Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus has dedicated his company to helping people become the best versions of themselves. The Westlake High School graduate and former star basketball player started his quest toward self-improvement as a teenager and later founded his company on the mission of total human optimization.
The Austin-based company has grown over the past eight years from a supplement company focused on cognitive performance to a global force in the health and wellness space, incorporating supplements, exercise and mental engagement practices that the company says lead to peak performance.
The author of the New York Times best-selling book “Own the Day, Own Your Life,” Marcus hosts a popular podcast on personal growth and spirituality and has led weekend seminars that attempt to empower attendees to achieve their best selves.
He will appear Thursday night at the Paramount Theatre with Gary Vaynerchuk, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Vayner Media, where the two will engage in a discussion about wellness, entrepreneurship and designing one’s life around the idea that people should consider happiness as the true indicator of a successful return on investment, not money. The duo will follow up Thursday night’s event with a daylong session of workshops, breakout sessions and more.
We met up with Marcus at Onnit headquarters to talk about fear, self-judgment and the keys to total optimization. Below is a condensed version of that conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can also hear the conversation this week on the Austin360 podcast, "I Love You So Much," at austin360.com/loveaustin360.
American-Statesman: At what stage of your life did you decide to form Onnit? What had you been messing around with businesswise; what did your life look like? What was the idea behind it? How did that all come about?
Aubrey Marcus: I was literally trying everything I could. I worked for a gold-mining company; I sold sex toys; I was in skin care; I did oil and gas; there was a company in Edmonton that I was working with that was developing novel therapeutic treatments for ovarian cancer ... all kinds of crazy things I was dabbling in, nothing being particularly successful. I tried everything, but nothing I really had my heart into. What I had my heart into was getting a little bit better tomorrow than I am today, and being a little bit better today than I was yesterday. And that was a path that I had carried all the way from my youth. So forming Onnit was like, "All right, here it goes. This is the thing I love the most; this is the thing that I’m the most passionate about." Which is pressure. Because if you fail at the thing you’re most passionate about, it doesn’t leave you with as many outs. If the gold mine doesn’t pan out, and it didn’t, who cares? But this is what I was really called to do, so I took the leap, and it’s been one of the greatest blessings of my life.
What made you think that it would be something other people would be interested in, following your path?
Well, I could tell that it worked. I knew that the supplements that my step-mom had given me and the ones that I had researched made an impact. I could tell my brain was sharper when I took the supplements for cognitive improvement. I could tell my body responded better and I had more stamina when I took the ones for physical improvement. But for the brain alone, it was 10 different ingredients, and that was a pain to take, so I thought if we could combine all these things I know are effective into one and then went to the research and found the exact right amounts and the perfect combination, we could make something that can really advance and revolutionize the field. Because at that point most of the things were single-ingredient supplements still. So by combining them with this unique approach, I believed that we could create something that could disrupt the market and be a lot more convenient than trying to piece these things together. And that was really what led to Alpha Brain, our flagship product.
In your book, one of the early steps that you have in approaching your day is to take a freezing cold shower. I’ve heard you talk about the fear people have in turning that cold water on. Do you get the sense that fear is the overriding factor that keeps people from challenging themselves or stepping into a better version of themselves?
It is a factor. I think there’s a lot of forces at work. I think we have internal forces of resistance that want to keep us from growing into our potential, want to keep us from doing things we know will bring us the greatest fruition of what we want. Whether that’s a fear that if we achieve what we’re looking for we will have newfound responsibility and then we might fail and then we might be worse, so it’s better not to try. Maybe there’s some of that. Maybe you’re just afraid of doing the thing itself. I was talking today with someone who does do that, cold exposure and breathing, which is something I practice, and still, knowing after hundreds of times of doing it, we will still go a week without doing and then we’ll look at ourselves and go, "Why didn’t I do that this week? I feel better every time I do it. But, still, for some reason I didn’t do it." That’s the funny aspect with human nature: We really know what we should do and what will make us feel better, but some part of us doesn’t want to do that. Maybe we feel like we don’t deserve to feel better. Maybe we’re in some cycle of self-judgment, where we feel like we deserve to be feeling exactly the same way that we do and that we don’t deserve to be happy and comfortable and confident. It’s really a multiplicity of interesting psychological factors that can hold us back, but all it takes is taking that one step and using what I call "mental override" to just push you to do that very next thing that you know you should do.
What was it that brought you and Gary Vaynerchuk together? Who sought out whom and why?
I think our friendship really evolved when we got to step on the basketball court together, and that was where we gained another level of respect. I think we do have very similar and different messages. He’s very motivated to keep pushing and to keep going and to shed the ideas about what you should do and what parents told you you should do. When he really started talking about the return on investment on life being happiness and not money, that’s when I think our messages really synced up and aligned in an interesting way. He’s incredibly tactical and incredibly knowledgeable about how to push through those forces of resistance on that side, and I’m really knowledgeable on all of the other different forces of resistance that we might encounter in all of the other elements of life.
What do you say to the people who think, "OK, I’m ready to achieve my goal, I just don’t know what it is"? What do you see in people or hear from people that are the main points of blockage?
I almost think that you get to the message less by addition than by subtraction. Instead of thinking you need to figure it out, you need to figure out what it’s not. If you have an idea, go for it. I figured out it wasn’t gold mining, it wasn’t finance, it wasn’t all of these other things that I was doing. I always knew kind of that human optimization was where I wanted to go, but I had to explore other things and eliminate possibilities until I had to accept the same whisper that I’ve had in my head the whole time. It’s by removing all these counterpressures and all of these other ideas that we’re actually able to listen to ourselves. And I think we do really know what we’re here to do.
From 2016: Peak performance: Onnit strives for total human optimization