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What founders, funders and C-suite executives should be asking themselves

Canadian podcaster thinks we are all just one question away from a more successful life. He should know

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It’s a rainy autumn afternoon in Collingwood, Ont., and Marc Champagne is wedged behind the microphone of his home-based soundproof podcast studio. Again.

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It has been a busy month for the bespectacled Canadian host of the top-50-ranked podcast Behind the Human, which gives Champagne the chance to interview hundreds of successful, brilliant thinkers about what makes them so dang successful and brilliant. He calls their secret sauce “mental fitness,” an optimistic-sounding umbrella term for mental health, resiliency and performance. For a decade he’s studied game-changing mental fitness practices of the über-successful and consulted with Fortune 500 companies as a strategist and speaker.

But now Champagne has a new project: a book, Personal Socrates: Questions That Will Upgrade Your Life From Legends & World-Class Performers, which encourages readers to explore provocative questions meant to fill them with insight and clarity in order to launch more fulfilling lives.

Drawing on interviews with entrepreneurs, designers, writers and others, he uses clarifying questions such as, “How can I be the most curious person in the room?” or “Who am I optimizing to become?” and “What if it were possible?” to explore the mental fitness practices of legends such as Kobe Bryant and Stephen Hawking and billionaires like tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain.

“When you upgrade your questions, you upgrade your life,” he writes in the book.

A primed mind

It’s a message resonating with everyone from start-up entrepreneurs to founders, funders and C-suite executives – particularly during the pandemic, when many have been taking a collective breath and asking, “What now?”

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“When you raise a round of funding, you now have million-dollar problems instead of hundred thousand dollar problems. But the constant is that we all want to feel clear and that we’re making the right decisions,” he says. “I don’t care what industry you’re in or what you’re doing. You can never go wrong with spending some time making sure your mind is primed and healthy.”

Champagne’s virtual book tour has him answering more questions than he’s asking as he fields reporters’ calls and chats up podcasters as a guest. In a recent week alone he was booked for eight interviews, with 55 logged all told – although he looks slightly abashed when admitting that.

Perhaps it’s that humility and his self-effacing Canadian-ness that has made him such a popular figure in podcast circles. Warmth, it must be said, might as well be Champagne’s middle name.

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s open to sharing his own foibles, too. Personal Socrates begins with a scene describing a painful part of his recent past: the day he was forced to shut down KYO, a journaling app he co-founded that reached 86.9 million people without any advertising. Despite rapid initial success, the company’s eventual struggles took it past the point of no return.

To ward off despair, Champagne turned to months of journaling, asking himself a series of powerfully pointed questions to discover what he was meant to do next. Returning to the corporate world felt wrong. Diving deeper into mental fitness and guiding others felt right. He admits he was scared, but his sense of clarity also made him feel empowered to jump off the ledge into the unknown.

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He chose door No. 2.

Present over perfect

Not everyone is lucky enough to find their life’s purpose after a setback. Questions such as “How did I get here?” or “What happened to my life?” can sneak up slowly or give a sudden wallop years into a career. Either way, they require some of Champagne’s practical guidance.

Feeling depressed, anxious, uncertain or fearful about the future? You’re in survivor mode, says Champagne.

The most curious person in the room is also the most present person in the room.

Podcaster and author Marc Champagne

“Good ideas and a path forward are possible in this state, but very challenging, and it’s not where we do our best work,” he explains. “I mean, we’re human. We’re going to be going in and out of these survival states all the time, so the easiest practice to leverage is to drop in and be really present.”

In other words, find quiet activities that pull you away from thinking about that last frustrating meeting or challenging decision that weighs heavily. Take a walk in silence rather than listening to music or a podcast. Or, instead, take time to listen to favourite music, exercise or visit an art gallery. Have a list of these five or 10 options handy to lift your mood and keep your thinking fresh.

“Break the loop and pause, knowing that at any point you can jump into those activities. You’ll be able to start thinking more clearly,” he says. “You’re not hijacked.”

Curiosity, not fear

He points to American hotelier Chip Conley, one of the people he interviewed for his book, who believes curiosity is his superpower. While younger people may start life asking deep “why” or “what if” questions, Conley believes many people eventually slip into asking shallower queries such as “what” or “how,” in the name of productivity and efficiency. It’s only later that we look for deeper meaning again. To find it, we must learn to pause, be present and think before reacting. Do that and you can face the world with curiosity rather than fear.

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“The most curious person in the room is also the most present person in the room,” Champagne says.

Billionaire Naveen Jain is also exceptionally good at pausing before reacting, explains Champagne. The founder and CEO of biotech company Viome is also one of the most accessible people Champagne says he has ever interviewed.

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“I’m always amazed. I could email right now and within 24 hours, have some sort of response back,” he says, explaining that Jain operates with a sense that everything is possible and everyone is equal. “There’s a sense of groundedness.”

Champagne points to Jain’s habit of pausing before making big decisions, too. Closing his eyes, Jain focuses on what it might feel like six months down the road, after having made a particular choice. He gets quiet and blocks out all the spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and the noise. If there’s any sense of “that’s the wrong decision,” he walks away.

Anyone can learn from the profiles in Personal Socrates , says Champagne, but asking questions and pausing to internalize answers can make a big difference. It’s no fluke that some of the best ideas come to us when we’re unplugged, in the shower, or out for a run.

“All of us, no matter where we’re at in life, if we can still the mind and release all that mental baggage and fog, we have all the answers,” he says. “We just need to let our mind connect the dots.”

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