Keep on Pushing
Do you need permission to live into the best version of yourself? Is it enough challenge just to get through the day? Or is there a bigger mission in front of you?
In the middle of the covid times, so many of us are struggling to stay positive. Our worlds have been turned upside down. I have so many friends who’ve lost half their business, or all their business, and even the people I know who still have a paycheck are struggling to figure out how to live in this new world.
As my readers know, I eat, sleep and breath the mastery process. It’s fascinating to me to see people wake up to their own possibilities. Once someone realizes that they can do almost anything, they really can do almost anything. That’s why I ask other experts not just what they do for a living, but why they do it, how they’ve been changed by the process and what circumstances helped them prepare for it.
I’m ridiculously excited about today’s interview. I was in my last semester of grad school here in Ann Arbor and I remember hearing that the Jamaicans had fielded a bobsled team. What!? How in the world do the Jamaicans know how to bobsled? Who came up with this crazy idea? And far more important to me today - what are the human stories behind that unlikely happening? And once you’ve rocketed down the ice at 93 miles an hour - what trajectory does your life take after that?
Or at least one of those lives. It’s such a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Devon Harris today.
He’s one of the original members of the 1988 team. And he was captain of the 1992 and 1998 teams if I have that right. He came up in what I’m told was the ghetto of Kingston, Jamaica. A place, funnily enough, called Olympic Gardens. And you’ll correct me of course Devon if I have any of this wrong, but somehow Devon graduated from the military academy Sandhurst in England, and he received a Queen’s Commission in 1985. He served in the Officer Corps of the Jamaican Defense Force until 1992. These days Devon is an author, a hugely motivational keynote speaker, and we’ll give you some places to go to see what he's done. And he’s CEO of the Keep On Pushing Foundation.
Devon, welcome! I'm so glad you're here.
Hey Nick, thanks for having me man. I was listening - Is that the same Devon I know?
Well if it’s not now, it will be by the time we’re done!
Man, listen, you spend so much of your time helping other people now in one form or another, but I know you haven't always had the same sort of high performance helping mindset that you've got now. Can you set the stage a little bit for the folks that are listening or reading? Can you tell me a little bit about where you come from and how it affected your world view? What was it growing up that taught you what was important and what was possible?
Hmm, well where do we start? You did mention that I’m from Olympic Gardens, and for those of you who don’t know anything about Jamaica, no that’s not where we grow our Olympians. Although there are at least three from my neighborhood.
There was Mike McCallum before me. He was a boxer and then myself, and then Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who most people will know was a double Olympic champion - World Champion - The Pocket Rocket - They call her. Little tiny woman who is as fast as can be. I was not blessed with those genes of course, but I did love sports. Olympic Gardens was not a suburb of Kingston. You mentioned the ghetto of Kingston. One of the tougher neighborhoods and that's where I grew up.
Especially back in the late-70s to mid-80s neck in a way we were prone to a lot of political violence and a lot of gunplay came into being around about that time. Quite fearful but I guess my saving grace was always school. I love school. I'm by no means a Rhodes scholar, but I did okay. I love sports and maybe the biggest thing about school and sports was that they created a safe haven for me. I remember from the time I was in 9th grade until the 13th grade - we have a slightly different system in Jamaica - I was in school six days a week. That’s the thing that kept me away from the neighborhood as it were.
I always go back to my grandmother. In the early beginning I spent my early years with her from I was 7 months old until maybe 5 and she would tell me these amazing stories. Especially ones about soldiers. For some reason those kind of stuck with me because according to her, soldiers could do these amazing things ... complete these amazing feats and not get hurt. And so it sounded impossible, I didn't know if I could do it but I wanted to do it. So that inspired me to want to join the Army. But more than that, it inspired me to want to try things and pursue goals other people thought were difficult or impossible.
You fast forward back to my time in Olympic Gardens and you're surrounded by… really you look around your environment and there's not a lot of signs that substance is possible - except - I literally and figuratively cast my eyes upon the hills - Forest Hills about 5 miles away. These huge big beautiful mansions and it was a proof positive that people were living well and much better than I was and more successful and I just wanted to kind of live like them so I just dreamt and pursued big dreams.
When you did that and you looked at those did you have a feeling of possibility or did you have a feeling of separation?
There was definitely a feeling of separation. I don't think it's possible to stand in the environment that I am standing in and lookout and don't see the difference is so stark, but they represented possibilities for me as well. And what is so interesting was when I ran track - when I was younger and more spritely - I would go for these really long runs and this place is perhaps 5 miles from my house and then I'm running 3-4 miles uphill when I get there. I didn’t realize that I used to run all those distances. I was Forrest Gump before there was Forrest Gump I guess.
But I would pass these houses and was just kind of in awe of them. Understand as well that Forest Hills and these houses was more of a metaphor for me. It wasn't that I have to be in one of these houses, as I said, but the possibilities of what could happen and for me the main focus of the time which again seemed like two worlds away was to become an officer in the Jamaica Defense Force. There is separation but there was possibility mixed in there as well.
How about at home? It took me a couple of decades to cure myself of my parent’s separation worldview.
We grew up in an academic family. We were comfortable but not well off - but my parent’s reflex reaction to "people with money," which is what we called them. The implication was, obviously they’re shallow,they don't care about others, they have a different values than us, they were not helpful.
Their world view was not helpful in terms of the stories I told myself about success. I was able to cure myself of that, but it sounds like your grandmother was a great influence. She told you great stories. What was your home life like? Was it your parents or somebody else that had a lot of influence over you?
Certainly on the money side, now that you know a little bit more you look back and you realize those were not good influences and good lessons because we spoke more about the lack of money as opposed to what the possibilities were.
My father was a bus driver. My mom was a stay-at-home mother, Homemaker. It’s one of those things where my parents sent you to school and then just expected you to just do whatever. There was no hey you need to do this. The thing that I remember most about growing up was the lessons my dad taught us about taking care of each other. Even if you don’t have one cracker - I don't want you because you are living well not to help out your brothers. And that has stayed with me. That has definitely stayed with me all throughout my life. I’ve very protective of my siblings and I guess it has kind of spilled over in terms of the other work that I do as well.
I’d like to circle back to that. Was there one early success that you remember, whether it was in sports or academics that really stood out for you? Was there one time when you finally had a medal to put up on the wall - Like an early powerful event or did it come later for you?
I never won my first medal until I was 15. That opens a whole other conversation about the world we live in where kids get participation trophies. You know how long I waited and worked for that medal?
What I remember was elementary school. Two things - I did well in school. I loved - I loved learning. I guess I always had this competitive streak and school in Jamaica is really competitive. So we competed in class to see who would get the best grades and tests and who would know the right answers on so on. That fed me and really grew my self-esteem and then the sports field - I love sports.
Granted all of us were poor but I guess it sometimes comes down to how you see yourself. You may be among a whole bunch of poor people and you feel like some way or another you're the poorest guy, which may not necessarily be so. But what I loved was that it didn’t matter what the world said on that soccer field. Once we step on its about who has a heart. Who has determination. Who has the guts. And yes I made my name. I began to make my name there and all of that just kind of fed into me feeling better about myself.
In elementary school I was one of the top students, I was one of the top soccer players and then I go to high school and the competition goes to another level. I’m no longer one of the smartest kids in the in the classrooms but I'm pushing man and I'm trying to be that and I'm good at soccer yeah, but I'm not the best. I'm like, huh, what can I find - how can I become the best? It certainly wasn’t going to be sprinting. Third, forth - that wasn’t enough for me. That’s how I discovered 800-meter running. I won my first medal at 15 and I’m like okay, here it is. I just kind of took that and ran with it - literally and figuratively.
Well I love that you already started to talk a little bit about Keep on Pushing and running so I realize it's a long dense story. We only have so much time, but I'd love for you to take me from that first medal - the 800 meter running - to 1988 Jamaican bobsled team at whatever length you want to tell that story.
I won, then I tried out for the track team the following year. The coach said hey what event do you want to run? I said 800. He goes okay you’ll run 1500 as well. Never heard of it before, but hey I'm going to run 1500. I was 15 years old 1979 the year before the Moscow Olympics. ABC Wide World of Sports had a series called Road to Moscow. And they were featuring Olympic athletes from around the world and we typically think of Olympic athletes as superheroes.
Now in this series I’m realizing that they are very average and ordinary people just like you and I, but they had these extraordinary dreams and an equally extraordinary desire to go pursue those dreams. Again, go back to my grandmother, go do that thing that everybody thinks is impossible - Ah ha, I want to be an Olympic athlete. So I want to do this while I’m still in high school. 1984 Olympics came around I didn't even come close to achieving that dream. Then I leave school. I graduated in 1984. I’m 19 years old - again different system that we had there - though I did two extra years. Not because I was slow!
Then I enlist in the Army and I go to Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. Sandhurst is the British equivalent of West Point. I come back to Jamaica, 21 years old, I'm walking to the officer’s mess hall, and I'm having this really intense conversation with myself. I’m going - So dude, is it? You have achieved your big dream. What are you going to do with the rest of your life man? What's going on? I go, oh yeah the Olympics coming up in Seoul, Korea in 1988. I'm like yeah let’s go for that. So I start training - I start running 5 miles every morning. That's all I knew. That's all I did. Right about the same time two Americans came up with the idea to start a bobsled team, couldn’t find enough athletes - they came to the Army and my Colonel, because of a philosophy in the Army that says officers must always participate - suggested that I tried out for the team.
Of course, you know it’s not a suggestion, right? He never expected me to make the team, but now I’m seeing an opportunity. The challenge though Nick is that I’m what I would call Army Fit. I could walk 100 miles with 50 pounds of my back and a rifle in my hand. I wasn't Sports Fit.
But one thing I knew was that I had to make that team. I didn't know how I was going to do it but hey - long story short - they selected me.
That's wonderful. Can you talk about nay-sayers? Were there people that stood in your way? Either well-intentioned people who said hey man I love you but this is crazy, or did you have any sort of evil figures that just tried to get in your way? Whether their competitors or…
You’ll always have those. Make no mistake about it. Whether you’re from Olympic Gardens or Beverly Hills. In Jamaica or here in the US. You’re going to have people who don’t believe in you, don’t believe in your pursuits, your dreams for whatever reason. I had that too. Especially when you’re growing up in a rough neighborhood like mine. How dare you try to lift your head above the rest of us. You think you’re better than us?
I remember when I was 13 years old, I came to that realization because you asked about the separation and the possibilities earlier. A lot of the boys I grew up with, when they looked up on Forest Hills they saw a real chasm and they call themselves sufferers and and they embraced that. It felt so burdensome to me because if I saw myself as a sufferer there was no possibility of making up to the proverbial Forest Hills.
The summer between 7th and 8th grade I woke up one morning and said - Hey, we’re not friends anymore. Yeah it didn't go down very well. I’m not really a violent man, but I had to bust a couple of heads until they realized I was serious about it. It’s just one of those things where I just separated myself. I went through life where almost everything that you try there's always someone who said you could never do that. You can never be the best guy and runner in school. I'm under no Illusion to believe I was the most talented runner in school, but I expected to win every race. You know why? Because nobody worked hard like me. I know that. You have those kind of experiences of course being a Jamaican trying to bobsled. Who the hell do you think you are? But I love that man. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it.
Love it. So you made it to the Olympics.
You went to the Olympics. You guys raced. When was it that you woke up and you said holy crap I've been to the Olympics man? How did that affect you?
You know what, it’s one of those things where I just kind of took it in stride. I will say that the crescendo moment for me was that moment I walked in for the opening ceremonies. The minute I set foot in that stadium seeing 30-40-50 thousand people screaming and I looked off to my right - more cameras than you can possibly count - and you know in that moment your image is being beamed across the world because I’ve watched this many times. You're thinking wow, somewhere a kid is probably see this thinking I'm one of the best athletes in the world. Hoping he can live up to that. I guess that’s where that imposter syndrome comes into play, but in that moment - in that moment perhaps more than any other moment of the Olympic experience, I'm living the dream. Outside of that was just about learning as much as we could even at the Olympic Games, because we didn't know much and then competing as hard as we possibly could.
So… thereafter... still in the army?
Still in the Army. Having been to the Olympics - Thinking about the future yet? Thinking about what happens after the Army? Have you started thinking about your career and ...
It’s total strange dynamics man. I tell people all the time its true - I basically take my bobsled uniform off, put my Army uniform on and go back to work. It’s different obviously. I feel I think about myself differently then. People will call me Olympian or superstar or whatever. I would say that I'm not one to read my own press but I'm still thinking differently about myself because your awareness has just been opened up.
One of those things that happened after the Olympics was that our team would come to the US - made several trips to do all these PR tours for the Jamaica Tourist Board. Now you start to see new paths outside of bobsledding and some of them are quite affluent and, hey, all of this is all here too. Those are not things I could have seen from my vantage point in Olympic Gardens but I say to go as far as you can see - when you get there you'll see further.
Now I was seeing more and I’m like whoa, once upon a time when the Army seemed almost an impossibility. I was living in the Army now and it was still awesome. It was still a huge accomplishment, but it kind of dulled compared to what the possibilities were. I’m like, hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be here. So I started to plot. It wasn’t time to leave. I had a seven year commission and I just started it. I was plotting my way out from that moment.
And then instantly on the way out ... to a job? Career? What ...?
I wish. [laughter] Part of the thing is - "Seek and ye shall find" - as the good book says. I’m trying to figure what the hell would I do if I leave the Army and I came across this newspaper advertisement in the newspaper about hospitality manager. I’m like yeah that would be me. I love traveling, I love meeting people - So now I had a clear direction of what I wanted to do.
And I could have stayed - Actually I had four job offers before I left Jamaica. I'm like, no I'm not going to take it. I’m going to move to the states and start in hospitality management and then leave my options open to work wherever in the world the opportunities arise. So I come and I started that. Problem is I could not shake this bobsled bug. I could not get it out of my system. I’m like - It’s not even real - I would say to myself. I couldn’t shake it so I went back to bobsledding and I competed my third Olympic games. When I first came here by the way I worked in a restaurant for 18 months. So I went from being an Army Captain, to being a cook, then when I went back to bobsledding and you know I went to delivering pizzas just to keep the dream alive - but hey - I competed in the third Olympics and in the process discovered something called motivational speaking. So now I live in hotels, I just don't work in them.
I love it. Listen, I could talk all day but let me get back on track. I love your stories. So here you are, you’ve been in the motivational speaker game for a while. Everyone I’ve asked about about you who's had any interactions with you just - they rave about your presentations. I watched a few myself. You’re obviously well-established. You've got a great ability to communicate your message in the small ways and the big ways, but - just you and me here, no one's listening - Is there any inside stuff that you still struggle with? At this point, you’ve had a lot of accomplishments. You’ve seen the world, but self-doubt? Habits that maybe aren’t as productive as they could be?
Yeah… I’m too much of a loner, dude. I’m beginning to embrace the idea that I really need to have a bigger stronger team around me. I’ve always had to do this journey by myself. Everything is habits, right. So if you get in a habit of only relying on yourself - When I was growing up in Olympic Gardens, none of the other guys were going in my direction. I’m like - hey, we're not going over there - We're not friends. I want to do this by myself. I go to high school and I'm on the track team and guess what - I'm the only guy training. I'm the only one.
So all through my life - I go to England, I’m the only guy in the officers mess was from the hood. I come here and I’m figuring it out, and I’m just like, I’ve learned to depend on myself. As much as I understand the importance of teamwork I don't know - I can’t work well on a team. I prefer to work by myself. It's not the best way to go. So I’m learning the networking game or the skill of networking and collaborating with others. I’m learning how to do that better. That's definitely a chink in my armor.
Learn by doing? Are you also studying? Are there some resources you go to for that?
No, I don’t. And, you know, that's a really good question. I haven't read anything on networking yet, but thankfully - if you can be thankful for COVID - it's one of those things where everybody stopped dead in their tracks. Okay, what do you do now and so I'm learning just by doing. I mean, we’re speaking over Zoom now and it’s an amazing tool. It’s really re-enforcing in my mind the importance of connecting with others.
I know you're still working hard right because you and I've been interacting pretty regularly for the last few weeks,but during normal times - if there are such a thing - when you're onstage you're showing up in front of people and you're telling them a story, but that story involves athletics, it involves health, good mindset - what are your practices now? What practices do you have, to stay fit in whatever way you want to address that - body, mind, spirit - so that you're standing on stage and you're not saying one thing and living another.
Yes, yes I know. You have to be congruent, man. That's really important to me so yeah I do read everyday. So my routine, I wake up in the morning - I have to have my cup of tea. I’m sorry I don't drink coffee. I’m such an Englishman in that way.
It’s tea for you. [laughter]
I do actually spend some time meditating. 10-15 minutes, just sitting there being silent of electronics and all that kind of stuff and then I spend time reading and I get my day started. I work out enough in the afternoons and evenings. Nothing like how I used to. And the poor knees can’t handle it anymore either. I have a little treadmill in my garage and I go run on it for like - I did half an hour yesterday with some weights and this morning my shoulders feel a little sore - I’m like, ooo, that feels good. I have to do some more tonight. [laughter] So yeah, if I had better knees, there would be no hills in my tone. They would all be flat.
Gotcha. So a little meditation. Got some routines. A little exercise. Still get after it.
The idea is I’m really working on is reminding myself to do the discipline. We talked about being disciplined as if it's something that you were born with or it's something that you choose to do. So I have to remind myself there are days that I really don’t feel like working out and I woke up this morning going man I’m so glad I worked out yesterday. I didn’t feel like doing it. I’m like, ah, I’m so glad I did that.
I wonder what you think about this - One of the things I've developed among many very crazy thinking habits - is that you learn to sit at the dinner table and to take my pleasure from how I’m going to be in 3 hours or in a day or in a month. I learned to go into the dojo and take my pleasure from the future. In other words, if there’s pain now ... my weakness is almond croissants. If I want an almond croissant now - but I have that steak and salad instead. I wonder what you think about that because you’ve been through a pretty intense athletic development in your life. Where does that come from? Is it just habits that you see it enough times so it makes sense? Do coaches give it to you? Where do we get that from as athletes?
The vision. I was visualizing long before I knew the word visualization. I guess it’s something all of us have the ability to do. As you're talking about sitting at the dinner table, I remember we’re in a restaurant and my father-in-law goes to me - where did you go just now? Because yeah I do that too. I do just kind of sit there and go back to that loner thing where I can really be in a crowd of people and be off in my head dreaming again. But I think that’s an important skill and habit to have. It’s a skill because you can get better and it's a habit because you can do it enough times and you find yourself doing it all the time and it really helped us to achieve the kind of success that we want in whatever area of our life. They say you can’t be what you can’t see. So it’s really important that we spend time doing that - getting lost in our head, so to speak.
I love the way you said that. I haven't heard it stated quite that way before. "Can't be what you can't see." Yeah, if you can dream it then you can move towards it. Do you have advice for other people who want to rise - I mean, you do - that's a big part of what you live in. Is there any other advice that you can share with me for people who want to rise beyond their current circumstances? Should they develop a discipline? Should they develop the ability to visualize? People come to you and they say, man, Devon, I just can't break through? I just can't get to the next level? How do you help those people?
When I think of football, American football, you see so much aggression, one guy hitting the other. And when you watch bobsledding, there's just as much aggression ... you don't see it, just a guy on a sled. But you have to have to have almost a contempt for your circumstances, for this place that you're in now, but you don't want to be in. And so it starts with that emotion, "God, I can't stand being here!" Not to allow the negativity to overwhelm you, but use it to drive you. So if you're standing on the side of a rode, and you don't like being on that side of the road, you look across and decide, "I need to be over there."
You have to have that desire, that emotion that goes, "I don't want to be here," and allow that to fuel you, to give you the courage to step off the curb, into the road, that's filled with potholes, and puddles, and cars zipping in either direction that could hit you at any moment, right, you have to be willing to take the risk, because your eyes are on the other side. And you know it's so much better to take the risk and get over there than staying in this place, existing, versus really living. That's how I see it.
What mistakes do you think people make when they're getting to that point. Do you see a set of standard mistakes? Do they just look the other way? Do they never rise to that level of contempt? Are they too fearful of the obstacles? Self doubt? What are the standard obstacle?
I agree, I think you are right. I think some of them don’t rise to that level of contempt so they convince themselves that it’s not so bad. When it's time to step off the curb, the fear of failing - however you define failure - getting hit by a car, dropping into a puddle, having people on the sidewalk going "what the hell are you doing, are you stupid?" - as opposed to listening to that little voice in your heart that says go for it. I know you’re scared to death. I know you might - I don’t want to sound macabre, because I was about to say, and I will say - my first bobsled run, I just resigned. I just said look, if I die, I die, but I’m going. That’s kinda… You have to go! How else are you going to know? You just have to go.
You have to go.
You have to go. I wish I had an eloquent way of expressing it.
Well the analogy is a great one. I mean that’s the one thing that you have forever which is the bobsledding. Here’s the slope! I don’t know about you, but that would terrify me.
I was scared to death. But I was like, if I die, I die. I’m going. I’m going.
That’s like a samurai mentality. The lord of the castle says alright soldiers go, and they go. They might not come back, but that’s complete commitment.
That’s the thing. The difference is that you’re not going to die. 99.99% you won’t. Are you going to be scared to death? Absolutely, but you’ll be okay. In the end if you fail if you never made it across the road at least you knew you tried.
Man, I love that. I love that. One more question and then I want to make sure we get in the opportunities for people to find you and find the great work you do. What does the world need more of? ln your world, in your experience, people want a thriving business, people that want to thrive at life - What are some ways that the world needs help that you see? People need to step up. I know you're helping. You’re helping children. Do me a favor, talk about that just a little bit and then just say if you were king or Emperor, had a magic wand - What would be the issues that you would have people come to and try to solve?
Well it’s funny because as you ask that question, what the world need love, sweet love - the song came to mind.
And I will not try to sing cuz I don't want to mess this whole thing up.
I know my limits. My foundation, the Keep On Pushing Foundation, a number of years ago back in ’06. I visited my elementary school speaking to the principle, I said hey so what’s the biggest issue here and it was the fact that kids were coming to school hungry. Now generally speaking if you're hungry you can’t learn. You can’t learn, you don’t get educated and life is tough.
And especially in an environment like the one in which I grew up. If you miss the bus, you miss the bus and I really understood what that meant because I was one of those kids in that school and years later I became a soldier who ended up back in the old neighborhood looking for bad guys. I could see this from both ends. So we ended up starting the Keep On Pushing foundation. The whole goal is to provide practical solutions to some of the issues that are preventing kids in disadvantaged communities from getting properly educated.
I understand fully the value of an education and how it can give you the confidence the tools and the confidence to rise above your circumstances. So we want to grow the work beyond the neighborhood across Jamaica across the Caribbean into South and Central America. So we’re working on that.
If I could wave a magic wand I think what I would do is inspire people to want to become their best selves. What I believe is that - I guess that’s how athletes are - competing against each other fiercely. We mean well for others. We mean well for our fellow competitors. We want the best for them and I think in life if we could figure a way to really just go after our dreams the best way possible there's a part of you that would Inspire the person next to you to do the same thing and you yourself would be active and wanting to help people to experience this fulfillment that you are experiencing as well. It doesn't mean that the world will become competitive. I think people would be more empathetic. People would be kinder, gentler, and it would absolutely make a better world.
Outstanding. How can people find out more about you and all the great stuff you're doing?
Yeah man, just call you. [laughter]
I’ll say great things all day long.
Aside from that, my website is devonHarris.com. Email is - try to keep it simple - devon@devonHarris.com. On Twitter and Instagram it's @KeepOnPushing88 Uou can find me there and on YouTube and Facebook as well.
Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure and privilege to be able to have this conversation. You were kind enough to ask me a few questions last week and I'm just so happy that you were able to make the time for this today.
You were kind enough to answer those questions last week as well. So also, thank you.
I just love that this worked out. Thank you so much. I'm a big ally of yours, so if you ever need to reach out for some help, I'm here for you. And I'm going to let the world know about Devon Harris and everything he brings to the to the table.
Yeah man, I appreciate that and I’m here as well. I’m only a phone call or email away if you ever need anything.