They say that behind every great man is a greater woman. In my case, it’s a whole squad—it’s practically a Lean In convention back there.
There’s my awesome wife, Courtney, and trusted advisors Coleen McManus and Carola Jain. Then there are the millions of powerful, driven Spartan women, who I learn from every day. But I owe most of my success to one woman: my mom. Without her, I wouldn’t be half the man I am today.
Jean De Sena was a total badass. She’s been gone for 20 years (fuck you, cancer), but her lessons in toughness guide me every day.
No, she didn’t start throwing punches if someone bumped her on the street. Nor did she crush beer cans on her forehead or strut around in a ripped leather jacket. And she didn’t have a single tattoo (that I know of, anyway). That’s not the kind of toughness I’m talking about.
I’m referring to her unfailing confidence and conviction. Her willingness to stay open to new information and experiences—to learn and grow—every day of her life. She was fiercely independent, undeniably brave, and always, without question, herself.
For most of my childhood, we lived in a rough Italian neighborhood in Queens. If you’ve seen GoodFellas … well, that was Mayberry by comparison. Several people in our family were locked up for committing stupid crimes—some still are—and my workaholic father and my mother would often get into actual fistfights at home.
My parents were, in many ways, oil and water. He was always looking for his next business venture; she couldn’t have cared less about money. He would bring home junk food and other treats to make up for being late; she was 100 percent focused on health and wellness.
In her quest for better health, mom found a natural foods store in our neighborhood amid all the Italian restaurants and corner bodegas. There she met Swami Bua, an Indian yogi who had moved to New York City to teach. After hearing his story, she not only tried yoga and meditation, but fully embraced a healthy lifestyle. And she instilled the same passion for healthy living in my sister and me.
Of course, it wasn’t easy to make that switch on our block. Our neighbors didn’t understand why mom would rather do sun salutations than gossip over a glass of wine. So, after my parents finally divorced, my mother decided to move us out of our comfort zone to a place where we didn’t know a soul: Ithaca, New York.
I was 13-years-old at the time, so it wasn’t easy leaving friends and family behind. My mom was not only trying to find a safer neighborhood and better education, but she also wanted us to live in a community that shared her healthy values.
After the move, Mom continued to push herself. She dove deeper into her meditative lifestyle and became a full-blown yogi, traveling to India alone to explore the practice. She didn’t speak the language or know exactly what she was doing, but that didn’t hold her back.
I’m sure she was scared at times, but she never showed it. And that’s the thing—a bad-ass isn’t someone who is fearless. A bad-ass is someone who is true to their own values, confident in who they are, and capable of facing anything the world throws at them.
Here are five things my mom taught me about being a bad-ass.
1. Be the Most Highly Concentrated You That You Can Be
My mom never cared if people thought she was weird. She did her own thing, and she eventually found a tribe to do it with. She embraced yoga and became a vegan before most people had heard of either, much less understood their health benefits.
There was no tradition that she wasn’t willing to blow up, so that she could build something better in its place.
2. Actions Speak Louder Than Beliefs
There are 4,200 religions in the world. And while the details vary, the big themes remain the same. Be kind. Help others. Do good.
I don’t give a damn if you’re religious, agnostic, atheist, or somewhere in between. I just care whether you’re a person that treats others with respect and works hard for the things you want. My mother accepted everyone she met for who they were, and I believe in doing the same.
3. When in Doubt, STFU
You don’t have to like everyone, but you should respect them. My mom always told us that, when in doubt, close your mouth. I’m already a man of few words, so I won’t let those words be negative ones. Sure, I might push you to try something new, but I’ll never tell you that you can’t do it.
4. When Life Gives You Lemons, Consider Yourself Lucky
My sister and I used to whine over who had more food on their plate. My mom would look at us and say, “You get what you get.”
It’s not like we were going to starve. We both had full plates in front of us—something many children are not fortunate to have—and should be grateful that we were always fed, clothed, and had a home with one another.
5. When Others Zig, You Zag
One time, my mom asked me that eternal parent question: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?”
“No,” I said, and she seemed pleased. But then I added: “I’d do a back flip and close my eyes too.”
I’ve always been up for a challenge. When I launched Spartan in 2010, the fitness and health industries were all about shortcuts and instant fixes. Magazines promised abs in seven minutes. I called bullshit. The hard way is the only way. I promised an experience that would push you past your limits and possibly break you.
And, much to everyone’s surprise, people came. More than 10 million men and women have run Spartan races since then. Why? Spartan pushes people out of their comfort zones and reveals a side of themselves that they never knew existed. It teaches them discipline, grit, resiliency. It builds courage, composure, and confidence.
Come to think of it, those are precisely the qualities that my mom instilled in me. Yes, Jean De Sena was a bad-ass. But, more importantly, she was a Spartan.