Ep 208: Motivation, Dedication and the Warrior Mentality

Episode Summary

D.J. Vanas, author of The Warrior Within, reveals how teens can find purpose, develop resilience, and maintain motivation by adopting the community-focused mentality of a Native American Warrior.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

What comes to your mind when you think of a warrior? A sweaty, grizzled hunk swinging a sword around? A brave air force pilot in aviator sunglasses? 

Although we might think warriors are battle-hungry and reckless, some traditional Native American cultures have a completely different view. Instead, Warriors are pillars of the community: service-oriented, passionate, and hard-workers who are always ready to give back to those they love. No matter our cultural background, this version of a warrior is something our teens can take inspiration from. 

To help us pass on this new warrior mentality to our kids, we’re speaking with D.J. Vanas, member of the Ottawa Tribe of Michigan and author of The Warrior Within: Own Your Power to Serve, Fight, Protect, and Heal. D.J. is a powerhouse speaker for Fortune 500 companies, hundreds of tribal nations, and audiences nationwide. His ideas have been adopted by companies like Disney, P&G, Intel, and even NASA!

This week, D.J. explains how teens can embody a warrior mentality and define their values, vision, passions, and purpose in the process. We’re also highlighting the difference between good and bad growing pains, and discussing how teens can stay focused in a world full of distractions.

Values and Vision

To give back to their communities, kids first need to figure out what exactly it is they want to contribute! The first step is for teens to define their values, says D.J. 

Some teens want a life that incorporates love and compassion. Others may be driven by curiosity or the need for intellectual discovery. Whatever their values are, teens will benefit from deciding which principles to live their life by! This can help them pick and choose what people, places and things they want to welcome into their life–and which  ones can be respectfully removed. When we know what our values are, we can eliminate the things that don’t align with them!

D.J. also encourages teens to ask themselves the big questions: What do I want to create in this world? What do I want to leave behind? How do I want to be remembered? Although these questions can feel intimidating or scary, D.J. reminds us that warriors are courageous! If teens are brave enough to ask these questions, they’ll be one step closer to uncovering their purpose.

Some teens do know what they want to do with themselves… but don’t have the confidence to believe in their dreams. D.J. and I talk about how this lack of confidence often comes from being criticized or put down by others. Young kids are so certain that they’ll become an astronaut or the president of the United States, but are dissuaded as they grow up, leading them to feel incapable or lost by their teen years. In our interview, D.J. reveals how we can help teens push past this criticism and believe in themselves!

For teens still figuring it all out, there’s bound  to be some growing pains involved. Some pain is healthier than others, however! D.J. and I are discussing what healthy growing pain looks like, and how teens can work through it and come out on top.

Persevering Through Growing Pains

Good growing pain is the kind that helps teens learn. It pushes them to become stronger, more resilient people, says D.J. Disappointment, embarrassment and failure are all painful experiences, but they’re necessary for growth. 

But when teens focus too much on these painful experiences and allow the hurt to take over their lives, they can shut down, lose their creativity and find themselves at a dead end. This is the bad pain, says D.J., and it’s characterized by rumination and fear. 

D.J. explains that fear plays a big role in our lives as we’re growing up, and it’s up to teens to face it with courage. He explains that fear can sometimes cause teens to rewrite reality and believe they’re doomed! When a classmate or teacher criticizes  teens’ work, they might let their fear of failure overwhelm them, and get stuck in a pattern of believing they’re not good enough. But if they have the courage to be resilient in the face of rejection, they’ll pick up their pen and start again, leading them to grow instead of getting stuck. Warriors are persistent enough to power through painful experiences–and your teen can too!

If we want to help teens face their negative emotions, D.J. recommends that we bring some positivity into the picture. He suggests we point out their strong qualities, applaud their hard work and praise their dedication, even when they’re facing failure! This reminds them just how capable they really are. In the episode, D.J. and I discuss more ways you can help a teen who’s feeling bogged down by negativity.

For teens in today’s world, focus can be a challenge as well. D.J. is helping us see how a warrior mentality can help teens cut out distractions and stay motivated.

Maintaining Motivation

Between school, SAT prep, soccer practice and student government, It’s easy for teens to overbook themselves. It’s hard to focus on any one thing…and having 24/7 access to the distracting internet doesn’t help. D.J. suggests that kids learn how to say no to things that aren’t aligned with their values and purpose, like a true warrior! This keeps teens from getting overwhelmed and allows them to focus on what’s really important to them. When we focus on the right thing, we can create something incredible…but when we try to focus on everything, we often end up with nothing, says D.J.

D.J. and I talk a lot about motivation in our interview–and how it has to come from within. Friends, bosses and teachers won’t give teens the motivation they need; they have to create it themselves. Intentionally developing the right habits and surrounding themselves with the other motivated people will help teens keep their motivation going! In our interview, D.J. and I discuss how parents’ praise can be helpful to a teen who’s struggling to stay motivated or focused.

When someone is expecting us to deliver, we often work harder and achieve more than we ever would on our own, says D.J. This is called accountability, and it has a pretty powerful effect on our productivity! D.J. proposes that parents hold teens accountable for achieving their goals…and ask teens to hold parents accountable as well! This two-way system helps teens learn responsibility and creates a bond of accountability between parent and child, says D.J. 

In the Episode…

D.J is such an intelligent and powerful individual, and his brilliance shines through in today’s episode! On top of the topics mentioned above, we also talk about:

  • How we can benefit from mentoring others
  • What questions we can ask besides “how was school?”
  • How teens can find their tribe
  • Why self care is essential when caring for others

If you enjoy this week’s episode, you can find more from D.J. at nativediscovery.com. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Welcome to Talking to Teens. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.

D.J.: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Andy: You have written this book, The Warrior Within, that’s really got a lot of tips about how to tap into your inner warrior, and I think in a lot of ways that we need that and our kids need that today. I’m really curious what got you interested and excited about this topic and why you decided to write this book.

D.J.: Yeah, thanks a lot. Great question. I’m originally from Michigan. I’m a tribally-enrolled member of the Odawa Nation, and so when I talk about the term “warrior,” I mean it from a tribal-centric type of viewpoint. The way that we see our warriors, we call a warrior ogichidaa in my tribe, and that term has nothing to do with what we see on TV or in movies. It’s not that sweaty, chiseled figure walking down the street knocking and over buildings with bazookas and knocking down bad guys. It’s a role that was much more focused on service. It was about taking your Creator-given talent and ability and developing that over a lifetime so you can actually be an asset or a benefit to the tribe that you served.

D.J.: It was a role that was about leadership by example, fighting for something bigger than your own personal welfare. It was about making it a contribution and it was asking the question, “Not what can I get, but what can I do for the people in my life?” That’s that whole warrior concept that I unpack in the book, and that warrior spirit behind that role means that we have resiliency. We have drive, dedication. We have love for the people we’re fighting for, that we’re trying to contribute to every day, you know, that aspect of it, too, and especially for teenagers.

D.J.: I mean, my gosh, that is so needed in the world. They live in a tough world. Things are moving faster and faster. Information overload is normal, so it’s really important that they really learn to listen not just to what’s going on here, but what’s going on down here, that internal gut feel of what’s important to them, what they’re passionate about, and what direction they want to take.

Andy: That’s so cool. I mean, the world has changed so much in the last however couple hundred years, and I think people in your tribe are now becoming warriors in like a totally different environment than it was, and so I wonder, how have things changed in terms of the way you guys think about becoming a warrior? What goes into that? Then, also, what hasn’t changed and what has kind of stayed the same since as far back as you can remember?

D.J.: Yeah. That’s a great question. Yes, things definitely have changed, and the traditional way to become a warrior has also changed as well. There were rites of passage. There were your first raid, your first hunt. You have these thresholds to meet, and now that may have changed. I mean, we still have ceremonies. Those are special to our people, sacred, it makes us who we are, but the traditional role of a warrior has also changed, too. What stays the same is the purpose, which is, again, contributing to your tribe, defending and protecting your people, not your ego.

D.J.: That part has not changed, but the way that we do it is different, so now, warriors don’t necessarily fight with this anymore, but there’s still battles for our community, for our health and wellness, for developing and growing communities. The way that it’s done is different. It’s done through education, it’s done through activism, it’s done through voting, it’s done through negotiating with different organizations to make sure that we get what we need. That part has changed, too, but the original purpose to be of service to others has stayed the same.

Andy: One way that we can be of service is by giving time, and you talked in your book about how to give the gift of time, but with the key of being present and doing it willingly. What do you mean by that? How can we do that as parents give time more effectively to our teenagers or people in our family and our community?

D.J.: I love this question, I got to tell you straight out of the gate. Given our time is so critically important because it’s the most precious thing we can give someone else. It’s also the most precious thing we can give ourselves. Time is non-renewable. We don’t get to gather more. We don’t know how much we have, so it’s not just important, it’s absolutely critical we put it towards the right things and not towards everything.

D.J.: When it comes to giving our time, what I mentioned in the book, if we want to give our time in the best way, we have to be present when we give it, which means we are fully there mentally, emotionally, physically. We’re not just present physically, but in all the other ways, too, because that’s where we kind of cheat. It’s like, “Well, I’m standing right-

Andy: Totally, yeah.

D.J.: … “in front of that person.” It’s like, “No, but are you present?” That’s why sometimes people get frustrated talking to other people or talking to their teams where they don’t feel like they’re connecting, but they’re checking email, eating a sandwich, listening to earbuds, doing 57 other things and wonder why they don’t connect.

Andy: “Now, what are you talking about? We do so much stuff together.”

D.J.: That’s right.

Andy: “No, we did this and we did that and I drove you to that thing,” but we didn’t do any of them like completely and there’s a big difference. You can feel it.

D.J.: Yeah. Being present means I am there for you in this moment and I am fully aware of what’s going on, that you’re in front of me and I’m listening. We don’t need long chunks of time to make that really, really powerful and impactful. It could be 10 seconds, 30 seconds, but to be fully present is honoring the person that you’re with. Then, the second one is to be willing, and we call can spot a fake-

Andy: Yeah.

D.J.: … right? I mean, we know when somebody gives us their time, but you know they didn’t want to do it.

Andy: “Okay, what do you want?”

D.J.: Yeah, exactly. Or they do it with anger almost like with an attitude of, “Now, you owe me,” and that totally violates a good give of our time when we do that, so we have to do it willingly. People can feel the difference. We can feel the difference when it’s done the right way.

Andy: We talk a lot on the show about values and I think values are so important. You have an interesting distinction in your book. You talk about the connection between values and vision. Why do you differentiate between those? How do they connect?

D.J.: Yeah. Great question, again. Values and vision are totally interconnected in the fact that when we know our values, that’s kind of like the bricks, and the vision is what we build with the bricks. That’s the life that we want, the snapshot of a good life. When we know our values, when we know what is important to us values-wise like love, integrity, service, whatever those things may be, then we know what a snapshot of our good life looks like. We know what to say yes to and we know what to say no to because if we do something that violates our value, then we know that’s an easy answer to just say, “No, this is not.” You know, if one of your values is integrity, then when you have a chance to do something that’s blatantly dishonest, that’s an easy one to go, “No, that’s not in alignment with who I am, who I choose to be.”

D.J.: Once we know what are values are, we have clarity in a chaotic world, which is a gift we give to ourselves, and then we can start building on those values and build that career, that family, that life, whatever we’re trying to create in this world based on that. It gives us a sense of what direction to go in if you have, for instance, a value of service. That’s one of my strong values. That’s why I do the work that I do. The work that I do now as a speaker, as a writer is in perfect alignment with that value for me, and so this feels like this is what I was meant to do and this is what I choose to do.

Andy: Then, where does the vision come from? Maybe you have an idea what your values are, but, wow, developing a vision for your life, it seems so difficult, especially when there’s so many directions you could go and so many things you could do. How do you start to refine that?

D.J.: That’s a huge challenge. We live in a world, there’s a million billion things we can do. Which one is the right one for us?

Andy: Yeah, we always feel like we’re not doing enough or not-

D.J.: Right.

Andy: … yeah, doing the right thing or… yeah.

D.J.: Or working on the right thing, and we live in a world of distraction, first of all. Let’s just be honest about that-

Andy: Totally, yeah.

D.J.: … but when we create that vision, it’s really getting to the heart of asking those really scary questions like, “What do I want? How do I want my life to look? What do I want to create in this world before I draw my last breath?”

Andy: Yeah.

D.J.: “What do I want to contribute? How do I want to be remembered?” I mean, we get to ask these questions, and that goes into this vision of what we want to work on and create. I say it’s scary because to actually admit that I want to become an artist or I want to become a computer programmer or I want to build a company that like TOMS Shoes where you by a pair of shoes and they give a pair away. That came from somebody’s vision to create that into reality, and the thing is we’re great at it as kids and we learn to really stink at it as we get older. It starts in the teenage years, by the way-

Andy: Yeah.

D.J.: … where you ask a little kid, “What do you want to do with your life, this gift that you’ve been given?” You can’t get them to be quiet. They want to do everything.

Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

D.J.: “I want to be a teacher, an astronaut, a ballerina, a Power Ranger, a Marvel’s Avenger,” and they’re excited, and we all were.

Andy: A fire truck.

D.J.: That was my goal. You read that in the book, yeah. My goal at four years old was a fire truck, so luckily our goals change over time thankfully, but we’re not short on answers, and then you start going to school, you start getting told no. We start getting judged. We start getting criticized. You know, “That idea’s dumb. Nobody’s ever going to… You’re not going to do that. Nobody in your family. You can’t. That’s impossible.”

Andy: Yeah.

D.J.: We start doubting who we are. We start doubting the vision, and by the time we’re teens, in the conversations I have with teenagers, you ask, “What do you want to do with your life?” You get this answer.

Andy: “I don’t know.”

D.J.: Huh?

Andy: “Yeah.”

D.J.: You know, what happened? All that stuff happened. It got conditioned out of us, so we have to know that that’s going to happen. I found this to be true, and the older we get, we’re all going to experience this. For every great idea you have ever had or ever will have, there will be a critic attached to it proclaiming loudly that you can’t do it, you won’t do it, it’s never going to work, it’s a goofy idea. If you let those people talk you out of your visions, they will ever single time. The vision, by the way, is the scary thing. I just wanted to highlight this, too. The vision is the scary thing. It’s the thing that seems so big, so audacious, but it also excites us more than anything else.

D.J.: We entertain the idea like, “Oh my gosh, but what if it doesn’t work out?” We got to learn to play on the other side of the fence. What if it does work out? What if it works out in a way that is so much bigger than you even could have imagined? That’s the things that are worth fighting for, putting our time and energy into. We have to discover what that is.

Andy: As parents, if we see our kids kind of being on the wrong side of the fence there doing some of that, “Oh, I don’t know,” what do you think we could do? Or what could we say to really get them inspired or just letting themselves to have a vision?

D.J.: Yeah. I think two things. Number one is be able to have a conversation with them and kind of interrogate the negativity. That’s what I call it, interrogate the negativity. “Well, why do you think that? What’s driving that? Why do you think that you couldn’t do that? Or why do you think it would be too scary to join that club or to take that internship or to go to college? What’s really going on in your mind right now. Why do you think that way?” We always have a reason why we think the way we do, we just sometimes don’t assess it. That’s where we as parents can come in and kind of help them kind of suss that out a little bit.

D.J.: Then, the second part is being able to give them the positivity and the encouragement to say, “But look where you did this, look where you were so strong so where you’ve shown this kind of talent in this area. Look at that.” We have to sometimes remind our kids how brilliant they actually are because they live in a tough world and they tend to forget it, as we all do. That’s our job as a parent and as a leader is to point out their strong qualities, their bright characteristics, their talents, their abilities so that they never forget that they have more good stuff than they need in a hundred lifetimes. They just need to learn how to use it.

Andy: Talk to me a little bit about pain. You write about pain in the book, but you also say there’s two types of pain. There’s good pain and there’s bad pain, so how can we tell the difference? We have a kid who’s struggling or we’re struggling. Is this healthy and helpful? Or is this not beneficial? What do we do in either case?

D.J.: Yeah. Well, pain is the universal connector. We all go through it. We all experience it, but what we do with it is critically important to us moving forward, whether as an adult or as a teenager. The good pain is the pain that you suffer as you go through and experience because you’re developing yourself, you’re growing, you’re achieving something. Sometimes it doesn’t go quite the way that you think it’s going to go and there can be moments of pain, disappointment, stumbles, a moment where we get criticized or we feel embarrassed over the thing that didn’t work out or whatever it may be. That kind of pain is okay. That part of pain is part of growth. I mean, that’s why they call them growing pains, right?

Andy: Right, yeah.

D.J.: Baby bird breaking out of a shell or a shoot breaking out of a seed, there’s force there, there’s discomfort there, but that’s what leads to growth. The bad pain is pain where we just get stuck in the washing machine of emotion, where we’re just ruminating, where we’re just recycling the pain over and over again. Pain in that regard isn’t useful. It just shuts us down. It makes us less creative, less willing to take that next step, but pain when we’re actually going somewhere and we’re learning something, that’s pain with purpose. That is useful in life.

D.J.: We don’t need to shy away from that. In my humble opinion, especially after all I’ve learned in my life so far, that’s the kind of pain we actually need to embrace. Lean into it because once you get through the other side of that, you’re going to be a better person for it.

Andy: How do we do that? How do we lean into it and embrace the pain when we feel like it’s pain that we’re moving forward?

D.J.: Yeah. Number one, have a great support structure. That’s what I say in the book is tribe up, create your own tribe.

Andy: Aah, yeah.

D.J.: Be with other warriors who are fighting the good fight to move forward. Be a positive contributor in this life. We need that support. We all struggle. We all stumble. We all get scared. We’re going to need that, and especially when we’re going through painful moments, it’s great to know, “Hey, I’m not doing this alone. I got people to the right of me, to the left of me, in front of me, behind me. I got this. I can do this.” That’s critically important.

D.J.: The other thing, too, is we have to practice dealing with that pain. There’s moments where you kind of step your toe in the water and things don’t work out and you kind of… It’s a small pain if it doesn’t work out or you get criticized. That’s like a small pain, but a big pain is where you put your heart into something, you work on it for a long time, and then it just collapses. That’s like those are bigger pains, but the thing that we have to remember is we get better over time. If we have the right attitude about it is everything can lead to growth if we have the right mindset for it.

D.J.: When we talk about dealing with fear, and there’s a lot of fear associated with pain like, “Oh, if this doesn’t work, I’m scared because it’s going to hurt.” Well, courage is what we need to exercise, that value of courage, and courage is not the absence of fear, it’s acting in the face of it. It’s going, “Yes, I am scared, but I’m going to do this anyway because I know that this is what I want, this is my direction.” Being able to do that, it’s a critical important or critical piece in developing ourselves into who we can become.

D.J.: I talk about that in the book like the Plains Tribe tradition of counting coup, where a warrior would face another warrior in combat and wouldn’t strike him down. They would just touch them in live combat, and the reason why that was such an honor, even more so than striking an enemy down, is because of what it required. The ultimate courage of standing face to face with what scares you, your enemy, your opponent, and saying, “I am not afraid of you. I’m so not afraid of you I’m not even going to strike you down or harm you.”

D.J.: That takes guts, and when we practice that towards the things that scare us, we become stronger, more and more courageous, and we become more resilient because even when things don’t work out, we’re like, “You know, I got it. They didn’t eat me. I didn’t explode. I didn’t light on fire. Yes, it was painful, it hurt, but this is all part of my growth.” When we have that kind of mindset through the ups and downs, we just keep getting better. `

Andy: What about the opposite when we’re stuck in that washing machine kind of pain or really reliving something or ruminating on it? Or our teenagers really kind of just can’t let something go miss in a really painful place like that? How can we help them through it or get through it if we’re in that ourselves?

D.J.: Yeah. That’s a great question, and we all go through it. When we catch ourselves ruminating, when we’re just miserable, we’re starting to feel that beat down feeling is when we actually face what’s going on inside of us emotionally and not run away from it. We get to ask ourselves some really important questions like, number one, are these thoughts useful? A lot of times the answer is, “No, I’m just repeating the same thing over and over again of, ‘Why did this happen to me? This is unfair and this is never going to work out,'” or whatever rumination we’re going through, so number one, are these thoughts useful?

D.J.: Number two, ask yourself, “What story am I telling myself about what just happened or what I’m going through? What story am I telling myself? We’re all storytellers. I mean, sometimes we tell a terrible story of doom and gloom and shame and disaster, but we can also tell ourselves a better story of, “It’s a growing experience, I learned a lot. It might not have worked out, but I got some great lessons to move forward. I’m going to be okay.” That type of thing. We can tell ourselves a different story.

D.J.: Whatever story we’re telling ourselves, we need to ask another one, too, is, “Is that story actually real? Or is that just fear showing up?” We’re able to do this. We kind of can course-correct ourselves and we can help our teenagers do that, too, when we have those type of conversations of, “What’s really going on here? Is that real? Or is that just fear?” There’s nothing wrong with that, but we need to be able to address it for what it is because fear is not reality.

D.J.: You know that acronym, I don’t know who originated it, but fear, I love going back to this, is False Evidence Appearing Real. It stands for fear, and a lot of times that’s exactly what it is. It’s not real. It’s the boogeyman. It’s the monster under our bed, it’s the shadow behind the corner, and when you face it head on like that counting coup tradition, it kind of dissipates and you realize it’s not as bad as we thought, it’s not as big as we made it, and it’s not as unrealistic as we’ve made it out to be.


About D.J. Vanas

D.J. Vanas is the author of The Warrior Within. He is an internationally-acclaimed speaker for Fortune 500 companies, hundreds of tribal nations, and over 7,000 audiences nationwide. He has also spoken at the White House. He speaks about the tribal principles that led the first cultures in America and how they can be applied today to lead organizations. Companies like Intel Corporation, P&G, Subaru, Accenture, USAA, Walt Disney and NASA have adopted his ideas.

An enrolled member of the Ottawa Tribe of Michigan, he was born into poverty to teenage parents. He went on to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy and become a decorated Air Force captain. 

He’s also a veteran Sun Dancer and was honored with the name Mato Wanbli (Eagle Bear). 

D.J.’s  other book, The Tiny Warrior, is a bestseller printed in six countries.

He resides with his family in San Diego .

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