Many of us can remember when Captain Sully Sullenberger landed a U.S. Airways Airbus on the Hudson River.
How would you react if you were on the plane that day? Rick Elias, who's a super successful venture capitalist, was on that plane. I wanted to talk to him to understand the lessons he learned from a near-death experience and how it transformed him. This is a bit of optimism.
I wanted to start January 15th, 2009, flight fifteen forty nine from LaGuardia to Charlotte, this is the plane that landed on the Hudson River and you were on that plane.
And one thing I know because you've talked about it is how that experience changed you. Can you tell us what happened that day and how it affected you? Yeah, listen, it was January 15th, so it was very cold in New York. I had had a good dinner the night before for work. I got up early, went to play hoops on the Upper West Side. And I remember walking was snowing this big flakes. And I'm like, I'm so beautiful.
I'm just going to walk through the gym. And I had a couple of meetings, went to LaGuardia, was coming home. I've taken that flight a hundred times and I was coming home and have my son's basketball game when we landed. And I needed to coach. And, you know, that was that was it.
I was coming home. It was a normal day.
It was it was gloomy and rainy and cold in in New York City. But to get to the crux of it, I was given the ultimate give Simon. The ultimate gift to me was a near-death experience with zero suffering where no one died. So you can talk about it freely, where you had 100 percent certainty of death.
So to me, the question was, am I going to blow up or am I going to drown in freezing waters?
And with 90 seconds to really look at life in say goodbye. So all that combination to me made it. It wasn't too long.
It wasn't too short, kind of the right kind of parameters to to really change your perspective on life. And I was given a massive gift, which was the chance to come back and live differently. That's my whole goal in life.
Now, I know that when I die, I'm going to ask myself one question is, did you make the most out of the second chance you got?
What were you like before? Or what most profoundly changed after I was caught up on the race, I was caught up on building a business, I was cut up on making money, I was cut up on I'm being successful. I was probably like most people in similar circumstances that are had a little luck. I was starting to believe it was because of me. I was starting to get a little bit of a big head. You know, our business was really booming.
But what really changed that day for me is realizing, Simon, that it all changes in an instant. You know, we can talk about other stuff right now in this corporate environment, but it was the realization that we can't postpone the things that matter to us. And that is a hug of forgiveness and experience. You know, we talked a little bit about this with my only original thought is, you know, I collect bad wines, I drink my good ones.
And the point of that is that's how I approach everything in life. I wanted the things that matter to me. I'm going to prioritize and I'm going to I'm going to experience them and enjoy them now. And that that was very clarifying.
The reason I like hearing the story and the reason I think it's important to share the story is because most people won't have. This kind of near-death experience themselves, and if they do, as you said, 100 percent of the people survived, there was no pain. It was the best kind of near-death experience you can have.
But the reason I think it's important to share these, I think it reminds the rest of us I had an experience when I went with the Air Force to Afghanistan, where I was only supposed to be there for 24 hours, and the plane that we were supposed to come home on, we couldn't get on it because they needed the space for wounded warriors to bring them home, which is a good reason to get bumped off an aircraft whenever we couldn't get on another plane.
And we were going to be stuck there for at least four days. And I didn't tell my family that I was going to be in Afghanistan and now they won't hear from me. Wow.
Plus, when we landed ten minutes after we landed, the base came on a rocket attack.
I've never been in a war zone before and three rockets hit a hundred yards off our nose. And so this intense paranoia came over me that I was going to die in Afghanistan because I just didn't know. That's how my parents would find out I was there.
And I remember the intensity of those feelings and the panic and the, you know, becoming someone I'm not. And sort of the way I talk to people wasn't me. You know, like you get me on that plane is the way I talk. I'm like, I don't talk to people that way.
But I have one intense memory. I remember being self-aware enough to say to myself, you better remember these feelings.
Yeah, you better remember this. And have you been successful? I have.
And one of the ways I've been successful is they've told the story many times, and I tell it more for myself than I do for others. And I'm able to go back to that time and find those feelings again because I made a specific I put a bookmark. Long story short, we did get on another plane home that day, and it was an unscheduled flight where we brought home a fallen soldier, where I flew for nine and a half hours in the back of a cargo plane with a flag draped casket.
And it changed me.
Wow. I think one of the things that you and I have both done. Is we've taken these experiences and, yes, we've internalized them and yes, we've we've been able to live differently because of these experiences. One of the things I love talking to you about is you're very happy to share everything.
You know, you're not possessive with the lessons you've learned. And this is a dog eat dog world.
You know, every little lesson, every piece of information you have, it's considered advantage.
One of the things I find inspiring about you is you're so generous with what you've learned. First of all, thank you and second of all, I kind of joke, I'm like the Forrest Gump of CEOs, you know, so I, I have never thought I would be in this position.
And it is with a lot of humility that I accept the responsibility of, you know, leading 4000 people across the globe. And if people knew how little I knew most of the time, there would be no one that's out of the bag.
Right. Right. So I you know, I was a kid that grew up in Puerto Rico and I was a normal kid. And there was nothing about me that said I was going to be able to get to this situation. And I look back and we all work hard. I just the ball bounced my ways more often than not. And, you know, the day that that changes is that I'm a different person.
Do you think that luck is made? I mean, you talk about being lucky a lot now. Do you actually believe that? Yeah, 100 percent, 100 percent. Now you can improve your odds for sure, and you can learn from a lot of the things that people will demand lucky that ultimately may result in bigger lock. And you believe that? I know that. But I do believe that, you know, a lot of times is understanding that you're getting lucky.
Listen, we were born in incredible situations and an incredible time period and great families.
And that's all luck. Having our health is perhaps the most remarkable luck you can have, right? That you don't find me anybody that is worth billions of dollars, that is dying or sick and they'll trade at all. You know, I think luck can be very basic, but also can be opportunistic.
You know, I struggle with the concept of luck and I consider myself lucky. And I seem I joke that my biggest fear is that my luck will run out. Yeah. And I look at my own career and people like you did this, you did this. And I was like, no, I was lucky. They're lucky there. And the timing was really in my favor there. You know, it's like my TED talk when it went viral in 2009.
I mean, it happened at a time where there weren't that many TED talks. Yeah. And so there's no way it would stand out now. It's just it just wouldn't happen. There's just too much. I got lucky. No other way to describe it. But very recently I've started becoming uncomfortable with the term lucky.
And it came from listening to people when I would watch interviews on television or something with people who are born, especially people who are born into extreme wealth. And they had this humility where they wanted to sort of downplay their position because they knew they didn't earn it. And they would say to the interviewer, you know, I'm very, very lucky.
And I realized it was almost demeaning to call it lucky, like the rest of us are unlucky. Yeah, and I realized the things that I would say that, like, I was lucky because I'm trying to sort of be humble about that. I don't deserve this. But I realized it doesn't sound nice. And so I realized it was an insecurity. And so what I started doing is calling it gratitude. Instead of saying I'm lucky that this happened, I'm saying I'm grateful.
I'm so grateful that I was able to give that first TED talk at a time where there weren't that many TED talks.
Yeah, the differences. And I can see how you would want to put it in that way. Is that it happened to you or did it happen because of you? And in many ways, you know, someone that was born into a lot of wealth. And by the way, I think that most of those people are actually unlucky because they're rob from a lot of things in life. And I worry about this a lot for my kids. I worry that the success I've had has created a burden on them that is unfair.
You know, this is why you see so many kids of what others will perceive as successful people really not struggling. Finding their rhythm is because they don't have that ability to achieve more than the parents achieve or to do certain things that others do. So, you know, it's a choice of words.
I think gratitude is what you feel, what you feel about something. I think acknowledgment that you're not in complete control. And then there's randomness to something. That's what I call luck.
You can improve your odds of that through hard work, through commitment, through not giving up and all those things. But it makes me feel better that, you know, again, this is a belief. And the great thing about beliefs is like you choose what you want to believe. If it empowers you, then choose it. If he holds you back, then get rid of it.
Was the culture in your company different before 2009 than it is today? I listened to your TED talk and you have a lot more listeners than mine, but I loved it. I was a big student of yours even before we became good friends.
But, you know, I came back and I said, hey, I realize now that this is the perch where I want to live the rest of my life and I have no desire to go public. And growth is an important part of attracting the talent that we want. But this is kind of a race to nowhere, which is the infinite game right in the core of the infinite game is winning in the game is to play the next game. So I came back and I decided, you know what?
I'm the painter of hopefully a 50 year mural of which I'll paint the first half. Someone else will paint the other ones if we're lucky enough. And who knows how long that paint will last. So that mindset really changed. I was building a company that I was going to sell and then I was going to go be happy. What I realized as I was sitting on a perch from which I could do a lot of the things that matter to me, you know, and at the end of the day, this doesn't belong to me, belongs to itself.
I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Cast before he died. He was the originator of finite and infinite games back in the mid 80s. And of course, as soon as I sat down with him, I said, how did you come up with it? I have to ask.
And he he was part of this this core of intelligentsia in the mid 1970s who are all talking about game theory, but always with an eye to win. They were always talking about winning the. And Dr. Carr said, well, what about play, what about the actual game rather than the end of the game? And what I ended up calling the infinite mindset, he called play. And I think a lot of people, especially in business, they keep thinking about the end where there is none.
They keep thinking about the winning, which is impossible, but they actually forget about the joy of play, the joy of work, the joy of building a business or being a part of a business. And you embody this more than any other CEO I've ever met. Just an absolute love of the game with no desire to win. Yeah.
What I see, successful business people that are driven by their competitive spirit is comes from a fear of failure.
They cannot run out of gas.
You know, if they achieve a lot, they're like, wow, you know, I, I don't want to lose this. So I want to cash out.
And I see a lot of people that just tap out of the game because they're just the burden of losing becomes so massive because they're winning. If you take the infinite mindset back into competitive spirit, is this notion that you're competing only against yourself? Right. And when you compete against your version of yesterday, that gives you this like endless potential. You're never going to be the best. But you can be like one tenth of a percent better tomorrow.
I think it's very hard for us. Right? There's always someone prettier. There's always somebody smarter. There's always somebody stronger. There's always somebody luckier. Always no matter who you are, there's always somebody else. Would Teddy Roosevelt say, you know, comparison is the thief of joy? That's right.
But it's so hard not to compare in a world where so much of what we do is finite and we do have to be ahead and we do have to compete for a job. You have to compete for this.
Nobody at school tells us come to school just to get a good education. You come to school to get good grades. Yeah, we define good education by the grades that we get, not by how much we learned.
You mentioned earlier the sharing of knowledge. You know, there's many ways to to frame people, but some people come from a position of scarcity and some people come from a position of abundance.
You know, when you meet somebody, you can quickly tell where they're coming from. You know, if your success, if your thing is something you're taking away from them, perceived or not, those are people that kind of subtract from you by nature of what you do.
You're trying, you know, as a thinker, as a philosopher, somebody that is really trying to, you know, bring knowledge to, you know, the masses. What you're really doing is, you know, using abundance as a principle. And I think there's something to that in the in the in the infinite game is, you know, you want to associate yourself with people that are ambitious for something greater than themselves. And that's really a big principle of of our company over adventures is like, you know, how do you find that?
It's again, it's the it's the infinite game in a different context. That's a perfect segue way. How do you find that and how you how do you do that? I mean, you you know a lot about a lot of companies. And when you look at the culture of your company, you compare it to others or quote unquote the norm.
Yeah. What is it that you have been able to do inside your own company that is so different than everywhere else?
You know, my good friend Danny Meyer says that a cultures is like a shark. If it stuff swimming, it dies in. You know, a lot of people come and ask the question, so how do you preserve the culture and the answers you don't write? Your goal is for the culture to continue to evolve in a way that is aligned with where you kind of want the general energy and direction of the team towards his version of Infinite Game. There's no winning of this.
You just want to keep momentum in progress because life has plenty of inertia that you have to overcome. It's all physics. You know, people will be like, OK, so what's your mission statement? What's your vision? What are your values? And your model was evolving a lot.
I was afraid to kind of anchor on something, but the one that I really struggle with is this notion of like here my values and, you know, in housing. But values are things that I learned at home where I learn before I got here. I'm not really sure that I can teach somebody values.
And we landed on this word. That is semantics. But it matters is we run our company through a set of belief systems. There's a series of beliefs.
That is how we hire, how do we promote, how do we encourage people to go work someone else?
And we go to people and say, you have to believe this and it's a choice, but if you don't believe it, you're not going to do well here. So we have found the common language by which we get people to almost opt in into their journey. It's not for everybody.
Can you tell me some of the specific beliefs? Yeah. So one of my favorite ones is we believe everything is written in pencil. So what that means is you have to be really comfortable with change and adaptability and even things that we believe to be true today are likely not going to be true in a couple of years. So you have to have a curiosity and a level of being OK with that. So then what we do is we do lots of things that will make you get comfortable with that will change your desk every nine to 12 months.
We'll move teams around. We don't have a lot of big groups doing things. Everybody's volunteering to all the. So everybody's flexing their muscles, so it's not just what you say is how do you kind of structure your organization to do certain things?
We believe in running up the escalators. To us, pace of play really matters. This is like if you can play business like you play the two minute drill in football, you get a lot more done. You drop a lot more passes. You do a lot of things right. I'm not sure we got it right, but it's been a really interesting journey. It just gave us a common language and culture building.
Yeah, we want to be great people to work with. So no assholes allowed. Yeah. If someone has too big of an ego and that means, you know, you walking into a building, people will say good morning, but you get in an elevator, people will smile. Every new hire I meet with all our new hires after like 60, 90 days.
I'd just like to see their experience. And they're like, I'm shocked at two things.
I'm shocked at how much you trust me. And number two, I'm shocked at how nice everybody is.
I'm willing to help me do my job right now.
Just we are full of imperfections. But I think when you have a culture that is in harmony.
Yeah, it doesn't matter what tune your orchestra is playing, as long as every instrument is kind of on the same note.
Yeah. You have this magical mindset. You have this amazing disposition, this calm that I wish I had. Do you have something that is a constant nagging struggle to you? It's your boulder, you know, your Sisyphus boulder, the one thing you feel like you're always pushing.
You know, I was born and raised Catholic and I even went through confirmation. And I don't practice organized religion. I believe myself to feel this spirituality.
I'm not claiming I'm spiritual, but with that I let go of guilt like I have no guilt is like, you know, guilt is a complex I don't suffer from.
So I think if you if you really think about that Boulder question, inherit in it, there is some level of guilt that you carry that is making that boulder seem like a boulder that I laugh at myself all the time.
I really just realize that I just I'm so ill prepared for the role that I have and I'm OK with it. I don't I don't beat myself up. I'm my best friend. The conversations in my head are so positive, you know. Ninety eight percent of our conversations are in our head.
Why not make them great? Like and I'm like, wow, you were really bad. They're all like, oh wow, wow. You got lucky.
Look like this is what it's in my head all the time. I've been thinking a lot about Friday night. I'm going to see my parents right and on to last a week ago I will go and kiss my mom. And what what Alzheimer's the patient has is debility.
Still give you a kiss. It's amazing that they don't remember anything, but they can give you a kiss. And I go and I see my mom and I get a kiss and it makes me yearn for one more conversation with her. And then I sit outside with my dad and we share a great bottle of wine. And, you know, I'm super grateful in this, like knowing that, you know, I'm in all that I can have this experience with my dad.
But I'm also grateful that I was able to have that with my mom in life. Everything we do for the first time has all and then everything that we do for the last time, you know, has gratefulness. If we could marry a state of mind, which would be impossible to do, where you can combine both emotions and most things like if you and I were together and we knew this was the last conversation we were going to ever have, one of us is not going to be here tomorrow.
We probably will say a few things we haven't said correct for sure. It's going to happen with lots of people. So is the appreciation. I love that we're friends. I've learned from you. I am grateful that you invited me to have this conversation. Yet in some way we have the inability to be there in that sense of both awe and gratitude for too long.
Let me play devil's advocate a little bit here. Sure. Because I'm tempted to have that conversation with you right now and tell you how I feel as if this were the last time. And if it's not the last time do I have that conversation again, and then if I do it too much, if I do it every time for fear that this is the last time, does it cease to be special?
Because it happens every time. It's like somebody who says, I love you too quickly.
And it's like when they say it to me, I'm like, But you don't even know me. But you loved every boyfriend you had prior.
Well, it makes me so special.
And again, they can love a lot of people. Why are you trying to kill him?
I don't think I don't think you can fall in love with every person you date. Just don't. Maybe I'm a cynical bastard.
I just believe every person, you know, infinite amount of people you can love. So the infinite game does that. That's different.
That's not the same. That's not what I said. I said, I don't believe you can fall in love with every person you date. You can absolutely have an infinite amount of love. I think you need some therapy to go big. And one, just talk to every ex-girlfriend.
They will agree with you, too.
Funny, you know, but I don't think it's it's a matter of seeing it every time. It's making sure that you said it. Yeah. So what what I realize, you know, in that moment of clarity, in those 90 seconds we talked about earlier is that there were a lot of things I wanted to say that I thought I had time to say there were people I needed to ask forgiveness from, that I never did.
There were people that I wanted to tell them how important they were to me or how much they had helped me.
And I not I think we go through life not we think we're going to be here forever.
Those 90 seconds on that U.S. Airways plane I didn't realize was only 90 seconds. Yeah. From the moment Sully came on and said, this is and I assume you heard the engines go quiet, brace for impact, brace for impact in the 90 seconds later, you're on the Hudson River. Yeah, they've done a study on people who face near-death experiences, and they did some with people who were parachuting out of a plane in their parachute, didn't open their first or second.
So they thought they were going to die. And through some miracle, they landed in a swamp and survived. Right. And they all have the proverbial life flashing before their eyes. Mm hmm. Did that happen?
Yes. You know, because, you know, you can see the water coming in. As a matter of fact, you almost had an internal kind of countdown when we were going to hit the water.
I close my eyes. I was holding my own arm and I said, I love you, Mom.
You know, I tell you something for me, you know, having been raised Catholic, I always wonder in the moment of death if I had a moment that I knew I was going to die, was I going to ask for forgiveness? Like, what was I going to buy insurance? I have some friends of mine is like I you know what? I believe in this because it's insurance. And I wonder how it would have been free. It's like a free insurance that you say.
And one of the things I'm most proud of was the fact that I said, you know what, I am who I am. And if that's what it took and not, you know, my own humanity, I'm not going to do it. And that also gave me clarity on coming back on my relationship with religion.
I got to tell you that really that really chokes me up, that in this moment of imminent death, after you've thought, you know, whole life is flashed before your eyes, you thought about your family, that you hold yourself and say, I love you. It's really profound and I think it's the thing. That we don't do. You know, I think that the term of loving yourself has unfortunately lost its its become pejorative. It's become synonymous with having a big ego.
But if you can love someone else and that's not egotistical, like why can't you love who you're trying to be or who you were when it's the end? Hmm.
You know, why why shouldn't we all live life that on our deathbeds or, you know, being told to get into the brace position that we hold ourselves and say, I love you, you've lived a good life.
You've earned my love. Mm hmm. What a standard to live by to earn one's own love. And the amazing thing about it is you can't learn that from a book or a magazine. You learned it in the moment.
There was no prediction how you would have reacted in that situation. Some people may have been screaming, I don't know. Some people may have found solace and quiet. Some people may have been making phone calls.
You know, mean at the core of love is forgiveness. Yeah. And I think we have such.
A difficult time forgiving our own selves about our past, about our habits, about our own movie in our heads, of the things that we have failed to do. And I think learning to love ourselves is learning to forgive ourselves.
Yeah. And to truly forgive into. Move forward in a way that, you know, it's without carrying the weight of the world, too many people walk around carrying so much guilt and shame in society, puts it on us. And, you know, raising teenagers is really interesting. You know, it's how do you raise kids that? Are accountable, but don't feel shame. We have two teenagers and my wife and I are like really driven to make sure that we don't ever shame them.
And nor should we shame anyone. Well, I love you, too. I love you, too. You know, it's we collect friends and we collect memories and hopefully we collect bad ones. Those are the three things worth collecting, because if you live that way, life is rich.
Another friend of mine had this concept that everything in life should be at least the three fer. You ever heard this concept? No, no.
I really like it because if the ultimate currency in life is time. Yeah, right.
And there's every study that shows you that over sixty thousand dollars or something, it has zero effect on your happiness. You know, the only currency that really matters at the end of the day is time.
If that's the case, how do you get a lot more yield out of time?
And the example he used when he told me this, and I have to use it for everything, is to say, hey, you love golf, you go play golf.
That's that's valuable. You go play golf with your best friends. That's two times valuable. You go play golf with your two best friends and a beautiful day. That's three times what they would be doing. An amazing course. That's four times. So he always says everything in life should be a three four.
You know, when you talk about things just like when you and I are together, I am learning, I am seeing a friend and we're usually drinking a good glass of wine or a good coffee somewhere. Right.
So every experience you should dimensionless and that means abundance. That means you bring people together. One of the things that gets me the most pleasure is when two of my good friends become great friends. So, you know, everything in life should be thought of as maximize the yield out of your time.
I love that. I love the idea of making something a three four. Once again, every time I talk to you, I'm richer and wiser and immensely, immensely grateful.
Coming from the teacher, I'm humbled by those words. I hope our paths cross before long.
My friend, please. If you enjoyed this podcast and if you'd like to hear more, please subscribe wherever you like to listen to podcasts. Until then, take care of yourself. Take care of each other.