Moderator Interview: 10 Questions with Bojan Mandaric
Bojan Mandaric had no idea that when he and a college buddy decided to make a pact to get up for early morning workouts in the suckiness that is November in Boston, that they were going to create a worldwide fitness movement. Seven years later it’s not only his passion, it’s his career. Today, The November Project is in 45 cities, 8 countries, and on 3 continents.
Read our interview with Bojan to find out why he started November Project, why he jumped at the chance to be involved in Strong Process, and why you should always question everything.
Q: How did you get into fitness as a career? Is this something you envisioned yourself doing for your career?
Absolutely not. My major at was Northeastern Environmental Studies. I was also part of a crew team, so athletics or fitness was just part of my identity. I used to play basketball before rowing, and swam before that so I was always pretty active. Then after I graduated, I still was on the alumni rowing team but the days of burning 8,000-9,000 calories a day were long gone.
My college friend [November Project co-creator Brogan Graham] and I decided we were going to do something about our fitness but we didn’t want to pay for it. So we started kind of running around Boston using off the water workouts from rowing. Some of them were simple stationary and core exercises, some of them were strength or endurance training like running the stairs at Harvard Stadium or sprinting up the hill. We incorporated all of those things and wanted to keep it a part of a one-month routine to see if it was going to work. We decided to do it in November, because it’s easy to work out in the spring when the weather is nice and the days are long. In November you start getting depressed about shorter days and wetness and grossness. So, we picked one month to see if it worked, and it did. We used each other as accountability buddies; it’s much easier to work out when someone else is waiting for you. . . it worked so well that we became better friends and one month turned into a whole winter and then we started to invite other people and accidentally we stumbled upon something that more and more people were enjoying.
Two and half years into doing this, Brogan and I looked at ourselves and said “well, we’re either at the point where this is going to continue being a hobby or we are going to make it into our career.” And so we decided to make it our career.
Q: Why do you think November Project has been so popular? You mentioned in other interviews the synergy of having other people with you as you workout, and you just mentioned accountability. What is the thing that has made November Project so popular?
All of it. The first thing that people caught on to was that it was free. No one can wrap their head around why it would be free; why don’t you make it a business model where you start charging membership? Well, why not keep it free? That’s why it’s different.
It’s also scaleable; it’s for all fitness levels. For instance, it’s former professional Division I athletes and former national team athletes, all the way to complete fitness newbies. And they’re all working out together.
Then there’s that accountability which is a pretty big driving force. You’re not spending any money out of your pocket, but you do have people that you told ‘I’ll see you next Wednesday’ or ‘I’ll see you Friday morning’. If you don’t show up it’s not only that you’re not putting the workout in but you’re letting someone else down. The reason Brogan and I were able to do it for that first month in November in 2011 was because both of us got our asses out of bed.
And then there’s kind of this magic sauce where we create emotional connections with people that come to the workouts by doing some silly things. We tell people to high five or hug each other because why the f*ck not? People don’t talk to each other when they’re on the train. Their nose is in their phones or newspapers; no one is paying attention to people around them so we tried to seemingly force those interactions, but people want those interactions anyway.
There’s also a sense of overcoming obstacles after you finish the workout. You keel over and you’re breathing hard, and someone else is feeling the same thing with all those endorphins. You’re feeling like you just conquered the world before most of the city has even their first coffee. That kind of creates a sense of badassness. If you do that 4 times a week, you start feeling emotional connections to that group.
Q: What’s the biggest group that you’ve had since starting in 2011?
Every year we have a November Project Summit, a gathering of all the leaders and members in locations in North America. The first year it was in Madison, Wisconsin. Last year, our 5th annual Summit, it was in Boston. It was a bit of a homecoming; where it all started. People traveled from all over the world to see the Harvard Stadium stairs. And we had 15,000-16,000 people.
Q: In your TedX talk with Brogan, you mentioned the workout after the Marathon Bombing as being a really memorable one. Any other workouts that stick out?
There was one work out where we ran up and down the hill on Summit Ave. in Brookline. The workout was: you run up and down the hill and every time you got to the top of the hill you had to do 10 burpees and then go back down and then do it again over and over. It’s a really hard workout. Going up Summit Ave is challenging enough; throw in some burpees and it’s really, really tough.
But there was this one girl that I kept looking at, and she was just recklessly throwing herself on the ground for every burpee like she had just woken up from the longest sleep. She was just full of life, full of joy. Just loving it. After the workout I came over to her and I said “Excellent workout today. You really were crushing it.”
She told me that she had actually been coming for a few years, but hadn’t been to the workouts in a really long time because she had abdominal cancer. She said that the last few years were really challenging, with a lot of really, really bad days but eventually she started getting better and now things were looking good. Then she said “It took me a really long time to get to where I am today and able to workout with you again.”
I- first of all felt awful for not remembering her- but I just couldn’t believe that it meant so much to her that after overcoming such a challenging thing she was training so that she could come back and continue to train with us. And that was like . . . even talking about it now I still get goosebumps.
Q: Any other non-workout related moments that stand out?
Brogan and I stepped down and passed down the reigns (we’re now managing the whole movement and not leading the workouts anymore), and our tribe gave us a big bag- an almost Santa Claus sized bag- full of notes written on anything from basically toilet paper all the way to intricate wood carvings from people showing their appreciation for everything we did for them the past three and a half years.
We could have flown through the bag, but we took six or seven at a time and really put time and effort into reading them. There was a bit of a repeating theme of ‘This has changed my life and this is why I’m thankful for you guys’. If you read 20 or 30 of those you lose sight of how important it is to that person so that’s why we only read a few at a time. So that was also another really powerful moment.
Q: Why did you want to get involved in Strong Process?
Rachele is a powerhouse. I always had tremendous respect for her. She was by far the smallest person in a boathouse full of 19 and 20-something guys just high on a ton of testosterone and jackassness. . .and she was controlling the entire room not as a peer, but almost as an authority. So again, I always had tremendous respect for her. When I found she was doing something like this and she offered me the moderator position on the MOVE panel, I didn’t hesitate twice.
The other reason I wanted to get involved was the point of conference itself. There are so many resources out there and people are overwhelmed with the information and don’t really know which way to turn and how to figure things out. So providing more resources from experts in the field that are well thought out is very useful.
Q: Speaking of misinformation, what is the biggest false fact you’ve heard about exercise or movement?
‘I’m not a runner’. I think that’s the biggest misconception people have. I think we’re all runners; I’m a runner even right now on my crutches [Bojan is recovering from knee surgery]. I think it’s all very relative. If we compare ourselves to Shalene Flanagan, none of us are runners. But we all use movement on our two legs. Some of us don’t even have two legs and we’re still using whatever ways we have to move; to be better, to be healthy, to be happy. I think the misconception of running is speed; and that’s completely wrong. If you’re able to move, you’re a runner.
Q: If you could shout anything from the rooftops about fitness or exercise for the world to hear it would be _______________.
It doesn’t have to be expensive in order for it to work. It’s a long shout. I should probably try to figure out how to summarize that; make it rhyme or sound better when screaming.
A lot of times people think they have to dump a lot of money into health. Especially as our society starts separating rich and poor, you start noticing people who are healthier. People who have lower BMIs (body mass index) and people with lower blood pressure are better off financially. People that are not as well off maybe aren’t educated or don’t have resources to feed themselves in a healthy way. It’s crazy that back in the day people who were round and pale were people that were well off because they had other people to do all the physical work for them. That was the image of wealth. Now it’s the opposite. Now if you’re wealthy, you have access to good food and nutrition education. I’m a big fan of flipping that paradigm on its head and making fitness accessible to everybody. I don’t think you need to have a gym membership to be fit; as proven by November Project.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone just starting a wellness journey or someone looking for motivation to continue?
Find someone. Find a group, find a friend, find someone that can be your accountability buddy. . .and do it today. Don’t postpone until tomorrow, or the next day or the next weekend. Or January 1st. Just do it today. You’re just never going to get to it the longer you postpone it. Immediate action and accountability are super important.
Q: What is your personal motto?
“Always question things”. Not necessarily to be a jerk or to be a contrarian. I think by questioning things, you just make them better.