I got to know Mike Erwin a few years ago, when he invited me to speak to his class at West Point. He gave me a fascinating tour and explanation of what it’s like to attend West Point.
These days, Mike is the CEO of the Character & Leadership Center, whose mission is to produce better leaders through a deeper understanding of character. He is the Founder and President of the Positivity Project, a non-profit organization with the mission to help America’s youth build better relationships by recognizing the character strengths in themselves and others, and he founded and is Chairman f the Board of the veteran-support non-profit Team Red White & Blue. Mike deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan twice, and still serves as a Major in the U.S. Army Reserves, assigned to West Point’s Leadership Department.
Along with his co-author Judge Raymond M. Kethledge, he’s written a book called Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.
As the title suggest, it’s about the importance of solitude for exercising self-mastery, focus, and leadership. It takes effort to find solitude each day, and the book shows through historical examples and firsthand interviews how helpful solitude is, to a wide range of leaders.
As someone who needs a lot of solitude and silence, every day, this argument resonates deeply with me.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Mike: Running! Especially on my own or pushing my 15-month-old in the stroller. I love the sensation of my blood flowing, heart beat increasing—and then the mental energy that flows from it.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
The biggest healthy habit I have developed in the past few years is my diet. The most important thing I’ve learned is the need for planning. When I plan well, my healthy habits follow.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
I wouldn’t say that this happens continually, but enough that it concerns me: comparison. No matter how much I’m doing to make a positive impact in my community, the non-profit organizations I founded, for my church, family and friends—there is always someone doing more. When I compare what I’m doing to them, it robs me of my joy and satisfaction.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
One habit that is super important to me is carving out time to think on my own. My life moves really fast these days, with four children aged 7 and under, The Positivity Project growing rapidly (from 33 to 200 partner schools), my U.S. Army Reserve duty at West Point for three weeks and a book coming out. In these times, it’s even more important that I carve out time in my day, every day, to think for myself. My wife and I already cut out cable television about a year ago, but I make sure to spend time, sometimes just sitting in my office with the computer screen turned off, to process everything until I feel that I’m ready to reengage with my work, emails, etc….
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Over the past few years, I have worked to break my habit of drinking soda 1-2 times per day. I broke the habit by strictly limiting the decision to buy soda at the store while shopping.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am definitely an Upholder! I am a list maker, am vigilant to accomplish what I set out to do–and hate letting other people down, even on something as simple as responding to emails in a timely manner. [I remember that the minute I met Mike, I immediately recognized him as a fellow of Upholder.]
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Travel! I am on the road 7-8 days per month for my work and sometimes fly very early and have a 0345 wake-up—or get home after midnight. Eating healthy is very difficult on the road, but I am able to maintain the good habits when I plan thoroughly and bring snacks with me.