Tory Johnson offers valuable tips on her "Deals and Steals" television segment on ABC's Good Morning America as well as tool and strategies to female entrepreneurs through her two businesses empowering women in the workplace. In her New York Times best-selling new book, The Shift, she offers her perspective and advice on a topic she never thought she would find herself talking about: her struggles with her weight. A conversation in the ABC cafeteria with a network executive became a catalyst for an epiphany - and over the course of a year Tory, with laser focus and determination, lost over 60 pounds. In an effort to help others, Tory shares her inspiring story and wisdom in The Shift - insights that she says apply not only to people wanting to lose weight, but to anyone looking to summon the inner strength to undo any self-sabotaging bad habit or tackle any major life change or goal. In the following interview, Tory and I talked about her journey writing the book, as well as the challenges she sees facing women today, and other life philosophies.
Marianne Schnall: This is a very personal story in which you share intimate details of your struggles and challenges, not something that public figures are often inclined to do. Why did you decide to write this book?
Tory Johnson: So there's sort of a two-part answer to that. The first is kind of the whole issue that set me on this path, which is, when you've been fat forever, like I have, and you desperately don't want to be, which is key - it's like living in prison, like sort of being in shackles. You try so many different things and fail to get out. Try and fail. Try and fail. I've tried every diet under the sun and always failed. Not so much because the diets failed, but because I failed the diets. And I had a conversation with one of my bosses [Barbara Fedida, ABC senior vice president for talent and business] that truly set me free, and I think it was a combination of what she said to me and how she said it, and my willingness to hear what she was saying, and the luck of my reaction to that conversation. So had that not happened, I would never have even been in a position to have lost weight or to have written this book.
And even as I started this path to significant weight loss, I never ever, ever expected to talk about it, because weight has always been my private demon. I don't talk about it with anyone. And nine months into it, I was doing a segment one day on Good Morning America - it was almost exactly a year ago, it was September 21st of last year - Sam Champion sort of off the cuff, totally spontaneously on GMA, said "Do I see a slimmer Tory Johnson?" And he just started complimenting me on air. And I was like, "Oh, my gosh, Sam, don't talk about that!" - like desperately trying to change the subject, but it was done. And from that, thousands of viewers emailed, posted on Facebook, tweeted, asking, "How did you do it? Sam's right - I'm watching you disappear on television. Tell me your secret. This has been my struggle too. What are you doing?" And for a little while I thought I could just ignore everybody because I thought, "Oh my god, this will go away - I'm not talking about this." And it didn't go away. It just got louder. And I realized I've spent my whole career focused on helping women to advance their careers - that's what I get paid to do. That's what my businesses are all about. And I realized, I have kind of an interesting opportunity here, where I could just share very candidly what this has been like and what I've done and maybe it will help somebody else!
So that's sort of like a very long answer to a simple question, but it was a combination of the fact that this one conversation set me on this path and then Sam's comment kind of opened the flood gates for me to just feel like I had to talk about it, and also that I wanted to talk about it. Because it's so horrible for something to be such a private shame and such a big demon, that if I could help someone else escape that same sort of living in shackles, well, then it's all worthwhile.
MS: This is not your typical "diet" book. In fact, while there is some information about what you eat, it is much more about, as you say in the book, what you put in your head. Can you talk about that in terms of your philosophy?
TJ: There are two issues to that. Anyone who needs to lose weight knows that bagels and chips and cake are not your friends. Everyone knows that. I'm not a doctor or a nutritionist. That's not who I am. And so it's not my expertise to talk about that and there are endless people who talk about that stuff already. You don't need me to tell you what to eat, what not to eat. That exists. We know that. I've known that time and again when I've tried every single diet known to man. And I think when I really thought long and hard about why have all those diets failed for me - like why hasn't it worked in the past? I realize that only 25 percent for me is the meal plan and 75 percent was the mental plan. My head wasn't in the game. And it certainly wasn't in the game for the long haul. I was always wrapped around this diet mentality, which is like a temporary pause on bad behavior - you go on a diet and sort of see what happens. I would get super impatient. I would give up quickly and that would be the end of it. And I realized that I had to break this reliance or expectation of quick fix, overnight results. I had to rethink my long term, permanent relationship with food and just my own commitment to this, my own mental commitment to changing. This battle is with me wherever I am. The goal doesn't change based on geography, so if I'm traveling, if I'm at a party, no matter who I'm with, it was always with me. And that's so much more mental, then it is meal focused.
it's funny, so many people have asked, "What do you eat? Tell me your meal plan!" I say to them, it doesn't matter the meal plan you choose. You could choose any number of meal plans, but no meal plan is going to do you justice over the long haul if you're not mentally committed in a huge way, every day, hour by hour and then week by week, month by month to changing your mind for a better life. It's really and truly about changing your mind. And I think that's been the thing that's surprised me the most - like why is that so fresh? And yet I've gotten over 1,000 emails just in a couple of days. Every few minutes I get new emails from people saying that was such a refreshing, honest, reality check, that I'm not peddling some kind of pill or potion or even plan - I'm really simply saying the best tools in your arsenal are patience and perseverance. And that's what it takes to break, for some people, a lifetime of habits. For some people, its decades. For some people its years. But it takes a lot to reverse a way of life, basically. It's not even about bad habits. It's a way of life that you're reversing.
MS: I also noticed in your book that your goal wasn't necessarily being thin, but rather being strong and healthy, which I think is an important distinction. I know dieting can be such a self-hating, depriving experience. Your attitude seems to be about staying positive towards yourself and assuming an empowering attitude in terms of framing it as taking charge of your life and your health, rather than wanting to look a certain way.
TJ: Totally. One of the most disturbing revelations for me, when I started on this, was I started thinking immediately after the conversation about how fed up I was. The worse sort of admission for me was that I didn't go to the doctor for more than 10 years. That goes way beyond vanity. That goes way beyond television appearances. That is significant. And I thought about what kind of role model am I to my kids? I have teenage twins. I'm a wife. How irresponsible is that? Beyond me, if I'm willing to be so reckless with myself, what about the people who love me and rely on me - that's so incredibly reckless! That's awful. Awful is putting it mildly. And I didn't go to the doctor for more than 10 years, because I didn't want a lecture about my weight. 100 percent - it boils down to that. And I realized that I can't be in this situation anymore. And it would be very hard for me to simply say, oh, get over it and just go. I don't have that in me. And instead, I had to say one of the biggest reasons why I have to lose weight is because I need to go to the doctor. And it was the biggest celebration of the one year milestone for me, going to the doctor, getting my first mammogram. And there's no happier moment then when you have a thorough physical and the doctor says, "You're healthy. You're great." That is a happier moment than looking great on TV. There's nothing that can replace that.
MS: You founded two businesses supporting professional women, Women for Hire and Spark and Hustle . What is your sense about what is happening with women in the workplace today, in terms of the challenges women face? This feels very connected in my eyes, because it is about taking charge of your life and setting goals, and you've worked with so many successful, professional women.
TJ: You know what? I've discovered more and more a big connection between our health and our wealth. People who feel their best, physically and mentally - and I don't want to confuse that with being thin, because thin doesn't mean healthy. It's not that. But it's people who feel their best, mentally and physically, typically have - and I say this very anecdotally from people that I've worked with - have such greater career satisfaction because they feel like they're in control. They can make things happen. They feel good about themselves. I think when you feel really good about yourself, it's a lot easier to be satisfied at work. And I think there is such a ridiculous amount of pressure on us, coming in from every direction and feeling your best, physically and mentally, enables you to handle all of those oncoming arrows so much better.
MS: I just finished writing a book called What Will it Take to Make a Woman President?: Conversations about Women, Leadership and Power and I did over 40 interviews with politicians, thought leaders, artists and activists - the book's overall goal is to encourage more women into positions of influence in politics and the corporate world and in all aspects of life. In doing the research I kept hearing statistics about the very low numbers of women who are in Congress or are CEOs or on Boards, always hovering around or below 20 percent and even in the media, women are only in about 5 percent of executive positions. You work with so many corporate women - what is your sense of why this is happening? Why this inequity is so pronounced, in terms of why women aren't moving up the ranks?
TJ: Well, I think a couple things. I think sometimes it's choice that having a senior level position, having the corner office, isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. Maybe I just want to run a bed and breakfast and I don't need a scalable business or a seven figure income to feel incredibly successful. And I think that that's actually a huge blessing for women - the ability to define success on our own terms. And I think women, more so than men, define success beyond title and compensation. And that it's not just having the big title, the biggest title, or the top position as the ultimate success. So I think part of it is women's choice, which quite frankly is something to celebrate.
The other is, I think in some cases, there's a fear of being vulnerable and authentic. And one of the biggest lessons for me in the last week and a half, since this book came out, is the power of vulnerability, to get your message across, to impart change, to impact someone's life. And the key thread amongst all of the responses that I've gotten is, "Thank you for being so honest, so candid, so raw", which are synonyms for being vulnerable and being authentic and being really genuine. And very often women believe - because we're conditioned to believe, either by nature or nurture, that being vulnerable is a weakness - it's sort of like "never let them see you cry" or "never let them see you sweat" - all those kinds of things - those are like the ultimate in vulnerability. And it's such a strength that women have, the ability to be vulnerable, to share your story. Vulnerable is not being a victim - vulnerable is a willingness to open up and to share your story, share your experiences, to find common ground, to build consensus, to rally the troops, to impact change. We have to celebrate that. We have to embrace that, because I think it's one of the greatest ways to make really good things happen.
MS: One of the people that I interviewed for my book was Sheryl Sandberg, who of course talked about many of these issues that she says hold women back in her book Lean In. Going back to what we were talking about earlier about taking charge of our lives and self worth, what do you think about the possibility that women, due to conditioning and messages we receive from society, may not always step up, or ask for a raise or go out for a promotion? What is your sense of that sort of dilemma that women often face?
TJ: That's a problem. You have to be willing to use your voice to get what you want. No one is handing out big raises and promotions and job offers and perks - no one is passing that stuff out. You have to be willing to use your voice and to not worry about rocking the boat, or pissing someone off, or speaking out of turn, or upsetting the apple cart. We worry about all those things and focus on all these fears - and obviously it's essential to use your voice, to have a voice at the table, to not cheat yourself out of what's yours. And when you don't feel like you are fairly compensated or have the equitable title or whatever it is, it is very difficult to put the blame on someone else, when you've never spoken up.
MS: One of the things I couldn't help noticing when reading your book, was how supportive your husband was - not only did he encourage you to achieve your goals, but I know he also works with you on your businesses, and he was often cooking the meals, watching the kids...I am hearing this too in my interviews, the reality that in order for women to advance we need more men to share these roles, since women are often held back by how many responsibilities we have.
TJ: Absolutely, absolutely. And that's one of the things from Sheryl Sandberg that I love - what she says about the importance of choosing the right partner - and I hit the jackpot. And it's so interesting like people who know me and people who don't, have said, "This book, more than anything is like a love story. It's a Valentine to your husband." Which was totally unexpected and unintentional on my part! [laughs] And yet I do think that I hit the jackpot in that regard. Obviously when I got married 19 years ago, I had no idea where my career or life would take me or us and I'm incredibly lucky to have a best friend and true partner as my spouse.
MS: You're obviously such a passionate, driven person. Where does your energy, courage and strength come from? Is it something you think you were born with? Is it something you just have developed or evolved into?
TJ: That's a good question - I don't know. I think it's probably a combination of nature and nurture. I was a high school debater and so I've always had it in me to speak up, to challenge, to argue whatever side I need to take, to be passionate and convincing, and I think, as I got older, one thing that impacted me significantly, was being fired from a job that I thought I would have forever. The biggest lesson that I ultimately discovered and took away from that, was that I'm most comfortable banking on myself. And I decided to start a business and control my paycheck, control my career stability, that it was dependent on me. And I think that's made me just work harder, appreciate more - I'm not on someone else's payroll. I'm not on someone else's time clock. All day and at the end of the day, it's up to me. And so I don't have a choice, but to be crazy passionate about what I do and just wildly determined and incredibly excited because it's up to me! There's no one that's going to do that for me.
MS: What advice would you offer to anyone who needs to make a big life change, but either doesn't feel ready to take the next step or feels fear around it? What motivation or words of wisdom would you offer?
TJ: I think you want to spend some time really getting clear on why you are fed up with the way things are. When you say it has to change, why? Why are you so fed up? For me, it was when I thought about not going to the doctor, my career in jeopardy, or an element of my career that I valued a lot. I thought back to my wedding day, wearing a navy suit, instead of a white wedding dress, because I feared I would look like a marshmallow. I came up with a whole list of events that I didn't attend, because I feared that I wouldn't have something good to wear. I made this long list of stuff that really spoke to how fed up I was. And when I looked at all of that, I realized like, oh, my gosh - the pain of being fat, it so far outweighs the pain of changing. And we typically don't change, because change is hard and change is sometimes painful, like breaking habits. Like giving up diet soda [laughs] - I thought that was going to be the hardest thing in the world, so I'm like forget it, I'm not giving it up. And I stopped cold turkey and you know what, in three days I realized I don't miss my beloved DP [Diet Pepsi] - that's fine - I'm okay without diet soda. But we typically don't change, because we fear that it's so hard. And what I discovered was that the present was harder than change would be. And I came to that realization by just listing all this stuff that I was fed up with. That I didn't want to wake up on another January 1st with a resolution that dealt with weight. I was so ready for that to just go away and all the trimmings that went with that, to go away.
So it's not just enough to say, 'I hate my marriage', 'I hate my job' - but why? Dig deeper than that. Do the work. Put it down on paper - why are you so ready to do what it takes to change? And the other thing I would add to that is recognize that you have the power within you to change. That is the most freeing feeling. You have the power within you to do it. You just have to tap it, and when you get to a point of being so fed up, suddenly all of this clarity and will power and determination and motivation are summoned. It's there. It presents itself. It just shows up.
For more information on The Shift, visit www.shiftwithtory.com.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Marianne's forthcoming book, What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power will be published by Seal Press in Fall 2013. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.