C. L. Max Nikias On The Morning Habit That’s Changed His Life

The President of the University of Southern California explains why his emails read like text messages and how he deals with failure.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
C. L. Max Nikias: After a cup of coffee, I work out with a trainer every day unless I’m traveling. I have been doing it for more than a year now and it has changed my life. The sessions are a combination of cardio, stretching and yoga. My trainer is really the best — every day brings a new set of exercises. It’s never repetitive, which helps make it something I can look forward to.

TG: What gives you energy?
CLMN: Nothing can replace a night of solid sleep! This is very important to me. I have found that I can take all the pressures of a long and hectic day, as long as I’ve had seven to eight hours of sleep — preferably eight! When I’m not able to get at least seven hours, I don’t have the same energy. I don’t feel so well the next day.

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
CLMN: I’m not sure if this is considered a ‘hack’ or not, but I’ve worked on becoming a good listener. I’ve learned that it’s incredibly helpful to be perceptive of the people around me and my environment in general.

TG: Name a book that changed your life. 
CLMN: Xenophon’s “Kyrou Paideia” (in English: The Education of Cyrus). For me, there is no greater “bible” of leadership.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you? 
CLMN: Unfortunately, it does, and there’s not much I can do to change that. As the president of a large and complex organization like USC, I must be available on a 24-hour basis. Anywhere anytime.

TG: How do you deal with email?
CLMN: I read email frequently throughout the day. However, I try to keep my replies as short as I can. Most of my emails are like text messages. For anything that requires longer deliberation or discussion, I prefer phone conversations. I try very hard not to read emails when I’m getting ready for bed.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
CLMN: Sleep! I don’t hesitate to take a 15-minute nap in the middle of a long day. It often recharges me. Otherwise, I catch up on the day’s news.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
CLMN: I can’t say I’ve ever really felt burned out but I certainly do get tired after four or five back-to-back strenuous days. In cases like this, I make sure to take the sixth day off and recharge with at least a nine-hour sleep and then a long 30-mile bike ride.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 
CLMN: We all fail from time to time. The most important thing is to overcome our failures. I always try to do a thorough and brutally honest assessment of what went wrong. And then I move on.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
CLMN: “Sleep is the healer of all mortal suffering” from Sophocles’ Philoctetes.


C. L. Max Nikias (@uscpres) is president of the University of Southern California. He holds faculty appointments in both electrical engineering and the classics. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a charter fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.