Jason Harris of Mekanism: “How To Develop Mindfulness & Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”
Everything is shaped from our minds. If we have a strong and controlled mind, we can manage our emotions — and we can make good decisions to help our bodies feel strong. When we feel strong, we are ready for anything the world throws our way. You can’t control the uncontrollable, but you can control your reaction to what happens
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Harris, the CEO of the award-winning creative agency Mekanism, co-founder of the Creative Alliance and author of the national bestseller, The Soulful Art of Persuasion. Harris works closely with brands through a blend of soul and science to create provocative campaigns that engage audiences. Iconic brands include Peloton, Ben & Jerry’s, MillerCoors, HBO, and the United Nations. Under his leadership, Mekanism was named to Ad Age’s Agency A-list and twice to their Best Places to Work, and to Creativity’s Creativity 50. Harris has been named in the Top 10 Most Influential Social Impact Leaders, as well as the 4A’s list of “100 People Who Make Advertising Great.” His methods are studied in cases at Harvard Business School.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Hello! I’m Jason Harris, the Co-Founder & CEO of creative advertising agency, Mekanism. We work with brands like Peloton, Ben & Jerry’s, OkCupid, Alaska Airlines, and Jose Cuervo — we help make brands famous faster. I started my career in advertising over 20 years ago, and my career path hasn’t been totally traditional. I’ve worked for many big agencies before starting my own.
Prior to starting Mekanism, I was working in various cultures that were very ego-driven and full of office politics, which made me feel unfulfilled in my role. There was more focus on who got the credit then what the business or creative idea was. Additionally, I realized that a major issue in most industries is focusing solely on profit. I wanted to help create an agency where we could find the soul of the brands we work with but also use our powers for good to help change the world. Today, Mekanism donates 10% of all agency resources to pro-bono projects for organizations like The United Nations, Red Nose Day and It’s On Us.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the most pivotal (and teachable) moments of my career was in 2014 when Mekanism was invited to the White House to help with the Obama administration’s Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
This was a project we absolutely wanted to take on — but there were a number of considerations that gave me pause. First, we would need to work entirely for free. I also had absolutely no idea how our agency was going to pull this off — or how I was going to justify this mountain of non-billable work to our CFO. Biden was asking for a massive national campaign on a highly sensitive cultural issue, executed with no budget, and ready to roll out in a few months.
But Joe Biden had a way of speaking with energy and positivity that couldn’t help but make you feel persuaded. He walked around the entire table and shook everyone’s hand, looked them in the eye, and thanked them for taking time out of their day to be there with him. He talked without any hint of artificiality.
And even though he was discussing a genuinely distressing issue, he framed his entire pitch around the extraordinary opportunity that lay before us. We had a chance to use our skills and resources to prevent suffering and trauma and to address one of the most serious social problems to emerge in recent years.
How did he do this? Using what I now call “The Pull of Positivity.” Compared to what he was describing, my concerns about money, time frames, and reputational risk seemed petty and inconsequential. This was about changing rape culture and creating a movement on college campuses all across the country.
Biden could have easily played the guilt card. He might have pointed out that I was a well‐to‐do advertising man who spends most of his time worrying about high profile clients. “Why don’t you do something valuable for a change?” he could have asked, or “Why don’t you try using advertising for good? Your industry could use it.”
Instead, he appealed to our positive emotions by getting us excited about the project and all of the good that could come from it. It was soulful persuasion, and an experience I’ll never forget.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
My best piece of advice, and one that I can attest to, is creating a core set of values for your company from the beginning and actually writing them down. And then make sure you communicate these values over and over again. When starting Mekanism, my co-founders and I strived to create a culture that is transparent, kind and free of egos or politics, but also tough and hardworking.
These characteristics are ingrained in our values: we believe in inclusivity, collaboration, and optimism, among others. We print these values in our notebooks, put them in our presentations, review them in company meetings and when we hire new employees, we look for people who embody these values. In order to have values stick they have to be consistently repeated over and over.
We aren’t always perfect, but we strive to live out our values every single day.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday. This book radically changed my perspective for the better. It delves deep into examples of larger-than-life people who reached the top of their game. The key ingredient that links all of these successful figures is going beyond themselves and checking their ego. As Holiday tells it, “you will be less invested in the story you tell about your own specialness, and as a result, you will be liberated to accomplish the world-changing work you’ve set out to achieve.” We all have to be bigger than our own egos in order to make a mark on the world.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
The state of being mindful is different for everyone. For me, being mindful means creating a sense of balance in my life, and connecting with myself both mentally and physically.
As the CEO of an advertising agency and the father of two boys with very hectic schedules, creating mental balance takes a lot of hard work. I plan my daily schedule so I know what needs to be prioritized. For example, if I have a critical day at work and I have to coach my kids’ soccer game at night (pre-Covid), I make sure to schedule a writing session for myself in the morning, because that keeps me happy and focused. It’s important to carve out time for yourself when you have so many other people depending on you. YOU also have to depend on YOU.
I feel the most mentally fit when I feel confident. One way I create confidence is by committing to anti-anxiety practices like the right amount of sleep and regular exercise. Boxing relieves a lot of stress and makes me feel good. Feeling physically strong and mentally fit allows you to be more confident because you feel more confident. Be mindful of what your mind and body requires to be at your best. I need three key things: physical activity, a practice of learning new skills and time to myself. All of these factors help me achieve my personal and professional goals.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Being mindful is about controlling your emotions and your thoughts. This can come very natural to some, and to others it may take practice until it becomes second nature.
Everything is shaped from our minds. If we have a strong and controlled mind, we can manage our emotions — and we can make good decisions to help our bodies feel strong. When we feel strong, we are ready for anything the world throws our way. You can’t control the uncontrollable, but you can control your reaction to what happens.
When we focus on being mindful, we can control what we want to be, how we want to live and what we let ourselves care about. One quote that captures this idea is from a famous Buddhist teaching, “Our life is shaped by our mind, we become what we think.“
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Check-in with your loved ones: We’ve all heard this a million times, but this bears repeating. Don’t let your relationships drop to zero during this time. Send a text, schedule a virtual coffee, or even just send someone an article you think they might like — let them know you’re thinking about them. Don’t underestimate the power of staying connected with people right now and use this time to resurrect important lapsed relationships.
- How Can You Help? Find Your Superpower: If you’re one of those people who feels like they need to help, but aren’t sure where to start — I have an exercise that might work for you. Take a piece of paper, on the left side: write down three skills that you have. On the right side: write down three causes you’re passionate about. If you stare at this piece of paper long enough, you’ll figure out how you can put your skills to good use. Check out my friend, Josh Coombes’ story for inspiration.
- Gratitude Journaling: If you’re healthy and have a roof over your head, that right there is a lot to be grateful for right now. Sometimes it’s hard to see that when your everyday life has been turned upside down. I practice gratitude journaling with my kids every sunday. The things they write down can be big-ticket items like a place to live, or just the fact that they are alive and kicking. But they can also be little things, like something good that happened at virtual school or a story that inspired them. What’s helpful about writing these reflections in a notebook is that you can consult previous entries and jog your memory on truly trying days. It helps them go back and tap into those feelings when they may seem lost and hopeless.
- Physical Exercise: Feeling physically fit can have a dramatic effect on your mental state. Whether it’s an online yoga class, an intense 90 minute workout or a few mile walk around your neighborhood, physical exercise will help the flow of endorphins and is a great way to relieve stress, keep you calm and help you sleep.
- Embrace Your Quirks: Right now is a great time to find new hobbies or pick-up old ones. Maybe as a kid you loved drawing or making model airplanes — why not pick that back up? Find something that brings you joy and embrace it. Reconnect with important skills you have, had or want to acquire.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Here’s a few resources and tools that I use to help me be more mindful in my everyday life:
- The Pen: Journaling helps get your thoughts on paper, and when you have bad thoughts this can be useful to get the “poison” out. On the other hand, it’s also really important to write down what you’re grateful for.
- Meditation & Yoga: There are a ton of different apps out there, but I love the Peloton Digital app, and I’ve been using it every day during quarantine to help focus my thoughts and intentions.
- Organization is Key: I make tons of lists every week: people I want to connect with, items for work I need to prioritize, activities or things I want to talk about with my kids. Writing things down helps organize your thoughts and set intentions for the week.
- Chess: I’ve been sharpening my chess skills during this quarantine period. Chess lets you practice control and planning by focusing on the next move and quieting the mind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” — Michael Jordan
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I encourage everyone to find their own creative super power. We’re all good at something. And one way to act on your deepest beliefs is to figure out how to put your particular gifts to use toward a cause. Are you a talented writer? Then reach out to a nonprofit organization you believe in and offer to help them craft a compelling message. Are you an expert financial advisor? Then find a way to pass on your wisdom to less‐advantaged members of your community who are having money problems.
I’m an ad man — someone who sells beer and lip balm for a living. And even I was able to use my skills to effect social change. After working with the Obama-Biden administration to combat sexual assault on college campuses, I knew that we could do more. I co-founded an organization called The Creative Alliance, the idea is that we use the same skills used to market the world’s best brands, and apply them to bi-partisan social issues.
We started out with just nine employees four years ago. Today we have over ninety companies lending their talent and expertise to the organization — including powerhouses like CAA, Broadway Video, Comedy Central, MTV, and incredible advertising agencies like 72&Sunny, BBH, Subrosa, In Good Co, and Havas.
I encourage everyone to write down four things you’re passionate about, and four things you’re good at. Stare at this piece of paper long enough, and your creative super power will jump out at you.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Instagram and Twitter: @jason_harris or my website: thesoulfulart.com. Readers can also follow my agency on the same platforms @mekanism.