The Power of Persistence:
A Leadership Wunderkind Discovers That Focus Produces the Best Results
Andy Sontag’s greatest passion is “designing experiences that build relationships,” he says. The idea is that we humans need to collaborate to solve big problems like, say, the refugee crisis in Europe. “Problems like this can’t be solved by one individual,” he says. “I create experiences that build meaningful relationships between people. When you work as a group, it’s amazing what comes out of that.”
That makes sense for Sontag, who has known the positive power of group initiative growing up in a kind of utopian “intentional community” in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where community land is owned collectively and houses are owned by the individuals who inhabit them. Home to famed Antioch College, the area is a verdant Valhalla of rolling hills, forests and valleys that endowed him with what he calls “the most wonderful upbringing. I could walk into my friends’ houses and feel I was at home.”
At 18, the idyll ended when he flew to Ghana to volunteer briefly in a refugee camp and had what he calls “the most meaningful experience of my life.” This was followed by a year with Americorps in Seattle working in “restorative justice” for the homeless. He moved from a deep interest in the intersection of politics and criminal justice toward what he saw as a higher leverage point for making positive change: business. He started thinking about “the evolution of capitalism toward purpose” and went to college to study entrepreneurship and sustainability. It was the beginning of a life aimed at “bringing businesspeople to their highest potential good,” as Sontag says.
THE PATH TO CLARITY
These thoughts placed him on a path to Denmark, where he studied leadership and entrepreneurship at the respected Kaospilot business and design school, and where he works today. While there, he co-created a methodology for designing experiences that build relationships, which he has since taught extensively. He has used it on numerous projects, among them facilitating experiences to bring together artists and entrepreneurs at an international leadership summit in Iceland where, in a few days, startups were born and relationships forged under the banner of one core belief: When individuals work collectively, they can move mountains.
Sontag left the freelance and startup life to be a full-time “experience designer” in Denmark at UFUSE, a firm that represents creative clients in Europe and the United States. UFUSE had been an investor in a company Sontag started “because they believed in my ideas,” he says. So he gets a lot of freedom to design experiences that foster UFUSE’s mission of “unleashing creative courage.”
He focuses much of his time on fortifying his ability to contribute to the world. He identifies two sides of this mission. One is the systemic: “We need better systems for distributing clean energy, for education, health care, and transportation,” he says. The second and foremost side is, he says, “the evolution of an individual and collective consciousness towards compassion and away from an egocentric worldview.” He asks: “How can we cultivate our ability to put our own house in order before rushing around trying to fix others’?”
THE 1 PERCENT PROBLEM
Personally, Sontag has long been on a quest for clarity and balance. Along the way, he read a FastCompany.com story on Lisa Arie, who founded Vista Caballo, an exclusive leadership and human development center for top-echelon executives based at her remote Colorado ranch. He sensed she was a kindred spirit and followed her progress. Eventually she became his adviser for the startup Core, which sought to “create experiences that unfold human potential.” Arie was with Sontag “for a year of that journey,” he says.
Their meeting was fortuitous. Sontag had “many conversations with [Arie] about how to help people, how to bring together people from different disciplines and different parts of the world.” And about balance.
From late 2014 through early 2015, he went through The StillPoint Experience, a new self-discovery tool Arie had designed to help people discover and learn about their metacognition and the thinking they need to navigate their most challenging moments. “It was a profoundly impactful experience,” Sontag says. “For me, it has been effective in helping me make decisions in a strategic way.”
THE QUEST FOR BALANCE
With more persistence, Sontag says he can “really focus and do one thing at a time.” As it is, he’s still taking on a bit too much. “I’ve gotten better at focusing, but I’m still struggling. The first step in making change is to identify it and articulate it. I’m strong at connecting to people and ideas, which I don’t want to get rid of, but as the same time I want to have more patience with things to get the full benefit.”
The StillPoint Experience consists of an initial diagnostic online and 21 days of follow-up exercises to reinforce what was learned. One of Sontag’s exercises had him list both his projects and those of his collaborators. He was floored; he saw clearly that the ones where someone was 100 percent invested in a project had the best outcome. These exercises were, for him, the best thing about The StillPoint: “The most powerful thing was getting the results and seeing change. Doing the exercises every day became a ritual, and I kept doing them after the required 21 days.”
He realized he had to pursue persistence over time to see change over time. For instance, when his boss at UFUSE was investing in Sontag’s former (successful) startup, the young entrepreneur was also working half-time at another company. “I realized that was a classic lack of focus. I was splitting my focus between two companies. I started working full-time at UFUSE,” Sontag says.
At the same time, he realized there was a double edge: Lack of persistence can do harm. At Arie’s prompting, he continues to work on persistence. It’s not only good for him professionally but personally, too, because it promotes thinking in a balanced way, and balance reduces stress.
For Sontag, “The StillPoint was a challenging experience that will make me happier in the long term. Psychologically, it was meaningful. It gave me a lot of focus, a lot of direction in many ways.”