Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation, a Fortune 500 concert booking firm, decided in 2010 that he needed to radically change his life. Though Garner had risen from poverty to international success and was rated among the top 20 highest earning CEOs under 40 by Fortune Magazine, he quit his corporate lifestyle cold turkey. Once known as a voracious businessman booking concerts worldwide, Garner now spends his days practicing yoga and meditation, consulting athletes and businesspeople, blogging, and speaking about his recently published book, AND I…Breathed. The Herald sat down with Garner to find out more about his drastic lifestyle change and his advice for Yale students.
YH: Why did you initially become an entrepreneur?
Garner: I have been an entrepreneur for my entire life. I grew up really poor, raised by a single mom. The theme of never having enough money ran throughout my upbringing. As a little boy, it really hurt me to look at my mom and see how worried she was about our financial stability. She worked three jobs—she was a daycare teacher, a maid, and an attendant at a school for handicapped children. I remember always seeing how exhausted she was. When I was a child, I tried to see myself as the man of the house, and at a very young age figured out ways to make money. My first entrepreneurial pursuit was selling gum in the schoolyard before classes started. I’d go to 7/11 with a dollar and buy a pack of gum. I’d then sell each piece of gum for a quarter. With the few dollars of profit I made, I’d buy lunch at school. My life was a series of one entrepreneurial adventure to another. I worked at a flea market in high school, and eventually ended up in the concert business. As luck would have it, booking concerts lead to being hired by Clear Channel Communications, a media and entertainment company, which became Live Nation. I landed in a corporate career by accident, but was driven but a deep-seated need to solve the financial hardships of my family.
YH: What were the most important lessons you learned as Global Music CEO of Live Nation?
Garner: When I first left Live Nation, I thought that what I had most importantly learned was that I ought to leave the business world, to pursue a different life outside of all that. But what I really found is that I was able to carry forth all that I’d learned in the business world into a new chapter of my life. The most important thing [Live Nation president and CEO Michael Rapino] taught me has to do with the nature of entrepreneurship, the value of always questioning, hy am I doing this?” In business, asking “why” leads to greater innovation, generating new ideas and creating great products. In my spiritual practice, I am also constantly asking myself how I can improve upon my life and choices, and have found that the same kind of questioning is productive. After quitting my job at Live Nation, I studied many spiritual and religious traditions, different ways of practicing and living. I have used Michael’s lessons about questioning what I learn and do to piece together a daily routine, first in business and now in spiritual practice, that really services my needs.
YH: Were you a spiritual person prior to your road to self-discovery? Have you always been open to new ways of thinking about the world?
Garner: I like the term spiritual. As a young entrepreneur, I always held paramount an effort to improve what was around me. What I do now is not based on a singular religious dogma, it’s based on bringing happiness into my life. If I had found meditation empty and valueless, I would’ve thrown it out the window. I don’t believe in any religious must-dos. I just look for tools that can make me feel more at peace. Now, when I interact with people, it’s more beneficial for both them and for me. I am on a road to being open to all the possibilities that surround me. Being raised in a trailer teaches you to be open to new possibilities because your status quo sucks. My childhood taught me to always be on the lookout for what made family happy, and so I learned to connect with others, to hug, to spend time with those close to me. I had to look for value in the non-material to avoid what I had been born with, open to new teachers and new experiences.
YH: What would you do differently if you were still a corporate executive today?
Garner: My lifestyle change began as me running away from the world of business. I reached the gates of the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, to study from its monks and escape the warrior side of my personality that I found in the business world. The Shaolin monks are really special beings and peaceful meditators, but they’re also fierce Kung Fu warriors. They taught me that I could embrace both the warrior and monk within me. If I could have given myself advice while I was still working at Live Nation, it would be to carry the toolbox of both warrior and monk skills with me. That would have enabled me to care for both myself and for my business, to be fierce but also serene and grounded. When I was working for Live Nation I felt like I always needed to conquer something, to climb some mountain and prove how powerful I was. I felt like the world was against me, that I was constantly facing some challenge. I’ve learned that sometimes life is a challenge, but not always. By embracing both my warrior and monk sides, I can live with an open heart while still having a sharp sword of sorts. If I could go back in time, I would incorporate time spent on my own well-being, through yoga and meditation, while also working at a huge corporation.
YH: How do you plan to employ your monk-and-warrior toolbox now?
Garner: There exists the fallacy that if we open our hearts, we become weak and vulnerable, and all that we have built in the corporate world will fall apart. But when we look at great leaders throughout history, they had big hearts. We’re starting to also see this openness in the business world. Executives like Michael Rupino and Marc Benioff are balancing business sensibilities with care for themselves and employees. We are seeing an expansion of the definition of profit, asking questions like, “Are we touching people? Are our employees happy? Are we caring for ourselves and our families?” An expansion of what success and profits mean includes all areas of our lives, and intuitively makes sense.
YH: How does your advice relate to students, who may be less able to make drastic lifestyle changes?
Garner: I had a beautiful opportunity, given the success I found in the business world, to reflect by totally separating myself from the corporate realm. I did not write my book to try and tell people how to live, to do things my way. I share my story to allow people to internalize what speaks to them and is relevant to their own lives. As students, you have so many people telling you to do things a certain way. But what we look for in students is that they become independent thinkers and leaders. I value that independence, and seek to lend my voice to a conversation about how individuals can find peace. But everyone has to do that in his or her own way. Simply asking yourself, “What am I working to build?” is a great step to analyze your life. You don’t have to go to mountains in China to live with monks to gain some perspective and make meaningful change. You can take a deep breath, feel more centered, and ask yourself what you are moving towards. If you’re building a life centered only around school work and at a young age feel stress and insecurity about your future, you have an opportunity to reflect and see what you can incorporate into your day to establish a sense of balance and self-love.
YH: What effects has your new outlook on life had on your relationships?
Garner: When I wasn’t caring for myself, pushing myself to unrealistic work expectations, feeding my body substances that didn’t serve it, it was impossible to look out into the world and see it as a compassionate place in which to spread love. When we treat our bodies as objects, we treat others as objects. When I was only focused on pushing myself to succeed financially, I saw others as objects too. When I recognized that everyone just wants to feed their families, to succeed, to be happy and loved, I had a different level of respect and compassion for others.
YH: How do you avoid being pigeon-holed or dismissed as another new-age yoga guru?
Garner: The most radical thing I’ve learned is that there’s nothing groundbreaking that we need to do to love ourselves— yet learning to love oneself is in itself groundbreaking. When you look around, there isn’t enough of self-love going on. To cultivate compassion and care for yourself is easy, reminiscent of the way we’d treat a child, a puppy. But we don’t treat ourselves with the same sensitivity, businesspeople and students alike. None of the tools I’ve learned through study are groundbreaking, and nearly all of the teachings I learned in China are based on thousands of years of tradition. These teachings are old and practiced, based on what we’ve been doing for a long time. The radical part of what I learned is how you feel when you truly, consistently stop and breathe. The breathing itself isn’t radical, but think about how infrequently you really do it.
—Interview condensed by the Herald