Going the distance

Motivational speaker draws on experiences as endurance athlete

Posted on Aug 1, 2017 :: The Business of Life
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

As an endurance athlete who’s tackled ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons, Aaron Hunnel has learned success comes down to the process of putting in hours of training. Applying similar principles, he felt ready when it came time to pivot in his career.

As a wellness coordinator, Hunnel has spent his career promoting health initiatives. He had worked in corporate as well as higher education settings, but he began to feel a pull to work for himself.

He started gradually. While still working in his day job at a health system, Hunnel, who also serves in the Army National Guard, started Press Play, a motivational speaking business designed to educate and empower people and companies.

“Press Play is kind of like a metaphor for pressing the play button on our remote control for life,” he says. “The whole metaphor behind pressing play is, how can you take those barriers, those obstacles and how do you turn them into blessings; how do you turn them into opportunities?”

Everyone faces adversity, Hunnel says, and as a speaker he wants to help people “flip the script” and view difficulties as challenges they can overcome rather than stressors. Reframing a roadblock as a challenge helps people realize they have the resources to overcome it, he says.

People are programmed to seek pleasure, avoid pain and take the path of least resistance, Hunnel says. He likes to challenge his clients to shift perspective to “optimize the pain” and seek happiness rather than what’s easy.

“What I find is that when I do something that’s hard, it’s usually the most rewarding if I can find a way to do it,” says Hunnel, 32.

Hunnel has spoken before area organizations such as J.J. Keller, Galloway Co., the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley and Fox Valley Technical College, and he recently presented at his first TEDx event in Rapid City, S.D. The YMCA of the Fox Cities selected Hunnel as keynote speaker for its all-staff meeting last fall.

“Aaron inspired, motivated and energized our team through his story of hope and perseverance,” says Bill Breider, president and CEO of YMCA of the Fox Cities. “Aaron speaks from his heart and his passion and grace shines through during his presentation.”

Hunnel, a 2017 Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce Future 15 recipient, soon decided he wanted to share his message with a broader audience and in winter of 2016 decided to write a book. Through the experience, he learned he needed to follow his own advice.

He’d set a goal of 40,000 words for the book, but by spring, he still hadn’t started. When May rolled around, he promised himself he’d write 1,000 words a day in June, July and August, but by the middle of July he had written just 1,000 words. His wife and his mentor both encouraged him to take some time away to finish the book.

In his speaking, Hunnel talks a lot about the need to deconstruct and reconstruct beliefs. When he set off for Florida to devote time to writing his book, he had to challenge the belief that it would take a long time to finish it.

“When I had finished, I felt this sense of wholeness that I had not experienced before, which felt really fulfilling,” Hunnel says.

Hunnel’s self-published book, entitled “Upwards: Maximize Life with Positivity, Passion and Purpose,” is available for sale at Amazon.com and Fleet Feet Sports in Appleton.

In July, Hunnel walked away from the security of his corporate job to work full-time at his new endeavor. While speaking engagements still make up the largest part of his business, he also launched High Thrive Wellbeing, an organizational change management company.

Companies face myriad challenges in attracting and retaining talent, and managing change is more important than ever for companies, Hunnel says. With baby boomers exiting the workforce and millennials stepping into roles, many organizations need to look again at the way they do business.

“I think that millennials making up more than half of the workforce starting in 2020 is going to be a really powerful paradigm shift,” Hunnel says.

Members of this age group care about social issues and having purpose in the workplace, Hunnel says, and “the why” is important to them. With his new venture, he wants to help companies better connect with employees to convey the purpose of the organization.

For companies to thrive in the talent race, it’s important to take an inside-out approach, he says. With High Thrive, Hunnel wants to teach organizations how to bolster company culture first and then have positive results flow from that.

“When a community starts to take on the outside-in approach, it’s not going to be able to retain its top talent, it’s not going to be able to attract its top talent as much, it’s not going to be as economically savvy and sustainable,” he says.

As for the future, Hunnel has set his goals characteristically high. He’d like to become an international speaker.

“I want to change the world, I really do. I don’t mean that very cliché, I literally want to do that.”

The business: Motivational speaker

Speaking fee: $5,000 for a keynote

Employees: 1

Hours: 40 per week