Episode 391: Finding Happiness Today with Michael O’Brien

Episode Summary

Throughout our conversation, we go through every lesson Michael’s almost fatal accident taught him. You’ll hear his thoughts on gratitude, mindfulness, meditation, and how understanding that “everything is neutral until you label it” dramatically changed his perspective on life. Michael also explains the benefits of pausing, breathing, and reflecting before taking action, shares some meditation tips and advice, and more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We have an amazing guest with us today. I’ve been looking forward to this interview. As a previous executive suite leader and ledear of teams of nearly 1,000 and P&Ls of $4B—so, these are big organizations—he brings practical counsel to the executives he partners with. They appreciate that he has real-world, in-the-trenches experience to help them through the face-paced environments and complexities they need to lead them in the world today. He has been an active Diversity, Equity, and Belonging leader and a member of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association—which is very cool—since 2003 and became their first male chapter president in 2018. He has all kinds of accolades. Welcome, Michael O’Brien. 

Michael O’Brien: Steve, thanks for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this as well. Before we dive in, I do want to give a shoutout to your book because you sent me a copy of your book. So, Becoming Your Best, for the listeners out there that haven’t gotten it, pick up a copy. There’s a lot of wisdom in Steve’s book and Steve’s teaching and writing, as you know if you’re a listener. But I want to thank you, Steve, for sending a copy along. I had a great time going through it, and took away a lot of good pearls that I can apply to my life. So, thank you.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, Michael, that’s very generous of you to take a moment and say that. As we’ve had the chance to talk about it, the 12 principles of highly successful leaders are certainly something that I observed in highly successful lives and organizations. I just wrote about them, I certainly didn’t create them; they’re universal and timeless. And I know Michael O’Brien practices all of them. 

Michael O’Brien: I try. I might have imperfect practice from time to time, but I give it my best shot. 

Steve Shallenberger: Amen. And that’s what I tried to do as well. We’re never too old to keep working on becoming our best. So, just think about this, to our wonderful listeners who are so privileged to have with us today: breathe in, breathe out. It’s time to stress less and pause, breathe, and reflect with Michael today. This is going to be fun. He is a qualified meditation teacher, executive coach, endurance athlete, and creator of the Pause Breathe Reflect Meditation and Gratitude app. He loves helping people, especially through difficult times through mindfulness. He has survived a horrific near-death cycling accident called his Last Bad Day, and recently rode his bicycle across America and New York State. He has a refreshing outlook on life. We’re going to learn more about him right now in the next few minutes. And to start us off today, Michael, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. How did you end up doing what you’re doing today? 

Michael O’Brien: Well, it’s been quite a ride, as I like to say, Steve. So, as far as background, married 30 years this coming May to a beautiful, intelligent woman. We have two daughters: 25 and 22. I live in New Jersey, grew up in Rochester, New York, went to school in Virginia. Lived pretty much a middle America life, probably like a lower-middle-class but pretty much the standard fare. My dad was in sales. My mom was a nurse. My first gig out of college was selling copiers and facsimiles to businesses in Washington DC. I studied hard, some of the same teachers that you had, learned wisdom through Zig Ziglar and Jim Rome, and a whole bunch with cassette tapes in my car. I wanted to climb the corporate ladder. I was hustling and grinding before the kids called it hustling and grinding. And then I took a home office job in our company’s headquarters up in New Jersey, which will take us to that story of my Last Bad Day. But you mentioned inflection points. So, the inflection points I’ve had in my life is when other people have come to offer support. I’ll give you one. I wasn’t much of a student in school, I was more interested in sports and dreaming about how to play shortstop for a major league baseball team. And as the sports seasons changed, my dreams change to that sport. So school never really interested me. But I took chemistry in 11th grade and I did fairly well, but I was on the cusp of whether or not I was smart enough to take AP chemistry. And my chemistry teacher back then said, “You know what, there’s something about you. I’m willing to take a bet on you.” Mr. Smout. And he put me into AP chemistry. And really, for the very first time, this is 11th grade going into my senior year, that was the first teacher I had that took a bet on me, and it started to change how I looked at myself as a student, as a human, as a person. And really just around becoming a lifelong learner, which I am to this day, largely due to that inflection point moment when Mr. Smout saw something in me and he was willing to take a chance. And I’ve had a lot of other inflection point moments where it’s been very similar. So, my overall message is the people you hang with, that lightheartedness is important, especially today, as the world seems to be moving faster and faster.  

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, thank you for sharing that. And that’s a reminder to me, and I’m sure to our listeners as well, the impact that one person can have. And it may be, seemingly, even insignificant for them or it may only take seconds, and yet it can have a huge impact on the life of another person, which in turn affects so many others. So, thank you for reminding us of that, Michael. That’s awesome. Now, let’s get to your Last Bad Day. Tell us about that. It doesn’t sound good. 

Michael O’Brien: It doesn’t sound good. But like any good Disney movie, Steve, it starts off really rough, but it has a happy ending. So, if you think of Pixar and Disney, it always starts off with some type of drama. And then it gets better after maybe a long chase. So, I’ve been an avid cyclist since the day I came off training wheels because the bicycle to me is about freedom, a chance to explore and be independent. And at one point in my career, we had a meeting back in 2001, in New Mexico. I was in the middle of New Mexico. We got a great deal on a hotel. It’s one of those corporate off-sites that you’ve been to and many of your listeners have been to. You fly out on a Friday, you fly back on a Friday. You might golf on Thursday, eat a lot, and watch a whole bunch of PowerPoint. Well, I decided to bring my bike out because I have a goal of riding my bike and every one of our 50 states in this wonderful country. You reference I rode across the country. So I was able to get some of those states done but not all of them. Well, New Mexico still had to be crossed off the list so I brought my bike out there. And on that morning of July 11, I came around a bend. I hit a small loop on the hotel property, out the main back service road, up the main drag two miles. I was gonna do 10 laps — 20 miles. And then go in for a full day of team building and PowerPoint.  

Michael O’Brien: And as I was doing the fourth lap, I came around that bend and a Ford Explorer was coming right at me. He had crossed into my lane, and he was traveling about 40 miles an hour based on what the police estimate. And it was so surreal, Steve, I was like, “Oh, he sees me. He’s gonna swerve away. This isn’t happening.” And then as one can imagine, everything just slowed down, and I was like, “Holy cow!” And I remember the sound I made when he hit me and when I went into the grille of his truck, into the windshield I went; I heard the screech of his brakes, and then the thought I made when I came to the asphalt below, that knocked me unconscious, as one would imagine. I regained my consciousness, and then I asked the EMTs, because I was surrounded by police, state police, and fire, and I knew the situation was grim. I was in the worst pain ever in my life. So, what I did back in the day, when things got tense, for whatever reason, I would try to cut the tension with a little humor. So, I asked them, and this is a question that another cyclist can truly appreciate, I was like, “How’s my bike?” And they looked at me, and they’re like, “Your bike is fine.” And I was like, “Are you sure?” The bike wasn’t fine, it was destroyed. But they said, “Hey try to breathe.” And they called the medivac to bring me to Albuquerque, which was the only Trauma 1 center in the state. I tried to talk them out of it because I was a little scared of flying back then. But I remember every minute of those 90 minutes that took me to Albuquerque. The surgery took about 13 hours. I broke a whole bunch of everything, including lacerating the femoral artery of my left leg, which created the life-and-death scenario because I lost so much blood. The next four or five days I was in ICU, and I don’t remember anything at all except what my wife has played back to me. I told her to buy Amazon stock. For the record, Amazon was selling for about $15 a share back in 2001; we didn’t buy any. So, I’m in this ICU and this is the stuff I’m saying.  

Michael O’Brien: And I come out of the ICU and I start to learn about the accident. And the driver had to revoke the license. He should not have been driving that day, but he was. And as I went on to the helicopter that took me to the hospital, I promised whoever was listening—it was a complete bargain—I was like, “Hey, you know what, if I survive, I promise I’ll stop chasing happiness.” So Zig Ziglar had a whole “be, do, how” type of thing. And I was chasing my happiness. I thought my happiness was in the next thing: the next promotion, title, or purchase. So, I was desperate, I was like, “Hey if anyone’s listening, I will live a better life.” And when I came out of the ICU and they told me about the extent of my injuries and how my life was going to be suffering—more surgeries, dependency—I could not even spell happiness, Steve. I was mad. I was I was revengeful. I wondered about what was going to happen to my family. My identity got turned upside down. I tried to put on a happy face when people would call. I was lucky to be alive, maybe I had a little gratitude. But deep down inside, I was mad at the world because I thought I felt this was so unfair, how could this possibly be happening to me? I was following the script that I thought I had to follow to live a very successful happy life. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wow! So, let’s talk about this. What a great message for me and our listeners: “I’m going to quit chasing happiness and find happiness now, in the moment, what I’m doing, in my circumstances.” How did you figure out how to do that? 

Michael O’Brien: I had a really good mentor when they flew me back to New Jersey. I left New Mexico, I went to one hospital in New Jersey, and then another, and a mentor called. I was comfortable with him so I emptied the dump truck of all my stuff because he’s like, “Hey, how’s it going?” I’m like, “You really want to know?” He goes, “Yeah, I really want to know.” And there was, “Beep, beep, beep, and then boom! I dumped a whole bunch of stuff.” And he said, “Hey, you know what? You have every right to feel the way you feel. You’re a victim in all this. And if you want to view yourself as a victim, no one’s going to blame you because your life, your family’s life has been flipped upside down.” But he said, “Everything in life is neutral, Michael, until you label it. You get to choose the labels. So, you have the right to label yourself as a victim. I’m offering up something different, a different perspective, that maybe you can see yourself in this moment differently. Instead of it happening to you, maybe it’s happening for you.” Again, everything is neutral until you label it. Now, at first, Steve, I was like, “All right, he just went to a Tony Robbins seminar, and he’s given me a bunch of gobbledygook.” I was in no mood for it, I was like, “Yeah, whatever. It’s Star Wars, Jedi training, all that jazz.” But he planted a few seeds, and I sat with that for a bit, and I realized, “Okay, everything does have some space.” It goes back to Victor Frankel’s quote, “Between stimulus and response, there’s space, and in that space is your freedom.” So, I knew this.  

Michael O’Brien: So, what followed next was what knowledge I had in me, as an athlete, I knew my breath was super important. You can see every professional athlete or any amateur athlete, before any big shot, what do you do? You take a breath, you slow it down, you slow the game down. And I wanted to get better, I wanted to get back home, I was sick of being in the hospital. So, I was like, “I gotta find a way to calm things down, to slow this game down.” And I came back to my breath. The same advice the EMTs gave me when I asked that question, “How’s my bike?” They’re like, “Your bike is fine. Try to breathe.” So, I did my very first box breathing pattern: inhale for four, hold for four; exhale for four, hold for four.” Did it for five minutes just to create some space so that neutrality, everything is neutral until you label it. I had a little bit more time to be wise about how I wanted to label things. And there’s an old parable called First Arrow, Second Arrow, which goes back to Buddhism. And the way the parable goes is that there was a warrior walking through a dense forest. And as the warrior was walking through a dense forest, he was struck by an arrow. And of course, that arrow is going to create great pain, he’s in pain, it’s cascading through his whole body; that’s the first arrow. The second arrow is the one who shot it himself by ruminating on who shot this arrow, where did it come from, why did this happen to me, am I going to get out of the forest? And we tend to do that in life: The first arrow comes, there’ll be suffering. But then we shoot a second arrow at ourselves. And from that story, came my Last Bad Day label, knowing that I’m going to have bad moments in my life, but I don’t want to add to my bad moment and turn them into a bad day or longer. So, we’re all going to go through moments where we needed some space, some wisdom to know that we can choose our labels, and then take the appropriate action to ripple something a little bit better into the world. And I’m not perfect at it even today, but that’s how I got through that initial phase of my recovery back on my feet. I’m at the hospital, came back home, literally and figuratively, and then back to my executive career. 

Steve Shallenberger: And look what you’ve done with it; you’ve been able to take that experience and make a choice about your future, which is so powerful, which gives you confidence, peace, ability, and vision. 

Michael O’Brien: It’s also a way of expressing gratitude. So, I mentioned Mr. Smout, my AP Chem teacher. I tried to honor that moment where he showed up for me by living as a lifelong learner to say, “Hey, you know what, I’m gonna honor that moment you gave me, that ripple you gave me by becoming a lifelong learner and hopefully rippling into others.” So, the way I live today is also about thanking everyone that was on their game that day when I came into the trauma center. Everything worked smoothly that day: the police, the fire, the ambulance, the helicopter crew, my trauma surgeon, the people working to get blood, the anesthesiologist, the list can go on and on. And how I try to live my life in a way to honor my values, but also honoring them to say, “I’m grateful for what you did that day. And I’m going to show up now, every day going forward, in a way that expresses my gratitude to you.” I think if we can do that more just living in a way that’s aligned with our values and expressing gratitude for the people that have made an impact in our lives, we can create a better world. And in that world, there can be more peace and happiness, and I think the world could use a little bit of both right about now. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s great advice. I was just thinking as you were speaking, Michael, about mentors and people who have taken an interest in my life and helped me, and family and friends, to honor them is to be grateful for that for how they’ve helped me, and to use that going forward. And I love that life, it’s not something that happens to us, it’s something that happens for us so how can I take this for good? I should be happy, and it’s how I can be more effective. So, thank you for your comments on that. 

Michael O’Brien: You’re welcome, Steve. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, my goodness, these interviews go so fast, and we’re already 20 minutes in and have 10 minutes left, and man that’s gonna go fast. I’m thinking about the fact that you’ve studied a lot about mindfulness. It’s a term we hear about from time to time. What is mindfulness? And what is it not? What is it? And why is it important to us, Michael? 

Michael O’Brien: So, mindfulness, very basically, is about paying attention, on purpose, without judgment. I think, in some circles, especially a lot of corporate circles, it’s still seen as, “What is that? Maybe a little woo-woo, hippie-dippie, or soft — it’s not hard.” I will say this, for those that practice mindfulness: it’s a hard skill. And what it allows us to do is it allows us to open up our awareness so we see more. It can help us sharpen our focus. It can also help us meet our moments with the right level of energy or effort, something that they call equanimity. So, we’re not too reactive, but we’re also not hanging way back and being too chill. So, when you think about life, wherever you live your life, and especially from a corporate perspective, I can go to every CEO in the world or in the US, and say, “Hey, if your employees had more awareness of the business, could focus better, and could meet moments of change with the right level of equanimity, would you sign up for that?” And I think everyone would say, “Sign me up.” And that’s what mindfulness can do. Sometimes we focus in on our breath, sometimes it can be a sound in the soundscape, it can be a sensation in our body, and sometimes we use sayings. Sometimes we can have a walking meditation, another way to practice mindfulness. But it’s all about slowing down a bit so we can build greater awareness, sharpen our focus, and meet our moment in a way that we want to. And I think today, the world is demanding us to be mindful because our actions have a ripple effect, like what we do here ripples halfway across the world. And if we’re going to solve tomorrow’s complexities, doing it thoughtfully with awareness, and paying attention, I think can go a long way in creating the type of success that we want to create. 

Steve Shallenberger: You talked about Victor Franco. I love that we’re free to choose our responses. We’re not forced. It’s the last ultimate hell of a place that we have the freedom to choose. And I think there’s a lot of that in creating that space. And what do you find works best for you in creating that space and creating the mindfulness so you can go forward and be your best selves moving forward? 

Michael O’Brien: Absolutely. So, the whole theory behind pause-breathe-reflect—my way of doing meditation—is that one minute matters. So many people that I run into, because I still coach in the executive suite and companies, they’re like, “Hey, Michael, we get it, we probably should be doing it. But I don’t have 10 minutes to sit and just focus in on my breath.” And I’m like, “Alright, cool. I’ll meet you where you’re at. If you don’t have 10 minutes in the morning or any point in the day, I bet you have 10 times throughout the day where you have one minute. So, give me my 10 minutes at one-minute increments.” So, my feeling is, take a minute before your next meeting, take a minute before you get out of the car, find ways throughout the day to slow it down and create some space so you can be thoughtful in what you’re going to do and say because your actions will drive behavior; you’ll have a ripple effect on everyone’s behavior. So, for me, it’s simple: just drop in, connect with the breath, and do it for a minute. If you have more time, great. But my belief is, developing a great habit, small little bites at the apple, small ripples done consistently over time, that’s what leads to big change, that’s what got me back on my bike, got me into the executive suite, and gets many people into a practice of mindfulness so they can have better well being.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you for that. So, you’re saying that part of your personal mantra is to pause, breathe, reflect, and then act. 

Michael O’Brien: Then act. I want people not to be reactive. Hit pause — I won’t say stop because I’m dealing with a lot of Type-A personalities where stopping is like an allergic reaction. So, I’m just looking for you to pause, take a breath or two, and then in that moment, space, and that neutrality, reflect. What’s called for now? What’s the right thing to say or do? Be thoughtful because you only have moments to live, so let’s be really thoughtful in these moments; how do we want to show up for each other? Then act. As opposed to what we’re doing now is that we’re reacting to every stressor, and we don’t make our best decisions from a reactive place or space. So, call it mindfulness or call it whatever you want to call it, I’m looking for people to slow down just a bit so we can be more thoughtful, stress less, sleep better, and be mindful for those everyday moments that I think many of us are blowing past because we’re moving way too quickly. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you for that. I love it. That’s really helpful. I think it’s going to be good for me and all of our listeners. And before we end, can you just teach us a little bit about meditation in just one minute? What recommendations would you have maybe that’s part of it? 

Michael O’Brien: So, Steve, you can certainly do this. You can find any position that feels good. You can sit up straight. You can lie down. You can do this walking. You can close your eyes or keep them open. In one minute, you can simply take about five inhales and exhales. So, you breathe in slowly through the nose, if you can, out slowly through the mouth. And you can even count a breath in to a count of five, and a breath out for a count of five. So that will give you six inhales and exhales during a minute, and it’s a perfect way just to focus in on the breath, notice how the breath feels. And there you have it; you have a one-minute practice that can help slow things down, and now you can be a little bit more thoughtful in your next moment. So, you don’t hit “reply all” when you really just want to hit reply to one person. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s good advice. How about any final tips on how people can become their best? 

Michael O’Brien: So, besides meditation, surround yourself with light-hearted humans who are open to different-mindedness. So, often we hear, “I want to be around like-minded people.” I understand what people are trying to say, I don’t think they mean that because just hanging with people who think like-mindedly has gotten us into these silos. What we want to do must come from a heart-compassionate place. All the leaders that you follow that have influenced you, Steve, I know are light-hearted leaders; they lead with compassion, kindness, and empathy. And you can be open to different ways of thinking, different-mindedness if you will. So, come back to your breath and connect with people who bring out the best in you and you bring out the best in them; that’s how we go further and farther together. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, so refreshing: different-mindedness. 

Michael O’Brien: Lightheartedness and different-mindedness. It’s just a small little shift in words. But this is what I found right across the country. I had people that saw the world completely differently than I did, but they came from a good place in their heart. And if you can come from a good place in your heart, then we got something to work with. And now through love, kindness, empathy, and compassion, we can talk about hard things, and how maybe we see the world differently. But it’s got to come here first from the heart, and then we move forward from there. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, we’ve just scratched the surface today. So, how can people find out more about what you’re doing? I loved our interview. Tell us about how we can find out what you’re doing, Michael. 

Michael O’Brien: So, the best way is to head over to, the same handle on Instagram. You can find me on LinkedIn: Michael O’Brien, pretty easy to find. And I want to offer, Steve, your listeners, for the first 25, a free membership to our Pause, Breathe, Reflect app which can be found Apple Store and Google Play. So, it’s a great way for them to try out this whole thing called meditation and slow down a bit. I’ll send a link to you so you can put the link in the show notes. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, it’ll be a pleasure. Thank you for joining us today. We wish you the very best in all that you’re doing.  

Michael O’Brien: Thanks, Steve.  

Steve Shallenberger: And to all of our listeners, thank you for joining today. We’re inspired by you and motivated by you. We wish you the very best and as you’re working on making a difference in the world. I assure you, it is touching other people for good. Wishing each one of you a great day. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Michael O'Brien

Chief Ripple Officer at Pause, Breathe, Reflect

Ripple Creator, Speaker, Executive Coach, Cyclist

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