Dr. James Rouse likes to be called Dr. James. If that’s all you knew about Dr. James, it would probably be enough to know his essence. Dr. James is the husband of Dr. Debra Rouse and father of Elli, 17, and Dakota, 22, three women he adores above all else. He lives in Evergreen where he podcasts nearly daily from the treehouse in his back yard. If that is all you knew about Dr. James, that would probably be enough.
Dr. James is also a naturopathic doctor, a primary care trained integrative clinician, and an expert in epigenetics, functional, regenerative, and lifestyle medicine. He is the author of 13 books (and counting) on human potential, proactive aging and mind-body well-being. Dr. James is a motivational speaker who has presented to audiences on every continent while sharing the stage with celebrities such as Sir Richard Branson, Steve Wozniak, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Deepak Chopra and Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a leading human performance expert, he has worked with professional franchises in the NFL, NBA and MLB along with Fortune 10 to 100 Companies including Google and Whole Foods. Dr. James grew up as a top high school lacrosse player and is a former Ironman triathlete and is now a certified yoga instructor.
Irrespective of the impressive resume, Dr. James’ accomplishments do not define the essence of the man. Dr. James’ wellness crusade is a lot like Dr. James: it’s not about the scorecard.
Difficult early years
Growing up in rural Vermont in a family that was, as he described it, a “third-generation alcoholic family,” alcohol wasn’t just accepted, it was celebrated. Dr. James’ father was more than absent, his parents were at odds and as a result Dr. James grew up addicted, with low self-esteem, anxiety, undiagnosed dyslexia, and was by all accounts a horrible student. When Dr. James went into his high school college counselor, the counselor told him “you’re a good kid, but you’re not college material.” Dr. James remembers the conversation as a punch to the gut.
Two good memories remain from those school-boy days. First, Dr. James was a standout lacrosse midfielder and face off specialist. And he still plays. But in the high school days, given the broken family, he says “team sports are what taught me start to trust again. Facing off taught me the essence of letting go, moving on, and forgiveness of myself and others.”
Second, the spark of physical wellness was ignited. Because of his social anxiety and particular fear of performing academic tasks in front of the class, Dr. James would often call in sick on days on which he was required to make a presentation. One day while skipping school, Dr. James stumbled upon Jack LaLanne’s television show, which so inspired him he began to do pushups that very day. While he didn’t know it at the time, the “Godfather of Fitness” had planted the seed of fundamental wellness in Dr. James that would sprout and then blossom a decade later.
While inspiration came to Dr. James sparingly in the Vermont days clouded with family dysfunction and addiction, two stark events that lasted collectively less than five minutes would change his life forever. The first event happened at a family event when he was 20 years old. Dr. James describes alcoholism as “part of his family’s disease” and “highly encouraged at family gatherings.” At this family gathering, Dr. James had passed out in an elevator in a hotel, and stirred out of unconsciousness as the elevator’s doors opened at the lobby level at 5:30 a.m. Moved by emotion, Dr. James recounted, “The elevator doors opened, and my dad was sitting in the lobby bar. My dad looked me and said, ‘Atta boy.’” Dr. James has been sober since.
But sobriety wasn’t enough to motivate Dr. James to take the next step and prove his high school counselor wrong. Dr. James was still trapped in a bond of low self-esteem and anxiety, working as a trucker. One night a truck driver on his way to Boston was greeted by Dr. James and this random individual saw gold in Dr. James’ heart and told him: “I’m headed to Boston, but I’ll be back around this time tomorrow night. I’m going to kick your ass if you are still here tomorrow.” Dr. James left and began his post-secondary education, not without struggle but becoming the success he is today. As usual, Dr. James paints the picture with his own words: “There is no way in hell I should be where I am today.” And yet ….
“It all comes down to purpose,” he says. This is the predominate theme in his philosophy. “Do you have a reason to get up in the morning that is bigger than you?” Dr. James found his purpose in his young adulthood when he came to his personal realization that “we are most motivated when we are elevating others.”
Dr. James has a word for this that he meditates on every day. The word is “Eudaimonia” which means “noble purpose” or “human flourishing.” Dr. James describes the study of Eudaimonia as his “new addiction. I’m really trying to understand on a daily basis why people flourish.”
The emphasis of elevating others is more than a phrase for Dr. James. Throughout our preparation for the interview, Dr. James addressed me with positive affirmations, and during the interview he gave more time than usual, addressed me by my first name regularly, discussed our shared passions and after the interview, made a deeply kind and personal offer.
Dr. James’ wife vouches for his authenticity. At a conference in Zurich where the couple was presenting together, Dr. Debra was asked: “what is he like off camera and off stage?” “Better,” she responded.
Dr. James often discusses the concept of purpose in connection with the ability to tune out. For example, he makes it a rule to forego all screens during the weekends—no phones, no computers, no screens. He advocates putting the phone out of eyesight while having personal interactions. “Try being with someone and don’t have your phone visible and see what happens. It changes everything.” He suggests those aspiring to become more physically fit ditch the box fitness franchises and home equipment and take a walk in the woods. He loves the outdoor opportunities Colorado has to offer. “Take a walk in the woods. Colorado is a pharmacy. We live in Walgreens.”
Critics have always struggled with wellness advocates, questioning how to get people to start a wellness push and promising that the push will inevitably end. Dr. James’ response is to stop focusing on the scorecard—calories burnt, miles run, veggie shakes consumed. “If we connect wellness to a scale, it is the antithesis of motivation.” Do you want to improve your nutrition? Dr. James’ solution is to start by eating really healthy one meal a day, preferably breakfast. Should it be vegan? Dr. James suggests a “plant-forward” approach. Do you want to improve your fitness? Dr. James suggests moving. Outside. Critically, however, it’s not about the scorecard, it’s how it makes you feel and if it helps you get to your purpose.
Dr. James borrows from a study by the Mayo Clinic to help describe the process and touts the “moderate delusional optimism movement” and “a community of possibilitarians.” The idea is to define your own world and establish your own firewalls. It’s also evident in his new love of epigenetics, which literally means “living above your genes.” For Dr. James, even your genes—the building blocks of life—aren’t your scorecard, and modern science is beginning to support that theory. Dr. James’ life is Exhibit One. We are all more than who we are. “We all have gold in us,” reminds the good doctor.
If the essence of being is more than a scorecard and tied to waking up each day ready to serve a higher purpose, the question must be, what is that purpose? Dr. James’ answer can be found in one of his interactions with a luminary. Dr. James was conducting a workshop with Steve Wozniak of Apple computer fame. Wozniak was asked about the famous photograph of him and Steve Jobs working in the garage together at the very beginning of one of the most successful business ventures in the history of the world. Mr. Wozniak was asked what he was thinking in that picture. Undoubtedly the countless successful business executives in the audience were expecting answers revolving around money, IPOs, jobs, or fame. Instead, Mr. Wozniak said, “it was fun. I want to do this again tomorrow.” The point wasn’t blithe, but rather an example that we are more well, successful, and sustainable when the purpose isn’t just the scorecard, but something that makes you feel better. “And feeling better it turns out is contagious” Dr. James says. “Your self care, love and compassion is social activism … to the degree that we serve.”
Interviewing Dr. James was fun. I’d like to do it again, or another great interview, tomorrow.
Dr. James Rouse
Scott S. Evans is a business litigation attorney and a regular contributor to Colorado Expression.
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