Joe De Sena carries a 44-pound kettlebell wherever he goes. He calls it Leo, and hauls it through airports, on training runs, and even to business meetings. Especially to business meetings. “I’ve had meetings with billionaires where I show up and put the kettlebell on a table,” he says. “They’re confused.”
Like any classic tale, the story of why the 48-year-old De Sena travels the world with a kettlebell named Leo begins with a quest and ends with enlightenment. It’s what comes in between—a sandbag, a 697-pound man, an airport in Asia, and a misunderstanding about metric conversions—that makes it a classic Joe De Sena tale.
Spartan founder and CEO Joe De Sena knows what makes us happy. It starts with making ourselves miserable.
It began in 2014, when a 697-pound man showed up at De Sena’s farm in Vermont to see if the Spartan Race founder could help him. This wasn’t entirely unusual. At any given time De Sena hosted a mix of current and aspiring racers, along with the occasional project like this guy. “He was eating eight Egg McMuffins and drinking two two-liter Sprites a day,” he says.
De Sena gave him a 25-pound sandbag, and had him carry it on long hikes every morning and evening. In return, he promised to carry his own sandbag, but with this twist: As the man lost weight, De Sena’s sandbag would get heavier.
The man responded well to the challenge, losing two to three pounds a day at first, and eventually getting all the way down to 267 pounds. Meanwhile, De Sena’s sandbag increased to 85 pounds.
So what does that have to do with the kettlebell?
Imagine trying to get through security in the U.S. with an 85-pound sandbag. Now imagine yourself on the other side of the world, trying to explain it to a customs official when neither of you speaks the other’s language.
When the sandbag was confiscated, in the spring of 2016, De Sena asked his wife, Courtney, to buy a 20-pound kettlebell. She misunderstood and ordered one that weighed 20 kilograms. I use the past tense because that original kettlebell is long gone, one of four that disappeared in his travels. Leo is his fifth.
The Tao of Kettlebell
Carrying Leo through airports and into meetings around the world has taught De Sena valuable lessons about how people do business. “The way they treat it is a very good clue to the culture,” he says.
In Japan, for example, he remembers how carefully a young woman at the airport encased the kettlebell in bubble wrap. “It takes forever, and you just want to get going,” he says. “But that’s exactly how they do business. They’re so detail-oriented that you’re almost paralyzed.”
Contrast that with his experience in India. “They stick my kettlebell in your bag,” he says, still marveling at the absurdity of it. “If you’ve got some valuables in there, you’re screwed.” The experience, he says, reflects the challenge of doing business in India: “They might have an agreement, they might not.”
U.S. airports, he says, are unpredictable, except for the confusion over the metric system. Americans assume the “20” means pounds, and are inevitably surprised when they struggle to lift it. “I’ve heard a few people mumbling, ‘I’ve got to get back to the gym,’” he says.
Then there’s Latin America, where, he says, “There’s no chance you’re getting that kettlebell at the end.”
But the real lesson of the kettlebell isn’t what the effect it has on others. It’s what it does to you. “My theory is that it’s tied to happiness,” De Sena says.
That’s when it starts to get downright Spartan.
Make Your Own Luck
If you aren’t familiar with De Sena’s story, this is it in bullet points:
- He grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, where he launched multiple businesses before he reached legal drinking age. He sold fireworks to classmates until the school caught on and shut him down. Then he sold T-shirts, and finally hit on pool cleaning, starting with the swimming pools of local mobsters, including John Gotti. He eventually sold the business for a half-million dollars.
- He took his talents to Wall Street, gained 30 unwanted pounds, and became obsessed with endurance training. The more extreme the challenge, the better. In one adventure race, he was stuck in the Canadian wilderness in the dead of winter, and dug out a snow cave to survive the minus-30 degree temperature.
- He moved his family to the farm in Vermont, where he launched the Death Race in 2005 and the far more accessible (and considerably more popular) Spartan Race in 2010.
The De Sena family—Joe, Courtney, their four children, and Leo the kettlebell—have lived in Japan since August 2016, after a stretch in Singapore. As frustrating as he finds the business culture, he’s inspired by the history.
Take, for example, the marathon monks of Mt. Hiei. The most ambitious among them walk or run the same marathon-distance loop every day for 1,000 days. “There’s a 1,300-year history of developing monks into whatever it’s called when a monk graduates,” he says. In the past, anyone who survived the challenge was revered as a living saint. Today, he becomes a media celebrity.
De Sena’s version of the test took place one day last winter. He had a group of Spartan racers complete the loop while carrying a kettlebell—12 kilos for the women, 20 for the men. By the end of the 18-hour ordeal, “we were basically crawling,” he says. “That was fun. I literally had to pinch myself. I thought, ‘I’m the luckiest guy alive.’”
Which only makes sense when you consider that, for De Sena, adversity is luck.
Happiness, the Joe De Sena Way
The day after our conversation, De Sena sent me an email describing the theory of positive disintegration. It was developed by Polish psychologist and psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski, who survived three horrific ordeals: the two world wars and the subsequent Stalinist occupation of Poland. (He was imprisoned by both the Nazis and communists.)
Dabrowski believed that the gifted few who could break free of conventional modes of thinking could not just survive extreme hardship and crises. They could emerge as better, stronger, and more enlightened individuals.
You can see why the theory is appealing to De Sena, whose life and business are based on finding new ways to make things harder. It’s why he puts himself through punishing workouts every morning, why he takes cold showers, and why he carries a 44-pound kettlebell with him wherever he goes.
“I’ve been thinking on this shit for 35 years,” he says. “The majority of people want to make their lives softer and easier. But I don’t think we’re meant to sit around in a climate-controlled house. The worse the weather is, the more we should go out into it. We’re designed to deal with challenges and obstacles. We’re supposed to get chased by a lion and hunt for deer. We’re wired for that. Now we just get the frustration of traffic, or the coffee not being the right temperature, or the kids screaming.”
Spartan races, he believes, are the antidote to that soft life, which induces what he describes as learned helplessness. “We’ve got a million Spartans doing our races—jumping into cold water, crawling under barbed wire. They’re attacking life,” he says.
The reward is that you can make the discomfort go away. “I’m convinced happiness comes from the reduction in things,” he explains. “You feel a little pain, a little loss, a little hunger, and then you feel happy with what you have. When I put the kettlebell down, I’m the happiest guy alive. ‘Thank God I’m not carrying that fucking kettlebell right now!’ It sounds crazy, right?”
To an average American like me? Sure. But to a Spartan, it makes perfect sense.