Andrew Markoff: You can't serve others until you conquer yourself

Andrew Markoff: You can't serve others until you conquer yourself


Q: Tell Readers About Yourself 

I grew up in Raleigh, NC, where I attended a small, private school, lined with pine straw, and surrounded by country clubs, and Chick-fil-As. By high-school, I wanted out of that pleated-khaki life, and decided to join the Marines after college. I graduated from Princeton University in 2006, commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant of Marines, and shipped to Quantico, VA, hoping to become an infantry officer.  


Luckily for me, if you want to be in the Marine infantry, there are plenty of spots to go around. If you are willing to move to Twentynine Palms, CA, your chances are even better. The Mojave Desert is a real gem in the summer.  I reported to 1st Battalion, 7th Marines and deployed to Iraq twice between 2007 and 2009, once as a rifle platoon commander, and once as an 81mm mortar platoon commander. I was fortunate to have amazing non-commissioned officers who mentored me and kept me from getting fired as I learned how to lead.


After a stint teaching helicopter raid tactics and fire support integration at the Marine Corps’ equivalent of Top Gun, I attended selection for the Marine Raiders, the Corps’ elite special operations unit. While new to the special operations arena compared to the SEALs and the Green Berets, the Raiders had already made a name for themselves, taking on the toughest missions in Afghanistan. The Raiders’ founding members were legends, and I wanted to see if I had what it took to fight alongside them. I passed selection and reported to the Initial Training Course in 2012. After nearly a year of swimming with handcuffs and hoisting rubber boats up and down to the delight of passing cruise ships, I earned the Raider badge and reported to the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion in the brackish swamps of Camp Lejeune, NC. Between 2013 and 2017, I had the privilege of leading both a small special operations team, embedded with Afghan commandos, to a large, multi-national special operations task force supporting Kurdish and Iraqi forces. 


In 2017, I decided to leave the service. I’d been fortunate to serve with some amazing humans on some exciting operations. But, I’d recently picked up the rank of Major, and the fun was about to be over. Faced with a future counting millions of dollars of equipment in windowless rooms, I opted for a change. I had no idea what I wanted to do. Everyone told me that “technology is going to save the world,” so I figured I should try to be part of “technology”. I didn’t even think about what kind of technology or what problem I wanted to work on. I just jumped, and hoped I’d figure it out along the way.  


The first chapter of Andrew Does Technology was on Palantir’s business operations and strategy team in Palo Alto, CA. After learning that tables were not instruments thrown in a fit of rage, but repositories for data, I worked with Palantir’s engineers, embedded at various customer sites, to improve product implementation. I learned a lot, but I missed the physicality of my past life. Later that year, I accepted a role as the head of operations at Origin Materials, a start-up building a carbon-negative chemical platform in Sacramento, CA. During my interview, the CEO promised me I could work remotely from Lake Tahoe. The thought of hazing myself in the mountains on a daily basis was more than I could resist. On weekdays, I oversaw Origin’s internal operations, pilot plant operations, and strategic planning. On weekends, I moonlighted as a mountain guide in the Sierra Nevada. 


In 2020, I left Origin to start my own company. Technology just wasn’t my thing. I missed the combination of complex problem solving coupled with the physicality that I’d had in the Marines. In May 2021, I founded Pallas, a sports performance company that coaches both professional and recreational athletes pursuing crazy, athletic goals. Over the last two years, we’ve helped hundreds of athletes, from all over the world, say “yes” to their bad ideas. Our athlete team includes professional triathletes preparing for the 2024 Olympics, special operations candidates preparing for selection, mountain guides, mixed martial artists, CrossFitters, English Channel swimmers, and new runners preparing for their first 5ks. 


Q: What Made You Want To Join The Marines? 


I often joke that I joined the Marines to get paid to do all the things my parents wouldn’t let me do in the backyard. It’s not completely untrue. Playing with explosives, shooting guns, jumping out of airplanes, and zipping around on Zodiacs all seemed fun and exciting. What I quickly realized is that the Marine Corps can take the fun out of anything. Even skiing. At mountain warfare school, powder days meant sinking to your chest on a pair of ancient skis that the Corps had plucked from the nearest apres bar’s wall, while dragging a one-hundred pound sled uphill. If it was fun, you weren’t training hard enough. 


But, the main reason I joined, and the reason I served for over a decade, was to prove to myself and others that I could be a warrior. Warriors dedicate their lives to protecting people. They have courage. They live by their values, regardless of the cost. They are needed. Growing up, I was a timid, nerdy kid. I had no idea what my values were, and if I had known, I would have been too afraid to stand up for them, or for anyone else. I got stressed out easily playing sports, and my teammates had to pick up my slack. They always reminded me about it, too. The Marine Corps offered a path to serving a greater purpose, developing grit, and living by a code. It was the antidote to the personal qualities that I was ashamed of.  


I was a senior in high-school during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Most people assume that I joined the Marine Corps out of a sense of duty. While avenging an attack on our country certainly influenced my decision to serve, the reality is that my reasons were far more selfish. In the end, I’m ok with that. I actually believe service has two phases: selfish service and selfless service. You can’t truly serve others until you’ve conquered yourself, and at the time, I needed a lot of work. 




Q: What Was The Biggest Hurdle You Had To Overcome At MARSOC?


Preparing for dive school was the most miserable experience of my career. Dive school seats are extremely competitive. Each battalion gets a small, annual quota. If you fail the school, you’ve cost your unit a diver it won't get the opportunity to produce until next year. Our battalion ensured its dive school candidates passed by putting them through a pre-dive course that was infinitely harder than school itself. 


For two weeks, we started the training day at 4am with drown-proofing. Each of us tied our feet together, threw on a pair of handcuffs, and jumped into a pool that was 13 feet deep. We bobbed for air, floated on our faces, swam 100 yards, flipped forwards, flipped backwards, and ended by retrieving a mask with our teeth. Then we did the entire evolution two to three more times. Afterwards, we’d run over to the bay and complete a 2 kilometer surface swim, pushing a 50 pound ruck through the water with fins. Of course, it was Shark Week, and I remember hoping a shark would bite me so I would have a legitimate excuse to stop swimming. Then it was back to the pool for tank treads. For this exercise, we donned SCUBA tanks filled with sand instead of air, and jumped into the deep end. There, we treaded water while our instructors sprayed us with hoses. We ended each training day with pool PT, which mostly entailed swimming from one end of the pool to the other on a single breath hold.  


The first time I went to pre-dive, I failed. I couldn’t stop panicking during the drown-proofing and tank tread evolutions. I swallowed a massive amount of water, got swimming induced pulmonary edema, and got dropped from the course. .  


Q: What Did You Learn In The Marines About Overcoming Obstacles?


Two months later, I was back at pre-dive. This time, it was even worse because I knew what to expect. Every morning, as I tied my feet and threw on my handcuffs, I hoped I wouldn’t experience the cramping sensation in my trachea that comes with prolonged breath holding or the pain in my hip flexors from pushing the ruck through the bay. I spent so much time worrying about what each evolution was going to feel like and bracing for the pain that I was worn out before the events began. 


One day, an instructor pulled me aside and said, “If you took half the energy you’re spending worrying about the pain and applied it to kicking, you would be fine.” It sounds simple, but for me it was profound. Pain comes with doing hard things. When we hope for its absence and brace against it, we literally burn additional energy through muscle contraction that could be applied to performing. Instead, it’s best to embrace it, then step outside of it, and focus on what we are supposed to be doing. This advice got me through pre-dive successfully, and I continue to use it with the professional athletes I coach today.  


Q: What Inspired You To Start Pallas?


I founded Pallas during one of the darkest times in my life. When I left the military, I’d hoped that a career in technology would be equally satisfying to the life I’d left behind. Despite working for two incredible technology companies that were solving important problems, I felt empty and lost. I missed the combination of complex problem solving coupled with the physical challenges I’d experienced in the Marines. A friend recommended a book to me called Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The premise is that the job you want is at the intersection of your values, the things you are uniquely good at, and the things you enjoy. I spent the winter of 2020-2021 mapping this for myself. 


I already knew that I valued service, and whatever I did next would have to be mission-driven. I enjoyed hard, physical challenges myself, but I also enjoyed teaching others how to accomplish goals that were physically intimidating to them. That is one of the things I enjoyed most while working as a part-time mountain guide. Between my time as an instructor in the Marine Corps and my time mountain guiding, I’d become a pretty good teacher. What this told me was that I needed to start a company that helped others accomplish physically intimidating goals, in a way that served them. 


I spent a lot of time thinking about how helping others go after their crazy, athletic goals served them. This brought me back to how I think about the nature of service. I believe service is a cycle, with two phases: selfish service and selfless service. Selfish service is about working on yourself. You can’t serve others until you’ve conquered yourself. You have to discover your values, build grit, and develop skills so that you actually have something to give back. Then you are ready for selfless service. I also believe that you can’t stay in either phase forever. If you spend every day of your life doing hard things to improve yourself, you end up being selfish. On the other hand, if you don’t take care of yourself, you lose your ability to serve. 


Pallas’ mission is to help people leverage sport in support of their personal missions. How we support our athletes depends on the phase of service that they are in. Some of our athletes are at a stage where they need to detach and go after that crazy goal they’ve always wanted to achieve and never made time for. They need to fill the well so they can continue to serve productively. In this category, we currently have athletes training to swim the English Channel, climb El Capitan, and qualify for the Ironman World Championships. We have other athletes who are recent start-up founders. They may want to climb Denali, but the reality is that they don’t have time at this phase in their lives. They are working 120 hours a week. What these athletes need are time efficient, attainable goals, such as adding 50 pounds to their back squat one rep max, so that they can stay healthy and keep trying to save the world. Someday, when it’s time for them to detach and work on themselves, they’ll have the foundational fitness to go after their crazy, athletic goals.      


Q: How Do You Develop Training Plans For Your Athletes? 


One of the things that makes Pallas unique is that we integrate strength and conditioning, nutrition, prehab, and sport specific coaching in support of our athletes’ goals. How much attention an athlete receives from each discipline varies. Our coaching services are flexible to allow athletes to piece together the support that they need. 


When it comes to building the best training plan for an athlete, it’s all about understanding the athlete’s personality. For most people, there are 4 to 5 different training plans that could produce the desired results. The best plan is the one the athlete will actually do, consistently. Some people get bored without constant variation. Others prefer incremental progressions of the same, basic workouts. The key is figuring out which athletes prefer which modality. 


Q: What Do You Look For In Athletic Socks?


At this point in my life, I look for socks with a lot of support. My feet don’t have arches anymore after years of heavy rucking, and I often have debilitating foot pain after a long day in the mountains. That’s why Hurdles’ socks have been a game changer for me. The support is simply unmatched, which lets me train more frequently. The men’s crew socks are my go-to for ski mountaineering races where I log 40 plus miles and 7,000 feet of elevation per race. 

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