Could the Infamous “Shark Mindset” Change Your Life?

Inside a cult of men who love to get yelled at online

March 8, 2023 7:02 am
The ocean's apex predator never stops moving forward. This concept has become a calling card for businessmen throughout the country.
The ocean's apex predator never stops moving forward. This concept has become a calling card for businessmen throughout the country.
Getty Images

Over the past four years, in spite of all the challenges the restaurant industry faced with COVID-19, Charles “Mookie” Golden found a way to open five Jersey Mike’s sandwich shops. Four of those arrived in 2022, alone.

A 35-year-old resident of Charlottesville, Virginia, Golden more than doubled his total franchise count from four to nine across that timespan. He says he’s always been very “driven,” which helped him succeed as a wrestler in high school and as a businessman in adulthood. But he says he wouldn’t have become this successful without adopting the mentality of perhaps the world’s most menacing sea creature.

Sharks, Golden says, never stop moving forward. They never look down — always up. Sharks are curious, they’re always learning and they respect their environment, particularly other sharks. These fish are flexible and — here’s where the metaphor might get fuzzy for a sec — sharks always elevate their “suckerfish.”

Those properties comprise the “sacred six” tenets of the “shark mindset.” Golden says leaders and workers within Jersey Mike’s “live by” its teachings. They were first introduced to the shark mindset concept in 2019, when the former NBA player turned motivational speaker Walter Bond talked with Jersey Mike’s CEO Peter Cancro onstage during a company town hall. Bond distributed copies of his book, Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, and Next Level Success, to each attendee. Guests included company franchise owners, managers and other leaders. The tome laid out the shark mindset blueprint, for all at Jersey Mike’s to follow.

“I really latched onto it,” says Golden, noting that he read Bond’s book front-to-back the following day. “It’s been extremely impactful. It’s definitely taken my stores and people who work for me to the next level.”

Walter Bond played four years at the University of Minnesota, then averaged 16 MPG over a few years in the NBA. But he’s made his bread in motivational speaking.
Getty Images

He says company growth brings challenges, and particularly when attempted in a topsy-turvy economic environment like the one the U.S. has experienced in recent years. Citing the first of those “sacred six” tenets, however, Golden says he and his team had to push through adversity. Otherwise, they’d die (metaphorically). “It was unbelievable how many times we said to each other, ‘sharks always move forward,’” he recalls. (If they don’t, sharks expire due to a lack of oxygen.) “Things happen for a reason, and Walter’s mentored me personally. His book just hit the nail right on the head.”

Swim! helped make the Jersey Mike’s value system and company culture easy to explain for both those already with the company and new hires, Golden says. That said, he allows, the shark mindset is “not for everyone.” He recalls one team member he recently brought on board who, after two weeks of listening to coworkers repeatedly cite the shark mentality approach, said, “Sorry, I’m not a shark.” They amicably parted ways, he says.

But the approach Bond takes toward inspiring his listeners — and readers — still has plenty of fans. He’s part of a larger community of motivational speakers who bring an aggressive, hyper-masculine tilt to the self-help category, booking gig after gig for big money, with videos of their exploits scoring millions of views online. 

Channeling the very sharks he’s turned into tokens of inspiration, when Bond gives a talk he seems to never stop moving forward; he walks back and forth on the stage, working up a sweat that rivals any from his basketball playing days. (He averaged 16 minutes-per-game across three NBA seasons, after four years at the University of Minnesota.) Bond frequently points to the crowd and karate chops one palm with his other hand, emphasizing his message. Along with his heart rate, the volume of his voice is raised, too. “Suck it up!” he shouted in one speech. “Get tough!”

“I want to challenge the audience,” Bond says, “to say, ‘I’ve been there, I know what you’re thinking, I know how you feel, but here’s how we gotta respond.’ If you don’t challenge your audience, you have not done your job.”

Despite his animation and penchant for power in his speech patterns, he says, “I’m not up there to be a freaking entertainer.” Bond wants to create an experience that a listener will “never forget.” He wants individual audience members of his speeches to go home and be a better parent, refocus on their careers and “remember what you said you were gonna do with your life when you were 10.” He adds: “And I’m living that life right now.”

How “Good Will Hunting” Changed Men’s Mental Health for the Better
The 1997 movie may not have gotten men to go to therapy immediately after leaving the theaters, but it has opened up many guys to the idea of accepting help

When Bond was a kid, his father prompted him to write down his life goals. He jotted down: A) play pro ball and B) “make more money in business than I do in basketball.” He comes from a family of athletes, and says he always had a gift for basketball. But his other gift is the gab. After hearing Bond deliver a speech at a University of Minnesota banquet while a senior at the school, his basketball coach was so impressed he told Bond he should one day consider becoming a motivational speaker. Fast-forward to today? The 54-year-old says his speaking career has generated $25 million. 

Success in the field didn’t find him overnight, however. Like most any endeavor in the arts, he had to learn his craft before making a true living at it, and he says his journey to the NBA had prepared him for the struggles he faced while working to become a professional speaker. Bond remained confident throughout. “I’m more gifted as a speaker and a thought leader than I was as an athlete,” he says. 

A newer revenue source for Bond was unlocked when he partnered with Motiversity, a YouTube network that produces short films of actors seemingly responding to a soundtrack of heavy music and intense motivational lines with fist pumps and cheek-puffing deep breaths. Motiversity’s primary channel boasts nearly three million subscribers. And Joel Huculak, 30, founder and CEO of Motiversity, says all his network’s channels have a combined 10 million subscribers.

He’s parlayed that success into the construction of the Mindset app, through which listeners can stream motivational speeches on demand. The Motiversity online store also sells shirts and canvases on which inspirational quotes are printed. One piece of artwork, selling for $155, features the bones of a wide-open shark mouth on a black background with a single word, “MINDSET,” printed in the middle.

Huculak, who lives in Alberta, Canada, decided to build Motiversity six years ago, after listening to a number of motivational speakers during his college days, usually while working out. “They really helped with all the areas of my life,” Huculak says. “I was looking for a boost [and] I found these speeches — the meaning in the words, the stories — so helpful.” After his first year as an undergraduate he sat at a 2.5 GPA, he says. With the help of the motivational speaker tapes, which he says made him “believe in myself more,” he finished his degree with a 3.7 GPA.

Huculak shared the speeches he enjoyed most on social media, and a number of people engaged with them. “The third video I posted got about a million views in the first month,” Huculak says. “I just started seeing how these videos impacted people beyond how they impacted me. There were comments of people saying, ‘This absolutely changed my life’ [and] things like, ‘I was going to take my life before I heard this speech.’ I thought, ‘There’s something more here than just a fun YouTube channel.’” 

It wasn’t long before Huculak partnered with the speakers and obtained the rights to post videos of their speeches on his YouTube channel. Bond was among the first speakers to provide Huculak with his speeches.

“One of the things I like about Walter Bond is how passionate he is about what he’s saying,” Huculak says. “He’s on stage giving it his all…He’s got such a great story and such a great delivery.” 

David Goggins is the mot recognizable “hyper-masculine motivational speaker” working today. Devotees love that he backs up his smack with actual (and nonstop) action.
OBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Another Motiversity favorite speaker is David Goggins, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL and ultramarathon runner who at times in his life struggled with weight and other issues. As I wrote this article, I came across a Motiversity video featuring Goggins titled “OUTWORK EVERYONE ELSE,” which was posted the day before and had already scored nearly 50,000 views. “You can outwork anybody,” Goggins said in the clip, his voice echoing into an unseen chamber. “No matter how badass they are. It starts with yourself, man.”

Dan, a “professional” in his early 40s, who lives in Wisconsin and asked to be referred to only by his first name out of privacy concerns, says he “latched onto” Goggins’ speeches, as well as the themes in his books, because of his “no-bullshit-type delivery.” He likes the “verbal ass-kicking” that comes with listening to speeches by guys like Goggins, but recognizes a “verbal authenticity” in their approach as well.

“This person has done the ass-kicking themselves and they’re speaking from their own person,” Dan observes. “They’re not pontificating about what they think will work. They’re speaking from their own position of having accomplished great things in their life. So they bring a credibility [to their speeches].” 

At the tail end of 2017, Dan realized he’d consumed alcoholic beverages nearly every day that year. He says he “hated” himself, but “had a problem of wanting to be better without having to take any steps myself.” For nearly a year he flirted with abstinence, but it finally stuck after a trip to rehab in November 2018. 

Still, he says his “mindset” remained “deficient.” In May 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan was still sober, but overweight and struggling with sleep apnea and high blood pressure. He sought out inspirational speeches by Navy SEALs because, he thought, “those guys can do anything.” He listened to Goggins’ speeches and podcast interviews and read his book. After adopting a life of much greater discipline — a better diet and more exercise — he says he’s lost 100 pounds and eliminated the sleep apnea problem, while lowering his blood pressure to a healthy level.

Why Are People Making 1,000-Day Calendars?
It’s time to start thinking about September 2026. Allow us to explain.

On the aggressive style of speech that Goggins, Bond and their Motiversity brethren employ, Dan says, “It’s off-putting to some people…but go fuckin’ do [what they say] and then tell me it’s a gimmick.”

When I ask Bond what he might say to critics of his hard-nosed, gut-punching talks — which he admits are influenced by locker room speeches — he says, “I’m just being real.” He recalls a fishing trip where he caught an “ugly” suckerfish, and the boat captain explained to him what it was. Bond says he later researched the symbiotic relationship between a shark and a suckerfish — scientifically referred to as remora fish, which attach themselves to sharks in order to catch scraps of food that fall away from their host’s mouth. Sharks don’t mind the remoras; they also clean the shark’s body of parasites.

For the Jersey Mike’s franchise owner Mookie Golden, that sixth, somewhat confusing shark mindset tenet (“the shark raises his sucker fish to new levels”) is an extremely significant one. It means leaders like himself must teach and mentor their employees, so that they’ll perform better in their roles.

Fellow motivational speaker Fran Capo — who doesn’t always speak at a hundred miles per hour, but is best known for setting world records in speed-talking — goes about her business a bit differently than Bond, Goggins and the rest of their ilk. She’s a bit warmer, and infuses humor into her talks; still, like her male counterparts, she does leverage storytelling to connect with her audience, and her messaging is ultimately pretty similar to theirs. In the opening seconds of a TEDx Talk, “A World Record Mindset,” she says, “Everything starts in the mind: the good and the bad, and if you have the right energy and the right mindset, you can accomplish anything.”

Upon watching Bond’s videos for the first time, Capo says she thought him “likable,” but adds: “I felt like I was watching a drill sergeant…To me that type of speaking is like a mental slap to get [listeners] motivated.” She also notes Goggins’ reliance on cursing, something people have objected to in the past. Like the employee at Jersey Mike’s who said they weren’t a shark — who happened to also be a woman…though certainly there are women who do appreciate speeches by Bonds and Goggins, and they stand beside women like Lisa Nichols who have their talks posted by Motiversity all the same — Capo says this style simply isn’t for her. 

“It might not work to the audience I perform to, and that’s fine. Not everybody likes rap, jazz or country, but obviously there are successful people in those areas,” Capo says. “If the person’s successful, who the hell am I to say?” she adds.

For Bond, the proof is in the results — in the $25 million he’s earned as a speaker, far more than what he made as a basketball player, but also in the ways people respond to his talks, which he says makes him feel “amazing.” People have told Bond things like, “You changed my life,” “You inspired me to go back to school” and “You inspired me to start my own business,” he says. “I’m really able to inspire people to go for their best life,” says Bond. “If this is not your best life, what are you waiting on, man?”

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.