He’s on a mission to make workplaces more humane

Posted at 8:39 AM, Oct 18, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-18 10:39:33-04

Companies want the best from their employees. But demanding they do more with less, do it faster and at all hours is the wrong approach.

Tony Schwartz has made it his mission to make workplaces more humane … for the good of the business and those who work there.

In 2003, Schwartz started The Energy Project, which advises executives and their employees how to refuel so that they can perform at their best on a sustainable basis.

To do that, Schwartz’s team has found four core needs must be met: The need for rest and renewal; the need to feel appreciated; the need to choose when to work and to focus uninterrupted; and the need to do work one likes and that has purpose.

Early in his career Schwartz was a journalist at The New York Times. Since then he’s written several books, including “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.”

He is best known as the ghost writer of Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.” What he learned about the tycoon during that time, however, has made him one of President Trump’s harshest critics today. Since 2015, Schwartz says he has been donating his royalties from the book to causes that protect people whom he believes Trump is ignoring or harming.

CNN asked Schwartz about the Energy Project, how he himself refuels, and what he learned about negotiating from Trump, among other things. Below is an edited, condensed version of that conversation.

What spurred you to start The Energy Project?

I had spent my journalistic career as an observer and a chronicler. I wanted to feel more like a doer — to be in the game and part of the action.

Most important, I wanted to feel I was making a significant difference. Perhaps that was partly my age. I launched The Energy Project when I was 50.

My book from the mid-1990s, “What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America,” was about how people grow, develop and evolve as human beings. That’s what first got me thinking about starting a company. I didn’t feel that there was any approach that took account of all the dimensions of growth — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. I wanted a practice for myself, and I realized I wanted to be able to offer it to others.

How do you focus on just doing one thing at a time?

It’s a constant struggle because our digital devices are so incredibly seductive. They draw us in, and they fracture our attention. They’re literally addictive. We crave the dopamine hit they give us, but they don’t provide nourishing experiences.

When I need to fully focus, I turn off my devices. I put them out of reach if possible because I’m no better resisting them than anyone else.

Also, I do my most important and challenging work early in the morning, after working out.

How many hours of sleep do you get?

I get an average of eight hours of sleep a night. It’s very rare that I get less than seven. If I don’t get enough sleep, it makes me ineffective in every way, so I’m dutiful about it.

How much vacation do you take?

Unlike most people I know who run companies, I take a full month off every August. As we speak, I’ve been back from vacation for a month, and I felt the glow for weeks after returning. I spent time with my grandchildren, working out and playing tennis, reading lots of books. I also spent a lot of unstructured time just reflecting, standing back from the urgent, and thinking about the future.

It’s harder and harder to truly let go, but the return on investment I get from taking off an extended period of time is exceptional. It makes me better at my job, better in my relationships. And ultimately I think it results in my adding more overall value.

I also take other time during the year. If you don’t take at least five days or a week every three months, I think you tend to hit a wall.

At The Energy Project, we give everyone the week of Christmas off, and I usually take another week in March or April. So I take 6 weeks off a year.

It actually makes me a better CEO. The reality is that leaders should spend the majority of their time thinking longer term and strategically — and less time focused on the tactical and the urgent.

What do you wish you’d learned earlier in your career?

The first thing is that you can’t fake it. You are as good as the work you put in to get good.

That means always pushing beyond your own comfort zone, and tolerating a certain amount of drudgery along the way, because it’s only through repetition that you get really good at anything you do. I’ve been writing sentences now for 60 years, and I believe I get better at it every year. I feel the same way after nearly 20 years of running a business.

What did you learn about negotiation and career success by working on the Art of the Deal?

I learned I was pretty good at negotiating because I got a great deal with Trump. That doesn’t mean I think he negotiated badly. He made a bet that giving me a great deal would energize me to make the book successful. And I don’t think that was a bad deal for him to make.

But the most important lesson I learned from Trump is that I didn’t want to be anything like him. He was famous, rich and powerful. So by those external measures he was very successful.

Writing “The Art of the Deal” caused me to reexamine what success meant, and how I wanted to define it for myself.

I have deep regrets today about writing the book, as I’ve said many times. But its success did free me to focus on work that I found more meaningful.