Interview with Jon Acuff

Author Jon Acuff takes us on a journey from Quitting to Starting…and everything in between? #OrangeTour

About Jon

Jon Acuff is the New York Times Bestselling author of four books including his most recent, Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average & Do Work that Matters.

For 15 years he’s helped some of the biggest brands in the world tell their story, including The Home Depot, Bose, Staples, and the Dave Ramsey Team. Most recently he’s spoken to hundreds of thousands of people at conferences, colleges, companies and churches. A media feature, Jon has been seen on CNN, Fox News, Good Day LA and several other key outlets.

In addition, he’s become a social media expert with a blog read by 4 million people and close to 200k twitter followers. In 2010 he used his influence with his tribe to build two kindergartens in Vietnam. Jon lives with his wife Jenny and two daughters in Franklin, TN.

Click to read Transcript

EASLEY: When it comes to Christians and making fun of Christians and satire perhaps no one does it better than Jon Acuff. Jon is a quick minded, a quick student a quick witted individual who can look at something, we all sort of have RCA dog ears, what’s wrong with that and Jon can turn a phrase and say it in such a way that is really funny. He has a website thats called Stuff Christians like. He’s an author and his wife is working on a book right now called ‘How to be Married to a Dreamer. And Jon operates under this notion that if you are going to work forty hours a week, it would be good to love it. It would be good to like it and not dread it every single day. It’s a great privilege to have Jon in studio today. Thanks for being here.

ACUFF: Thanks for having me.

EASLEY: How you doing?

ACUFF: I’m good. I feel pretty awesome about life.

EASLEY: You feel pretty awesome?

EASLEY: Do you like stuff?

ACUFF: I do. I like alot of stuff. I’m constantly liking stuff.

EASLEY:  Tell us about stuff Christians like.

ACUFF: So, I grew up in the church. My Dad’s a pastor and he started a Baptist Church in Massachusetts in the eighties.

EASLEY:  Where in Massachusetts?

ACUFF: Central Massachusetts. It was in Hudson so kind of Hudson-Marlboro Wooster area. It always weirded me out that we don’t use our best creativity to celebrate who we believe is the Creator of all creativity so we take popular secular ideas like got milk and put a little God flavor on Him and Got God and I just think that Christians in general are just lazy creatives. I thought why do we rip off popular culture so there’s a site called “Stuff White People like” which is a satire which is Caucasian if you will. So I thought why don’t I talk about the problem by committing the problem? So post #1 was Stuff Christians Like ripping off popular secular culture. I thought I’d write about it for a week but day nine, four thousand people showed up and it went viral and it’s been something much more fun and much bigger than me ever since.

EASLEY: Ok, people that follow you whether on twitter or your site or some of your historical humor, it’s like larson. Where does he get these ideas, where does Jon Acuff go in his mind that he comes up with these crazy observations?

ACUFF: Yeah, well part of it, my mother in law said it best because people would say “how does he do it?” and she would say, “how did he not do it, is the question.” I was writing tweets before Twitter existed on posted notes and ideas and so. It’s the same thing I would say to you as a pastor. You’d share ideas whether you had a pulpit or not and so I feel like this is the briarpatch for me. I remember in college sitting there at Sanford University watching these popular basketball players and I did not have many friends in college. I felt like there was a great weight in the sense of these basketball players what they are best at was seen and was visible and what I was best at writing ideas wasn’t visible and all of a sudden the internet came so I learned my entire skill set- I mean I learned how to write headlines at Home Depot. What a gift that was! So twitters a headline. People say When will you stop writing “Stuff Christians Like?” When Christians stop being idiots, so never.

EASLEY: When you look at some of these things, what’s the switch that goes off in your head that turns that little sarcastic thing?

ACUFF: For me, it’s can I teach some truth in this? People always ask how do you not end up mocking? I think the difference between mockery and satire is that mockery always has a victim. It always has an individual. The goal of satire is to share humor with a purpose. The goal of mockery is to cause a wound. They’re very different things.To tell you the truth, you get a quick laugh with mockery, but you lose the ability to speak in love later so one of the signs for me is I’ll write about an issue. I’ll never write about an individual. So I never go, let’s talk about Rob Bell. People show up and you chum the waters for the sharks of the internet. We have enough jerk Christian blogs so I might go, let’s talk about hell. There’s a lot of things going on right now where -so that’s what I try to do. I don’t always get it right. I’ve made a ton of mistakes but I try to only point the finger at me. So I try to find something in my own life.

EASLEY: Self deprecating.

ACUFF: Self deprecating.

ACUFF: The way I write is this: I”ll go first with my story. I give everyone in the room, everyone in the blog, in the church, the gift of going second. It’s hard to go first, but as a communicator I think that’s your job and unfortunately leaders right now, a lot of them only share two things: the times they won or a failure from thirty years ago that doesn’t hurt anymore and millennials can spot that fake-ness from a mile away. They grew up with marketing. It’s the smartest marketing generation in the history of mankind and so the bar is really low in honesty. So when I go “my wife and I had a fight last week, and it wasn’t one of those fake Christian ones where the sun doesn’t go down. Like the sun went down, and so did you on the couch. It was a real one and here’s what we learned. They go, that’s so honest and I think that’s nothing; you should hear what I tell my counselor.

EASLEY: Jon, talk to me a little bit about careers. You’ve had a number of jobs in your history. You seem to have found a niche helping people at least think through transition and careers. When we were in the DC area, the military has a high turnover somewhere between 15-20 years and now, wow, they’ve got to find a job. They weren’t told what to do the next thing, so now how do I start? what do I do? and you not only interact with that age group but with some younger folks that are trying to figure out what do I want to be when I grow up.

ACUFF: I think the first thing you have to do is not to buy the lie that the world tells you which is a job is just a job. Anything you do forty hours a week isn’t a job, that’s your life. Its the largest   percent of your waking hours, so you want it to have purpose. I think it can have purpose. The way I look at it is it’s going deeper into who God made you to be. When he says he’ll renew your strength. It’s your strength, your unique strength, it’s not your mom’s strength. He will satisfy your desires with good things. It’s not other peoples things, it’s your thing. So for me, it’s about figuring out  what was I created to do and how do I do it, giving yourself permission to dream, permission for it not to be miserable. I know 70% statistically, 70 % of Americans hate their jobs right now. So seven of the ten people in this building, in the building next door don’t want to go there. That weighs down on family and the problem is as you know, we’re only one person. You see we have, what I call the Tiger Woods mentality. It was very interesting when Tiger Woods had his affairs come out, people thought “ Why is he not a good golfer right now?” He’s not a good golfer because you don’t get to put an explosion in one part of your life and the rest of your life works. He’s not Tiger golfer, Tiger businessman, Tiger father, Tiger husband and so what happens is you have this infection of bitterness and hopelessness and defeat take root in a career and you better believe it comes home on the weekend. You better believe it comes to the marriage. So that’s where I try to write to is that. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a perfect job. I always say every job has things that you have to do that you don’t like to do, so you earn the right to do the things you do love to do. But I think culturally we’ve lost the gift of apprenticeship, which has really hurt us. We’ve lost of the hard work and hustle things because the iPhones taught us that life is instant. Anything you practice 10 hours a day, you believe will be like that the next day. So if my phone is instant, it goes you matter, you matter, build your own world. It’s instant, instant, instant. The minute I don’t get my dream job, it’s like where’s my dream job?

EASLEY; Well speak to that a little bit. You’re a little bit of an anomaly in that regard, because most 30 and under have an enormous entitlement mindset. I talk to young  men and women often, who say I don’t want to do this job because I’ve got to find my passion. It’s almost like they’ve created a glove and a hand and I say “What if you have three fingers in that glove, not all five?” No, I’ve got to do my passion and my dream. It seems we’ve skipped a generation from my builder work ethic, you know, you get a  job, you do your best. You look for something else, but you do your best wherever you are as opposed to playing x-box or whatever  till two in the morning.

ACUFF: The average 21 year old has played 10,000 hours of video games by the time they’re 21, and granted those all lead to professional video game playing careers so it’s a great path, so well done. No, here’s how I look at it. Passion is nonsense. There’s people in Franklin, where we both live that will go, “I want to start a coffee shop. I’ve never done it. I’m going to mortgage my house. I’m going to do all these different things.”

EASLEY: I’ll have bands play, it’ll be cool.

ACUFF: Could you work at Starbucks for six months first and see if you hate coffee and humans? I mean, I have friends that’s a long term passion of theirs but you don’t see them selling their house to go all in. So I think that’s part of the mistake, is that you’re right, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you do 10% more on your dream this week, this year than you did last year, what an amazing thing. We get that with other parts of our life. if you said to me, “Hey, I’ve never run, I’m overweight but I want to do a marathon tomorrow.”

EASLEY: Excuse me, excuse me.

ACUFF: I mean a darker shirt would hide that. If you said to me, I want to run a marathon tomorrow, I’d go, that’s pretty dumb. But what happens, is people say, “ Ok I’m here. I have a guitar; I know three chords and like four Chris Tomlin songs and God called me. The worst things that Christians do is that they throw God under the bus and my friend says it this way, “Christians like to be on an airplane with God and He’s flying and we redbull Christianity and skydive out and He turns back and says, “Who told you to jump? I was going to land this in six months on a runway” and then it fails and we go, “Jesus, plan for my organic muffin shop didn’t work.”Then Jesus says, “no, no, no. I had nothing to do with this. Stop it.”

EASLEY: Lets talk a little bit more about this. Passion, entitlement. Passion kind of sounds like a dream.

ACUFF: Yeah, it can be dreamy. I just think that dreamers are a dime a dozen. Doers are rare.

EASLEY: ok, so help the twenties something, thirty something mindset.  Maybe they’ve got a job at Doyt Touch? Or they’re doing something that’s…

ACUFF: They’re at a health company.

EASLEY: Yeah, they’re working 8-5, they sort of hate it and they’ve got this passion to do x.

ACUFF: Well the first thing I’d say is, to start to do it. Find some margin. I would dare you to rescue 30 min of your day. If I say to you hey, get up 30 min early and write or job search or work on a business plan. And you say, “Oh, I can’t do that.” If you can’t pay the price of 30 min for your dream, you don’t have the right dream. You’re going to hate the rest of it. So I’d say the first thing that every dream costs, Michael, is time. It doesn’t cost money, it doesn’t cost education, it costs hustle and time. So what I’d’ say to you is, lets find some time. The average American watches over 35 hours of TV a week. So let’s be radical and say you watched 10 hours last, you only watched 25 hours a week. There’s 10 hours on your dream. So I’d find time and I’d find a small way to start. it’s all about small starts. So if you wanted to write a book, I’d say read a book about writing a book or if you wanted to be a blogger, I’d say start a blog and  write once a week. The reason we get overwhelmed is that we go so far in so quickly.

EASLEY: You can’t do it all.

ACUFF: Entitlements the worst. Laziness and just that expectation even with speakers, public speakers. I’m one and I’ll go speak places and they don’t talk about my message after. The host-They’ll say “thanks for being so kind. The last pastor that came wouldn’t speak to the room until it was full and we had to get college kids to fill out the seats. You were really kind. You didn’t swear at any of the staff or hit on any of the college girls.” If the bar for me being excellent is not hitting on people, not my wife, I’m going to dominate. I’m the Michael Jordan of not hitting on people not my wife.

EASLEY: What are you seeing in the twenty-thirty somethings that is encouraging to you?

ACUFF: I see that they care about their parents in a unique way. When I was in college, I never bought a book from a speaker. I had enough books-ninety dollar textbooks. When I’ll go speak at places, they’ll buy two copies of books I write, one for them and one for their Dad. So I think that generation is waking up to the idea that there is not a gold watch at the end. There’s not a pot of gold. They’ve all got parents that got laid off out of no where at a twenty year place. They showed up one day and the place was closed so I think there’s some empathy there. I think there’s a strong desire to try to change the world. I think that can be really well used or really poorly used, depending on how it’s applied. I think there’s natural sense of that. I don’t think they love money like the previous generations that love money. It’s not the only score they care about. The other thing is, I’ve met a lot of them that want to hustle. I talked to a guy yesterday that was from Australia. When he was twenty-one, he heard a story of someone who had sold pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1920’s and framed them and they were tearing down the G which is the Australian version of Yankee Stadium-biggest stadium in Australia. So he called the demolition crew because they were going to build a new one and said, “Can I buy some timber?” and they said, “Well we’ve got the rug and it’s the rug from the members room.” The members room is a forty-five year long wait to become an elite member. He bought the entire rug that day for five grand. He sold one thousand pieces of it and made millions. He’s twenty-one. So I keep running into these twenty one year olds that are realizing: the old rules don’t apply. I have instant access to everybody and experts. I love to meet a nineteen year old college student and say, “Start a blog today, because in three years when you sit down with a company and they say “ how do we know you’re passionate?” You’ll say, “Well here’s my blog and Seth Godin and Christian leaders, I’ll bring fifty thousand readers to your platform, to your industry job, that want to buy what you do because I was passionate.” I do meet a lot of younger generations that are willing to grind. Some are entitled and a lot aren’t.

EASLEY: Lets go back a little bit. Talk about how Jon Acuff came to know God. How did you come to know Christ?

ACUFF: Well I grew up in the church but that’s not an instant. I became a Christian in the fourth grade and my Dad baptized me on Father’s Day. He always tell the story that two people showed up that day, me and a drunk guy with no shirt on and a leather jacket. He did not baptize him. I would say that was kind of the genesis, but for me it was really about eight years ago, I was able to get away with most of my life. I could put it together with charisma or talent or whatever. I just was at a job I hated. My marriage was not in a good place. It was the first time, I really felt that sense of I can’t fix me with me. I was just broken. There was a group of guys in Atlanta that  befriended me that really taught me how to be a man, how to have friendships. I meet so many men that say, “yeah, my wife’s my accountability partner.” That’s garbage. That is garbage. She can’t be your warden. She can’t be the one who check your safe eyes record. Way to ruin a marriage. Like shortcut. There a sponsor, they’re great. That is not a good thing and I was just in a terrible place. I really got loved by this Church, Woodstock Baptist, in Woodstock, Ga. It was kind of one of those big churches that you would think would have big Church stuff, but they have a real heart for the broken and I definitely was. So that was about eight years ago is really where I started to kind of understand.

EASLEY: What changes did you see after that clarification?

ACUFF: Well I mean, just communication with my wife was a big one. I heard someone say if your wife is for you, it doesn’t matter if the worlds against you. If your wife is against you, it doesn’t matter if the world is for you. We started to dream together. We got to come to Nashville and join Dave Ramsey’s team out of the birth of learning how to even be on the same page. One plus one in a marriage  equals a million when you’re together. So that would be a big one so, having guys that knew me. I think a lot of men are multiple people and not being a multiple person was just so much more peaceful, not waiting for secrets to come out.

EASLEY: Doesn’t wear you out as much, does it?

ACUFF: It’s exhausting to be multiple people. I would say those are two big changes.

EASLEY: What would Jenny say to that?

ACUFF: I would say to that: We’re working on Jenny’s book right now and she just wrote a chapter about, at the start of our marriage, it was like she was invisible. I would make big decisions and tell her after. I’d quite a job and I’d say,“Hey I quit my job.” She’d say, “But we’re engaged, how come?” That didn’t even cross my mind. She moved from invisibility to you get to be the cheerleader. The cheerleader says yeah. They don’t’ criticize. There are a lot of marriages where the husband and the wife know their roles and how dare the wife…the cheerleader doesn’t tell the quarterback play ideas at half time. So then Jenny and I had to mature out of that and so I’d say it’s been a process. We’re only thirteen years in and we learned a lot but we don’t know a lot too. But I think that’s what she’d say.

EASLEY: Jenny’s background?

ACUFF: Jenny’s background. She grew up in Lilburn, GA. She got her undergrad in photojournalism and her Masters in Construction Management from Georgia Tech.

EASLEY: When did she come to Christ? How old was she?

ACUFF: She came to Christ in the second grade. She grew up in it too.

EASLEY: I talked to a young couple who maybe they got good jobs but they’re in that kind of an angst. They’ve got a little dream out there and maybe the in laws aren’t exactly excited about the son in law or daughter in law venturing out in the dream. Give us some steps on how you approach it from a high level. What else do I need to do, for 10 hours for example? What else do they need to do?

ACUFF: Well one of the things that I talk about often, is that people are tired of words, they love actions. Jenny and my marriage changed when I finally started doing action. When she could see as a wife, Jon just didn’t say, “I’m gonna write and I’m going to do stuff.” I got up an hour early. I sacrificed TV. What I’d say to you, whether it’s an inlaw or whether it’s each other, actions matter. So start to build up a long action list. The other thing I’d say is give other people the grace to not understand your dream. You know if they understood it 100%, it wouldn’t be yours, it’d be theirs. So I think even in the best of circumstances, there’s going to be a gap because, you know the shows like Bridezilla where a bride, just flips out and she throws a table and she hits the caterer. That happens because that little girl dreamed about that day since she was six.  What happens is, that you’ve had a dream in your heart for something for twenty years and then you tell your spouse or your in law “ You should understand how I feel.” It took me two decades to get here, you’ve got two hours, go! Part of it is on us  being willing for somebody to not understand.

EASLEY: Jonathan, when You think about the next chapter for you, dream for you, how does  your walk with Christ affect what you do creatively?

ACUFF: A big part of it is, I feel called to talk to the business community. I’m in a position where I get invited places where pastors can’t get invited. Some power company, the HR person, can invite me. They can’t invite the pastor even if they wanted to because of rules. So I feel what I’m uniquely positioned to do is go speak to the market place. I’ve got sixteen years of marketing experience for secular companies and I’ve got a blog a lot of people read. I really feel like that’s where I’m supposed to be so I think that’s how my faith will impact that. I think that I’m supposed to go there and be honest and use humor. I think we forgot God is fun. You know I learned a few years ago that I was really good at crying with God, and really bad at celebrating with Him. I made Him into a Nemo? God and so I think a lot, of people ….Christians have the hardest time with the Prodigal Son story, with that party sense. We have such a hard time understanding and  believing that concept. I love that story. It’s my favorite story and I love it that the Father never talks to the son. If you read it, he doesn’t say a single word to him. We read it as if he does, but he doesn’t. He gives him the money without a word and then he talks to the servants so I love to tell people, “ You know when God’s quiet, we think it’s because He’s mad, but what if He’s hugging you and He’s too busy planning your party?” Imagine that God? That’s just fun.

EASLEY: You’ve got an interest in Vietnam.

ACUFF: My daughter saw a starving child in a book and said, “what is that?” and I told her and she said, “Is that pretend? That’s not real, right?” It’s one of those kids punch in the stomach moments. And I felt like she was saying, “Are you doing anything?” and I wasn’t. The blog was about me. I think the worst drug in Christianity today is celebrity. I’ve seen celebrity and success ruin more Christian leaders then failure. So I started to do something. I asked Samaritan’s Purse to partner with me and we raised thirty-thousand dollars in eighteen hours to build a Kindergarten. It was one of those moments where you undersize God and you say, “You’re huge, you made the universe, you’re just not as big as my divorce.” We realize we had made him a twenty-nine thousand dollar God and didn’t think He’d show up and He did and so we doubled down and built the second one. Jenny and I got to go over to Vietnam and see these two Kindergartens. What it taught me is that, there’s no better example of the mustard seed power of God than the internet. There are people that gave to that project that will never go to Vietnam, that will never meet any of those people. This show will be heard by people you can’t fathom. So when you get God and technology, it’s just the sky’s the limit. So that was one of the things we really learned about.

EASLEY: Will you go back?

ACUFF: Yeah, I think we’re talking about it. I’m in a new phase of my life so we’re figuring things out. One fact is, Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, has six million residents and six thousand Christians so you do the math on that and go what a place where you could really see God catch fire. I love New England because there’s no cultural Christianity to kind of sort through. Sometimes in the south your first job is to convincing somebody who grew up  in it  that they’re  not a Christian, so that you can then get them to become a Christian. I just love the blank slate of New England where you’d never ask someone where they go to church like whoah, easy Jesus. Are we at work right now? That’s what I grew up so I feel like God might have us do something up there   but certainly back in Vietnam if we can.

EASLEY: Probably Vietnam would be easier.

ACUFF:Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. We’ll see.

EASLEY: New England’s a tough area. But that’s your home. So you’re eighty-five years old, you’re in a rocking chair, looking back over your life. Maybe you’ve got a couple more, got some grandkids around, and you and Jenny looking over the land, what do you regret; what do you remember?

ACUFF: I regret not trying more things probably. I’m sure I regret the things, the amount of time and energy I gave to worry. I’m glad that  I taught my kids how to write a good story. We’ve talked before about what it would like for us to move our family to New York for a year? Just to try it. We moved into a neighborhood in Franklin where the houses are kind of small and they’re a little older. We maybe could have had a newer house or slightly bigger house, but our kids can walk to school and we knew when they’re thirty-five, they wouldn’t look back and say, “I had such ample closet space. Growing up, I could walk to school.” So my hope is what we’ll look back on is the time we made story decisions. We chose the opposite of the money, the opposite of the easy thing. Most radio interviews I do right now say, “You had it all. You were five months into a New York times bestseller and then you ruined it. Talk to me about that.”So that will do those things to the outside world, might seem crazy or opposite of what you should do, if that’s what we’re supposed to do. So I hope I have a life characterized by not letting the popular decision dictate what I do.

EASLEY: When Jon Acuff is the most at rest, most content, I don’t like the word happy cause it’s too effusive, but when you’re content, when you’re smiling at the future, what does that look like for you?

ACUFF: I think I’m writing. A lot of times when I’m writing I’m just like a little kid, and I’m snapping my fingers and I’m just animated. I like too, being exhausted, being spent. I run a race that was hard. I tried something that was difficult. I feel that way when I come home from a speech that I got to try to hopefully give my all. I got to speak at Kairos the other night and I love that place: so many young adults. Maybe eight or nine times. It was messy. Things happened in the moment and it was fun and I felt like ok I’m not a….it used to be when I first started speaking it was an affirmation kind of warm glow of I’m a good guy and now I don’t feel that anymore. I’d say for me it’s 6:15 in the morning and I got up before everybody else and I’m writing, and the best part of writing is when you don’t remember writing up and it’s like God showing up, and says, Here’s an idea. I was writing the other day and wrote that “unfulfilled passion creates pressure” because I know so many husbands take out their anger, if they know they are not doing what they’re supposed to be, on a spouse. That’s what I like to do is show up, and let God show up. So those will be some peaceful moments.

EASLEY: Again, thanks Jon for being on the broadcast today. Remember you can go to stuff Christians like and find out a lot more about Jon Acuff about his writing, his wit, and the next projects that are coming up. Thanks for joining us today and we hope you’ll join us again on the broadcast. This is Michael Easley inContext.

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