Dan Clark is an accomplished athlete, fitness expert, television personality, best-selling author and TED X speaker. After surviving a heart attack at age 49, Dan “Nitro” Clark’s world turned upside and he had to fight back. After receiving what he calls a second chance, Dan has dedicated his life to helping others find their inner Gladiator and be their “best human possible.”
In this episode of the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, Dan joins Bottom Line President Sarah Hiner to discuss how his heart attack in December of 2013 not only changed his life for the better—it motivated him to spread his message of resiliency, gratitude and optimism to the world.
Topics explored in this episode:
- The frightening moment of Dan’s heart attack (2:21 – 6:15)
- How Dan went from “Why me?” to “What can I be? (6:15 – 8:21)
- Dan’s 3 words that pushed him through the anxiety, doubt and fear (8:25 – 9:16)
- The comeback (9:20 – 13:00)
- The importance of patting yourself on the back (13:50 – 15:40)
- What holds people back from overcoming challenges (17:00 – 21:30)
- Learned optimism and gratitude (25:40 – 26:55)
- Dan’s morning routine to maximize his day (27:26 – 30:55)
- How to live with grace, dignity and positivity (34:40 – 36:42)
- Why 90% of life is a mind game (how to deal with fear and anxiety) (37:54 – 41:01)
- Panic attacks (41:07 – 47:30)
- The power of a smile (50:30 – 53:50)
- Dan’s take-home message (54:00 – 55:55)
You can learn more about Dan and his work by visiting his website DanNitroClark.net. Dan is so committed to his message and to Bottom Line that he will allow listeners of this podcast to download his book, F Dying, for free.
Be sure to subscribe to the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast on Apple Podcasts!
Full podcast transript:
Sarah Hiner: If you have challenges or you’re super-stressed, you may think that those are the problem…but they’re not. It’s really about having the tools and the capacity to overcome those challenges. It’s about developing resilience. I’m talking today to one of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. He’s the former American Gladiator, Dan Nitro Clark. I’m Sarah Hiner, and thank you for joining The Bottom Line Advocator podcast.
Sarah Hiner: I’m Sarah Hiner, president of Bottom Line Inc, the number-one provider of expert-sourced, expert-vetted, expert advice that empowers your life. And I’m thrilled to be talking today to Dan Nitro Clark. He was an NFL football player and an American Gladiator. And he was a picture of health and fitness until, at the age of 49, he had a heart attack, and his world turned upside down. Having hit the bottom and pulled himself back, Dan is now coaching people to be their best in all areas of their lives. He’s the author of the powerful book F Dying, How Cheating Death Kicked my Ass Into Loving, Learning, and Living my Best Life. You can learn more about Dan and all that he does at DanNitroClark.net. Dan…thank you for being here. I’m so delighted to talk to you.
Dan Nitro Clark: Hey, Sarah, you know what? I’m ecstatic to be here. And thank you for that great introduction. I’m ready to rock and roll. Let’s get this started.
Sarah Hiner: All right. Well, you know, you and I were introduced by mutual friends. And you wrote this incredible book, and what really struck me when you and I spoke was that you have had to bounce back from really horrible hardship, not just your heart attack, which had you saying, I want to die, but multiple times in your life, you are the picture of what I’ll call resilience. And I think that we have a crisis in this country on resilience—that people are getting stuck. They think they’ve got problems…they think they’ve got stress…and they don’t know how to bounce back. So they’re self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, food—you name it, killing themselves. And all they need to know is the Dan Nitro formula of—You can get over this. So that’s what I want to talk about today. All right.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yes. Absolutely. Let’s jump right in.
Sarah Hiner: OK. So let’s start with the story of, what really was the catalyst to your absolutely changing your entire life, which was the story of your heart attack. Picture of health, American Gladiator, NFL football player, big hunky healthy picture of health, and there you were on a gurney. What the heck?
Dan Nitro Clark: So, I want to first thank you for saying hunky.
Sarah Hiner: I watch those old videos of you.
Dan Nitro Clark: I still have a little ego left. So, look, my whole life, my identity has been dedicated to health and fitness. As you said, I was on TV for years as a professional athlete, I’m a health and fitness expert, and that’s how I identified myself. And then December 18, when I was 49, five years ago, I was working out in the gym, doing something I did every single day of my life, and I started to feel this chest pain. And at first I just laughed it off, mistake number one, and I kept working out, kept working out and finally, Sarah, I had to drop to a knee. Because the pain that felt like a pinch suddenly started to feel like an elephant was stepping on my chest, and I could not catch my breath.
Dan Nitro Clark: So I hobbled to the back of the gym, and I sat in a chair, and I was sweating profusely…like just in a cold sweat. And I was still trying to understand and self-diagnose because I thought a heart attack will be the last thing that would happen to me. And it wasn’t until, sitting there, chest pain, cold sweat, shortness of breath…I didn’t become worried until I looked down at my left arm, and I was unconsciously or subconsciously shaking my left arm. And at that moment, Sarah, I said, Oh my God, that’s the sign of a heart attack. But I still couldn’t believe it was happening to me.
Sarah Hiner: Couldn’t be you.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah. It couldn’t be me. You know, I lived my whole life. A heart attack happened to the guy who was stressed at work…to the girl who was overweight…the person who didn’t exercise. It didn’t happen to healthy people who were in the upper one percentile of health in their age group.
Dan Nitro Clark: So, cutting a long story short, the next thing I know, I’m in the emergency room, and the doctor is telling me after he’s done the test and he’s telling me, “Look, you’ve had a heart attack. It took you about an hour and a half to get here.” And he says to me… And I wanted to know because I had a terrible chest pain now, and I wanted to know this one question. And I asked him…I said, “Am I going to die?” And I asked this question looking for reassurance. And instead I got, “You’ve had a heart attack for three hours, I don’t know. We’ll do the best we can.” And in that moment, I feel like I got the answers to the test of life before the test. Because in that moment, things that seemed so important in my day-today life suddenly became unimportant. What mattered to me most was two things.
Dan Nitro Clark: One was…I wanted the people closest to me, that I loved, closest to me…and I wanted those people that I loved to know that I love them. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t care about the big house on the hill, the German cars in the driveway, the vacation homes. I didn’t care about the plaque on the walls. And based upon that moment when I did not know if I was going to live or die, I completely rebuilt my life knowing now what was most important to me.
Sarah Hiner: So, at that moment in time, because this was… Your entire identity had been about your health and your fitness and your strength, and one would argue, we know that a lot of people after heart attacks go into depression…they get afraid to be physically active…etc. So rather than wander through that piece, you, and I call it, have a grieving session of the loss of your history. You just leapt straight over to, I see a new life for me.
Dan Nitro Clark: No, no, no. Hey, I did wear spandex, but I’m not superman. The next day in the hospital, after they put a stent in and the next day in the hospital, like you said, my entire belief of who I was, was shattered. And I remember lying in the hospital that next day saying, If I could not live life on my own terms, then I wanted to die. And I fell into a mini-depression. And I kept asking myself after this personal tragedy happened to me, I kept asking myself, Why me? Why me? And that led to that downward spiral. But it wasn’t until I cried a good bout of tears and that feeling sorry for myself, did an answer come to me. And that was after I wept and wept and I couldn’t cry any more tears and in the silence, I just had this idea instead of saying, Why me? I started to ask myself, What can I be? And that shift from why me to what can I be given the circumstances, that shift and that question completely changed my outlook.
Dan Nitro Clark: So I started to come up with answers when I asked a better question given the circumstances. And I said, Well, I can be someone who could take a personal tragedy and turn it into a gift of inspiration for others. I can be someone who shows people how to bounce back…how good life could be after a heart attack. And I found three words, three words that pushed me through the anxiety, that pushed me through the doubt, that pushed me through the fear. And those three words are words that I share with a lot of my clients. Because we can’t always choose the path we’re going to walk in life, but we can always choose how we can walk it. And those three words I promised myself, I said, no matter what happens to me, no matter if I die tomorrow, no matter if I don’t get my life back, I’m going to handle this with grace, dignity, and positivity. I’m going to be the most graceful heart attack person you’ve ever seen. I’m going to handle this with dignity. I’m going to be the most positive guy.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I have those words plastered in front of my computer so I see them every day to remember how I want to walk the path of my life.
Sarah Hiner: This is, I think, this is so big because I think again, in my opening, I talked about that. I think that the world, the country, civilization is having a problem working through that pain. So they have a problem—they had a heart attack, they got fired from their job—whatever the issues that they’re struggling with and suffering with that they’re not working through to the other side. In a little bit, I want to talk about some of the strategies that you went through—the triggers and the holdbacks on people. But how long did you let yourself cry and go through that pain? Because the pain is part of the process and part of the facing the new lessons in life, right? And a lot of people don’t want to face that. So how long did you let yourself and did it take to get through this?
Dan Nitro Clark: The pain for me was…I processed that quickly that next day. I believe in learned optimism, and it’s something I’ve trained my life to be an optimist. And just the idea that I said I wanted to die was so against everything I believed. So the pain, I process quickly. Now, the fear is something that I have with me until this day. They’re two very different things. And I think the pain we feel from losing somebody from death is a different type of grief—at least it is for me—than it is for a personal tragedy, if that makes sense.
Dan Nitro Clark: My mother died 15 months ago of cancer, and I still have sadness and grief in my heart for her, and I still work on processing that. My older brother died in my arms when I was 10, he was 12. He was electrocuted. He was my hero…he was my rock. And I’ve processed that pain over the last 40 years, and I still—even now when I think about him—I still get emotional. But for a personal pain, I’ve never let it last that long. I’ve just pushed through it, because it seems like something I’m more in control of…it that makes sense.
Sarah Hiner: It does. I mean, and again, some of it though may be just what your makeup is, right? Because not everybody has that personal strength. Did you do it alone? Was it you in the aloneness of your hospital bed? Or did you have friends, family, clergy, anybody that was coming in to talk through these things?
Dan Nitro Clark: So, I believe support is absolutely beneficial. 100% beneficial. I think we need support. But you don’t have to have support, because at the end of the day, it is a personal journey on what you define for yourself. So, again, the first step for me was changing the question why me to what can I be given the circumstances. And then I said, OK, what can I control today? Again, Grace, dignity, positivity. I can control how I want to appear in the world. And then, what can I control about my recovery? And my first day home from the hospital, I set a goal for myself. And that goal, and this is what I could control, that goal was to walk downstairs from my bedroom to my kitchen, walk 22 steps downstairs and touch the refrigerator and not die.
Dan Nitro Clark: I’m a man who set a goal to win an Oscar, to play in the NFL, to have a New York Times best-seller. Those are the goals that I had set for myself, and that day, when I walked downstairs and I touched that refrigerator, I have to tell you, it was one of the most triumphant experiences that I’ve had. And each day when you’re making a comeback, I would extend my reach just beyond my grasp. Meaning the second day, I said, OK, I’m going to walk downstairs and touch my mailbox and not die. The third day, I said, I’m going to walk across the street and touch my neighbors gate. The fourth day was, I’m going to walk to the end of the street. The fifth day was, I’m going to go to X, Y and Z. And each day, I made just a little bit of progress. I didn’t get stuck in that gap between where I was and where I hope I would go, and that did not cause me inaction. I think that’s a place where a lot of people get stuck.
Sarah Hiner: Yeah, I think that they set big goals. So let’s… I mean, again, you’re like super-human, right? And I do the same thing. Like, I just ran this 10K last week, which to me, I might as well have trained for an ultra-marathon for as big a deal that I made out of a stupid 10K. But for me, it was huge. And I always, whenever I would run, like, just from my years in sports, I would get to the end, I could be dying, but I’m still going to kick it in the end. That’s just the way that I’m programmed…that’s the way you’re programmed.
Sarah Hiner: Not everybody is that way. Not everybody’s got…
Dan Nitro Clark: Sarah, I will say this to you. You said, “Oh, it’s only a 10K.” I know some of your listeners are struggling just to get out of bed. Right?
Sarah Hiner: Yes.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I work with people who really, really struggle in different areas, and they’re so stuck. And I think we have to leave the negative talk behind. I think we need to start to pat ourselves on the back for the things we are accomplishing.
Sarah Hiner: Yes.
Dan Nitro Clark: Do you know what I mean? So I would say to you, “Sarah, you did a 10K. You’re not someone that runs. That’s amazing.”
Sarah Hiner: And it was at altitude.
Dan Nitro Clark: It was that altitude in Colorado.
Sarah Hiner: It was.
Dan Nitro Clark: So we’re doing. I call this, yeah, I say comparison is the thief of joy. Because we compare our achievements, not to the average human being—you compare your running to someone who’s doing a 100-mile run, so your run doesn’t feel like anything. You compare your wealth to someone who’s a billionaire, so your wealth doesn’t feel like anything. And we keep doing this to ourselves, and we’re not celebrating the human beings that we are. And this leads to anxiety, this leads to apathy, this leads to depression. So I just wanted to throw that out.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I also want to say, when you talked about having somebody either with you in the journey back, I believe that transparency will lead to transformation. Because too many times, we fight silent battles. You smile for everyone. You’re probably as guilty as I am as of this, Sarah, is we smile for everybody, but sometimes we’re dying inside. But people can’t fix what they do not face.
Sarah Hiner: Exactly. Right. And then they’re stuck, and they don’t know where to start. So that’s a perfect… We didn’t even rehearse this. You did it perfectly. Let’s help people try to figure out, like, what the steps are…what are the issues that they have to overcome? Because again, you’re a fighter. I’m a fighter. We’re both competitors. But there are a whole lot of people—they get smacked in the face with whatever it is, and then they’re stuck. They don’t have the drive to do it. And your book talks about a number of things that help people overcome their challenges.
Sarah Hiner: I think, one of them you just mentioned it. So let’s start with, I call it, self-doubts and self-loathing—where, you just don’t see it in yourself. You just don’t like, If I can’t be this, I don’t believe in myself. I’m a loser. I’ve always thought of myself as a loser. My parents always called me loser, and I’m done. Right?
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah. That’s negative self-talk. I want to address something you said in the beginning. You said, what holds people back from overcoming challenges? Let’s do this in bite-sized pieces. That’s a big question. Right?
Sarah Hiner: Well, yeah.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I’m sure, I am sure of this. What holds people back from overcoming challenges are two main things and this is 99% of the problem. One, you’re afraid of what people will think—that is the biggest thing. That’s why you don’t take steps forward. And two, the sister or brother to that is the fear of failure. That’s at the bottom of almost 99% of overcoming challenges and being stuck.
Sarah Hiner: And you don’t think that some of it is they don’t even know. Like, I think there are a lot of people if I ask them—unless they’re lying to me. If you ask them, “What do you want? What would your next be? If money wasn’t a factor, what would you do with your life?” And they can’t answer it. They can’t identify, so they don’t know how to get from here to there. Or are they secretly so afraid? They’re afraid to be honest about it?
Dan Nitro Clark: I’ll say two things. I think, people especially as we get a little bit older—I’m 55 years old last week. As we get a little bit older…
Sarah Hiner: You’re so young.
Dan Nitro Clark: …I think our dreams change. I think when you’re younger, you dream of success…you dream maybe of fame…you dream of different things. But as we get older, people’s ambitions change and they can’t point to one thing, but what we really want is inner peace, connection, meaning, fulfillment. That’s what we want. But we were raised in a culture that made us think that getting that was getting the corner office, getting the nicer car, getting the second home, getting a home. So, our paradigm has shifted from what we thought would make us happy. And I know, you’re very successful, and I’m successful, but that did not fulfill me, just having that much external success.
Dan Nitro Clark: I think that a lot of times when people are getting stuck—when you ask people what they want—they don’t know because what they really want is inner peace, connection, meaning, fulfillment, and that is the group that creates happiness. Because truthfully, anything you want to learn how to do you is a Google Search away in this hyper-connected world. You want to write a book. You want to start a business. You just Google search.
Sarah Hiner: But they still don’t think they’re good enough. They don’t think they’ve got the skills. Their fourth-grade teacher told them they’ll never be able to write. Fred Astaire was told that he couldn’t dance. He could sing. Sorry, can’t sing, can dance a little. What’s his name? Tom Brady. Right?
Dan Nitro Clark: Right. So, we play negative scripts in our head from things that we’ve learned and they become ingrained in us. I agree 100%. So how do you break free of that? It takes courage. It takes courage. It takes the ability to do things when you don’t want to…when you don’t feel like it…when you’re afraid. The whole key to success, the whole key to becoming unstuck, is first recognizing that this is a fear, and two, getting yourself to take action when you have all those feelings. And I think people, when I just say this to them, and they say, “Oh, OK, you feel this, too…Sarah feels it too…most people feel this.”
Dan Nitro Clark: I saw Michael Phelps the other day at this place, and we were talking about it. And he said, “Oh, yeah,” he had the same feelings as well. Someone who has 20 Olympic medals. And I think once we find that human connection and that bond that connects us all, we realize we’re all in this together…that we all struggle…and the way out is the same for everyone, if that makes sense.
Sarah Hiner: Well, it does…it does to me. And I think also you made the comment about the perception that we all have, too—we are what we are. So we are what our job is…we are what we wear…we are where we live…versus the deep down heartfelt aspects of humanity. They always say on your deathbed, you always wish that you did… No one wishes they worked more on their deathbed…they always wish they spent more time with their family.
Sarah Hiner: There’s something in your book, a concept which I loved. You talked about the Japanese broken pottery. Was it called Kintsugi? Is that how you pronounce it?
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah, Kintsugi.
Sarah Hiner: And I love this perception because again, we are trained in this country to be perfect. And I’ll describe it, you can correct me. This concept in the book that you talked about is that they repair broken pottery with gold. And they repair the cracks with gold so it, in fact, highlights it. I becomes this beautiful patina of part of life’s process versus being broken. It becomes a celebration of the evolution in some ways. It’s a total flip on a break. And I love that.
Dan Nitro Clark: That’s right. So, it’s often an artwork, and it’s often more valuable than the original. So I think the whole perception flips like you’re saying, and this touched me, too, I am half Japanese and I was born in Japan. So this really touches a place deep inside of me, is that we need to find beauty in the places that we are broken. One of my favorite Hemingway quotes is, “The world breaks everyone, and some become strong at the places they are broken.” And I know that’s a little esoteric, but I will tell you how it works in real life.
Dan Nitro Clark: I was coaching a client, a very successful client, who had a stroke. And she was having a hard time recovering, and she was embarrassed, and she was having a hard time getting back to work because she spoke a little bit different. And then when she went to work, she was around people and she was trying to hide it, trying to be normal, and she couldn’t. And it took her a little while longer to think. And so what she was doing, she was looking at where she was broken and she was seeing it as a flaw. And one of the key things I did to her is I said, learn to see the beauty in where you’re broken. Learn to accept yourself where you are at, and instead of putting a strong front and trying to be who you were, accept where you are now and open that up to the world.
Dan Nitro Clark: And instead of getting confused and tongue-tied when you talk because you’re putting so much pressure on yourself, take a breath at any meeting and just say, “Hey, I don’t know if you know I had a stroke a little while ago, and so I’m a little slower in my speech and I just wanted to share that with you.” She started doing that in her meetings, and oh my god, did the world change for her.
Sarah Hiner: Oh, yeah.
Dan Nitro Clark: People opened their hearts back to her. They gave her empathy. They joined her, and most people said, “Oh, my uncle, my friend, my sister”—they had story. And what she was trying to hide and embarrassed her became a way to connect and go deeper. And she’s thriving.
Sarah Hiner: Oh, I love it. Well, and even so she had a stroke. So she had, I’ll call it, a reason that she was broken. But I think that so many of us just in our humanity, sometimes we’re klutzy, sometimes we’re forgetful. My kids, I’ve got two daughters—I promise you, they are very good at pointing out every human fallacy that I have. Just saying. You name it. You really want to wear that? You really want to drive that way? You name it.
Sarah Hiner: What I’ve always said to them is that, “I’m a perfect that makes me so human.” And lucky them that I’m so human. And that, like, our funny quirks and our isms are part of who we are. Not that I don’t want to celebrate when there are things that I can improve upon, then I need to improve upon it or shift it. But to tolerate and accept ourselves in these kind of quirky things about ourselves is so important versus this self-loathing that we have.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah, I don’t know the particular study, but I know there was a study done recently. I don’t know if it was at Harvard or Cambridge…where they worked to study people on negative self-talk versus positive self-talk. They found that the negative self-talk didn’t motivate people more. It actually hindered them from taking action. And that’s the…one of the things I teach is move forward, have positive self-talk, love yourself where you’re at. Understand that optimism is not something you’re born with. That’s why I called it learned optimism earlier. But it’s something like gratitude that you can learn through practice, and it’s a very specific skill set. But once you learn the practice of optimism and designing your days so you find things that make you happy—you shine a light on them—your happiness, your quality of life, your fulfillment increases. We just haven’t been trained that way.
Dan Nitro Clark: We’re trained, at the end of the day, to look at our to-do list and say, What didn’t I accomplish today?
Sarah Hiner: Every night of my life.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah. And then what a feeling of unfulfillment if every day you look at, Oh my God, I didn’t accomplish this. And you wonder why we have anxiety…you wonder why we have depression…you wonder why suicide and anxiety depression numbers are increasing like crazy, especially in kids in college? We’re taught to see what we didn’t do instead of what we did do.
Sarah Hiner: As you say, so do you have exercises again, because that’s what this is all about. Helping people bounce back from this stress, anxiety, losses, whatever—do you have exercises that you work with that you could share…one or two that you work with your clients in terms of self-talk and how to get over that self-talk? You talked about designing your day.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yes. So I’m a big routine guy, I’m a big habits guy. And a lot of times, it’s just instilling specific habits in people based upon what they’re already doing. And I’m a big guy, and I believe you win the morning, you win the day. So, how do I win the morning? My personal morning routine is, I am up at 5:15. I’m up at 5:15, I’m etching out time for myself so that I can create the day. In that time, I journal. I started journaling 25, 30 years ago, from a book titled, Julia Cameron’s book, The Morning Pages, and the first thing I do is I get up and I spill my thoughts out on a page.
Dan Nitro Clark: And as I do that for eight to 10 minutes, I craft over into, What can I do today that would make the day great? And I do that because I do not want to go blindly through the day just knocking stuff off my to-do list. I want to create certain goal posts that I can hit that if I do this, I will feel good. So I’m reinforcing the feelings that I want to feel every day.
Dan Nitro Clark: Then I also meditate. This is something that changed my life dramatically when I was 14 years old. It was visualization, but since it’s gone to meditation. So I have this routine that I do in the morning, that I do during the day, that I do at night that I prescribe to my clients, and it’s very, very similar to those.
Sarah Hiner: So when people are journaling, is there, I call it, a style or a focus on positive affirmations at all or? Because when you journal, you can kind of do a whole volume and you go, Oh my god, today there is… There can be a misery in the journaling.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah, there can be a misery.
Sarah Hiner: I’ve done exercises where at the end of my day, I kind of reflect on what it was and anything that didn’t get accomplished or that felt bad, I literally rewrite it so that I end up…
Dan Nitro Clark: I love that exercise.
Sarah Hiner: It’s a great exercise. So that you end up on a high versus on the failure.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yes. So, journaling the way that Julia Cameron taught, the way I teach it to people, there’s one rule—you cannot stop typing for… she goes 20, that was 25 years ago, I go eight to 10 minutes. The one rule is you can’t stop typing, and you can’t hit delete. And what most people do when they start this, they get this, Oh, I don’t want to do this. Why am I doing this? The Gladiator guy made me do this. This sucks. But they get through that negative voice down to what is important to them that maybe they haven’t expressed and dealt with. And many times I’ve been at the journal, my big masculine self, I’ve been weeping. And many times that goal, that stuff that I’ve uncovered, I put in my books.
Dan Nitro Clark: But again, I always finish it with, What can I do today that would make the day great? Because one of the biggest things we want is we want control. Control makes us happy. It makes us feel fulfilled when we have some control over our destiny and the things that we’re going to do.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I also meditate, exercise, I have a whole list of things that I do. I think, what I find, again, most people know what to do—their biggest challenge is getting themselves to do it. So I have five or six different exercises I do, and I think having a coach is essential. I have a coach now, and I’ve had various coaches throughout my lifetime from professional football coaches to certain marketing coaches—there’s certain things I want to work on, so I think it’s absolutely essential.
Sarah Hiner: So, what are some of the things, again, because I just feel for people because I’ve been heavily coached as well through my life, and, thank God, I’m an entirely different person as a result of having been coached. But not everybody has coaches. Not everybody listening out there has coaches or can find great coaches, because you and I both know there are some great coaches and there’s some coaches that aren’t always that great.
Sarah Hiner: So, journaling—did you journal after your heart attack? And that adds like, over time, you start out with, Why is it me? This is horrible. Who am I going to be when I’m done? And then over days, and as you go through the daily iteration of just putting your heart and emotions down that you’ve watched that it evolved into a different level of freedom?
Dan Nitro Clark: No, I didn’t have my journal in the hospital. That all happened in the hospital. And that’s, I’m not a religious man, so I won’t say it was the grace of God because that’s a cop out, but I think it was the 25 years I’ve put into, the 30 years, I’ve put in and dedicated my life to self-improvement.
Sarah Hiner: If you had a heart attack today…if today you had some other life-altering event…or again, for anyone listening out there that’s dealing with some issue at this moment in time—maybe they got laid off from work and they’re 55 years old and it’s not so easy to find a job and they have a mortgage to pay. Maybe they came home and found their spouse cheating. Whatever it is, the world turned upside down, is journaling a good exercise, again, that will help them to work through? I’m trying to help people because they’re so stuck, Dan.
Dan Nitro Clark: Look, I let me say this to you. I had back surgery 10 months ago. I had a three level lumbar, I had two discs replaced and one fusion L5 up through L3, 4. And after the back surgery, again, crutches, couldn’t walk. But a month after back surgery, my right foot started to swell just a little bit. So, I went to the emergency room on advice of my surgeon, and they found that I had three blood clots in my leg. The top blood clot was near the popliteal up behind the knee, and they say, “It’s loose. We have to admit you right away and put you on this heparin.” Then when they admit me, they do a chest scan and they say, “We think you may have cancer. You have a two-inch mass in your lungs.” This was eight months ago.
Dan Nitro Clark: So, I went through all those feelings I had with the heart attack—the anxiety, the depression, the sadness, the grief. And for me, I went back to that same exercise—I meditated, I cleared, I stopped… The science behind meditation is we stop the fast revolutions of our brain. We slow it down so we can slow the adrenaline and cortisol dumping into our body so we can get beyond that anxious, analytical mind down to slower a brainwave where we can think more clearly. So that’s the first thing I did—step one. So journaling is another way you can get there.
Dan Nitro Clark: And then I remember those three words. I said, you know what? I’m choosing right now in this particular moment to handle this with grace, dignity and positivity. If I have cancer, which my mom died of at that time a year before or six months before, then I’m going to be the most gracious cancer person who had the most positivity—that’s the way I’m going to go. So first thing if you’re suffering from a setback, if something is like your dream is broken, you’ve gone through bankruptcy, you’ve gone through divorce, whatever it is—I say, find some space and create that quietness in you. There’s a great app called Insight Timer where you can look all these different meditations, slow that mind down so you can get to where you can start to think rationally and you’re not emotional.
Dan Nitro Clark: And the second thing is, choose how you want to act through this time. That’s the first thing. Don’t start thinking of what you want to do until you’re going to choose how you’re going to be during this time. So for me—and you can take my words—grace, dignity and positivity. If it’s a relationship, just because your relationship ended, it doesn’t mean it has to end badly. Choose to have grace, dignity, positivity. If you are going bankrupt, which I had gone through as a young man, choose to handle with grace, dignity and positivity. So instead of thinking what to do right away, you think of how you want to be. Once you think of how you want to be and you make the commitment, then you start to look at things that are in your control. And I go back, Sarah, to learned optimism. What can I do today that would be good…would move me forward…would make me happy?
Dan Nitro Clark: And it’s that simple exercise that you create your comeback with. You do this day after day, time after time. And that is the key to making a comeback. Because each time you take a step toward, let’s say, it’s financial independence if you’ve gone bankrupt, you become someone who’s financially dependent or independent. Each time you take a step toward a workout, you become and assume the identity of someone who’s fit. Each time you take action when you’re afraid, you become someone who assumes the identity of being courageous. Does that make sense?
Sarah Hiner: Totally. And I love, love, love the word choose. Because it’s action. You’re owning it. I can’t stand the word hope. It’s like one of my pet peeves in life. I always, you sit around and hope. It’s such a victim word. And I always say that people have so much more power for their lives than they give themselves credit for, but they don’t know what to do…they don’t know how to do it. And when you said choose, that just… I got tingles, because that is an action, a simple action that it made me tingle.
Dan Nitro Clark: I wonder if anybody at home got the tingles?
Sarah Hiner: I hope they did. They should have. But it’s such a…
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah, better than shingle.
Sarah Hiner: Yeah, that, we don’t want that. But no, I mean in all seriousness, the concept of choosing is enormous. It pains me to see people stuck and self-medicating and hiding and falling victim to learned helplessness instead of learned optimism. So I just wanted to button that choose.
Dan Nitro Clark: You know what, again, you know, again, I believe this and I said it over and I’m going to repeat it because I think it’s worth repeating and I believe this with all my heart, I know it to be true. What we want is inner peace connection, meaning and fulfillment. And any step that we choose to take toward that is going to improve the quality of our lives. And I also know this to be true. I also know that 90% of life and success and happiness, it’s all an inside game. It’s a mind game. We have to face the resistance, the apathy…we have to face this doubt, this fear every single day.
Dan Nitro Clark: I think the thing a lot of people get wrong is number one, they feel like they shouldn’t have fear. Like, Oh, why am I afraid? If it was my life’s dream, if it was my purpose, I would not have the fear. I would have so much passion. Well, that’s a bunch of horse crap to me. Even the most successful people, even myself, even professional athletes, CEOs I talk to, they have fear, but their ability to deal with this fear and anxiety and their tools that they have and their strategies to manage, it gives them success. That’s what the people who are stuck do not have… the tools and the strategies. Everybody feels the same thing.
Sarah Hiner: Well, and I think that’s huge. And you mentioned Michael Phelps before…or if you could have fear, you know that in the social-media world, where everybody thinks that their next-door neighbor and their BFF is having a perfect life because of the pictures that are posted, and you don’t see the messy closets behind it. So we have this bizarre sense of what’s normal, but that everybody has these fears. Now how do you overcome it because we all have the chatter? Is it just shut up fear and choosing something else, like I choose joy versus I choose fear? I choose to face that fear?
Dan Nitro Clark: I think there’s two parts to it, Sarah. So one is, yes. What I do is I’ve learned when that negative voice comes up, I learned to treat it like I’m training a dog. “Sit, stay.”
Sarah Hiner: “Down fear, down.”
Dan Nitro Clark: “Sit down.” Yes, “Down, stay.” So that’s the one thing I’ve learned. I hear that negative voice like…I had it this morning and I wanted to go do yoga. And I was like, Oh no, I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep. I haven’t eaten. I just won’t go. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow. And I just said, Sit down, shut up. You’re going.
Dan Nitro Clark: So a lot of times, it depends, again—how great that fear is based upon how you deal with it. But each day that I will say the gladiator defeats the dragon—the beast of this negativity, doubt, fear—you gain strength, and you know you have the ability to overcome it. But the mistake again is to think, If I was so passionate, this is my life purpose. I shouldn’t have it because the fear will always exist. It’s when you make friends with that fear and say, This is my buddy, this fear. So I started getting actually panic attacks for the first time of my life this year. And it was after the blood clots…and it was when I had to fly.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I’ve always thought panic attacks. My mom had them when she was at work, and I always thought it was a weakness. And I thought, Oh, she’s weak. My mom has panic attack. She doesn’t know how to control her mind. And I was sitting on a plane…it had just taken off and I was going to Mexico on a four-hour flight. And I was reading a book on meditating, Sarah.
Sarah Hiner: And there was a panic attack.
Dan Nitro Clark: I meditate every day, and all of a sudden, I’m sitting there and I start to feel this tingle go up my legs. And I feel this like tingle, like my arms and legs have kind of fallen asleep. And I got this big flush of warmness. And I’m on the plane and I’m like, Oh, my God, I’m dying.
Sarah Hiner: I’ve had that.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah.
Sarah Hiner: Yes.
Dan Nitro Clark: I’m having a heart attack. What’s wrong with me? And I got shortnes of breath, and I started to sweat, and I said, This is just me. This is somebody who has all the tools. And it came on, it came on like a monsoon. And I got up from my seat and then I started getting the troubling thoughts. Oh my god, I’m going to die. They’re going to have to turn the plane around. I’m going to be that guy that’s going to ruin everybody’s vacation. And I stumbled up to the flight attendant, I run around the place and I’m like, “Hey.” She’s like, “What is it?” I said, “I have blood clots.” She’s like, “What?” She looked at me like I’m some maniac. I said, “No, no, I’ve got blood clots, but I’m on medication, but I don’t know what’s happening to me.” I start going through all this stuff. And she’s like, “I think you’re having a panic attack.” “No, no, not having a panic attack. This is physical. I can feel it. I’m not panicked.”
Dan Nitro Clark: Like I’m almost shaking her. She’s like, “No, no, you need to drink this stuff. It has quinine. It’s supposed to relax you.” She takes me through this whole thing. And I sat back down in my seat, and it passed in 15 or 20 minutes. But I was convinced it was purely a physical event that had nothing to do with my mind…nothing to do with my thoughts. And I went and saw my therapist. Yes, I go to therapy. I’ve been going off and on since I was 28 years old. Because at the height of my success, when I was on the cover of TV Guide and I was on The Tonight Show and I had little action figures of me, I found myself having spontaneous bouts of crying.
Dan Nitro Clark: Big 240-pound guy driving around, and all of a sudden I would just start weeping. And I was never a crier. And at that time back then, I raised my hand. I said, “Something’s wrong. I need help.” And so off and on, I go through therapy, I call it “rent a friend,” and I think it’s a great thing. I pay X amount of money, and someone has to listen to me talk the whole time.
Sarah Hiner: I know, and they can’t complain about it, right? It’s great.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah, exactly. But I find it’s beneficial to go. So, I went and saw my therapist and I talked to him. He said, “You had a panic attack.” And in that moment, a couple of things happened. I was so humbled. And number two, I felt more love in my heart for my mom because I understood her struggle wasn’t a weakness. And so that was five months ago. And last five months I really dug into what panic attacks are…how to stop them…and how to live a panic attack–free life. And it’s been really, really interesting. I know I’m veering off another subject, but what I found is that panic attacks are a physical manifestation in your body to thoughts that you have…a fear. And when we are afraid, we have this thing in our body that creates adrenaline and cortisol, and it’s just an adrenaline dump. We get so overwhelmed by it because there’s no context. A car comes at us about to hit us, Oh my god.” The adrenaline pumps in our body, we squeeze the wheel, we understand that.
Dan Nitro Clark: But when we have a panic attack, we don’t have contacts. And sometimes we’re just sitting there. We’re not even worrying, and it hits us.
Sarah Hiner: You know what I love though about this, again, because I’ll bring it back, because it’s my job, I’m going to bring it back to resilience—that there are a whole lot of people out there having a whole lot of panic attacks and then they’re on Xanax. And you didn’t do that. You are overcoming it. You confronted it. You’re trying to figure it out, and you’re trying to figure out then how to get past it, which is what resilient people do versus to fall victim to it…versus to fall into that fear that it’s about. What are the steps you could take? How do you look past it? How do you understand it, right? Know your enemy, and then move beyond it.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I even like to take it one step further. How do I teach it?
Sarah Hiner: Yes. Well, that’s what you do.
Dan Nitro Clark: That’s a true mastery. Yeah, that’s a true mastery. No, thank you for pointing that out. And you asked me if that desire is something that’s innate, but I’m sure it’s learned. And I learned it at a young age through sports.
Sarah Hiner: Like it is. I mean, again, some of it is the chemistry and you did learn it, and it’s what your makeup is, because at 10 years old when your brother is dying in your arms, not everybody could handle it the way that you did. But I think that also you made the point that again—that everybody has this, no matter how big, no matter how successful. I think that if everybody when they’re dealing with their own fears can realize that it normal—I’m not broken, right—it is just part of life. And, “Oh, Hello, friend. Sometimes it rains.” OK, today it’s rainy, tomorrow it’ll be sunny. Right now I’m fearful, but I can move past it because everybody is experiencing their own version of that weather, you know.
Dan Nitro Clark: Well, I don’t know if you move past the fear. I think you act in spite of it.
Sarah Hiner: Yeah, but I’m not victim to it now. It doesn’t paralyze me at this moment in time to go, I was fearful of running this race. Guess what? The minute the gun went off, I ran, and I ran well.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yes. And what’s interesting, and that’s one of the techniques I teach my clients and for some, it really clicks into. So, when I was, and I left this part out, when I was lying in bed and when I had that goal for the whole day of walking down the stairs after the heart attack and not dying, I just didn’t pop up and do it. I was lying there and I was like, Oh, I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to lay here. It’s easier just to stay here.
Dan Nitro Clark: I had a friend call me… I’m sorry, I had a friend text me…and he sent me some clips of the old American Gladiator show that I was on. And I started laughing, and it cheered me up. But I noticed one thing…super-interesting as I started working watching these clips going down memory lane. And this is true for any sporting event like when you said, when that whistle goes off, you run, you’re like, OK, time to go. You forget about everything, you jump in. Every time before any American Gladiator event, the referee would have this countdown sequence. He would say, “Gladiator ready. Contender ready. Three, two, one, go.”
Dan Nitro Clark: And what I realized watching all those tapes was that no matter if I was ready or not, no matter if I was tired, no matter if my shoes were tied, no matter if my jock was on, when he said “three, two, one, go,” I went. I propelled myself into action. So what I did that morning is I did that same thing to myself. I’m lying in my Hollywood Hills house like a goofball and I’m going, OK. Gladiator ready. Contender ready. Three, two, one go.
Sarah Hiner: I love that.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I’d used that activation energy to stand up. And then when I walked over to the stairs I looked down, I was scared crapless because anybody who’s had a heart attack, they say, “Be careful walking down stairs…don’t lift up the trash.” Anything you do can give you a heart attack. So I got to the top of the stairs, and I looked, OK, Gladiator ready. Contender ready. Three, two, one, go. And I used this little sequence over and over again. And it makes people laugh, too, which is good. So it makes people laugh because they’re actually saying Gladiator, but it pushes you forward because in that moment of resistance, where we know we need to do something that is good for us…that can move us forward in our life, in our business, in our career, in our health, in our relationships. That moment we feel that resistance and we hesitate and we don’t act—that’s when we die a tiny death.
Sarah Hiner: Right.
Dan Nitro Clark: So using that tool, three, two, one, Gladiator ready…Three, two, one go. I use other tools like the five-minute rule—just sit down and go five minutes. I do use a visualization tool, OK, visualize what it will feel like after I do it, and I use other tools like, OK, I teach other clients just get through the door. If it’s the gym, just get through the door, just get there. That’s the biggest thing. I mean. There’s a bunch of different tools that people can use that I use.
Sarah Hiner: I love it. So, I’ve been going very long. I’m sorry. But this has been so interesting and I love talking about it. But there are two other things that I want to talk about real briefly because it’s a different side of it. I want to talk about smiling. In your book, you talk about the power of a smile. And I agree. I’ve said this on other podcasts, like if you just turn your lips up and start smiling, you can feel the chemical change in your body. And I think that that’s a flip side to helping people moving through their challenges everyday. Talk about smiles for a moment.
Dan Nitro Clark: So, smiling—they did a study. And they studied kids, infants, and they discovered that infants smile, on average, 400 times a day.
Sarah Hiner: And they’re sure it’s not gas.
Dan Nitro Clark: Say that again.
Sarah Hiner: They’re sure it’s not gas.
Dan Nitro Clark: I’m sure it’s not gas. They smile 400 times a day, on average. But when they started looking through and studying adults, they found that the average adult smiles 20 to 25 times a day. And I just thought that was crazy, because I know I’m a smiler. When you smile at somebody—there was a study done at, gosh, you can put in the show notes though, in Sweden at… I can’t think of the name of the university. But what they found is that when you smile at somebody, there is a thing, I know I’m not sounding very scientific. There’s a thing in your brain…
Sarah Hiner: Technical term, thing in your brain.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah, thing in your brain.
Sarah Hiner: Yes.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah. I feel like it’s… what’s the thing? Yeah, there’s a thing in your brain refractory, whatever, that makes you smile back. So, what I did is, I wanted to see how many times I smile a day…was I like a kid? Because I see myself as a pretty positive upbeat guy. Or was I like an adult? So what I did is I went and got a clicker. I got a clicker, and I checked how many times I would smile a day. Now living in Hollywood, this is kind of crazy because I didn’t get any restraining orders, but you just smile at people and they’re like, “What do you want? Is something wrong with you?” But I actually found out that in general, that I smiled, I can’t remember the exact numbers, like 237 times a day.
Dan Nitro Clark: But that little smile has, like you said, Sarah, a physical change upon your brain. It releases feel-good hormones, and it creates this loop because when you have those feel-good hormones, you smile in return. I know if you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, someone just tells you to smile. Well, it seems like a little stupid simple thing. But the medicine that you need is these little stupid things that you may think are stupid…that aren’t going to help. And you take that medicine of inner peace, connection, meaning, designing your days, learned optimism, shining a light on the good moments in your life, practicing gratitude. You take this medicine day after day, you transform your life every day by little habits done over time.
Sarah Hiner: 1,000%. And again, focusing on the positive side, as you’re facing your tragedies, to focus on this positive side and moving toward—I hate to sound religious in this…I don’t mean it this way—but facing toward the light. The lightness of life. It’s beautiful.
Sarah Hiner: All right. So one more thing I just want to comment on because I love this. You mentioned it in your TED Talk. Your mother had a saying that she told you all the time when you were young.
Dan Nitro Clark: Yeah. So, you know, my mom is Japanese. She was born in Japan. Like I said earlier, I was born in Japan. My dad was a military, was a marine, and if anybody served in the military, I am so grateful for your service and thank you for your service. I want to say that first.
Sarah Hiner: Agreed.
Dan Nitro Clark: My mom, after every phone conversation we had, she would say this thing to me, and it was a Japanese word, and it was ganbatte (G-A-N-B-A-T-T-E). And that means to keep your chin up and to keep going. So what I would say to all your listeners, I don’t know what struggles you are having…I don’t know where you’re stuck and I’m sorry that you’re going through this…but there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are tools for you to start to come away from your struggle or your anxiety and that negative voice…to step into meaning, fulfillment, connection and happiness in your life. And I will say what my mother said to me after every phone conversation, now she’s gone and this touches my heart, it’s ganbatte—keep your chin up and keep going.
Dan Nitro Clark: And I also want to give your listeners a gift. Since you talked about my book, if you go to my website DanNitroClark.net, I’m giving this, my number-one best-selling book F Dying away for free.
Sarah Hiner: I love that.
Dan Nitro Clark: So if you go there, you hit something, you put in your email address and you could download a PDF of it for free and read it. Because the number-one thing that is important to me is that I know this book is transformational. I know it has helped a lot of people find happiness in their lives, again, find meaning, find fulfillment. I just want to put it out into the world. And please share it with your friends and, Sarah, I make you this challenge, the next e-mail that you send out, I would love for you to send an e-mail out about the book. You said you enjoyed the book.
Sarah Hiner: I love the book.
Dan Nitro Clark: You love the book. You said you love the book. And what I’d love for you to do is the next e-mail you send out to your group—to your many, many followers that you’ve helped transform, change their life, give them amazing information— I would love for you to include a link where they can download that book for free as well. Will you do that for me?
Sarah Hiner: We will do that and we will have it with the podcast. It will be on the page so when we promote that, we will be promoting this book. I read the book, as you could tell and as you know, and before we started broadcasting, I said to you that I told my producer that he needed to read the book. It’s great, it’s approachable, it’s just human. So it’s great. Dan Nitro Clark, you’re awesome. Thank you very, very much.
Dan Nitro Clark: Thank you, Sarah.
Dan Nitro Clark: I’m talking to Dan Clark, best known as American Gladiator Nitro and one of the toughest guys in America. And then he had a heart attack at age 49, and he had to bounce back. Dan’s work to help people be their best and get the most from their lives is central to what the thousands of experts featured in our twice-monthly newsletter, Bottom Line Personal, do every day. Bottom Line Personal is filled with actionable advice on all aspects of your life, including living a healthy life, facing life’s challenges, traveling safer and cheaper, finding the best insurance, retirement planning, smart tax strategies, and even travel to little known destinations. Bottom Line Personal has been helping people lead more informed and vibrant lives for over 40 years, with our actionable and double-fact-checked advice. Subscribe today and get a free bonus book. Bottom Line’s Best Bets, full of some of the greatest tips from our experts of all time. Just go to BottomLineInc.com/blp. That’s BottomLineInc.com/blp.