It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world
If humanity ever needed a “secret weapon” to reclaim balance and positivity in these chaotic times, the moment is now.
Thankfully, that weapon exists, and it’s being deployed Aug. 15. Stay Sane in An Insane World: How to Control the Controllables and Thrive (Blackstone Publishing, 2023) relays a trove of common-sense wisdom that author Greg Harden, MSW ’81, accrued during his long and fruitful career in Michigan Athletics. For years he served as U-M’s “counselor in chief” to hundreds of student-athletes, coaches, and staff. Now he’s ready to share what he’s learned with the rest of us.
“With Greg’s help, I transformed from a player who always believed that circumstances were stacked against him into one who competed with energy, enthusiasm, a positive outlook, and an unshakable belief in himself,” writes seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady in the foreword to Harden’s debut title. “By giving me the tools I needed to succeed on my own terms — so I could become the best player and person I could be – he rewired my outlook and maybe even my psyche.”
Harden became U-M’s director of athletic counseling in 1994 and was senior executive associate athletic director when he retired in 2019. He was nicknamed “Michigan’s secret weapon” during his tenure at the University, where he worked with such competitors as 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson.
Since leaving academia four years ago, he has transferred his skills into life coaching, motivational speaking, and executive consulting. The August release of Stay Sane delivers anecdotes, advice, and strategies gleaned from all sorts of world-class champions and top performers. But Harden says the book is not about sports. He hopes to reach any reader seeking to make positivity and self-worth part of their daily mantra.
“Whatever God you believe in has empowered me to be a change agent,” Harden says. “So, pushing the agenda I have pushed my whole life, I want to teach you that if no one else believes in you, you have to believe in yourself. Have a mission that is deliberate and intentional, and do not be distracted by the insanity of the world.”
Don’t forget to write
Writing in partnership with New York Times best-selling author Steve Hamilton, BA ’83, (creator of the Alex McKnight series), Harden describes his mission in his carefully crafted author’s note: “To help you become the world’s greatest expert on one subject: yourself.”
Harden teamed up with the novelist and fellow Wolverine after Hamilton’s agent, Shane Salerno, saw Harden on a “60 Minutes” broadcast in 2014.
“When I saw the piece, I was completely and totally determined to work with him,” he says.
Salerno is the chief creative officer for the Story Factory, a literary agency whose author-clients include Michael Crichton, Don Winslow, Janet Evanovich, and Michael Mann. Salerno also is a screenwriter, producer, and director with a “story by” credit on James Cameron’s Avatar 2: The Way of Water. As he set his sights on Harden, the agent asked his client Hamilton if he could work any connections through his alma mater.The author tracked down Harden through his mother, a U-M employee with an email directory. Salerno soon signed the peak-performance coach as a client and invited Hamilton to participate in the book project he and Harden were mulling.
“We had to transfer what [Harden] had in his head to paper and share what he had taught people,” Salerno says.
Hamilton was the most logical collaborator “because I was a Michigan guy and I was a sports-oriented person,” he says. “And I thought it would be a great honor to bring Greg’s message to everyone else.”
The real mission
In this 2019 video from Michigan Medicine, Harden explains why it’s so important to focus on student-athletes’ mental health and life skills as they navigate the challenges of young adulthood. Those skills will serve Wolverines well throughout their lives, he notes.
Hamilton got into Harden’s head by recording long conversations in Harden’s office, prompting and directing him to recall anecdotes and life lessons culled from all the coaches, managers, supervisors, CEOs, and psychologists he’d encountered in his career. Then Hamilton would transcribe the recordings and hand the notes back to Harden.
“Greg would take it from there and make it his own,” Hamilton says. “It was basically a case of him having all the ideas and the message; he needed someone to help him shape it into the book.”
Harden uses a football metaphor to explain his motivation and his sense of urgency about the book’s publication: “I’m in the fourth quarter,” he says. “So, I am gonna kick butt, take names, and do everything I can do to have an impact.”
Hamilton says that one need not be sporty to understand that striving for athletic excellence is akin to honing the focus, commitment, and positivity to excel in life. He and Harden hope that message comes through.
“In my testimonial at the end of the book, I talk about a chair in Greg’s office. I got to sit in that chair and listen to him. I got to thinking about all the other people lucky enough to sit in that chair. When you open the book, it’s like you get to sit in that chair, and [Harden] touches your life.”
Teamwork makes the dream work
Hamilton is the solo author of numerous works of fiction, notably the award-winning series about the quirky ex-Detroit cop Alex McKnight living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Harden enjoyed learning writing tips from the New York Times best-selling author.
“I would tell him these great stories,” Harden says, “and he would say, ‘Don’t start with the punchline.'”
The collaborators worked through the shutdown wrought by the pandemic as the summer of 2020 erupted in social, political, and economic unrest. It was then Harden realized how timely and valuable his wisdom could be.
“There will always be chaos and disorder,” he says, “but your mission is not to give up and not to doubt yourself and be a victim. If my commitment is to my own sanity, mental fitness, and health, if that is deliberate in how I operate, it comes from that mission: You cannot have my mind; you cannot have my serenity. I am not giving that up.”
A Michigan Man
Harden’s enthusiasm is contagious as he shares his “gospel of life,” formed during his teen years in Detroit. A high school track star, he was accepted at U-M in the 1960s to run track and play football. But the timing was off.
“The first encounter didn’t work out so well,” he says. “[The coaches] didn’t like me, and I didn’t like them. I thought there was a power balance, and there wasn’t.”
He dropped out, got a job, had a child, and eventually realized how different his life could be if he had stuck with U-M.
“As negative as the experience at Michigan was, it was positive because I saw a bigger world,” Harden says.
He found his way back to campus and continued his undergrad studies, eventually completing a master’s degree at U-M’s School of Social Work.
“I was on a mission, and I had a sense of purpose to finish school and complete something I started,” Harden says.
Home again, home again
In 1986, while working in Ypsilanti as a private counselor and clinical therapist, Harden received a request to speak to the Michigan football team about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. He explained to Bo Schembechler, head coach at the time, that one session with the players wouldn’t make a significant impact.
Schembechler responded by recruiting Harden to Athletics as a staff consultant and student-athlete personal development program counselor. Harden would go on to counsel Schembechler and some of U-M’s most gifted coaches: football’s Lloyd Carr and Jim Harbaugh, softball’s Carol Hutchins, and men’s basketball coaches John Beilein and Juwan Howard. Current Athletic Director Warde Manuel says he learned much from “the School of Harden” since first arriving on campus from New Orleans, eager to play Big Ten football.
“The lessons I’ve learned have helped guide me in the decisions I make to support our athletes, staff, and coaches every step of the way,” Manuel says. “It’s not just during the easy times. It’s what you do when the times are tough. And it’s not specific to sports. It’s who you are as a person, how you bring the best out in others and yourself.”
While Harden “officially” retired from U-M in 2019, he continues to consult Michigan Athletics and says his next book likely will focus on his partnership with Harbaugh. Meanwhile, he serves as president of Power One Performance Inc., a subsidiary of GSHarden and Associates, providing performance coaching to corporate executives, professional athletes, and community leaders.
He will be touring with Staying Sane in an Insane World upon its August publication, which has him reflecting on how much he learned from his past mentees. The here-today-gone-tomorrow aspect of university life left a deep impression.
“The idea that ‘this will end’ should be a motivating force … there is a brief moment in time where I exist,” he says. “I’m constantly pushing myself. The greatest motivator in life is death.”
(Lead image, courtesy of Blackstone Publishing: Greg Harden and Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard share a laugh on the Michigan sideline.)