Sarah Wilson, the New York Times Best Selling Author of ‘I Quit Sugar’ is one of Australia’s leading entrepreneurs. With an impressive history that spans 20 years of Journalism, she was the youngest opinion columnist at NewsCorp at the age of 24 and Editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine at 29.built
Since launching ‘I Quit Sugar’, Sarah has helped over 1.5 million people quit sugar and her latest book ‘First, We Make The Beast Beautiful’, has been another runaway success.
We caught up with Sarah to talk about her incredible success and her passion for having meaningful conversations about body and mental health, her personal philosophies and mantras, the evolving face of business and her advice for maintaining motivation in the face of stress and mental illness.
Sarah will be sharing her full story at The Entrepreneurs’ Unconvention this March. Get your ticket here if you’re interested in coming along.
In a recent article on News.com you were commenting on your first book and said that it was an important distinction that you didn’t call it “You Must Quit Sugar” and instead went with ‘I Quit Sugar’. I love how beautifully that metaphor captures everything you’re about. Speak to us about the distinction between the two titles and why that’s important.
The book stemmed from my own experience with trying to quit sugar which I always treated it as a gentle experiment. I was a gnarly sugar addict and decided to try it for two weeks, and if it made me feel better, I’d see how it goes. Of course, it did make me feel a lot better. I’ve got an autoimmune disease, that’s primarily why I gave it a go and also why I was so addicted as people with autoimmune disease have blood sugar issues.
It made big difference so I kept going and going and I suppose the title just kind of evolved from the truth of the matter. I gave it a go and it worked for me so I wanted people to know if they’d like to give it a go, I’ve got some tricks on how to do it.
The title was always going to be a gentle invite, a gentle experiment, an approach which feeds into one of our matras. In our office we have a matra boards drawn up which are our six business values. One of them is ‘be kind and gentle’.
So that’s how we do everything, doing things as a gentle experiment so it’s never Draconian. That approach doesn’t work for food, or anything emotional, or dietary related, and the two are very intra-related. I also believe it’s also how life works, and if you are a creator, I also think it’s a really pertinent mantra for entrepreneurialism.
I talk a lot about culture and company values so I love the idea of six mantras. I know you might not be in your office right now, and I’m going to put you on the spot, but what mantras can you share with us?
Suck it and see – Everything we do we start from a small platform… We come up with an idea and put it out there to see how our community responds then go from there. We’ve never done anything bold and brash, it’s always been just small moves, and then the moves get bigger and bigger.
Be gentle and kind – It’s a tone that we take with our customer service team as well as the 40-50 doctors, nutritionists, physiotherapists and other experts who work on the forums answering questions. We very much create a culture of always answering in a kind way, and I think that rubs off in the office environment as well. Having that as an atmosphere check is actually really helpful for me too as I tend to be very abrupt and impatient so it means you don’t burn quite as many bridges, at least I hope.
Where the mind goes the energy flows – This actually came about from mountain biking. I used to do mountain bike racing for quite a long time and thought of it as a metaphor for life. If you’re hurtling down a hill and there’s a gap between two rocks of about ten centimetres, if you try and steer between those two rocks, you’ll probably crash. However, if you instead put your mind or your eye line to that gap, your wheel will just naturally go there. That’s how I’ve worked with pretty much everything I’ve ever done.
Give a shit – We put everything through this lens… Do we give a shit? Are we giving a shit enough? Is our audience gonna give a shit? If we decide on something, we give a shit and fire up. A team can sometimes get too caught up in semantics, logistics, and white board charts and forget the actual reason why they’re doing things so ‘give a shit’ reminds us of our purpose.
If you go back to the 80s and 90s business was all about ‘greed is good, more is better and, winning above all else.’ Whereas today I’ve found that it’s more about doing something meaningful and being in a position to contribute to the world and the community. It’s still in its infancy but I love that that is starting to become a conversation in business.
More and more so, I mean, I have between 16 and 20 staff at any time, with many who have worked in big insurance companies and big corporations who have had a drop in pay to work for us. It’s primarily because they want to do something that makes a difference. However, I would not say it’s in its infancy as I think it’s quite bold and strong. I think what’s happening is that there’s actually a sort of meaningful authenticity wash going on, you know? There’s lots of people kind of maintaining that they’re authentic, or they want to have an authentic life, but are they firing up and doing it? I’m not sure. That’s where there’s a bit of a lag in that people are talking the talk, but they’re not necessarily walking it yet, and I think that’s because capitalism has such a strong hold on everything.
Right now, across the board, conversation is focused on mental health issues, particularly with entrepreneurs, where we have seen alarming suicide rates. You have had a remarkable rise to stardom gaining an audience of 5.2 million peoples and becoming the Ernst and Young entrepreneur of the year. How have you found that journey whilst concurrently with dealing with your own stuff?
I think that one doesn’t exist without the other. I think that mental stress issues obviously stem from owning a business, but I think that it can be a guiding point too. This is the premise to my book ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful’.
I struggled with anxiety all my life, and I’ve been treated for bipolar. In my book, I acknowledge that it was my anxiety, my internal battles and inner demons and the struggle to understand it, live with it, and thrive with it, that actually saw me to able to do things like create the business.
Mad fits of inspiration and energy during manic periods allowed me to gain insight and this incredible ability to see human nature in its nakedness. That, in itself, really got me to a point where I was able to understand where people were at with their health, their emotional relationship with food, etc.
The tough times that I’ve had with my bipolar are sort of like my guiding point. I will explode and get out of control when I’m not in the right place. I’ve had jobs like being the editor of Cosmo and the host of Masterchef which I walked away from because it became so intolerable to my ethics and my personal growth that I just had to explode out of there.
In my eyes, and the eyes of so many, you stand for so much more than a business and have sparked and catalysed a movement. What has been the key to that do you think?
I’m going to contradict myself here but ironically it is ‘not giving a shit’ – about a bunch of things. And again, it stems from hitting rock bottom. I hate to use that phrase because its so cliché, but basically in my mid thirties I lost everything financially, health-wise, the whole thing. In my book I wrote about how I chose to live a different way and it was to not give a shit primarily about money and material stuff.
That probably had a lot to do with my success, an ability to make decisions that other people wouldn’t have made because they were scared that they’d lose money. But it’s funny isn’t it. It’s one of life’s ironies, it’s like the less you care about money the more you make.
In his Stanford address, Steve Jobs talked about getting older and how you can turn back and see that all the dots that joined up to get you where you are. However, you’ve got to get a whole heap of dots on your board before you can see that it’s all leading somewhere and when you’re younger it just looks like a mess. I can say that as I get older I can see that all the chaos that I lived through when I was younger was all heading somewhere because I had intention. My intention was to connect more dots, to connect more people, to communicate and to sort of, it sounds to polyamorish, but to make a difference, you know, because I couldn’t do it otherwise. I couldn’t do it, unless I was actually thinking that I’m achieving something.
If we were to go back to the day before you started the I Quit Sugar movement, and you were to give yourself one piece of advice, knowing everything you know today, what would that be?
To bring it full circle, this all makes sense later, you know. The dots will join.
It’s definitely worth saying to young people that it gets better as you get older and it will make sense, and all this pain that you’re going through, it will all be for something. I’ve applied this to my existential search, creativity and the building of a business and when I say that to somebody they intuitively feel it’s right.
For those who also want to become New York Times bestselling authors, what are the sort of broad stroke, high-level pieces of advice you would give?
Paraphrasing something that Louise Hay once told me, answer the phone, open the mail – Just do the work. A lot of people I know tell me ‘I’m so lucky I have this book that just came out of nowhere’ and blah blah but I had 15 years of journalism being paid a cadets wage for many, many years before my first book.
I also like to remind people that I ran the addict program for two years on my own, not getting paid a cent and I answered all the questions on the forums and wrote blog posts every second day about it all. I did all of that and I look back and I think “My God, how did I do it for two years”, you know? I just did the work.
I realise now that when you do the work you finesse and you finesse and you finesse, until you are ready to actually charge for your product. I once interviewed Seth Godin whose advice still sticks with me. He said one of his big life mantras is ‘give first’. The example he gave was Shepherd Fairey, the artist who did the famous hope posters for Obama campaign. He produced 300 of those, put them out for free, and they started to get traction. A couple of years after the hope posters, his cheapest piece of artwork was $30,000. I think that’s an amazing lesson, is that you give first, you do the work, and if it’s good enough, and if it’s what people want, they will come.
So my advice is ‘do the work, give first, build and they will come’. You have to trust that, there’s no shortcut. There really is no shortcut.
Want to hear more from Sarah Wilson? Get your ticket now to the Entrepreneurs’ Unconvention now, where Sarah will be sharing her story with 100s of entrepreneurs.