Greg Nance (MPhil Management 2011) talks about success born out of adversity and running to raise awareness and funds for youth mental health.
Greg Nance led what could be described as a charmed life until the age of 16, when the sudden and debilitating illness of his beloved grandfather sent him spiralling into a deep depression. Like many young people, Greg made a series of poor choices in an attempt to cope with his emotions and began to self-medicate with alcohol and painkillers. This continued until the age of 23 when, by a process of volunteering work and a daily running ritual, he found the strength within him to work through his challenges and overcome his addiction.
Greg hasn’t stopped running, and he hasn’t stopped giving back. Over 84 days in 2022, he completed a 3,156-mile run across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific to raise money for the Run Far Foundation, a non-profit he launched to support youth mental health by building after-school running clubs with a purpose. The Run Far Foundation funds youth-led volunteer projects throughout the United States to enable meaningful community service and help young people find purpose, have fun and stay healthy. It aims to equip one million young people with the tools for managing their mental health by 2030.
Greg was interviewed by Mark de Rond, Professor of Organisational Ethnography at Cambridge Judge Business School, as part of CJBS Perspectives: Leadership in Unprecedented Times, a series of talks with prominent business leaders and other public figures organised by the Alumni & External Engagement team at Cambridge Judge.
Here are edited excerpts of Greg’s thoughts:
For me, helping young people build resilience is a very personal mission. For years after becoming sober, I was embarrassed; I didn’t want to think about depression or anxiety or alcoholism or addiction. It’s only now, with several years of perspective and after talking to many, many people who have struggled with addiction, and with the families of those who’ve struggled, that I realise how it keeps coming back to mental health challenges.
We need to take a preventative approach. These many conversations have taught me that it’s not enough to just try to treat addiction once it’s a full-blown disease, once it’s already ravaging an individual’s life, their family, their society, their community. What if we go upstream? How can we help people build resilience before they’ve begun self-medicating to try to make their pain feel better?
Part of my purpose with Run Far Foundation was to try to help people build the right foundation. If people really understand their choices and opportunities – and also have the tools, the guidance, the mentorship – then they can make the most of them and define the path that is right for them.
If you have a sense of purpose and direction, you’re far more likely to achieve something than if you’re just being whipped in the wind. I see a profound connection between the challenges I faced when I was younger and what I have achieved since then. I think that, for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid tragedy or deep pain, it can be difficult to summon that extra reserve of strength or courage; it’s natural for almost a complacency to follow. However, those of us that have been rocked by challenges and the vicissitudes of life find a well spring of courage within us, and it takes those incredibly dark experiences to find it.
It’s in the really dark moments that a lot of the reflection and soul-searching take place that can lead to clarity. Each of the companies I have launched has been on the back of incredibly difficult circumstances, incredibly difficult challenges that forced me to think about my why. And forced me to think about what really matters to me. How do I want to measure my life? How do I want to spend these precious days on the earth?
Keep showing up, take the leap, and great things happen. When I was studying at Cambridge Judge, I signed up for a 5k run with some classmates only to find out it was actually 50k. And that run on the Jurassic Coast – it was a miserable day, I was getting rained on, it was freezing – ended up being positively life-affirming and life-changing. The beauty of putting yourself out there, of signing up for challenges that feel way too big for you, is that you can grow to become the person who achieves those challenges. That’s true not only of running, but of literally anything else in life!
Running has become my way of exploring, my way of processing emotions and working through difficult problems, my best thinking. It’s a physical challenge to be sure but, even more so, it’s what’s going on between the ears, it’s the mindset, it’s the mental game. And it’s also just fun. Over time, that little running habit, paired with a bit of academic work ethic, has opened some really incredible doors.
Taking the first step is key. People often ask me how it’s possible to run across the country or launch your own non-profit. The mantra that I’ve come to tell myself every day is: eat the elephant one bite at a time. You don’t always have to have every answer figured out, in fact, you shouldn’t have. What you can do is take the first step, the first bite. And, gradually, bit by bit, you eat that elephant. Whether it’s running across the Continent, building an organisation, earning that promotion, starting that company, getting funded – eat the elephant one bite at a time.
Launched in April 2020 in response to the tumult of the global pandemic, CJBS Perspectives: Leadership in Unprecedented Times is a video series organised by the Alumni & External Engagement team at Cambridge Judge. The series features globally prominent business leaders discussing timely and interesting business topics and themes, as well as a view on how they and their organisations have coped, and even thrived, in challenging times.