I am beyond excited to be talking to Andre Agassi today. Andre Agassi really needs no introduction. As a refresher, Andre used to be ranked number one in the world in tennis and won eight Grand Slam singles championships. Now married to Steffi Graf, Andre has two children and is involved in launching charter schools with the Turner-Agassi Foundation, and is on the board and one of the initial investors of Square Panda, a product innovator in AI education. Andre Agassi wrote one of my favorite books of all time. It’s called Open, which I’ll talk about tonight.
Andre Agassi: Hi, Zibby. How are you? Andre.
Zibby: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. This is such a treat for me.
Andre: That’s sweet. Appreciate all your kind words. Tell me a little bit about your podcast if you don’t mind.
Zibby: I actually just started my podcast. I'm a writer. I do a lot of writing for magazines. I'm doing a lot of online writing, especially about parenting lately. I have four little kids. That's my main focus. I was going to write a book called Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.
Andre: Or write books. [laughs]
Zibby: Exactly. My agent said, “That might be better as a podcast. You should just write another book.” I said, “Actually, I really want to write a book called 40-Love about tennis and falling in love. That's how this came about. The podcast is going to feature authors and books that I've loved or articles I read that I think are amazing. I'm hoping to distill those things for the moms who might not have time to read the full thing but want a taste of it, or even just as preview so they can go buy it themselves.
Andre: Very nice. That's very ambitious.
Zibby: I know. We’ll see. [laughs] This will certainly help. What made you write Open, this amazing book?
Andre: It’s a good question because I never saw myself as ever eventually writing a book. I always looked at it like a glorified press conference or something when I would read other autobiographies. Then I got to a point where I wanted to understand my own life through a literary lens. I wanted to make sense of my life from my own desire to understand it in this context. The life I've lived never gave me a chance to take much in. I went about the process in a way that was organic. I finally read a book that I fell in love with called The Tender Bar, written by J.R. Moehringer.
It hit me that a person’s story could really be a powerful tool to impact lives. I knew I wanted to do it with him and probably wouldn't have done it without his dedication and collaboration. When I finally talked him into it, he moved to Vegas for two and a half years. We decided to do it and then decide later if it’s something we’re going to turn over or not. It wasn’t really designed in the beginning to be something I was going to hand the world unless I truly believed people would be better off in their own lives for sharing a bit of my experiences as it ties to their journey.
Zibby: Have you been pleased with the reception? You must get raves about it. I know it was one of my favorites of all time.
Andre: Yeah. I'm proud of it. It feels like I get more proud of it as time goes on. It seems like it was a lifetime since the book. As it relates to words living long past us, I assure you that's the case. That warning was given to me by my partner and collaborator J.R. He said to me, “Listen, every word will live past us. As a result, let's choose carefully.” Anybody that has read it has only -- they’ve found themselves drawn to different parts of the journey. That reflects something that makes me very proud because my goal was to say tennis was the platform I had, but we all deal with fears. We all deal with identity. We all deal with taking ownership of our lives. We all deal with so many same themes. Mine was lived so extremely and publicly that pulling the curtains back was something that I was really anxious about in one respect but then very proud about on another.
Zibby: You mentioned at the very end of your book that part of the reason for doing it was to help your kids out and have them learn more about your journey. Is that true?
Andre: I definitely wrote it through their eyes, meaning they were the first filter I used in anything that eventually made the cut. It needed to be me. One of my great fears before my children were old enough is that somehow something may happen to me where they wouldn't know me, or who I was, or how I felt, or what I believed, or what I went through, and achieved, overcame, failed at, just my story. I wanted it to be able to read well through their eyes. I wanted to be true to me for them first and foremost. There's no question. As you get into it you realize that this is broader and has bigger implications to people's lives, even across cultures. That's one thing I've seen to stay pretty true.
Zibby: That's great. In the book you describe the physical agony of getting up to play many times. One quote that I loved was when you said, “Hate bring me to my knees. Love gets me on my feet.” Can you describe these opposing forces and how you spent so much of your career pushing through pain to achieve such greatness?
Andre: You dedicate your whole life to be an athlete, especially in the sport of tennis, and well accomplished. You're giving your whole life to it starting from a child. You spend a third of your life not preparing for two-thirds of your life, as much as that wear and tear goes on your body. Between the twisting, and the turning, and the sprinting, and the stopping, and the jumping, and the starting, all of it is an ongoing abuse that you try to recover from, sometimes on daily basis. When you add years upon years, and you add some physical limitation as well with the anatomy of my particular back and hips, I got to a point where I played long past when my body told me to stop.
It was getting all too obvious towards the end. I found myself sleeping multiple times on the floor just for the sake of what I couldn't abide by in a hotel room mattress. I found myself having a much harder time standing up straight after some long matches. I start the book with the end, which was my last match. The end started with me trying to get up off the floor. My eyes open. I hear the kids in the other room. My body, the pain, brings me to my knees. It takes me to the floor. It’s the love and also craving for caffeine that gets me to my feet. It’s hard. It was literally a five-minute process to get up so I don’t do anything too startling to my body with the day’s objective.
Zibby: Another quote that I loved that you said was, “One thing I've learned in twenty-nine years of playing tennis, life will throw everything but the kitchen sink in your path, and then it will throw the kitchen sink.” Can you speak to what you meant by this and how you’ve worked your way through that as well?
Andre: The sport of tennis is a eat-what-you-kill sport. If you want to survive, it’s going to come at somebody else's demise. With that sort of intensity, you have to suffer through so many personal limitations because you don’t know what the other person’s doing. When we’re out there competing, it’s a result of so much preparation. The scoreboard just tells one part of it. It’s the judge and jury for that moment. What you do before, what you do after, in recovery, what you do in all your preparation, you're always chasin’ this ghost because you're thinkin’ to yourself, “Somebody else is workin’ harder. Somebody else is doin’ more.” These little setbacks that you get along the way, whether it be physical or discouragements and failures, you live it alone. You live it very intensely because you literally believe you're the only one going through this. You don’t have the objectivity to recognize that this is the reality of the life chosen.
You constantly feel like you're getting hit with obstacles and pressures and challenges. Your whole day becomes about what you need to be at your best and to make sure you get one day better, and never try to get two days better because that's when you risk taking steps backwards. It’s this ongoing, twenty-four-hour negotiation with yourself. It’s almost like a post-traumatic syndrome where you suffer so much internally that nobody knows. It exposes itself in some odd ways. For me, it did in a lot of my personal choices, the things that I chose to escape some of the pains, the pressures, some of the decisions I made with my judgements on decision making, friends I chose to be friends with, bad decisions, not to criticize the mistake of a failed marriage. When you fail yourself, it’s impossible not to fail somebody else. There's many things when you thought it couldn't get harder, it couldn't get worse, it did.
Zibby: I'm sorry. You worked through it so beautifully. I love how you weave the day-to-day of parenting throughout the book in scenes that anyone can relate to like the kids begging for a dog, and having play dates, not being able to sleep past 7:30, which by the way, that was really late, which is great.
Andre: [laughs] I did mention in the book that I got to sleep in ‘till 7:30 because of my wonderful wife. She made it possible.
Zibby: That's true. That's nice. Always good to give credit where credit is due. It’s so funny that there you were preparing for the finals of the US Open, but they're just kids. You're just their dad. What was it like for you to be so revered and so in the public eye, and yet at home just be the guy who runs the bathtub? I feel like Roger Federer must be going through some of this today with his four kids. How do you manage that difference?
Andre: Everybody’s wired differently. I know Roger to a certain degree. He seems like as down-to-earth of a person as you can be. Certainly, he has a respect for all cultures and people. He has a deep knowledge of history and both life and tennis. I would imagine there's some real context that he has off the court. Other people in the public eye, they might believe what they read. I don't know. For me, I relished getting away from the hat I felt like I had to wear when I was in the public eye. I never felt really authentic when I was out there. I did come to terms with this being a talent of mine.
Loving tennis was not who I was. I actually hated it for most of my life for a lot of reasons. I would get out there and struggle with my purpose and reason. I found my reason, finally, in giving choice to other children through education. That became my distraction from myself when I was out there. When I had children it actually, in some odd way, made it a lot easier for me because I was able to escape the -- it was so real. It was so who I was that it was a relief to me to have the responsibility of being a dad and to, quite honestly, feel normal and to feel like tennis just went away.
A good day or a bad day just disappeared when your kids come running down the hallway because they hear the elevator open up at the hotel, and they think it might be you. It was a real asset of mine. I was really blessed to have five years where I could have them with me during some of those times when I think I would've felt pretty lonely not having them.
Zibby: In the book you describe not liking school and not doing well in school, something that I'm sure many kids and parents can relate to. You said, “I don’t seem to learn or process facts the way other kids do. I have a steal trap memory but trouble concentrating. I need things explained twice, three times.” How did that experience make you feel? How do you think that experience of your own has tied into your passion for providing education now to students around the world?
Andre: My lack of education has been a big inspiration to that. The biggest reason being, I describe very particularly in the book, the life I was living as a child. It was a life of a professional. It wasn’t the life of a kid. I was always gettin’ pulled out of school on Fridays for tournaments in Southern California at the age of seven years old to drive down, play all weekend, drive back late Sunday, get up, go to school. I always felt behind. I never felt rested. In our house it was wake up, play tennis, brush your teeth, go to school, and in that order. It was really the way it was.
School wasn’t a priority to my father whatsoever. I was always behind. I was always tired. I might have even had some learning deficits. As a result, I never quite knew why I felt the way I felt. I shunned away from it. I resented it. I felt like resenting school was loyalty to my dad. I believed tennis was what I had to do. I never had a choice. That lack of choice, eventually as I grew up and I started to grow into my own voice, I was pretty clear with how much I resented not having that choice.
I never liked how tennis made me feel as a child. I never liked that it affected family dinner depending how good you played that day. I never liked how it made me feel every morning when I was having to go to school. There's so many things early on I didn’t like. I didn’t like the relationship it established. Tennis seemed to put a wedge in between my siblings and my father. There's so many moments growing up where I resented not having that choice and the pressure being on me to be the one to do it.
When I hit my lowest point, twenty-seven years old, I was convinced that getting number one in the world was going to be my answer and that somehow there was going to be some fulfillment in that goal and objective. I remember getting to number one and literally feeling nothing, feeling empty. It was weird. It was almost worse being number one because I was let in on this dirty little secret that it doesn't change a darn thing. I had to go through a real tailspin in my life. I did. I self-inflicted with choices of drugs, and choices of lifestyle, and found myself in a marriage that was quickly failing and fell to 140 in the world.
After I had one of my worst losses my coach told me, “We’re going to quit or start over.” I remember that moment. It was such an epiphany of a moment. Epiphanies don’t change our life. What we do with them is really what changes our life. My epiphany was seeing so many people out in the streets and wondering what they did, if they loved what they did, if they even chose what they did. Did they choose their life? Did they have a choice in where they were born, and what was nurtured, and what their strengths and weaknesses are? I started to go, “You know what? Just because I didn’t choose my life doesn't mean that I can't take ownership of it and I can't find my reasons.” That was my epiphany.
I searched for my reason from that day forward, which lead to me seeing a 60 Minutes piece on KIPP, Knowledge is Power Program, which is one of the most renowned charter school operators in the country. I saw these people changing these children’s lives by rollin’ up their sleeves and giving them choice. I saw what it meant for a child not to have choice. Here I was bitching about being number one in the world when other kids who don't have choice can't escape the downward spiral of their own neighborhood, and gangs, and prisons, and drugs. I said, “You know what? That's what I want to do.
Overnight, I took out a $40 million mortgage. I set up at the herculean task of building my own charter school, and trying to figure it out, and tryin’ to pay for it, and tryin’ to do so many things. What it did do, it gave me my reason. The lack of education, seeing children who really don’t have choice in their life, my own disconnect with the lack of choice in my life, those were probably the working components to what has made me so passionate about education.
Zibby: Now you have 65,000 school seats and 80 charter schools? It’s amazing how you’ve expanded like that. How did that happen?
Andre: That was spun off of fifteen years of building my philanthropic school in Las Vegas. I started to realize not being an educator or an operator, I said to myself, “What am I if I'm not an educator, I'm not an operator?” I realized I've been a facilitator for these children. I'm not in the classroom teaching. I'm not in the back of house organizing and operating. I'm putting people in the right places and trying to make the best decisions. One of the things that was hardest about that whole philanthropic experience was 1,200 kids at my school and 3,000 on the waiting list. The need was so much greater. I looked at it like I was twice the failure. It was a success. I needed to figure out a way to expand this mission.
Sometimes when you dream when you're awake, or when you pray hard enough, or when life puts the right people in your life at the right time, after my book was written, my now partner had read it. He called me and said, “I share your same passion and frustration for education. Together, we can do some real interesting things.” I went down and met with him. We ended up, through his background of inner-city development and building, we put together an out-of-the-box model that said let’s not wait for the government to be efficient anymore. Let's not rely on philanthropy because we both had realized that it’s not scalable. Here you are with a waiting list. Let's go to the private sector. Let’s show a model that doesn't ride the backs of our teachers, of our students, or anything, that we facilitate for these great operators an ability for them to scale. That's what we did.
We put together this really interesting business model that allowed us to bring capital to the table on day one, go with an operator to where they wanted to expand. There's obviously a need. It’s not a software issue. There are plenty of great teachers inspired for a family learning environment. It’s a hardware issue. A charter school can't access public dollars to build their facility. Once you have your chartered license, then every child that goes to that school, the money from the state follows the child to that school. There's a revenue model on day one in these communities where a charter’s now expanding to. If we could bring the capital to build a facility, and then we can not play landlord in their life and allow them to fully incubate and stabilize, and then through the taxes and bond market get them a purchase power to buy back the school for a price that satisfies a like-minded investor, which is an investor that says I'm not looking to make huge returns. I'm not looking to give away my money, or I'm tired of giving away my money. I do want to see social impact. I want to be responsible in what I do.
If we walk the tension between return on investment versus social scalability and sustainability, and with that model have deployed close to a billion dollars over the last five years and built over eighty schools. This week I go to Florida, actually, to open up another one. It’s really been exciting. It’s been a journey that I'm incredibly proud of and continue to find ways to impact the lives of so many kids that don’t have the luxury that other kids do. Your education should not be determined by your zip code. It’s not the way it should work.
Zibby: You're absolutely right. I read that you're trying to develop a new measure for dyslexia that could be a universal symptom check to make sure that kids get the help that they need. Can you tell me about the readability initiative you're involved in?
Andre: I started this company with a few -- I’m a very, very early investor with, called Square Panda. It’s a platform that allows us to give real-time intervention to kids as it relates to early childhood reading. Let me back up a step from there and say that as I've seen all these schools get built, as I've spent time with all these leaders and operators and teachers and people that are in the weeds as it relates to day-to-day educational life, the same thing keeps coming up, which is early childhood reading literacy. The earlier a child reads, the earlier they can process and comprehend content as opposed to just phonetically figuring out what the heck the word is saying.
We haven't evolved to read. Reading is about seeing something, associating a sound with it, tying it with another letter, pronouncing those two together, making a word. Then, going to the auditor where you have to say the word, you say the word, and then you associate it with this meaning. There's six or eight things going on in a brain just to read. The great news is, is that we have so much science and neuroscience behind us to understand these batons, and how they’re gettin’ passed back and forth, and where a child struggles. When a baton isn't lit up as much as other areas with these salt water -- I almost call them shower caps. They're very non-invasive. You just wear it. They get a child to interact with a game or to do something. You can actually predict to a high percentile where the struggling points are going to come with a child. Then you can help meet them where they are and develop those muscles.
I put this in my school to test it. I was amazed at how fast some of these kids that really struggled got caught up to speed and even went past their peers in these case studies I was able to do at my school. That merited my complete commitment to this expansion. When you want to talk about scalability, if you can create a platform that is in the tech world that really allows for children to be personalized in self-directed reading and learning from the ages of two to seven, now you're talking about real implications. This doesn't just have implications when it comes to reading. It has implications when it comes to red-flagging dyslexia as an example. The earlier you detect dyslexia -- a lot of people don’t realize. They don’t know they have it ‘till the sixth grade. By then, it’s costing $14,000 a year remediation.
If you can recognize these sorts of things by the age of four, now you're talking about managing it, remediating it, and then not ever havin’ to worry about it ever again in an incredibly short period of time. The success that we’re having on that end has language, second language, teaching possibilities, when you can mold the brain. It’s elastic when you're really young. The second language learning acquisition, huge implications there. This has been about a couple years. We’ve a big business in China and United States. It’s growing and scaling. I believe it makes what I'm doing with the schools seem pretty one-dimensional because there's stand-alone schools that are affecting 1,500 kids in perpetuity to stay in school. This is about reaching hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
Zibby: That's amazing that you're doing that. I know for sure I'm going and getting the Square Panda starter kits for my little kids now after this. Going back to tennis for a minute, I am married to a former tennis pro who watches the tennis channel religiously. The tournaments are back to back to back to back. I'm wondering about how you feel about the insanity of the tour schedule and what it does to players’ bodies these days?
Andre: It does appear that way. I can honestly say that I think the sport would benefit a lot more from a more sustained off-season for a couple reasons. There's a lot to be said for the quality of the sport when you know you can properly recover from a season and prepare for the season. The quality will raise. The fans will look forward to it more. You can make it work. We’re pretty fragmented in the ownerships of these tournaments.
Some guys, they want to be out there grinding away because the more they play, the better chance they have for their rankings. You're almost taking away opportunities in some respects. I don't want to speak for any player, but generally speaking, you talk to the top fifteen guys in the world, they're going to want an entirely different schedule than the guys seventy-five to a hundred in the world. It’s hard to make everybody happy. You would love to see the sport move forward in the best interest of its own future. These guys have short careers. Some of them are getting longer, of course, as we’re seeing with Roger and Rafa. I know guys are playing in their thirties now. Even if you play into your mid-thirties, you get a window of time. Then your time’s over with. Guys want their opportunity to be out there to play.
Zibby: Didn’t think of it like that. How did you find coaching versus playing?
Andre: It was interesting. When I played, I never felt pressured at all. It was never about pressure. I felt stressed, stressed to tick every box and make sure everything -- organization. You don’t want curves. You have your rhythms. You have your style of going about getting ready for practices for matches. You know where to spend energy. You know where not to. You managed your day and all the details that go into making your day the best it can possibly be. That was stressful because you're constantly thinking about it. Once you get out there, everything's in order. You hit the gas pedal and go and hope for the best.
Coaching was the exact opposite. I never felt any stress. I didn’t really have to do anything. It wasn’t me executing a game plan or anything like that. You feel a huge amount of pressure. You see somebody's hopes and dream. You see somebody who is doing everything possible to make themselves the best they can be for that moment, expectations on the line. If you say one thing and it’s wrong or it’s not taking a step in the right direction, you feel like you have this little lever with this giant crane. You touch it wrong and “Boom!” That crane can destroy something, or it can build something. You choose wisely. You listen more than you talk. You try to learn more than you teach. That part was different and challenging. Anything problem solving is something I find enjoyable.
Zibby: Thank you so, so much for being on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books." This has been so interesting to chat with you. I can't thank you enough.
Andre: I could chat with you forever. This is fun. Good luck with this moving forward. I know our roads will cross one way or another. Thanks for your time.
Zibby: Thank you for your time. Thanks so much. Take care.
Andre: Awesome. Buh-bye.