🔒 Meet SA-loving leadership guru Robin Sharma, author of bestselling 5AM Club

There are welcome surprises in this captivating podcast with Canadian author and leadership guru Robin Sharma, whose latest book, The 5AM Club, has added to an already huge army of fans. Among them is hearing the former litigation lawyer whose book sales now top 15m, spent four years on his latest bestseller, with much of the writing done in Franschhoek and Cape Town. They, together with Robben Island, feature prominently in what for me is his best book yet. I became a Sharma fan after one of his presentations some years back encouraged my adoption of starting each day when the rest of mankind is sleeping. In this engaging discussion, Sharma elaborates on some of the book’s practical, habit-creating suggestions, talks about his love for SA and influence of Nelson Mandela and his views on why the world is going through such stress right now – and how best to handle it. – Alec Hogg


It’s a particularly special podcast for us today. We are crossing to Canada to speak to Robin Sharma, the author of The 5AM Club and we’re covering a lot of issues. Robin, thanks for getting up a little earlier than usual. Mind you, that’s not true, is it? By now, for you, with a 5am start-up, it’s almost the middle of the day. 

You’ve got it and it’s a pleasure to talk to you Alec, and South Africa is so dear to my heart. I’ve had so many wonderful experiences there and thanks for asking me about The 5AM Club. I think, given what’s happening on the planet right now, having a strong morning routine to battle-proof our mindsets, purify our heart-sets, and strengthening our soul-sets will allow us to navigate the storms as we go through our days.

How are the sales of the book?

Worldwide, it’s become a blockbuster. It’s been a huge book so far; it’s only been out about a year and a half but extremely strong.

And the members of the club because – not giving too much away – I don’t want people to go into the bookstores and then have a look at the back where they can actually join up and get lots of free goodies and become, I suppose part of a community as well. How’s that been going?

It’s been going great. A little bit of the backstory. I’ve been working with a lot of the most successful business titans and professional athletes for 24 years and one of the things I’ve worked very hard to do, is to strengthen their morning routine in The 5am Club, I talked about the 20/20/20 Formula, which is the protocol that I’ve shared and essentially, rising before the sun gives you that time – while the rest of the world is asleep – to reflect on your day and to exercise and to read and prepare yourself. One of the lines I use in the book is from the Spartan Warrior Philosophy and it’s, “Sweat more in training and you’ll bleed less in war.” And now given the volatility in the world, that makes more sense than ever.

There’s so much in the book that really is fulfilling and helpful. As you mentioned, the 20/20/20 Principle wake up at five o’clock you actually also go a little bit further than that by giving us the whole day, how we can structure our whole day, do you do that yourself? Do you follow those principles?

I do Alec. I’m not perfect. I don’t know if any human being is perfect, but I work very hard on my daily rituals and my routines. One of the lines and brain tattoos in the book is, “Genius is less about genetics and more about your daily habits” and what I truly believe is when we see these great athletes, when you see these great corporate titans, when you see these great humanitarians like Nelson Mandela, – and as you know – the last chapter is set on Robben Island, which is based on an experience I had on Robben Island. We can talk about that if you like, but the point I’m trying to make is, if you look at the great women and men of the world, these were not naturally gifted people, although society suggests that they were. These were people who just did different things. A lot of the most successful people, a lot of the most creative people in the world had one thing in common, they rose before the sun. And I think in this age of dramatic distraction in this world of so much volatility, rising before the sun joining the 5am Club will give you – what I call in the book – a gargantuan competitive advantage. It will also give you that time to be with yourself, that time to reflect, that time to perhaps pray, that time to exercise and sweat. And get into the neuroscience of the 20/20/20 Formula that I share in the book. Part of it is, if you sweat first thing in the morning through a run or through some cycling or whatever, you’ll release BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which will actually increase your processing speed. It’ll repair brain cells that have been damaged by stress. You’ll release dopamine, the inspirational neurotransmitter. How will that help your days unfold? You’ll release oxytocin and serotonin which are those feel good neurotransmitters. So really, the formulas I share in the book are designed to help people start their day well, because the way you begin your day dramatically sets up the way the rest of your day unfolds. And a great life is nothing more than a series of well lived days strung together like a necklace of pearls.

Also read: Inspiring: Robin Sharma talks leadership, writing bestsellers and more

I can endorse all of this because when we last spoke, a few years ago, you spoke about the 5am get up, it was before the book was written and I’ve been following your routine. I’ve been journaling, I must say I haven’t been doing the exercising, it transforms one’s life. But where did you come across this idea?

When I was much younger, I used to be a litigation lawyer. And I was very unhappy. I was successful as a litigation lawyer, but I was unhappy. I think being successful in the world, but unsuccessful with yourself, is a very hollow victory. So I started turning to books. My dad always filled our home with books of great women and men, and philosophy and I started just reading, I started reading like, how did the happiest people live? How do the best leaders live? How did the most successful people in the arts live? One of the lines – through many of the most productive lives – and the most let’s say joyful lives, was rising before the sun. They say, between 4 and 6 is the best time for meditation, the best time for reading, because your mind and your heart and your spirit have been cleansed through the night of sleep. So it’s most available to be impressed for growth. I think that’s one of the reasons why, a lot of the great saints, a lot of the great sages, a lot of the great writers were members of the 5am club. So as I started studying great lives, I started noticing this idea of the quietude of the dawn – and it being the best time to grow – and I started applying it to my own life. As you said, in your experience, it is a time of magic. It’s so tranquil, you can actually think, you can read, you can prepare your body and in The 5AM Club, I talk about the four interior empires. So many people talk about mindset, but I think mindset is only 25% of the equation to be a great human being. It’s mindset, heart set, health set and soul set. I would use that time from 5 to 6, as the victory hour to strengthen myself. If you look at what’s going on in the world, I’m not saying I’m perfect in any way, but I have a very strong grounding to serve as many people as possible and I really do think it’s all that inner work that I’ve done early in the morning that has made me feel less insecure in a volatile world.

The preparation as you said about the Spartans. How are you reading the world right now with coronavirus, putting everyone in such a tizz?

What a great question. I don’t know if anyone knows where it’s all going. I would say again, it’s almost like we’ve been given a period of enforced quietude. I don’t know what’s going on in South Africa but here in Canada, we’re in lockdown. People are asked to stay home and social distancing.  I think there are some benefits and opportunities to that, it’s enforced quietude in a world that was driven by business. And I think Alec, we’re being asked by the world to shift from human doings to human beings again. It’s an opportunity for us to talk to our family again, in person versus via devices. It’s a chance for us to read great books. I’m a huge fan of Nelson Mandela. I’ve been evangelising even his book by Richard Stengel, it’s The Mandela Way, his autobiography and in 2016, I stood in his prison cell and then I even went to Drakenstein Prison in Parow. It’s just a great time to read about these great human beings. It’s a great time to start writing in a journal. It’s a great time to learn to meditate. It’s a great time to do this for Interior Empire work that I talked about in The 5AM Club that makes us great human beings and allows us to connect with our gifts and be kinder human beings. So, yes, it’s a tragic time and there’s a lot of volatility economically, but ultimately of course, we’re going to come through this. I hope that as a result of what’s happening, our egos will crack, and we’ll be more heroic again, we’ll be human beings that care about the planet and even more about each other again.

I love the references to Madiba here in South Africa because they also come through in your book as well. The calm performers are the highest achievers. Nelson Mandela was very calm, he lost his cool only a few times during the the period that he was leading this country, but he was very calm. But he also ascribed to another one of your principles, which is “have fun in life, play.” He was very playful, loved the children, loved dancing, that does appear to be a theme or a thread that goes through the whole of The 5AM Club. It’s not just what you achieve, it’s how you do it.

Very much so. There’s actually a model for people who might not know about The 5AM Club, it’s written as a story. But in the story are these four characters, the Spellbinder Mr. Riley, the entrepreneur and the artist. There’s a number of protocols and frameworks and routines and neuroscience, which is really a manifesto for mastery and living a happy life as. And you’re right, there’s one of the models, it’s the Twin Cycles of Elite performance where Mr. Riley – the eccentric billionaire – actually teaches the model on a vineyard in Franschhoek. The essence of that model is – if you look at the best performers – they live life like a pulse. So yes, like Nelson Mandela, you’re out in the world, and it’s intense work and leadership and productivity, and then you pull back from that high excellence cycle. And then you go into a deeper fuelling cycle, which is more fun, more rest and more nature. I know Nelson Mandela used to love to go for full day walks in his home area. So, what I’m suggesting is a great life involves cycles or seasons. You know, maybe it might be a few months of intense work, intense creativity, intense productivity, intense service to customers and then you pull back a little bit and you refuel the five assets of genius that I talked about in the book, and you have more fun. I think he was onto something, balancing intense work with deeper fuelling and play.

Yeah, balance work intensely with rest and recovery, maybe that’s exactly what the world is getting, as you mentioned at the start of this interview –  with the coronavirus – enforced rest and recovery.

Isn’t it so fascinating? In a world that was addicted to being busy, in a world that was addicted to digital devices – in the book I call them cyber zombies – I said so many people are no longer people, they’re sheeple, and so all of this business, all of this running, not much time for human connections, not much time for philosophy, not much time for contemplation. And again, you talk about Nelson Mandela, from everything I’ve learned he became Nelson Mandela in his 18 years on Robben Island. Reflection is powerful. Even suffering Alec, we’re all suffering right now. We’re all seeing people dying.  Italy is very close to me but suffering has always been a purification process that has made better people and stronger leaders.

It is interesting in the focus areas, the characters in the fable go to Egypt, they go to Mauritius – which is pretty close to South Africa – of course Franschhoek and then the interaction that you had at Robben Island. Could you dwell a little on that as you say Rome is close to you? Do you have any thoughts of why that country in particular is being visited with these terrible deaths? Or are we all going there and this just the first of them?

I don’t think anyone knows; some people say we’re all going to go there and some people are coming up with theories that the 23% of the population in Italy is above sixty and intergenerational families are more common there. So maybe it’s spread more quickly. I’m not at all an expert on epidemiology. I just know that the country is being devastated. My best friend lives in Rome. and it’s just a very sad situation for our Italian brothers and sisters. It’s not only Italy as we know, there’s a lot of other nations that are suffering as well.

Another aspect that I wanted to touch on before we ended this conversation was the quote that you use “Neurons that fire together wire together.” How much time have you studied the brain, is that one of your passions?

It sure is and that’s a key point. Part of The 5AM Club is how do you install the habits of world class? If you look at the most successful people, they’re not the smartest people in the room. James Flynn is an American psychologist, and he’s come up with a term called “capitalisation”. What he basically says is the greatest performers are not the most naturally gifted. The greatest performers, the great rugby players, the great, whether it’s the Springboks for example, or the great leaders or the great entrepreneurs, or the great chess champions, these people are not the most talented naturally but they capitalise on whatever potential they were born with, more than everyone else around them. That’s a fundamentally important point for every person on the planet. Because often what we do is we give away our power through the excuse of, “Well, I’m not naturally a genius. So why would I do the practice required of a genius? What would be the point?” The key is doing the practice, doing the training, doing the routines and rituals that I teach in The 5AM Club. Those are the things that allow you to present your unique and special genius to the world. So yes, I’ve studied neuroscience. I’m not a neuroscientist, but that’s a key thing that any neuroscientist will tell you, that brain cells that fire together wire together, which is why you want to run your routines. Because each day that you practice the 5am club, or it might be a second wind workout I talked about in the book, or any routine, drinking eight glasses of water, for example, the more you do that, you’re going to set up a neural circuit in your brain. The more you continue to do that, those brain cells will fire together and wire together into a strong neural highway that then gets wrapped around with this little fatty tissue called myelin, which I actually think is the secret of genius. As the circuit gets stronger and more myelin wraps around this neuro-circuit, it allows the performer to have advanced perception. To me, that’s very exciting. So, if you look at Wayne Gretzky “I skated not to where the puck was, but to where the puck was going.” If you look at a Steve Jobs who could see around corners, that advanced perception isn’t a natural gift. It’s a trained result. So yes, I’ve studied about the mindset but again, there are four interior empires, and I think it’s important in a world where so many people are saying everything is about mindset – stay strong through your mindset – we’re not just our psychology, we are our emotionality, which is our heart set. We are our physicality, which is our health set. And we are spirituality, which is our soul set. The four interior empires that I talked about in the book and soul set is very important. Anyone who says, it’s religious, it doesn’t apply to me, soul set is simply shifting from your egoic self, to your heroic self. And at this time on the planet, I think every one of us has a responsibility to be heroic in our own way.

Love it. Habits, how long does it take to change them?

University College London says 66 days and that’s why I mentioned the 66-day rule in the book. We’re built to change through neuroplasticity – another brain phenomenon – the ability of the brain to change. The only thing is most of us try a new habit for 5 or 6 days, or maybe 2 weeks and then we say, “Oh, this is too hard. I can’t change.” Well, all change is hard at first, and it’s messy in the middle.  It’s beautiful at the end – we all can adopt new habits – whether it’s The 5AM Club, whether it’s taking a walk at the end of the day, whether it’s a family meal three times a week, whether it’s three hours a day without our devices because we put them in a little plastic bag and then into a drawer so we can do real work versus fake work, we all can wire in new habits. The thing is, we don’t stay with it for the roughly 66 days required for the new habit to form within the brain.

Robin, you walk into a bookstore and you see someone with The 5AM Club book in the hand, how would you advise them to make the most out of it?

Wow, what a brilliant question. Right now our time assists self-quarantining and isolation. I would say, take two days and create a lab for yourself, a personal mastery lab. Read the book over two days and in your self isolation, bring a journal and write the ideas that you learn from the book. Then come up with a 90-day battle plan to live the ideas from the book.I would take it day by day, get up at 5am and the next day you might be tired and if you need to sleep a little bit more, sleep a little bit more, I mean, learning to walk, we get up and we fall and we get up and we crumble and we keep on going. If my kids asked me; What is the mother of all habits? I’d say it’s rising before the sun, because anyone who’s a member of The 5AM Club knows, you get more done by 10 o’clock than most people get done in probably a week. And even more importantly, it just gives you that quietude and tranquillity to think and to reflect on your life and to reflect on your day and maybe have a good cup of coffee and read something that is going to nourish your mind, your spirit and your heart.

Just to close of with, I’ve just finished a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and I remember from your Monk who sold his Ferrari and now this one as well, it seems to be that more people – and that’s a really good book by the way – but more people are using that style, the fable, the story with a very deep message. Where did you come on to this, because you have been a bit of a recent pioneer in this field? Books were written like this in the past, but what sparked your direction that you took here?

Before I would write The 5AM Club – I wrote it over four years. I wrote a lot of it in Franschhoek actually, and Cape Town – I would do a little prayer. I wanted to write it in a way that brings the light into people. I wanted The 5AM Club to be a very profound book for people and not just put a smile on their faces, I wanted it to really create some transformations in them. I wanted it almost to be my legacy book. So as I thought through how I would write it and how it could be most impactful, I realised I had to be entertaining. It just couldn’t be a tactical manual. There’s a lot of tactics in the book and frameworks, but it couldn’t just be that. So what I’m suggesting is, human beings have always learned and grown through stories. When we used to sit around the campfire, thousands of years ago, the wisdom was passed on through stories  When we were children, how did we learn to function in the world? Our parents told us stories and so I said to myself, let me write The 5AM Club as a story with this quirky billionaire who starts off as a homeless person and the Spellbinder, this electrifying speaker, and this artist who is gifted but procrastinating, and this entrepreneur, who’s got this fast growing company, but she’s being attacked by her investors. Let me take the reader through the world from Mauritius to Rome to Franshoek to…” let’s not give away the ending”.  I thought that if I could do that while sharing battle tested habits and rituals that I’ve shared with my top clients, a philosophy on how to live, how to lead the shortness of life and use neuroscience to help people perform and live at their best, it would be a book that would really help people.

Are the characters based on any people that you know?

They’re not. They’re just figments of my imagination like Julian Mantle in The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, the Spellbinder is just a wise philosopher. The Mr. Riley the tycoon, he’s got a really good heart. He did very well in business and now he’s giving away all his money. The artist, I love art. I’m a huge fan of your Lionel Smit’s outside of Cape Town, one of the great South African artists along with his father so, that just came from people. My love of art, no particular character and then the entrepreneur could be any entrepreneur.

Well, Robin, you certainly did get inspiration from above, for sure. When I read this book it’s made a massive adjustment in my life and definitely for the better and I’ve no doubt that many thousands or hundreds of thousands of people around the world… as Paulo Coelho said, you change lives and that’s a great endorsement, isn’t it from the Brazilian writer?

You’re more than generous Alec, and you always are kind to me. When I stood in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell in 2016, on a wintry morning, I asked the guide, “Did you know Nelson Mandela?” and he said, “Yes, I served with him for seven years.”  I said, “Tell me about him. What was he like?”  he said, “Oh, that man was a humble servant.” What I tried to do with the book – I’m not comparing myself to Nelson Mandela – I’m simply saying, if the book has served you and if the book serves other people – especially in this dark time – then it’s been an honour to do that for people.

Servant leadership, and it could be through words, it could be through politics. It could be through all kinds of ways, but Robin Sharma has really put together a masterful book, The 5am Club, there’s just so much in it. We barely touched the surface. But I think that it’s at least giving you some kind of an insight into a potentially life changing experience.

This is Alec Hogg. Until the next time, cheerio.

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