Never Surrender. I never quit. I keep going. There is only one way to get better. You MUST fail to succeed. If you expect perfection out of the box… you’re delusional and setting yourself up for a let-down.

As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the great pleasure of interviewing John Joseph.

John Joseph is the lead singer for one of the most pivotal bands in punk/hardcore, the legendary Cro-Mags. John has written three books and competes in Ironman triathlons around the world. He remains clean and sober, as well as a staunch advocate for a plant-based diet and positive lifestyle. John’s a sought after motivational speaker, having lectured in prisons and tough inner-city schools as a way to pay forward the gifts he’s received in life. He has inspired people around the world to live healthy, conscious and productive lives.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up? 

When I was seven my two brothers and I were taken away from my mother by the State of New York in 1969 because my alcoholic prizefighter father beat her constantly, even raped her, as a result she spiraled into depression. We were placed in an extremely violent and abusive foster home where they took in a bunch of kids for the money. We suffered every abuse imaginable. We were there for over six years until the State found out was going on and closed the house down, removing all the foster children. We then went into more foster homes and boys’ homes. I ran away from St. John’s Home for Boys in Rockaway Beach and went onto the Mean Streets of NYC in January of 1977 at the age of 14. I sold drugs, became addicted and was a very violent teenager. Eventually it led to me being incarcerated and sent to lock up for almost two years in some of the worst facilities in New York including the infamous Spofford Correctional Facility in the South Bronx where you had to fight for your life. After lock-up I caught another drug case and was facing serious time. They offered me the Navy or jail. I chose the military, but the addiction, violence and drug dealing didn’t stop. I smuggled drugs on my ship and sold to undercover narcotics officers in Norfolk Virginia and put someone on my ship in the hospital from a fight. I was facing a court martial as well as prison time, so I split and became a wanted fugitive, spending 15 years on the run. And the reason I was never caught until 1995 after someone turned me in? I changed. In 1981 I stopped eating meat, got into yoga, got off drugs and alcohol and started a music career co-founding the Cro-Mags in New York City. I also took up martial arts, ran, road my bike as a messenger off the books so I didn’t have to use my social security number, trained like a maniac and most importantly…began my writing career, chronicling my experiences in life.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? 

Yes, the book was called, “The Science of Self-Realization” by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It was a very dark, confusing time for me in early 1981. Being a fugitive, still using, living in abandoned buildings in NYC’s violent Alphabet City. I didn’t know what was going to become of my life. It was then that I landed a job at a health food store called Prana Foods thanks to the band the Bad Brains, who I was a roadie for. One of the guys who worked there named Vinny, a famous punk drummer from The Dots, was a Bhakti Yoga practitioner. He told me about Swami Prabhupada and I was fascinated by his story. How he left India on a steamship at 70 years of age with seven dollars and a case of books. Landing down on the Lower East Side, feeding people, spreading knowledge and translating an immense library of Vedic literature and then printing the books. His life’s work. Vinny said, “You will get a sign to prove everything I’m saying is true.” Well, a couple of days later I was in the subway and a Hare Krsna monk walked up and hands me that book. I was blown away. Not to mention the book addressed every issue I was dealing with at the time. A year later, I too was a monk.

What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? 

I have other books out, a memoir, and a book on plant-based health, but everyone kept writing me asking advice on mindset. How I overcame addiction and an abusive childhood to go on and become a 10x Ironman triathlete, well-known musician, author, lecturer, philanthropist, etc. I started compiling the questions. and the answers I gave. In other words, my methods. That’s how the book came about.

What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book? 

Even if it helps one person to change their destructive habits then it’s done the job. Every single life matters. The fact is — it’s already helped thousands!

Did the actual results align with your expectations?

Not to sound narcissistic, but yes, I knew from day one it would have a profound effect on people. Only because I was the most screwed up person, I had so many bad habits and these methods helped me. The reason was, I picked the brains of yoga masters, world-class athletes, boxers, MMA fighters, Elite Special Forces Operators, right down to the guy or girl on the street who made it out of hell. The book is now ready to go into its 3rd pressing in less than six months.

What moment let you know that your book had started a movement? 

I do a lot of press. TV in NYC, newspapers, radio, magazine articles, blogs, interviews on tour, Joe Rogan’s podcast, Rich Roll’s podcast, and more. Then the book dropped. It’s been mind-blowing. The stories people send about how they beat addiction, lost weight, took up extreme physical challenges, repaired their family life etc. The PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) Movement is in full-effect.

What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different? 

The stories vary but the common denominator… they applied the knowledge contained in the pages of the book and voila! Change happened. They began to turn the corner on the bad stuff. It’s possible for everyone. When we hurt so bad, when we are desperate for answers, they will manifest. They did for me. Then it’s up to us to take the proper action.

What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? 

My friend who has kids beat cancer. He utilized the dietary advice and stayed positive in the darkest days. The power of the mind to heal the body is phenomenal. Also, there were people who wrote that they were so addicted and spun-out they were contemplating suicide. They found hope to live after reading the book. Some of their stories had me break down and cry. I’m always trying to be of service. When I asked some of my teachers how I can pay it back they said, “Just pay it forward.” That’s my mission statement.

Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change? 

Obviously, these days, no matter what you do, even if it’s with the best intentions, some will find fault. I don’t let it deter me. Those comments are silenced by the thousands of people who found a better way and then too paid it forward to help others through service. That’s how we manifest collective change on the planet. And God knows we need it.

Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change? 

When someone reads a book, they are alone with the author, his or her characters, stories, emotions and thoughts. I become so focused when I’m reading, even with all the distractions going on in today’s world. I mean, think about the constant bombardment on our minds; ads, news, internet, all forms of social media. Books give us an opportunity to shut all that off and focus. When I read it’s no cellphone, no laptop, TV… nothing. The power of the written word is incredible. Books change lives. That’s why they say the pen is mightier than the sword.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer?

I wake up every day, usually around 5am and get to work. I don’t slack, EVER. I had my younger brother O.D. on drugs, slip into a coma and almost die. If I wasn’t at the hospital, I was at home writing and keeping my flow in all areas of my life. We can’t crack under pressure. Life’s pressures are what reveals our true character. The greater the pressure, the greater the revelation of true character. I love author Steven Pressfield’s books, “The War of Art” and Do the Work” — in them he’s writes that we have to fight resistance and write under any and all circumstances. That means showing up especially when we don’t want to. I ALWAYS SHOW UP. I stay disciplined. We don’t have time to waste so I stay regimented…. I wake, say my mantras, make a juice, write, train for an Ironman, help feed the homeless, answer emails and go back to writing at night. My day is action, action, action. That’s how we silence the enemy mind and defeat resistance, which Steven P. says, “Is always full of shit.”

What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career?

I looked for constant validation. In that I mean, when I first started writing I would let so many people read my books and scripts, hear my music just to seek their approval. And if they gave constructive criticism, oh sh*t, did I take it personal. Then if I didn’t sell the book, script, or get the record deal, I’d hit a wall, and stop working. Now I just write — not for the result — but for the love of it. I work hard, study my craft, finish a project and keep going on to the next one. Bhakti Yoga teaches us that we have a right to the work, but we do not have a right to the result of that work. Do things out of pure ‘Bhakti’…. which means Love.

Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book?

  1. Know your craft.Study others work and methods and always do your best. I took Robert McKee’s Story seminars his workshops, I’ve read books on writing, picked the brains of authors, screenwriters and musicians. It’s a never-ending search for the knowledge to improve. 
  2. Stay disciplined.I have no time for bullsh*t or negative drama. I’ve had to end some relationships because of it. We are always being tested. What do we really want? What’s out true desire? What do we value? And the value of anything is dependent upon the risk we are willing to take to attain it. Many want to have their cake and eat it too so to speak, but that’s the Catch-22, it doesn’t work like that. So discipline is a valuable tool in any artist’s arsenal. 
  3. Look for a Mentor. I have friends who have won Academy Awards, Emmy’s, Tony’s, Grammy’s. I always ask for their advice and here’s the kicker… I apply the knowledge that they give me. Don’t be what we refer to on the streets of NYC as an, “ASK-HOLE”, asking questions constantly but never doing what they tell you to do. 
  4. Get physically fit, keep your space neat and organized.Ah… now you might be thinking, “What the hell does that have to do with writing?” Let me tell. When the Muse sees you making an effort; you’re sweating, endorphins are flying, your creative juices are flowing… you are rewarded. I have gotten some of the best ideas out on a long bike ride, run, swim or even at the gym. Then I’ve gone home to my ‘clean’, ‘organized’ space and gone to work. The Muse isn’t stepping foot into your dirty, cluttered space, so make room for Her. 
  5. Never Surrender.I never quit. I keep going. There is only one way to get better. You MUST fail to succeed. If you expect perfection out of the box… you’re delusional and setting yourself up for a let-down. The problem is, in this Instant-Fame, microwave society, people believe everything comes cheap and quick. Not good work. That takes time to mature. You must hone your craft and put in the countless hours of work.

The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next?

The Plant-Based Diet Movement. Plain and simple — it saves people’s lives, the ecology of the planet and of course it ends the unnecessary suffering of billions of animals every year.

How can our readers follow you on social media? 

Instagram: johnjosephcromag 

Twitter: jjcromag 

Facebook: John Joseph

Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you. 

Thank you — it was an honor! Keep that PMA.


  • Sara Connell

    Bestselling Author & Writing Coach

    Sara Connell is an author and writing coach with a private practice in Chicago. She has appeared in Oprah, Good Morning America, NPR, The View and Katie Couric. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tri-Quarterly, Good Housekeeping, Parenting, IO Literary Journal, and Psychobabble. Her first book Bringing In Finn was nominated for ELLE magazine Book of the Year.