Four Things My Racing Instructor Nick Zak Taught Me That Also Apply to Business and LifeSep 25, 2022
FOUR things my car motor sports racing coach Nik Zack taught me that also apply to business AND EVERYTHING IN LIFE. (It’s really one thing. Drive easy.)
People say that high performance, solid routines, and good habits can be really, really hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
Have you tried multiple strategies to build new habits and break old ones - yet you’re still struggling to get ahead, (lose weight, be healthier?)
You’ve journaled, worked on your morning routine, meditated, laid out your workout clothes on your toilet the night before, read books like Atomic Habits, The One Thing, Why? All intended to inspire you to improve your performance.
But all this ends up feeling like “push” and it’s back to the grind.
Words like “should, “hard”, and “discipline” come to mind.
For years all this driving and grinding seemed to serve me. But simple things like taking my vitamins, and stretching, quiet time, and working ON my business all seemed to take a back seat to “getting shit done.”
This push, this drive, this grinding helped me get to where I am today - no question - It came to me recently in the most unusual way -this way of living was no longer serving me the way it used to.
August 26, 2022 - Legendary Limerock Park Road Course in Lakeview, CT. I’d just finished Skip Barber Racing School’s 2 day advanced course toward getting my racing license and had booked a “Driver Education” track day right after on a Friday being hosted by the Metro New York Porsche Club. A “DE” day as it’s called allows anyone to get out on the same tracks as the pros with any vehicle that can pass the tech inspection. Most are about $500 for the weekend. (Not including the costs of the car which can be extensive.)
I’d spoken to my instructor Nick Zak a few minutes the day before while my wife and I were on our way to dinner so we could get acquainted a little bit and he could get a sense of where I was on my track driving journey.
My experience consisted of the Skip Barber Three day school in May driving the Mustang GT school cars, a track day in July at Road Atlanta driving a rental Porsche 911 from Corsa Crew. And one session at Roebling Rd near Savannah Georgia in a rental Mazda Miata. Lastly, the 2 day advanced course by Skip Barber Racing School again in the Mustang GT.
The morning was not going great. The delivery driver/support guy showed up with my rental car, a BMW M3 race car - about 15 minutes before the end of tech inspection. There were a couple of potential issues with the car the inspectors let slide (not by much.) THEN right before my first run, my wife took off to the snack bar having locked my helmet and driving gloves in the truck. So first time going out on track, I’m huffing and puffing just having chased her down to get her keys so I could get to my helmet. Then comes the exercise of climbing over this roll cage, getting strapped in, and getting my helmet on.
About ⅔’s of the way through the first lap, my instructor Nick tells me to head into the pits to go over some things. I’m thinking “oh shit, what have I done.” Turns out just a pretty basic thing. He asks, “What did they teach you in school where to put your hands?” Hell, I put them wherever I felt like it, sometimes had my elbow hanging out the window like I was going to the 7-Eleven. That was the first thing he helped me with. Consistently keeping my thumbs looped over the cross bar on the steering wheel - made it much easier to feel and control the car. Amazing how much of a difference something so basic can make.
His other suggestion was to make sure to remember to take deep breaths.
Two simple things, how I was positioned and breathing. Amazing. I noticed the difference right away. (Even still, he kept having to remind me about my hands.)
There was one other critical thing that kept coming up. You see, your first few times in a race car, you’re jacked up - you’re excited. Your body understandably thinks it’s in danger and so your amygdala, the part of your brain at the top of your spine, is lit up like a Christmas tree. Your vision narrows. Your grip tightens. Every nerve in your body is focused and every muscle and tendon is flexed and tense ready for battle. What happens is your eyes keep focusing right in front of you. You jerk the car from turn in point to apex, to the next point and everything seems like a surprise. No matter how many times you’re told to look up, you keep looking down in front of you. (Same thing with your hands and your breathing.)
What’s happening is that your brain is doing what it’s supposed to do. This part of your brain designed to protect you. The big problem is, this cave man brain doesn’t know the difference between a real threat - like an enemy or a saber toothed tiger, and an everyday common occurrence. It always reacts as if your life is in immediate danger. You might think that this being jacked up and extra on guard would be a good thing. But it’s NOT. This reaction is not making you faster or keeping you safe. The exact opposite is happening. Driving hard and allowing your survival brain to run the show - in racing and in life actually slows you down - and not in a good way.
There’s times in life where we need to short-circuit our natural survival responses. Navy Seals do it for combat, and in terrifying dive training. They have to overcome what would strike terror and panic in the minds of most anyone.
Imagine yourself being held underwater until you’re oxygen deprived. What’s your greatest fear? You’re going to suck in water and drown, right?
Did you know that if kept underwater without oxygen until you black out, your body will not allow you to inhale water into your lungs. My nephew - Mike - who trains military divers told me recently he intentionally has his trainees stay underwater until they black out - just so they can overcome this common natural fear. Not just once, but multiple times. And not once does anyone ever suck in water and drown.
We need to hold ourselves in the right position.
We need to broaden our vision.
We need to lighten our grip.
We need to breathe.
And no matter how many times you try to remember those things, your survival brain is going to try to get in your way.
To get you in a less stable position.
To get you to look down right in front of you.
To grip your problems and challenges like you’re swinging an ax.
To hold your breath so you don’t die.
You’ve heard the expression “You can’t see the forest through the trees?” This is what’s happening in your business and your life when you’re going from one fire to the next and then trying this that and the other hoping to get a step ahead.
Your vision is focused right out in front of you. (as in - how much $ is in the checkbook.)
They have so much coming at them so fast their conscious minds can’t possibly keep up with it all. Not even close.
For years I spent over 80% of my time driving hard - today I call this “survival mode.”
After working with Coach Nick last Friday even my wife commented how much safer she felt as I drove our 60 foot long RV rig. (Even though I was driving about 7mph faster on average.)
I drive so much softer now.
Here are the 4 things.
- Loosen your grip.
- Look up.
- Calm the fuck down. (What?)
Most people believe champions win from their talent. Their skills, Their intelligence. Their education. Their effort. Their experience. Their character. Their passion. Their habits.
And yes, all of these things are true.
But lying underneath all of this is their state.
There’s this idea out there right now that habits are hard. That success comes from embracing hard things.
I”m not saying this is wrong - just that there’s another way.
Not “easy” necessarily. But softer. More elegant. Smooth.
Performance and improving habits doesn’t have to be hard. Our minds, (both our hardware and our software, both genetics and programming) just naturally tend to make it that way.
We ALL know what it’s like to experience stress, anxiety and overwhelm ANY time we’re doing something new.
Now imagine this: New car, new helmet, new track, new instructor, new to the sport. That’s a lot of “new-s” at 150 mph (and slamming back down to 40 mph in 1.6 seconds then back again.) Now imagine doing that calm as a Hindu cow. (Ever listen to the radio calls from a professional motorsport racer? The only times they get excited is either when they’re pissed or when they’ve won.)
How about you business owners?
When your business is up off the ground, you’re wearing all the hats, everyone on your team most likely reports directly to you, you’re working directly with customers, vendors, insurance agents, attorneys, bankers, state, local (multiple in many cases) federal including the IRS and OSHA. It’s A LOT. To say nothing about staying supplied, your payroll met and your own mortgage paid.
Your focus changes continually from getting the work (sales) and then doing the work. And then you still have to get paid. Now that the work’s done you’re on the hook for all the expenses and costs , overhead, payroll, and materials, and now you have to get paid. Or else. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat. Rinse. Lather. All by 8:15 am.
No one likes being told what to do, least of all entreprepreneurs. And here we are dealing with this 24/7 ultimatum, do a, b, c, d, e, f, g, x, y and z OR DIE!
That’s right. You heard me. DIE! Think about this - what’s worse to a business owner than having to go back to work for someone else? I’ve done that a couple of times and it was HORRIBLE! Every time. Back in 2005 my short tour as a real estate agent, I ended up delivering pizzas for 6 months just so I could pay for my new car myself (and not get thrown out of the house again.)
(Another time I almost sold my business to this shark - dodged that bullet at the 11th hour.)
On top of running the business - you’re finding there’s a lot they don’t know and that it’s hard to know where to start. (Then there are those of us, myself included at times, who don’t know what they don’t know.) What little time you have, do you focus on learning finance, sales, marketing, hiring? - you can’t do it all at once.
Underneath it all there’s this brain you have that’s supposed to be running the show. Part of your brain - your Amygdala, your survival/cave man/reptilian part of your brain located at the top of your spine is lit up like a Christmas tree - and for very good reason. There’s a big ass saber tooth tiger, and multiple other predators who are trying to eat you. Seriously, those days you can’t quite put your finger on how you’re feeling, you’re working like mad and there’s this frenetic pace.
It could actually be fear of death you’re really experiencing. (or worse.)
And when you’re in this “survival” state:
Your vision narrows.
Your body is super alert/tense.
Your reactions, your “inputs” are super rough and jagged.
It’s quite normal and typical to forget to breathe. Or your breathing gets shallow (most people don’t even realize this.)
You’re in a defensive posture (waiting for the next shoe to drop. The next “fire only YOU can put out.)
Did you know that prey animals in the wild, take a deer for instance, once a threat has passed, go right back to a complete stage of calm. Eating your shrubs and flowers like nothing ever happened? But us humans, that horrible memory you have from the 5th grade, you still experience that over and over again whether you realize it or not. We’re jacked up for survival 80% of the time and don’t even know it. Except in the business world we call that “drive.”
And it’s that “hard driving” that actually ends up putting us in the wall.
Here’s the thing. Warriors. Athletes. High Performance people of all types know that being super driven and ultra focused - grinding is a big word these days - it doesn’t work. Sooner or later - all that driving hard - you’re going to end up in the wall. The intuition, creativity, and sixth sense you need to identify and prioritize problems, develop solutions, respond with your best intelligence making the best decision and “inputs” gets cut off when you’re in fight mode. It’s not sustainable.
Something’s gotta give.
And it’s not just you we’re talking about. Lots of people pay the price of all this grinding.
Literally everyone you work with.
They’re all missing out on the good stuff the longer you grind away. The harder you drive.
So let me share with you how I came up with this thing out on the track.
All of my instructors kept telling me to:
Loosen my grip.
Look up - further down the track.
Be smooth with your steering, brake and gas. (We call these inputs. Gozillions of micro-decisions and actions all of which happen in milliseconds.)
Be in the right position, the seat, the steering wheel, the angle of my arms, THE POSITION OF MY HANDS.
There’s one big problem though. The first few times you go out on a race track in a high performance car, you’re super jacked. (Not unlike when you finally get your business up off the ground.) You’re in a new car, on a new track, wearing a new helmet, next to someone (your instructor) you don’t know watching/feeling your every move, hearing your breathing. Other drivers in front of you, behind you. There’s a lot going on to say the least.
There’s all this stuff to think about:
The driving line. Apexes, turn in points.
Braking zones. When and how to start, when and how to release. How hard?
Trail braking into turns.
Power. When to “lift.” When/how to start accelerating. When to “punch it!”
And we won’t even get into heal-toe down shifting. That’s where you “YINGA!” the gas peddle with your heel while you’re braking with your toe, right before you shift and then let out the clutch.
Yeah - I don’t get it either.
So you try driving just like you do life. You drive hard.
Except instead of being late on an order, or scrapping to make payroll, you find your wheels in the dirt or your ass end coming around at 90mph as you get this punch in the gut imagining the worst. Your instincts kick in and you save it.This time. (I woke up at 2am yesterday morning playing through this sketchy moment over and over at Road Atlanta Road Course. What if….?)
Most of our daily reactivity (ever use the term - fire fighting?) is based on irrational fears that don’t even make sense. But when you’re on a race track for the very first time, you’re in actual danger. So how in holy fuck- are you supposed to calm down?
It’s interesting, it doesn’t matter how many times a coach or instructor tells me to loosen my grip, or look down the track instead of right in front of me, or to remember to breathe, or keep my hands in the right place - I still keep having to be reminded.
“Trying” to do anything in the heat of the moment to loosen your grip, look up, and calm down, watch your position - really doesn’t work. Your lower brain, your amygdala is screaming at you:
“What the fuck do you mean calm down. Don’t tell ME to calm down.”
Driving hard and being ambitious served me for years. American Landscape Structures - a business I started doubled 2 years in a row from $1 to 5 million during a pandemic. They were the best and worst years of my life. It was thrilling to see something I’d poured in so much blood - grow like that. But I was hanging on so tight, I almost lost it.
Loosen your grip.
Gripping the steering wheel like you’re swinging an ax (like most new drivers do) is extremely counterproductive - and driving a car at the limit - dangerous.
When you’re in survival mode, when you feel threatened your vision focuses and narrows right in front of you. You’ve heard I’m sure about “not being able to see the forest through the trees?” It’s not only because you’re in the middle of all these demands - but because of this survival mode.
Calm the fuck down.
Navy Seals know it. Top athletes know it. Whether you’re in a fire fight, driving a high performance car at the limit, or having hard conversations, PROPER breath control is surprisingly critical.
Driving hard, defensively, offensively, aggression. Remaining curious, slow to draw conclusions, remaining neutral is actually the best posture to achieve decisiveness. This isn’t to say you don’t have passions or values, far from it. It’s about how you hold yourself. How you show up. Being present for your team. Your customers. Your vendors. Your family. Your friends.
It all comes down to this one thing - and it’s more of a long game. When I was in elementary school, I jumped out of bed, ate my Captain Crunch and rushed off to the bus stop with my PB and J and bag of Fritos, and hi-fructose juice box in a paper sack. I was extremely consistent in elementary school - At being in the top 2-3 most pain in the ass kids in class. I’d always been utra - kinetic, then throw that frenetic pace, processed sugar and lard into the equation and you’ve got yourself one crazy ass kid. (Back then there was no such thing as liquid vegetable oil - and I didn’t even know olive oil existed. There was margarine, Solid Crisco, and bacon grease.)
Nick Zak is a professional health and wellness expert among other things, and when I first brought up my health after our second session on track, his response was, “First thing you can do is stop eating those muffins.”
Anyway, there are devices now with which you can actually measure your state. The measurement is called Heart Rate Variability. I won’t go into the technicalities.
Here are some things that improve your state:
Contribution - living your purpose.
Who you hang with.
Doing work you love.
Quitting that life-sucking job (running your business or it running you. Did I say that out loud?)
Having an exit strategy for your business where you are no longer an employee.
Self-expression (and if you’re kinetic like me, including something extremely physical - even violent.)
By the time the bullets are whizzing by, it’s too late. Your conscious brain is not going to be able to remember to calm down, to loosen up, or to look past the nose on your face. So pick some of these things and get out in front of it. Just start by taking 5 minutes in the morning, sit quietly, and listen to yourself breath. It’s OK if some thoughts pop up. Just let them go by like clouds in the sky.
And one more thing. Put down that fucking muffin.