in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: May 6, 2024

Podcast #987: The No-BS Secrets of Success

Jim VandeHei didn’t have an auspicious start in life. His high school guidance counselor told him he wasn’t cut out for college, and he went on to confirm her assessment, getting a 1.4 GPA at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and spending more time drinking beer than planning his career.

Eventually, though, Jim turned things around for himself, going on to co-found two of the biggest modern media outlets, Politico and Axios.

Jim shares how he started moving up the rungs of success and building a better life for himself in his new book Just the Good Stuff: No-BS Secrets to Success (No Matter What Life Throws at You). Today on the show, Jim shares the real-world lessons he’s learned in his career. We discuss the importance of matching passion to opportunity, making your own luck, surrounding yourself with the right people, keeping the buckets of your happiness matrix filled, understanding the difference between wartime and peacetime leadership, harnessing the energy of healthy revenge, and more.

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Book cover for "Just the Good Stuff" featuring a simplified graphic of a stick figure walking on an arrow, written by Jim VandeHei, with subtitles about No-BS Secrets of Success.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast.

Jim VandeHei didn’t have an auspicious start in life. His high school guidance counselor told him he wasn’t cut out for college, and he went on to confirm her assessment, getting a 1.4 GPA at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and spending more time drinking beer than planning his career. Eventually, though, Jim turned things around for himself, going on to co-found two of the biggest modern media outlets, Politico and Axios. Jim shares how he started moving up the rungs of success and building a better life for himself in his new book, Just the Good Stuff: No-BS Secrets to Success No Matter What Life Throws at You.

Today on the show, Jim shares the real-world lessons he’s learned in his career. We discuss the importance of matching passion to opportunity, making your own luck, surrounding yourself with the right people, keeping the buckets of your happiness matrix filled, understanding the difference between wartime and peacetime leadership, harnessing the energy of healthy revenge, and more. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

Jim VandeHei, welcome to the show.

Jim VandeHei: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So, you are a journalist and you’re also the co-founder of Politico and also Axios. But you got a new book out called Just the Good Stuff, and it’s an advice book, an advice book about family, career, and life in general. So why did a journalist and media operator decide to write a life advice book?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah, I never thought I would. [chuckle] But I’ve started and I’ve run two big media companies, so Politico and Axios, as you’ve mentioned. And I guess what’s unique is I was a journalist for most of my life before becoming an entrepreneur. So, when I became an entrepreneur, I became a CEO. I took very close notes, usually of all the things that I was screwing up or that other people were screwing up around me, to learn how to do things better. And so I kept these notes, I started writing a column, the feedback to it was very positive. And so I wrote this book ’cause if you met me when I was 20, smoking Camels and drinking and getting crappy grades, you never would have said, “Oh, that dude from Oshkosh is gonna go start a couple of companies, interview presidents, write a book.” And I think I have some obligation to sort of give back, especially to people who might be thinking about career changes or thinking about how do they make the next big move or how do they navigate a difficult situation. So I hope people find it as a really handy user’s guide to life.

Brett McKay: No, and the way you wrote it, the format, it follows that Axio style. You get to the point. It’s nicely organized. It’s easy to read. So I really like that as well. And as you said, you’ve had a lot of professional success and personal success as well. But you mentioned there, you started off life pretty mediocre, and you kind of admit that. You admit that in the book. You’re like, “Yeah, I was kind of a screw-up.” Yeah.

Jim VandeHei: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So what were you like as a high schooler and college student?

Jim VandeHei: I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. I was like a normal small-town Wisconsin kid. Like I drank, I misbehaved. I occasionally went to school. I got crappy grades. Graduated the bottom third of my high school class. Could barely get into college. Had to go to a two-year college to get into four-year college. Four years took me 5.5 years. At one point, I was on academic probation with a sterling 1.491 grade point average. So it really wasn’t until I found journalism and politics and really got excited about a potential path that I really got my head out of my butt and started thinking about how to go get a career and how to go do stuff that I might be good at. And so, it took me a little while to get there, but I moved out to DC, became a journalist, turned out, a lot of the things that I did when I was misbehaving actually helped me as a journalist. Used to gamble a lot, play poker, teaches you how to deal with people. I used to go to dive bars, so I could deal with people from any kind of walk of life. And I was curious, I love to ask questions, love to talk. And those things worked awesome as a reporter. And in Washington, where it was kind of a lot of elite kids from Harvard and other hotshot schools, I didn’t know any better. So I just kind of stirred up mischief, wrote stories, and ended up being pretty good at it.

Brett McKay: So was that the thing that got you out of your passive mode when you were a kid, just finding something you were passionate about?

Jim VandeHei: A hundred percent. The minute I found something that, like, “Oh, I’m a good writer, I like politics,” and I learned that I could get paid for it, I became obsessed with it. And I think that’s true for most of us. The moment you can match a passion with an opportunity, you’re gonna be on fire naturally. The advice I always give young people now or even old people is, do something you would do for free. Like, I love what I do. I love writing. I love leading. I love starting companies. I love covering presidents. I love writing about AI. I would do this for free if it weren’t my job, but I get paid to do it. So when you can do that, I think really magical things can happen. And it doesn’t just have to be at work; it could be in a relationship or personal hobbies that you have, but I think that’s the good stuff of life.

Brett McKay: How did you discover politics and journalism?

Jim VandeHei: It’s funny. I didn’t even really realize I was that into politics until I was… I would come home, I’d go out to a kegger, and I would come home drunk at 2:00 in the morning. And I would sit and watch C-SPAN hearings on the Agriculture Committee or on a health bill. I was just fascinated by it. I was fascinated that I could watch this. I was fascinated about how a bill became a law. I was fascinating about how people use power, how they communicate. And so that got me hooked on politics. And then when I was trying to figure out what to do, I figured out I was a pretty good writer, and I went to a newspaper and asked ’em, “Hey, I know a lot about sports. Could I ever be a sports reporter?” I was dumb enough to do that, having not even taken a journalism class. And the guy I happened to go to was nice enough to be humored by it. “I’ll give you a writing test.” And I did the writing test, and he’s like, “That’s actually pretty good. I’ll give you a job.” And so I covered high school sports, and it was kind of off to the races from there. And I’d say most of my career has been these kind of serendipitous things that are either courage or luck or some mix of the two that have put me on a course to do things I just didn’t think I would otherwise be able to do.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you got a chapter on luck. What role do you think luck plays in success in life in general?

Jim VandeHei: A ton. That’s why I don’t… I hate these people who are like, “Oh, look how damn smart I am,” and “Look at me.” Yeah, you might be smart, I might be smart, but if other people aren’t putting you in positions to have opportunity, you might just be a smart person who had no success or no accomplishment. And so, I think being ready for those moments of luck is really, really important. I think now especially, I think a lot about my health, my diet, my mindset, my morals, my relationships, to make sure that when luck comes, I’m really ready to pounce on it. But yeah, again, going back to college, so I take a class. I start to take a journalism class, and I say, “You know what? I don’t know if I just wanna do sports.” I literally picked up a piece of paper of every newspaper in the State of Wisconsin. I’m like, “I’ll just call every one of them and ask if I can work this summer, and I’ll work doing something else at night. I’ll do it for free.” So I called, and Brillion News was one of the top ones on there.

I happened to call a guy, Zane Zander, who answers the phone, who runs the paper, and he’s like, “Hey, could you come here today?” And I’m like, “What?” So I drove. It’s only an hour away, so I drove up there. And the guy is like… I explained to him I’ve not really taken any classes. I’m a good writer. I like journalism. He goes, “I don’t care.” He goes, “Well, you run my newspaper.” And I’m like, “Dude, I’ve never really done anything. You really shouldn’t hire me to run your newspaper.” He’s like, “Yeah, well, my editor just told me he’s quitting if I don’t give him three months off to go to Finland.” He goes, “I’ll teach you in one week how to run a newspaper.” And I said, “Okay,” and he gave me a pay package. I’ll never forget this, $300 a week, which was a lot back then, and a place. He had a cabin on a lake filled with largemouth bass. He says, “You can live here. And part of your pay comp is I’m gonna let you have a car that I’ll rent for you, and I’ll always have your refrigerator full of beer.” It was like the best executive package I could possibly have dreamed of. And I ran a newspaper for three months and learned more in three months there than I probably learned in five years of college.

Brett McKay: So, the trick there getting more lucky is just putting yourself out there, I guess.

Jim VandeHei: Yes, for sure. I think you make your own luck. The more you put yourself out there, the more you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, the more you ask questions, the more people you get to know, you just vastly increase your odds of luck coming your way. If you just sit there passively eating Doritos in your couch, you’re probably not gonna make a whole hell of a lot of luck for yourself. So, there’s a combination of effort into really making luck this magical thing.

Brett McKay: So you had a chapter on constructing greatness, and you used Tom Brady, famous quarterback, as an example of someone who did that. What can we learn from Tom Brady about constructing greatness?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah, I used him in that chapter, ’cause Sally Jenkins is a pretty well-known sports writer at the Washington Post, and she had this quote that really stuck with me about how Tom Brady constructed greatness. And he basically was this very mediocre athlete coming out of Michigan. There was nothing that said to anyone that he was gonna be the greatest quarterback of all time. And he willed it into existence. He constructed it, and he did it through what he put into his body, how he treated his body, how he treated his mind, his preparation, his work ethic. And really stuck with me, because I think we all control more than we think we can control. I think so often people just feel like, “Oh, whatever, serendipity,” or “Man, life just dealt me a bad hand.”

Well, no, that’s not true. You actually control every moment, like what you’re gonna eat, what you’re gonna drink, are you gonna work out, are you gonna have a healthy relationship, are you gonna compliment somebody, are you gonna accept a compliment? All day, it’s just a series of things. Just keep track of it, and one day, just write down all the different things that you could control and the decisions that you made. And you could realize, “Man, there’s a lot that we control.” And when you start to realize that you look at life through that lens, you can construct your own greatness. You can have, “Hey, this is where I wanna go. These are the things that I would need to do to be the type of person that I want to be or to achieve whatever goal I’m trying to achieve.” And it just takes on a life of its own once you do it. Like, yes, we’re not gonna be Tom Brady. We’re not gonna be Michael Jordan, but we could probably be a hell of a lot more than we are right now if you adapt that mindset.

Brett McKay: How did you start doing that in your own life?

Jim VandeHei: It was really an evolution. When I was young, in my 20s, I just enjoyed being a reporter, even to my young 30s. Then I had this idea to start Politico, and I became an entrepreneur. And then I realized, “Oh, my God, I might be… I’m actually a pretty good leader. I never thought of myself as a leader,” but I’ve got pretty good morals, values, and I’m confident enough to make decisions. And so I taught myself how to be a CEO. And I just learned that with each of these things that I never thought I could do, once I did them, it opened my mind to the possibility, “Well, wait a second. There’s probably other aspects of my life that I could change. Why can’t I be a runner?” I hadn’t run in years, so I ran a quarter mile, then I started running half marathons. Or why can’t I go from being unhealthy and eating pizza and cheeseburgers all day to somebody who’s really thinking about, what do I put into my body and how does it make me feel and how is it gonna affect my ability to perform long term?

And so I became, I’d say, almost addicted to that now, this idea that there’s things that I can do to keep making myself better at the things that I care about. I wanna be a really good fly fisherman. I’m getting pretty good. I wanna be a golfer. I suck, but at one point, hopefully I’ll be decent at golf. I love to conquer different sort of workout things. I’m really into core power now. I’m not naturally flexible, so it took me a long time to get flexible, but now I’m more flexible. So I just… Your mind, it almost becomes a drug, but like a healthy drug.

Brett McKay: So you got several chapters in the book about avoiding jerks, a-holes, in life and in business. Why so many chapters on that topic?

Jim VandeHei: Probably ‘çause we meet too many jerks and a-holes. [chuckle] Because I hate it. I’ve had so many interesting professional experiences where the job was great, but then you’re working next to a person who just sucks the life out of you. Who’s either bitching and moaning all the time or gossiping or being competitive in a super unhealthy way. And I just realized, “You know what? Just like I can control what I eat or I could control whether I work out or I could control my job, I control who I’m around.” I can decide that if someone’s a jerk, I don’t have to have them in my life. I can either freeze them out, not pay attention to them, or get away from them, whether it’s in a personal relationship or in a professional relationship.

And so by the time we started Axios, which was seven years ago, and now we have about 550 people, the first thing we put on a piece of paper is we’re never again gonna work with people we don’t like. That doesn’t mean we’re not gonna work with super high-achieving, ambitious people, which we do, but they’re gonna be good people. And if they’re not good people, no matter how talented they are, we’re gonna fire them. ‘Cause we don’t wanna be around bad people. And guess what? We’re 550 people and I don’t have any bad people around me.

So once you’ve proved to yourself that you can do that and you tell others to do the same, you can have a pretty magical work experience. And if you think about it, for your listeners who are in a place where they’re dealing with a jerk or they’re in a business or a company culture that they don’t like, they don’t feel it’s on the level, just think about all that negative energy. Think about how many hours of the day you spend either complaining about it or thinking about it or trying to do something about it. It’s all a waste of energy. I wanna design my life in a way where 90%, 95%, 98% of my time, I’m doing things I’m good at with people that I like. That’s gonna make a difference. And when you take on that mindset that that is something that is attainable, it’s not attainable everyday, it’s attainable a lot more often than people think.

Brett McKay: Did you have any moments in your career where you kept working with somebody, you kept a hire that was super… They were a jerk. They were just a complete jerk, but they were extremely competent at what they did, but that ended up biting you in the butt?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah. That was my weakness when I started Politico. I was enamored with people who were brilliant, and I overlooked the fact that they were bad people, that they were cancerous, that they were either… They’re mean, they’re narcissistic, whatever it was. And I had one person in particular who I put into a position of power, and a brilliant person, but just not a good leader, not a good effect on other people’s human psyche. And what happens is people start to hold me accountable for that. They’re like, “Jim, you’re the leader. You’re supposed to protect us. Why would you allow someone like that to bedevil me? That’s just not right.” And they’re right: I was wrong. I made a mistake, and I had done that several times. And I decided after seeing that that I don’t ever wanna do it again. That I’m not gonna make the deal with the devil. I’m not going to take extreme talent that comes with a baggage of bad values. And I jettisoned it. I stopped doing it.

But yeah, for a long time, I made that mistake. And I’d say, almost everything, I think I’m a pretty good leader now. It sounds a little cocky, but I think I am. But it’s only because I was so bad at it at the beginning, ’cause I’d never been a leader. I didn’t know how to hire people. I didn’t know how to create a culture. I didn’t know how to get rid of jerks. I didn’t know how to figure out a diverse set of people who complement the skillset I have. I just knew once… I knew I could outwork anybody. That’s basically what I knew. I could work as hard or harder than anyone. No one was gonna outwork me. Well, that’s not really a great leadership style.

Brett McKay: How do you hire to filter out the jerks? Do you have any criteria or heuristics you use?

Jim VandeHei: For sure. We’ve gotten quite good at it. And part of it is like a screening process of one really trying to talk to people who aren’t on the list of people that they tell you to talk to for character witness, try to find people who really work with them. And were they a good colleague? Do people like them? Do they light up when you say that person’s name? When you’re interviewing the person, some red flags are, if they say anything bad about somebody else, that’s a disqualifier. You just don’t want people who talk crap about their current or previous employers. And then the other red flag is people who say, “I, I, I,” who just seem to be very self-focused, taking credit for things that you probably know were a group effort. That’s another big one. And then being very clear with people. I say all the time, “Listen, you might be the most talented person, but if you’re a bad person, I’m telling you, we’ll fire you. And you’ve got to do a gut check before you come here. If you’ve had problems in the past being narcissistic or being self-focused or not being able to put the cause above your own selfish ambitions, we will reject you.” And so you do those things, and some people smuggle themselves across the border on this one, but most don’t.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and what do you do find one, I imagine you just fire quickly?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Jim VandeHei: The minute you know you got a problem, you gotta get rid of it. And again, it’s hard. It’s a human being. We’re not cold, and it’s never easy to fire somebody. But I don’t really find it that hard firing people anymore, especially if I’m telling people along the way, “Here are the things that you’re doing that you gotta change, or you can’t work here.” The problem with firing is when you’re not being direct with people, you’re not giving them blunt feedback, you’re not giving them an opportunity to change. There should never… By the time you fire someone, they should know when they’re coming through my office door, they’re here to get fired. They’ve had enough conversations with me. I’ve been crystal clear with them. They know they haven’t improved, and they know the end is here.

Brett McKay: Besides avoiding jerks, you got a list of different types of losers you want to avoid. Who are these losers you’re talking about?

Jim VandeHei: Well, you want to avoid people who are super self-focused. You want to avoid people who are blaming other people. You wanna avoid people who don’t sort of carry their weight. So, obviously, I spit on the ball there with the loser thing, but it’s just like it’s people that are just drags in life. They’re not honest. They’re indirect. Hate people who are indirect in terms of like you know that they’re mad about something, but they can’t tell you what they’re mad about. You know that they’re unhappy with you, but they won’t explain why. And so, it’s really trying to find people who are high-achieving. You should never be apologetic about trying to find people from the right gene pool, people who are just super-duper spectacularly talented at what they do. You should never be apologetic for that. But you gotta find people who are… They’re life-enhancing. They’re fun to work with. They lift you up. They make you feel better about yourself. They make others feel better about themselves. There’s a humility to them, even if they’re exceptionally talented. And I’ve been lucky. I’ve been around a lot of those people, and that’s rubbed off on me in a very positive way. And I like good people. I love good people.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you have the list here. They’re all W’s. You want to avoid whiners, whisperers, weasels, wannabes, and wunderkinds, which you define as someone who brags about their own credentials or brain power. They say they’re smarter or better than someone else when deep down, they fear they’re not.

Jim VandeHei: Yeah, those are pretty good five W’s. And yeah, no one wants to be around people who are whining or whispering gossip. It’s just not fun. Life’s too short for that kind of crap.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so if you see some of those things in yourself, maybe you gotta do a gut check and be like, “Ah, I gotta be less of a mope, less of a whiner.”

Jim VandeHei: For sure. And if you’re surrounding yourself with people like that, you gotta be like, “Man, is that rubbing off on me?” You really are. Think about you sitting at work for eight hours with a group of people. Don’t kid yourself. You might be the strongest person in the world, that stuff rubs off on you, good and bad.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show.

Well, speaking of the stuff rubbing off on you at work, your job can be incredibly stressful, incredibly intense. How do you avoid bringing that stuff home?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah, it goes to controlling the parts of my life that I can control. I’m probably got a little bit of a screw loose, so I don’t think people have to take it maybe as far as I do, but I’m super religious about what I put into my body. I really try to be careful with drinking, even though I love drinking, but I try to curtail it. I work out every day. I very rarely miss a day. I try to have a lot of diversity in the type of workouts that I do. I try to have a lot of really good relationships. I’ve been married 23 years. My wife’s my best friend. I’ve got three kids. I have this thing I write about in the book called my happiness matrix, which my wife has always given me crap about, but it is my way of keeping real. I think of my happiness matrix as these buckets. I have my faith, my family, my work, my friendships, my hobbies, my health. And if I’m off or if I’m stressed or if I’m tired, usually it’s because one of those buckets is empty.

Like I’m not been paying enough attention to my parents, or I haven’t had meaningful one-on-one time with my kids, or I haven’t been as healthy at night as I should be. And it’s just a good way for me to keep inventory of the things that I know make me feel good about myself and help me perform better, ’cause it is. We run a company, and we also have a family, and I wrote a book, and we do TV. There’s a lot that we do, and I love doing it, but it could be terribly stressful. I don’t find it stressful; I find it very energizing, but if I didn’t do those other things, if I didn’t have my faith and my mind in the right place, I don’t know how I’d do it. I think I would be grumpy and I’d be worn out and worn down and bitter, and I just don’t wanna be that way.

Brett McKay: All right, so just focus on making sure you’re filling up all the buckets in your happiness matrix. But what do you do… Let’s say you had a really crappy day. Something happened at the office and there’s all these fires to put out, and then you’re going home and you’re just in this pissy mood. Do you do anything to decompress so you don’t take that out on your family?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah, work out, a hundred percent. I’m super into core power right now, which is basically high-intensity yoga with weights in a hot room. You sweat, but you’re also working quite hard. And something like that for an hour where I’m pounding for an hour and I’m sweating and I can’t think about anything other than the moment, I find that to be extremely therapeutic. Extremely therapeutic. Or then after that, come home and just watch something stupid that doesn’t require a whole lot of intellectual engagement, or do it with my wife, or whatever, just do something. ‘Cause in the old days, I would just come home and have a couple of martinis, which is like that helps, too, but then it sets me back the next day, so it’s always a trade-off.

Brett McKay: Your business is online, and it’s the news business, so it’s constantly going on. Do you set hard boundaries where you’re like, “When I’m at home, I’m not gonna check my phone, I’m not gonna see what’s going on”? Do you do that?

Jim VandeHei: No, I suck at that. I really do. I’m really bad at that work-life balance thing. ‘Cause I really do like it. I’m always curious what’s going on. I’ve basically integrated work into my life, which allows me to travel a lot, or I can go fishing and come back and engage really heavy for a couple of hours, go out and fish for another hour or two. And so, I’m not great at just shutting off. But at the same time, I think I do enough stuff to offset it. And I try definitely, if I’m with my kids, my wife, my parents, friends, I try to be very focused and present in that moment. But then the minute that’s done, I’m checking my phone, I’m doing a call, I’m listening to a podcast. I definitely am not great on the discipline around that.

Brett McKay: So you talk about that, the skill of quitting is something you need to learn. So why is quitting an important skill?

Jim VandeHei: Because I think there’s a stigma attached to quitting, but sometimes quitting is the best thing you can do. If you’re in a bad relationship, quit it. You have a bad habit, quit it. But I mainly talk about it at work where, listen, it happened to me. I started Politico. I’m 10 years in. It was seven years in, really, ’cause it was a three-year ordeal. I didn’t get along with a guy who bankrolled the company. We had different values, and it was starting to suck the life out of me. I went from 80% or 90% of my time doing things I enjoy with people I enjoyed to spending 70% of my time trying to clean up other people’s messes, and I hated it. And my wife was just like, “You gotta quit. You just gotta quit. Even though you created the company, get the hell out of there. This is no way to live.” And I quit, and I started another company and created that more in the image of the company that I wanted the first one to be.

And sometimes you have to do that. You have to quit managers. You have to quit companies. You have to quit relationships to give yourself a chance to reset on things that make you feel a lot better about yourself. And I think maybe it’s ’cause I’m getting old. I’m 53. I think you start to think about your own mortality, but it’s not that long, man. We just don’t have that long of a run on earth. And I just want every single day or week or month to be better than the ones before it. You wanna make a difference, you want to be around people that you love and admire and that love and admire you. And if you could stack your life that way, you can extract a lot of joy. And then when the bad parts of life hit you, and they do hit you, man, they hit you hard, but if you’ve kind of fortified yourself for it, you’ll be all right. We’ll persevere.

Brett McKay: Any advice to people who, they feel like they gotta quit something and it could be a job, it could be a business, but on the surface, it’s a success, but they’re miserable. How do you go about quitting something that is a success? Like Politico, that was a success. Everyone knows what Politico is. Did it take you a while to finally get the gumption to stop that?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s like I had to leave my baby. Like I literally there, I was there at birth. I birthed the damn thing, and here I had to quit it, ’cause I didn’t really own it. I had shadow equity, someone else owned the company. But we are incompatible. And the way you do it is you just have to have that hard conversation with yourself. Are you mostly unhappy? If you’re not, we should all be trying to spend 80%, 90% of our time in a good place, in a good head space. And if you find yourself at work with a manager or a job or a company where most of the time, you’re demoralized and you’re angry or you’re bitter or you’re just bored, you gotta get out. That’s the universe telling you it’s time to move on. Not everybody can. Sometimes we’ve got these obligations in life to take care of other people, but I think more often than people realize, you have agency, man. You wanna quit, you can quit. You can go find something else. And the truth is, we all worry way too much about what other people think about our success. People are really… They’re too busy. They’re focused on their own life, they don’t give a hoot about yours. And so, you gotta live up to your measurements, stick to yourself, not what you think other people are expecting of you.

Brett McKay: We had Annie Duke on the podcast a while back ago to talk about her book, When to Quit. Annie Duke, famous poker player. She’s a psychologist now. And one of the bits of advice was if you’re trying to figure out whether you should quit something, is you want a quitting coach. And that’s basically someone you can talk to, third party, that can talk to you through all the different factors about why you should quit or maybe you shouldn’t. It sounds like your wife might have been a quitting coach for you.

Jim VandeHei: Yeah. I think we all have to have, whether it’s a quitting coach, but I’d say a life coach. You just need… I’m lucky. I’ve got about half dozen people in my life who really know me, know the good, the bad, the ugly, care about me and will be blunt to me. Obviously, my wife is at the top of that list. And you’ve got to be able to have those conversations with people. I think, let’s be honest, especially for dudes, it’s hard. It’s hard for us to open up. It’s hard for us to have even the word “intimate relationship,” with another guy. You’re like, “Whoa, what’s that?” But you gotta have that. You have to have these friendships that go a level deeper. You have to force yourself to really get to know at least a small group of people so that you have somebody to call you out or to tell you, “Man, now’s the time to go. Now’s the time to quit.” Or “Man, you shouldn’t have done that. You look like a real jerk. You are a jerk. You got to apologize.” You need those people in your life. And it doesn’t need to be six people, but you need at least one. And I would argue, you need a couple as an insurance policy.

Brett McKay: So you have a chapter called Excellence Over Success. What do you mean by that?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s from right in the chapter around this coach, Messiah University, which recruited one of my sons to play soccer, Christian university in Pennsylvania. And I went to listen to him talk to the team, and I realized he spent two hours and he never talked about soccer. And he has… I think he’s the winningest coach in the history of soccer, certainly the current winningest coach. And he talks about it’s not about trying to be undefeated, which they often are or close to it; it’s about each person being excellent. Really having a measure for yourself, for your team, to truly be awesome, which is different than success, ’cause you could be awesome at something, you could truly achieve excellence, but you might fail. But I would rather achieve excellence, know I gave every single thing I had, know that I maxed out on my ability and failed than to have a success that I really wasn’t that responsible for and I kinda lucked into it and really it was somebody else. And I think really striving for excellence, and really, again, it goes to excellence is measured by you. When we start measuring ourselves against other people or magazine pictures or other folks who are doing what we’re doing, you have lost.

You have to say, “Okay, who am I? What am I capable of? How can I exceed my current expectation of myself?” I’m not a naturally gifted athlete, and I’ve really had to force myself to become pretty good at working out, but one of the things at 53 I try to do is, every year, I try to be able to lift a little bit more than I lifted the year before. And it’s probably in my own psychotic way, I think I’m trying to reverse ageing or something. But if you think about that, and yes, I’m not gonna be benching 250 or 300, but can I lift a little bit more each year so far? I can. And that’s measuring me against me. It’s not me against my nephew or my son or my friend. And I just think it’s a healthier place for us to be.

Brett McKay: I love this idea in theory, but how do you balance pursuing excellence but also the need to deliver the goods and get paid? Take like a writer. Writer writes excellent stuff, but it doesn’t get noticed and they’re not getting paid. You gotta make a living. So have you had a struggle with that at all?

Jim VandeHei: Listen, at the end of the day, we have basic needs we need to meet. And so there might be areas that you want to pursue excellence in that you can’t monetize or they become a distraction or they become a hindrance to you doing the basics of life. I’m never advocating for anyone to abdicate the responsibilities of life, but I just think when you’re looking at success, success is often in the eye of other beholders, whereas excellence, I think, is something you can see and that you can feel and that you can measure. And that doesn’t mean you’re trying to be Wordsworth or you’re trying to be Michael Jordan; it’s you trying to just be a little bit better than you were before, establishing your own level of excellence. And I do think you can apply that to most situations. Even if you said, “Okay, I have to just be a regular writer to provide,” well, how can you be the very best version of the writer that you have to be to put food on the table, and how can you be better next month than you are this month? That’s always possible. Always possible. Otherwise, I just think maybe not everyone’s wired the same way, but just the idea of stagnating just sounds so boring.

Brett McKay: So you have a hire at Axios named Kathleen Halpin. And you say if you wanna have success in your career, you need to be like Kathleen. What did she do in her career that made her stand out?

Jim VandeHei: She was a young woman who worked for us in the early days of Axios, and she just had a personality where she stood out. And she ended up going to business school, and I ended up talking to her a little bit and ended up writing a chapter about her, because she was one of these people who, it’s a great lesson for early in work. She was 23 or something like that. And she just was the kind of person who was in first, left last. No matter what the job was, get someone coffee or do a research paper or help strategize a new product, raising her hand, enthusiastically throwing herself into it. Always made people feel better about themselves. Was naturally a funny person. So like lit up a room. And I just think it’s such a great lesson for those people. I think the book, in some ways, is really good for college grads, is just realizing that, just go in there and the basic values of life. Work harder than other people. Be honest. Try to have a little bit of humility. Those things make such a difference. And they’re simple things that all of us are capable of. And she really exemplified them.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Yeah, so volunteer. I love that. Raise your hand for every little task. Sometimes when you’re at a job, you’re like, “Ah, that’s donkey work, I’m not gonna do that.” No. You should do that, ’cause you don’t know what you’re gonna learn by doing what you think is a donkey job.

Jim VandeHei: Or who you’re doing it for. Maybe that person you just did a research thing for that you didn’t have to turns out to be the person who hires you and promotes you and pays you more than you ever thought was possible. Or maybe that person goes on to be CEO of the company. You never know. It’s again, throwing yourself out there, taking advantage of opportunities, increasing your chance for luck, because you’ve put yourself in these situations that other people aren’t putting themselves in. And it makes you stand out.

Brett McKay: You talk about how you encourage your kids to play poker, an actual play-for-money poker. People would be like, “That’s bad parenting advice. Why would you tell your kids to play poker?”

Jim VandeHei: One, I love poker. Because I think you learn so much about humanity at the poker table. You learn so much about risk-taking and calibrating risk-taking. You learn so much about bantering conversation. You learn so much about reading people. How are they gambling? Are they reckless? Are they careful? Do they have some weird twitch? You get a feel for the rhythm of numbers, the rhythm of momentum. And so, I look at the poker table and I just think back, “Man, I learned a lot by gambling a lot.” And I’m not advocating to gamble recklessly or anything like that, but I’m saying, there’s just something about it that teaches you about people. Most jobs are people. People are people. No AI, no robot. They’re not going to replace our species. And we’re a complicated, nuanced, idiosyncratic species, and so being at a poker table or being at a bar or being just in a place where you gotta read people and you gotta start to sharpen your emotional intelligence and combine that with some actual intelligence, that’s where you start to really sharpen your repertoire.

Brett McKay: So I’m sure people have heard, there’s these poker games that go on in Washington, DC with journalists and politicians. Is that a real thing?

Jim VandeHei: It is. I played in a bunch. I don’t know how much they still do. I don’t know of any going on right now. But yeah, I used to… Man, before 9/11, they’ve really locked down the Capitol since then, but I used to grab a 12-pack of beer, walk into the Capitol late at night, sit in a congressman’s office, and there’d be six, eight, 10 people playing poker. Not like high-stakes; just playing like for fun and playing for a little bit of money. But I used to do it all the time. There’s a couple of games we used to play in right off Capitol Hill where some congressmen and journalists would play. And I love it. I love to banter more than anything else and just being around and talking smack and playing cards. It’s not a bad thing to do.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I know when Harry Truman was Vice President, that’s all he did, pretty much. He just played poker.

Jim VandeHei: [chuckle] Just played poker. Not a bad way to spend your time.

Brett McKay: No. Yeah. All right. You talk about in a career, there’s a difference between wartime leadership and peacetime leadership. What do you mean by that?

Jim VandeHei: Yeah. I think about it a lot in terms of starting a company. Like when you’re starting a company or you’re trying to radically change a company, it’s wartime. And during wartime, you’re not really worried about casualties, you’re not worried about niceties; you are in survival mode. Meaning, you’re willing to break things, do it in a sloppy way, take risks you might not otherwise take, be a little maniacal, because it’s life or death. And to be honest, I always have found myself to be a better wartime leader than a peacetime leader. I thrive in that environment. I love the energy. I love the high stakes. I love kind of being creative on the fly. That’s different than once your company’s five, six years in or you work for an adult company and you’re a peacetime leader, which now, when you’re a peacetime leader, you’ve got a little bit of stability and your job is to manage the success you have. It’s to create processes. It’s to find people who are good institutional managers, as opposed to kinda radical, risk-taking cowboys and cowgirls.

So, it’s a totally different mentality. And you gotta be comfortable that you might be good at one and not the other. And I think I know I’m a very good wartime leader. Now I’m kind of a mix. There’s a little bit of war and a little bit of peace. Peace is harder for me. It requires like I don’t care that much about process and I don’t really like the status quo; I like change. And so there’s always a tug of war inside of me internally. There’s probably a tug of war for any of us, anybody listening who’s in a position of leadership, but just realize there’s different attributes in different people that you need around you in moments like that.

Brett McKay: During the online content business, is artificial intelligence causing you to shift back into wartime leadership mode?

Jim VandeHei: For sure. Mainly because you can just see… Like media is a tough business to begin with, but just the nature of how we get information and how we run companies is gonna change profoundly. I think AI… We’ll look back and artificial intelligence will be as big of a deal as the creation of the internet. I really believe that. I just think it’s gonna fundamentally change the nature of how we live, how we do our jobs, and for me, in running a media company, how people get information. And so, it’s my job to sort of get back into that wartime mindset, which means, “Okay, what does this mean? How is it gonna disrupt my business? How do we make changes to make sure that the humans that we hire can do things that no machine could replicate? How do we think of this technology not as a threat, but as an asset? How do I use the improvements that we’re starting to see with these large language models and integrate ’em into the work that we’re doing?” And I love that stuff. It worries me sometimes that it might make my job harder or the industry more complicated, but I like the dynamism of having to solve a problem that’s evolving, that’s new in real time without the real obvious, no one really knows which direction to go. I find that exhilarating.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so imagine you’re trying new things that you otherwise wouldn’t have tried maybe five years ago.

Jim VandeHei: For sure. And really trying to think about, “Okay,” I always try to think about, “Okay, let’s assume that AI is even better than people think it’s gonna be. Then what would that mean for information consumption?” And for me, as somebody who runs a media company who has hundreds of journalists, the thing that I know no robot will do is they’re never gonna be a subject matter expert that has human sources, that can capture the nuance of human conversation and break news and tell people things that they did not know. So, I’m very much reorienting our company around that. I want more of those people, and we’ll use machines to make those people stronger, but the machine is not a threat to those people and therefore to us.

And every business is going through this or will go through this. And media is just a harder business in general. It’s a complicated business, but it’s also a very public, fun, interesting, dynamic business. And so, this is just… People who don’t pay attention to AI are nuts. Crazy. Basically, you know the world’s about to change. You’re getting a preview of it in real time through OpenAI, Anthropic, Google, Amazon, Character AI, you name it. Pay attention to what they’re doing, ’cause that is the future, and it’s going to affect you. And we all have an obligation to be smart about the world around us and get smart about the world around you and control your own destiny and make the decisions on your terms, as opposed to having them imposed by some damn robot.

Brett McKay: So you got a chapter on healthy revenge. What is healthy revenge?

Jim VandeHei: I got a little revenge freak in me. It could become all-consuming. Like someone screws you and you wanna get back at them. And for me, healthy revenge is like give yourself a little bit of revenge. And maybe that revenge is just being a better company or showing that the person who screwed you over that you’re gonna do better than them. And so, don’t say you’re not gonna have any revenge or you’re not gonna think about it at all, but don’t allow revenge to be the thing that just animates your activities and consumes your mind. There’s a lot of research out there that that really pollutes your mind, pollutes your decision-making capabilities. So, having a little bit, thinking about it a tiny bit, using that energy that comes from it to just be better at what you do, that’s a way to have a little bit of healthy revenge.

Brett McKay: I like that, because I think sometimes we’re a little too down on revenge. We’re always telling ourselves, “You gotta be stoic, just let things go.” There’s that quote, “The best revenge is to not be like the person who wronged you.” But sometimes I think it’s nice to try to outdo the other person who wronged you. And I think as long as you keep it within healthy parameters, having a little bit of a chip on your shoulder can be an animating force. So, you also have a chapter about a Wall Street Journal reporter named David Rogers and what he taught you about quiet greatness. Tell us about that.

Jim VandeHei: So David, thank God he’s still alive, he lives here outside of DC, I still see him, try to see him every month or two for lunch. He was my mentor at the Wall Street Journal, and he was on Capitol Hill covering Congress. He was a legend, he is… Very few people would dispute he’s probably the best congressional reporter of our generation. But he wasn’t on TV and he wasn’t writing books and pounding his chest; he just was quietly way better than anybody else, did way more homework than anyone else, understood the institution so well that members of Congress would routinely call him to ask him, “What are the rules of the House? What is the history of this legislation?” He was just encyclopedic. And what he taught me was, you’re never going to really be excellent at anything if you don’t really have a real-deal mastery of your subject. He really taught me to do the hard work, to master the craft or master the beat in that case that I was on. And he was tough, man. He was a tough guy. He was gruff. He could be brutal in his assessments of my work. But he cared. And despite the gruff exterior, he was a sweetheart of a guy and has become one of my best friends and mentors and really changed my life. It was hard, but it was just a big, big reason I think I am who I am today.

Brett McKay: I think that’s really one of the best pieces of life advice: Just find yourself a great mentor. They’re worth their weight in gold. Well, Jim, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Jim VandeHei: You can get it on Amazon, just the good stuff, if you’re looking for the book. is where I write and the company that I run. It’s all about getting people smarter faster on topics like politics, business, AI, media. Check it out, it’s free. Most of the products are free. The idea is to help you better understand the world. So, I appreciate conversations like this. I appreciate all the work that you do.

Brett McKay: Well, thanks so much, Jim. I really appreciate that. It’s been a pleasure.

Jim VandeHei: Take care. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Jim VandeHei. He’s the author of the book, Just the Good Stuff. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And while you’re there, sign up for our email newsletter. It’s completely free, and there’s both the daily and weekly option. As always, thank you for the continuous support. Until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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