot of this comes from.

Tell me more about that. I don’t understand, “Break my why before it breaks me.” Does that mean the next why?

Think of breaking as hacking and rebuilding. We are going to break it down to rebuild it and continue to experiment with it. That’s more of the breaking. You are breaking something by design or on purpose to make it better. You think about technology and us as humans. If I’m doing these disciplines in a safe space, practice breaking myself or testing myself, if you will, then I’m able to hack different situations, life hacks or whatever you want to call it, and then rebuild stronger.

Accept the things that you are powerful over and learn how to adapt or evolve. Share on X

If not, my life will break because I’m holding on too closely or I’m not looking at these things. That’s what happened to me. My life broke years ago because I was trying to chase money, and I was not willing to take a serious look at my drug and alcohol use. That was a bottom for me. I broke again in 2017 after putting out my first book. It was more of an emotional bottom than some sort of a substance bottom.

That’s where Breaking WHY came from because I wasn’t even following my advice enough to not break. My breaking point came in the way of a divorce, broken families, and different things. Those things ended up being positive things because I was able to step into some things but it’s very difficult. I don’t have to repeat some of that if I continue to do my breaking in a safe way, challenging and testing so that it doesn’t break me.

I’m trying to break it down for our readers as well, not to overuse the whole breaking thing. I like how you said that at first, it was a drug and alcohol breaking, and then it was an emotional breaking. You’ve got more purposeful about challenging and breaking it yourself versus it’s happening for you. Are you diving deeper? Each time you break, it is another level of depth.

The ten steps are not some checklist or a ladder. It’s a circle because life is a circle. What we are doing is we’re going back around every time. Every time I go through the steps, which I do once a year, it’s one of those things where I’m able to revisit and readapt my why. My why continues to get tighter and stronger. It went from having a why when I’ve got sober to having some why outside of my business in recovery and helping other people.

The way I have been able to stay sober for several years is that I spend quite a bit of time and energy helping other people get sober. That was the second time I saw purpose modeled in a way that would be good for my life even though I’m helping other people. The first one was when I was a kid. My parents ran homeless shelters. It’s this idea of helping the people that are truly poor and in need, not getting a lot in return, living in that with them, walking them through it, and having a deeper sense of purpose from that.

I saw that as a child but I couldn’t marry the two as an adult. I wasn’t willing to live in poverty like my parents were. I needed to do something different. I did what a lot of people do when they don’t have money when they are young. I chase that, make a bunch of money and say, “I’m never going to be poor.” I tried that. That broke me because that was all I was chasing. A lot of people make that mistake. They are chasing after these metrics, these KPIs, and this money as a sense of success.

When we chase money or anything, that can break us. A lot of people chase happiness or balance. What are these things? They are feelings. They are not going to feel that moving.

They are byproducts. They are things that happen. That’s because that’s the truth.

They chase productivity. They are all byproducts. I say the same thing.

TBT 200 | Breaking WHY

Breaking WHY: Strategic emotions and emotional intelligence are very similar.


I wanted to stop drinking and doing drugs once I realized I was powerless. There are a lot of people that are powerless over it. The ones that succeed in stopping are the ones that are willing to admit 100% themselves that they are powerless. Once I did that, that was what made the difference but knowing that wasn’t going to do it. Just because I know I’m powerless doesn’t make me stop drinking or doing drugs. The irony of it is that by trying to stop drinking and doing drugs on my willpower, everybody thinks, “You see more willpower.”

If I’m just focused on stopping and doing something, I’m going to fail every time but if I focus on doing something over here that’s different and gives me purpose, I don’t care as much about this thing over here. All of a sudden, it gets smaller. As long as I’m focused on this, “I’m going to stop doing this,” that’s not a solution. Doing something different that I can put my energy into that is a solution. What I found was that in doing things, it had to be a purpose. It had to be focused on helping others and not on money.

It has to be greater than ourselves. That’s the key. When we see and connect with that, that’s where all those other things and happiness happen. That’s where we find balance.

From that, you get free from some of this chaos and insanity. You get free from having to be dependent on a substance like drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, food or whatever your shtick is. As a result, you are freer. You do have more peace. It’s because of practical things. There’s less chaos in your life. You are going to be peaceful if there’s less chaos in your life.

It’s because you let a lot of stuff go that doesn’t matter. When you are focused on a higher purpose, and you are very clear on what matters most, you let go of the other stuff. It’s all small stuff. Some people feel this idea of anything that you chase might break you, what about people who are chasing purpose? There are a lot of people who are like, “I want to find that thing in my life,” and they chase purpose. What about that? Maybe that breaks them in a bad way.

Here’s the thing. The most important part of all of this is honesty. I’ve got to be honest with myself. A lot of what’s even in the book I wrote is about how to check in with myself, ask myself some difficult questions, and stay honest and authentic. I want to live wholeheartedly and authentically. Those words are a little buzzier lately, thanks to Brené Brown and everybody, but they are good words and mean something. What they mean is that who I am at work, on this show, behind closed doors, with my kids, with my wife or with the poker buddies is all the same person.

That’s not an easy thing to pull off. It takes a lot of a lot of willingness, to be honest. Once I am, then that’s the first step. I’m super passionate about being purposeful. That’s my thing. Where could that go wrong? It could go wrong because maybe I’m so obsessed with it that my family is not able to eat because I’m not making any money or I don’t get to see my family because I’m so obsessed with this purpose. That’s where I have to be honest with this. I either have to decide that it’s not important to me to have family or I’ve got to figure out a way to do those things realistically.

That requires communication and honesty on my part and the other people’s part that I’m in a relationship with. You have to keep checking in. That’s where people think this is one linear journey like, “Once I figured out my purpose and had that first hit, we are good now.” That’s not how it works. I’ve got to keep checking in and practicing these principles, “Am I supposed to accept this at this moment or adapt and lean in?” We don’t have to do it alone. That’s my big thing with the School of Why. I want it to be a community that’s free and where people can have support in that type of journey.

Check in with yourself and be honest. Let’s say I want something. It’s important to me and I feel like it’s my purpose. How do you be honest with yourself? What if it’s someone else’s goal for you? Often, we adopt from a young age that this is what somebody wants for us. We take it on and think that it’s ours but it’s not ours. How do we know and get honest with ourselves if it’s unconscious?

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I always say that my brain or my mind is a neighborhood that you don’t want to want to wander into alone. One, you should not do it alone. One of the steps early on is if you are going to do this deal, you are ready to start something great or get something that was great unstuck and make it great again. Whatever it is that you are trying to do, you should not do it alone. The key is that you don’t need a huge team but you do need a team of people that have what you want so that you can learn from it.

Do you mean like a coach?

Yeah. It’s the mentor and peers that have what you want.

What if it’s not what you want?

When I say what you want, that doesn’t mean like, “I want a car.” I mean, “They have these byproducts that I want.” Maybe the byproduct is that I want to feel fulfilled or have a meaningful life. My byproduct is that I want to feel like I’m not always running around and at peace. It’s these byproducts we talked about like happiness and freedom.

They seem to have that and it’s like, “How do they get that?” I have to be learning from other people because that’s how I’m going to learn myself. I’ve got to be talking with other people and writing. A lot of the steps in the book are writing and inventories. The idea is that I’m writing so that I can see it and understand it.

I’m talking with other people. Over time, I’m able to see myself in other people. They are able to see themselves in me. The bottom line is that I’ve got to get to a point where I am okay with being true to myself and letting others down. That’s a big part of the journey. That was my breaking point in 2017. I had to be okay with walking away from a marriage with three children knowing that I was going to let maybe hundreds of people down that were looking up to me as a standard of what it should be. I was married for 15 years with 3 kids. I’ve got the book. I’m successful and on the Inc. 500.

I was the poster child. It was a golden pedestal, and it wasn’t until I was willing to burn the pedestal to the ground, be on the ground with others and be okay with what you and other people think of me because I had to go into a deeper level or journey to be okay with me and be enough without having to do all this stuff. That’s a huge part of this.

It’s not an easy journey. It’s not for the faint of heart but once I was willing to let those people down that I thought I needed to be a certain way for, that was a huge step in my journey of getting honest with myself and with like, “Why am I here?” That is step one. I don’t know if that answers your question but that’s how it was for me.

TBT 200 | Breaking WHY

Breaking WHY: If you’re just focused on stopping doing something, you’re going to fail every time. But, if you focus on doing something that’s different, that gives you purpose, all of a sudden it gets smaller.


To put it in my words and also the people who are reading, what are the words that come to you? Think about that. Write it down and talk to people because you learn more about yourself. The expression I use is, “Make the unconscious conscious.” There’s a lot going on unconsciously that we need to bring to the surface. We only realize what that is when we have those conversations and when people ask us questions. That’s why I said coach, community, writing and all of those.

There are coaches, therapists, sponsors, peers, partners, and friends. Pick your circle wisely and make sure that they have what you want. I talk about this a lot in the book. “Does that person have what I want in twenty years?”

For the audience, I want to make something clear. For the example, I said that maybe somebody else has set what you wanted. Let’s say somebody says, “I want to be a doctor.” They think they want to be a doctor, and they do want to make a difference in the world. In our hearts, we all want to make a difference in the world. In their family, everybody is going to be a doctor. The grandmother, grandfather, and great-great-grandmother were doctors.

It’s in a whole line of doctors, so, “I’m going to be a doctor.” Somewhere it’s not fulfilling you and making you happy. You want to make a difference, and you think that’s the only way. This is to put it so that everybody reading can understand how it might relate to them in that circumstance. What you are saying is as you go on this discovery process of what is it that doesn’t feel comfortable, your community might not be a group of doctors.

If you realize that you don’t want to be a doctor, you are not going to have a doctor as a mentor.

You may not realize that yet.

You may not but my experience in life that it actually happens is one day at a time. It reveals itself in time. If I’m not paying attention because I’m living unconsciously, that’s where I’ve got. I wasn’t doing anything bad when my wife was broke. I was doing what everybody does, working, being busy, and not having a process for checking in and whatnot. Everybody’s journey is different.

Nobody’s journey is going to be exactly the same. The important part is that I’m at least asking these questions and looking at them. If I ask these questions, eventually, it’s going to become strong enough inside of me for me to stand up and do something different. That’s when I should not accept and adapt because if I keep doing the same things and expecting different results, that’s not adapting.

If nothing changes, nothing changes. The whole concept is knowing, “What do I change?” That’s where you are going to change who your circles and teams are over different seasons. Do with the best information you have. Make a start somewhere. If you get it wrong, that’s part of the process. If I’m paying attention and I’m getting it wrong, that’s what Breaking WHY is. It’s about seeing the little breaks and things happen and then adjusting to that. That’s all you can do. What else can you do?

Pick your circle wisely and make sure they have what you want. Share on X

Make it a game. You are getting to the next level. Sometimes when you are fighting the bad guys or whatever you are doing to get to that level, you make a mistake or misstep, you die, your character comes alive again, and you get that chance.

In a game, you are focused. You love focus. If I fell in that pit because I tried to jump off this wall, shoot this canon or something in whatever game you are in, you are going to remember that because you have a one-track mind. That’s to beat the next level. That’s the difference between the game and life. Life isn’t the same thing because not everything in life is a competition. Thank God.

You don’t have to make it a competition. We are all looking to get to the next level of ourselves, emotional intelligence, and quality relationships. That’s how I’m relating it to the game. It’s not in the competition side but in being our best self. If we know one thing doesn’t work in firing against that wall and then falling into the pit, then you try a different approach. You are adapting.

Where do I want to be in the end at 70 to 80 years old? I have to keep trying even though I’m not 70 or 80 years old. I have to force myself sometimes to think like that so that I don’t give in to an impulse or compulsion that I want to do that’s going to make me feel more powerful. That’s going back to your control.

I was going to bring you back to that. Expand upon that because I want to wrap up with that.

With the control freak deal, at the end of the day, there are going to be times when I feel like I’m out of control. The whole reason why I want to control things is that I feel like I’m out of control. When I feel like I’m in control, I don’t need to control as much. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whenever I’m not out of control, I don’t feel like I need control. I don’t end up doing things that are controlling to other people, and then being frustrated and resentful that it failed, and then afraid of what’s going to happen if it doesn’t come through.

It’s this wild cycle and a self-fulfilling prophecy all intertwined. At the end of the day, that’s why the acceptance piece is so big when it comes to other people. It’s what I can change versus what other people can change. That’s the key. I’m powerless over you, Penny. I can’t make you do anything. I might be able to influence you. I’ve got sidetracked with that. I was so good at getting people excited, motivated or moving in a direction that I thought I could control people.

That’s called manipulation, and that’s not something that is a tool you want to try to use because it doesn’t work long-term. It always ends in flames. We have all been there. That’s a misconception. What I can change is if I decide that I want to hang out with you or not hang out with you. I can change the way that I react and think about you. I have to constantly be going back to these situations that emotionally stir me up and look at them.

Usually, when I go in for the control, there’s some emotion happening, even if it’s subconscious, that’s trying to regain some innate natural defense mechanism that we have. That’s why it’s not bad that we try to control it. It’s a defense mechanism that our body is trying to respond to. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know exactly if it’s the body. Don’t misquote me there. Something is going on that is not unique. It’s the opposite of unique that all of us have the same thing. There’s something built into you.

TBT 200 | Breaking WHY

Breaking WHY: Breaking WHY is about seeing the little breaks and these little things happen and adjusting to that. That’s all you can do.


It comes back to the emotional aspect. I know that people’s attention spans do not go much past where we are now. We have given them some food for thought. We can always come back to the conversation another time. Where do people find more about you, Breaking WHY, and your other resources?

I’m on all major social media. The book is at all the major bookstores but Amazon is usually the easiest and has the best price. I have, which has links to everything, and my School of Why Podcast. This was great. I love being on your show. Thank you so much for having me. I was excited to have you on.

It’s fun to take the different perspectives together.

It’s a completely different chat, which is awesome.

Thank you so much for being here.

It’s my pleasure. I look forward to seeing you soon, Penny.


Thank you all for being here, talking and reading to understand what’s going on with our need for control. When we get honest with ourselves and look outside of ourselves, then we are going to find a greater purpose. That purpose, at different stages of our life, is going to break down and build back up into understanding the next level of where it is that we want to go and why we want to go there. Getting honest with ourselves and checking in is so important to help us to live purposely.

That means we have to live consciously, take what’s going on in our unconscious, get real, bring it into our consciousness and be able to accept some of our faults and inability to be everything to everyone. When we accept that, recognize that, and be true to ourselves, we are going to have an easier path to finding our why and creating more impact in this life. Thank you for being here. We will see you in the next episode.


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About Frankie Russo

TBT 200 | Breaking WHYFrankie Russo, through his Russo Capital firm, has developed a portfolio of companies across multiple industries, including technology, advertising, marketing, automotive, music, agriculture, publishing, and finance. The beneficiaries of his investments have offices in the United States and India and serve 128 US markets. Russo and his team have led two of his companies to become some of America’s fastest-growing, privately-owned organizations for eight years in a row. The Art of WHY (2016), Russo’s first book, was on Amazon’s bestseller list in the self-help category and has been readapted and expanded into the rules-defying Breaking WHY. Frankie’s highest calling is his family, and he happily lives with his wife and six children in Louisiana.