The Founder of Whole Foods Shares His Recipe for Success
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The Founder of Whole Foods Shares His Recipe for Success

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The Founder of Whole Foods Shares His Recipe for Success

John Mackey is an entrepreneur, conscious capitalist, co-founder of Whole Foods Market, and the CEO and co-founder of Love.Life. He was CEO of Whole Foods Market for 44 years, where he was a passionate advocate for capitalism as a force for good. In 2022, he was inducted into the World Retail Congress Hall of Fame, and he has been recognized as one of Fortune’s “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” among other awards and distinctions. His latest venture, Love.Life, seeks to unite the power of nourishing food, holistic medical care, and precision wellness therapies to make optimal, lasting health and vitality achievable.

Below, John shares five key insights from his new book, The Whole Story: Adventures in Love, Life, and Capitalism. Listen to the audio version—read by John himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Whole Story John Mackey Next Big Idea Club

1. Embrace your mistakes.

People often ask me if I have any regrets and what would I want to tell my younger self. First off, my younger self definitely would not have listened to me. But really, I wouldn’t tell my younger self to change anything! I am a firm believer that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow. In The Whole Story, I’m very honest and candid about my mistakes because I think it is important to share the lessons I learned from them.

One specific mistake I talk about in the book is hiring and promoting the wrong people. Hiring great people can be some of your greatest successes—the intellectual capital you gain is invaluable. But at the same time, hiring the wrong people can be one of your greatest mistakes. Through making several bad hiring decisions, I became more self-aware and recognized that I am not very good at hiring people. I always tend to see people’s highest potential, and I needed people who were a bit more skeptical to help me make important hiring decisions.

I wouldn’t have learned from those hiring mistakes if I didn’t make them. Without my mistakes, I wouldn’t be the man and leader I am today.

2. Be curious.

Having an open mindset allows you to learn things from others that you may not have been exposed to otherwise. This mindset has surfaced many important things in my life: my newfound love for pickleball, adopting a vegan lifestyle, becoming an avid long-distance hiker, and choosing to live in a vegetarian co-op in 1976 (a choice that ultimately led to the creation of Whole Foods).

While studying at the University of Texas at Austin, I decided to move into a vegetarian housing co-op named Prana House. This was in 1976, and I was about 22 or 23 years old. I wasn’t even a vegetarian and didn’t know anything about food, but I was young, curious, and interested in all things counterculture. I wanted to try something new and meet cool people.

“If I weren’t open to trying something new and joining the co-op, there likely wouldn’t be Whole Foods Market today.”

These hopes materialized as I met Renee Lawson there—my girlfriend and future co-founder of both Safer Way and Whole Foods. I also developed a passion for cooking, started to enjoy eating vegetables, and became the food buyer at the co-op. I often describe this as the time my food consciousness was awakened. If I weren’t open to trying something new and joining the co-op, there likely wouldn’t be Whole Foods Market today. You truly never know where being open to new ideas, things, and people can take you.

3. Stay grounded in your purpose.

Whether you’re talking about leadership and business or your own journey of personal growth, always stay true to your purpose. For businesses, it’s critical to stay focused on the issues that are connected to your values. You need to prioritize and focus your attention on the areas where you can truly make a difference. There are many external pressures for ESG (environmental, social, and governance), and while the issues are important, they aren’t all necessarily relevant for a particular business to prioritize. More importantly, they shouldn’t come at the expense of the business’s success. For Whole Foods, we focused on agriculture, animal welfare, and aquaculture because those were the areas where we could make the biggest impact.

As an individual, purpose is inextricably tied to authenticity. My purpose has evolved over the years, of which I have been very consciously aware. A higher purpose is dynamic because it can continually transform as we grow. I’ve learned that this change is not something to fear, as it can lead to new ideas, interests, and motivations, offering the possibility to make a positive difference in the world in new ways.

4. Expand, don’t contract.

One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is the opportunity to create and innovate. With this also comes a huge opportunity to grow, but only if your heart is open. Everyone is called to a hero’s journey, but many people are too frightened to answer their call.

When stressed, you can choose to contract into fear or expand into love. Fear can be limiting, but you must be willing to make and learn from mistakes. There might be fear in the moment, but you can always choose to let it go and expand into love. As I’ve evolved, my goal has been to have more and more moments when I’m in the love space.

“Life is short, but it’s never too late to answer your calling or discover your higher purpose.”

Of course, I still get afraid, but I’ve learned how to make decisions to let go of fear quicker. Activities like meditation and breathwork can guide us on our spiritual journey to master fear and redirect our consciousness. We can always choose forgiveness and compassion. Even if we choose fear, we have the power to choose love in the next moment. We have that decision-making power.

Life is short, but it’s never too late to answer your calling or discover your higher purpose. You have no idea where it will lead—and that’s so much fun. Allow yourself to follow your heart and expand into love, and your life will be a grand adventure.

5. Play the infinite game.

The idea of playing the infinite game is a large theme of The Whole Story. An infinite game is a game that never has to end. Life itself is an infinite game: it allows us to play, create, and love endlessly.

The journey of Whole Foods was a delight to be a part of, and others will continue to drive the business forward. But I’m not done with business, and I’m not done pursuing my higher purpose. Now, I’m back in start-up mode with my new business, Love.Life. This new venture called me forward, putting me on a new journey to take risks, play, create, learn, evolve, and grow. It’s so exciting to work with such an incredible team. I’m even working with several former Whole Foods executives, and we often joke that we brought the old band back together. The Love.Life team is so excited to bring another beautiful vision into reality and help people live their healthiest and happiest lives.

Just as Whole Foods will continue to grow and evolve for many years after I’m gone, I have a feeling that Love.Life will do the same. Let us love. Let us create. And let us play—again and again and again—forever!

To listen to the audio version read by author John Mackey, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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