James Novello started his career as a firefighter for a small town department while going to college and became an SFFD paramedic firefighter after he graduated. James served for many years, responded to more than 25,000 emergency incidents, and acquired a plethora of specialized certifications and advanced training. It was never a thought in his mind that anything other than this career would be what he would do until retirement age thirty years after he started. But, as life has a tendency of doing, he found himself faced with an unexpected change–but a change that turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him, next to seeing his daughter born. After suffering a series of major injuries, James came to the realization that he would not be able to finish his career and retire with a normal life. He imagined himself skiing and continuing with endurance sports when he retired, but that would be impossible after working as a first responder in San Francisco for 30 years, one of the busiest systems in the nation. While working light duty and assigned to a peer support role, he realized that work as a life and resilience coach would prove to be even better than what he thought was the perfect career. James saw many of his peers struggle to find alternatives to their career, either taking upwards of a decade to get out or continuing on in some limited capacity due to their injuries–what James found was a viable and attractive alternative to him. He currently works and resides in San Francisco, California with his family.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
The idea for the company came from my own life experience, observing so many of my peers who needed help, and recognizing that many people have the same need. After work related injuries forced me to rethink the original plan for my life, I learned firsthand that adopting the practices of mindfulness and gratitude, in conjunction with certain diets and exercise, result in a happier and healthier life.
Up until then, I thought I would always be a firefighter and paramedic. But it’s an incredibly demanding career, both physically as well as personally–family often had to come second when I was working holidays or every day for weeks on end. As I got older, I realized the injuries were not going to stop (I wasn’t invincible like we feel we are in our 20’s), and I was concerned about my longevity in this career. Luckily the department offered several light duty positions while I was recovering from my injuries, some better than others. It seemed like an unacceptable alternative to work at a desk for a year before being forced to retire with no viable career. One light duty assignment I liked in particular was working with the peer support unit where I was able to help others (like I helped patients) and was able to relate to some of the experiences they had been through. There was a lot to be desired from the existing peer support group, but it was there that I first learned some of what I now share with others as a coach. First responders are human like everyone else, and I recognized a need for this sort of support in several demanding careers so that they too could find happiness and balance in life.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day consists of living the way I teach others to live. I start my mornings with meditation and mindfulness, client check-ins and maybe some strength training. I spend time every day reading as much as I can about new techniques. Through my research I continue to find studies in neuroscience that explain why decades-old techniques actually work– I’m talking about techniques that range from religions to programs that promote gratitude and positivity. It’s fascinating to discover what combination of actions or activities can increase levels of dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for allowing you to feel pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction, among other things. One of many goals is to maintain adequate (or even elevated) levels of this neurotransmitter, but in a way that is healthy and sustainable. Donuts and vodka are not sustainable for those looking to increase dopamine and be a happy functional member of society, whereas finding community and going for a run are indeed sustainable activities! We should focus on more than dopamine though, hormones such as cortisol must be controlled as best as possible in order to avoid negative effects. Mindfulness is a helpful tool we can use to prevent high levels of the stress hormone cortisol while elevating dopamine. Finally, throughout the day I’ll also have meetings with clients or peers in my field. At the end of the day, I spend time with my family and I might do a little cardio. I keep my weekends open as often as possible.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I create a plan for people after our initial meeting. Together with the client, I create goals and start planning how to achieve those goals. I ask for feedback regularly and have check-ins for several reasons: some of my techniques include daily contact to share ideas about gratitude and positivity–I also want to make sure they’re following through with our goals. I must be a frequent part of their life in order for them to maintain accountability. Clear expectations are necessary from both sides of the partnership if we want to be successful. While each client’s program has a plan, new information often becomes available that will mean minor or major tweaks to how I approach things.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I feel like there are more people willing to try mindfulness than there have been in the past. And I think that’s because now we have evidence-based research showing how effective it really is. It’s no longer just for hippies, we have tangible evidence now. We even have evidence that it changes the physical structure of the brain. I love that it has become so much more mainstream and that more people are actually seeking it out. And not only seeking out mindfulness, but the health and fitness techniques that go along with my overall approach to wellbeing. Some of the techniques can be difficult in the beginning, but once you achieve the ability to live in the moment, the positive changes in your life are undeniable.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
As strange as it sounds, I take breaks. In my last career I never really needed to concentrate for more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time, or if I did, I was busy multitasking while treating a critical patient or fighting a fire. Now I may spend the entire day at my desk, so I make sure to take a 5 minute break every 30 minutes or microbreaks throughout the day in order to maintain focus and increase productivity. There is an American Psychological Association Journal Article on micro-breaks and job performance that discusses a noticeable benefit. And a break may not be what most people think of as a break, but a walk around the block or a few minutes on the bike or weights. A break may just be a change of subject as I manage my calendar or think about my day. A great deal of my life, including breaks, is scheduled in order to avoid wasting time.
What advice would you give your younger self?
There is a lot of advice I would like to have given my younger self, ranging from fitness and diet techniques to how to evaluate a career that best works with life and promotes longevity. Fortunately, I had several role models and counselors who steered me in the right direction, but it took experience, of course, to determine my best path. With that said, I wish I had access to better research available to show rates of injury for specific careers. I will never regret my time in the fire service, but I could have made more informed decisions regarding my health during that career. Those are issues that someone in their early 20’s rarely thinks about, it’s usually only until you start a family that life and longevity become more important. A part of me wishes I would have found my current career earlier in life, but I don’t think it would feel as valuable to me without first having experienced life as a first responder. And while I have always been athletic, thanks to today’s research I could have been following a diet and exercise routine to really maximize my effort back then.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
There is evidence-based research that shows certain diets, including ketogenic and intermittent fasting, have a direct effect on your physical and mental well-being. Many people either don’t think there is a significant impact or simply don’t care to sacrifice the things they like to eat. Even knowing that dietary changes will make them feel happier and allow them to live a fuller life, many people will not care to make the change for a variety of reasons (habit, laziness, addiction, or they don’t truly believe it). Sometimes it’s not until diagnosed with cancer that a person adopts a diet known to reduce tumor size and recurrence–and look at that: diet can actually affect cancer so much that is integrated into cancer treatment at leading hospitals. I think people are simply unaware of the facts regarding diet. A key part of achieving overall wellbeing is diet, and so despite their reluctance, I show my clients the evidence and we implement changes. Within days or weeks, we find actual cognitive improvements (depending on their previous level of fitness and diet) and we certainly see emotional and physical improvements. Diet really is a cornerstone of my technique for overall well being.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I create a schedule and stick to it. I use my calendar throughout the day to make sure I am on time for meetings and available for phone calls. Almost everything I do is scheduled, both personally and professionally, in order to make the best use of my time.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Being fully engaged has helped me grow personally and professionally. I stay focused, whether working directly with a client or while doing research. It helps that I’m passionate about these subjects, but for anything I do in life, I tend to be obsessed with doing it the best way possible so I achieve success. I may not be successful at first, but I will reevaluate and continue to try with the help of fresh perspectives or new research. I find I’m able to maintain a healthy work-life balance because of this focus and discipline. Making excellent use of my time at work frees up more time for me to tend to personal goals and home life.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
The pandemic created a temporary issue with maintaining the connections I have with my clients. I prefer to meet them for in-person sessions, but then suddenly, we were no longer able to do that because of the virus and the lock downs. I overcame this by updating technology to allow for virtual meetings. Doing that also helped me free up time for my research while strengthening my own health and fitness program.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I think a website dedicated to connecting people with life coaches would be a great idea. It could be designed more like a peer support network than a typical website, allowing people from all walks of life to access and benefit from it. There are so many people who don’t have access to quality help, online resources are the best way to bridge the gap.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
My wife and I had a professional photoshoot not too long ago. It was a fun experience and great to have photos for us to look back on and share with our friends and family. I like that we were able to capture the moment.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use Microsoft Office Suite and Zoom a lot. They work well together and have made things a lot easier over the last couple of years, particularly from March of 2020 onward.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recommend The Power of a Positive Team by Jon Gordon. It discusses the importance of having a positive mindset in the workplace, including how positive attitudes on teams increases success. Another really good book is Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke. It breaks down several studies and clearly explains the relationship our actions have on the body’s dopamine reward pathways. She offers studies in neuroscience that prove why decades-old methods used in order to feel good actually work.
What is your favorite quote?
“Be mindful. Be grateful. Be positive. Be true. Be kind.” ― Roy T. Bennett
- Practice mindfulness and gratitude.
- Work-life balance is imperative to happiness.
- Set goals and work toward them.
- Diet and exercise are key to overall wellness.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.