On Turning a Life Around. And Companies.

I had lunch last week with a guy named Kenyatta Leal. I met Kenyatta through the Last Mile program, which teaches incarcerated men to code software and, in the process, prepare them for “reentry” with skills, confidence, purpose and community.

Kenyatta was one of the first prisoners to go through the program at San Quentin. After a difficult childhood, he got into drugs and committed a crime for which he was sentenced to life in prison.

Kenyatta is now released, working for a Silicon Valley company, and is one of the most purpose-driven people I have met, especially when it comes to helping other prisoners.

Our sandwiches went untouched as we got lost in the conversation about turnarounds: what makes someone decide to turn their life around?

For Kenyatta, it wasn’t one big epiphany, but a collection of experiences that added up to a change in mindset, including…

  • Listening to counselors who urged him to take responsibility for his actions instead of blaming others;
  • Receiving the “tough love” letter from his mother while he was in solitary confinement telling him that if he wanted to get out, to start acting like it and stop complaining;
  • Realizing his Grandmother’s adage that we’re a composite of our five closest connections; thus prompting him to end his relationship with toxic friends;
  • Agreeing to become a founding member of the Last Mile program;
  • Sharing his experiences with others on a similar path.

Nothing hits the gut more than stories of turnaround, from Les Miserables to It’s a Wonderful Life to Robert Downey Jr. And that whole Jesus “rebirth” story seems to be pretty popular.

I believe it’s core to our programming as a species, not just the domain of self-obsessed Americans. We all benefit when members of the tribe are healthy and contributing. We find joy in the joy of others. So we celebrate their return to health.

I’ve had a number of friends who dismantled their lives through drugs and alcohol – anesthetizing to relieve pain and loneliness.

But some of them managed to reestablish their lives. One guy literally dug himself out of a ditch to go get help.

Seeing people overcome addiction is a testament to what we’re capable of as human beings.

We all have egoic baggage that drives us to do dumb things – inner pain mixed with circumstance that drives isolation and poor decisions. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to worry about turnarounds.

Thankfully, righting the ship is possible. But certain elements must be in place:

  1. Family and friends who care about our long term fulfillment.
  2. Awareness of our destructive tendencies and the likely result of that path.
  3. Mentors and advisors who shed light on the enlightened journey.
  4. A reason why (we must take the harder road).

Watching you and your own turnaround over the last 14 months has been nothing short of amazing. It’s hard to put into words on a public blog, so I’ll do an interpretive puppet show later.

Needless to say, your work has inspired my own turnaround – from “can’t find my way” drifting back into purpose. And perhaps by fate, my purpose has come full circle into this very idea of the turnaround.

In my professional life, I started working with companies on their death bed. I realized how much human potential is trapped in failing organizations – people with hopes and dreams who have been sucked into the machinery.

I learned that I love taking what no one else wants and breathing life into it. Like the prisoners. Working on the island of misfit companies is decidedly unsexy, but I find immense pleasure in moving an organization towards purpose and health.

Through all of this work and conversations with great people like Kenyatta, I have realized that our darkest moments are often a sign that things are about to change.  And that leaves us open to a catalyzing event, like a mother’s “tough love” letter or a daughter going away.

We then hopefully realize that the ingredients for turnaround are already in place. And we have no choice but to act. And through blood, sweat and tears, we turn it around.

And then we fall down again. We never check the box on being “fixed.” But the more we pick ourselves up, the stronger those muscles become, and the easier it becomes. And the more empathetic we are to others going through dark times.

You helped do that for me.

So thank you.

The Trick to Surviving the Teenage Years

The bases were loaded, score tied and no outs. Bottom of the 10th inning. I was playing catcher. Any infield grounder would be thrown to me. Otherwise they would score, and we would lose.

The batter took a few pitches to try and get a walk. But our pitcher delivered two strikes in succession. Not wanting to strike out, the batter got ready to swing. And on the next pitch he smacked a hard grounder to our shortstop.

The runner on third base took off like a shot towards me. It was a race to home plate: the ball against the runner. The shortstop scooped the ball and hurled it to me in one clean motion. I was ready. A perfect throw, right to my chest. It hit my mitt with a welcome thud.

But instead of staying in the glove, the ball popped out. Instead of prolonging the game, it hit the ground like a dead bird. I dropped it.

The runner scored and the other team went nuts in celebration. I went from stunned disbelief into Charlie Brown. I lost the game. I was the goat. The loser.

The other players were bummed, but handled it well. I couldn’t even hear them. I just walked off the field.

As I departed, my parents arrived and said to me, “What the hell is wrong with you? How could you possibly do that? You should quit this sport. Probably quit all sports. You used to be good, but now you’ve lost it.”

Only….it wasn’t my actual parents. It was my inner parents. And damn, they were angry.


As I write this, I am watching your plane take off with you on it, headed back to school. You turn 13 in four days (today now!), and I won’t be with you during this important transition. So I wanted to write about one of the most important things to learn at your age, or at any age for that matter: being a good parent to yourself.

charlie-brown-football-1

We treat our friends and family with respect (usually) and support (mostly), but the way we “parent ourselves” can be akin to a vengeful god, laying down vitriol to the masses from on high. Charlton Heston epic kind of stuff.

If you think about our inner-child as the joyful, free, life-affirming part of us, the inner-parent is the responsible, life-navigating part. Our work as modern Homo sapiens is to find a good balance. Too much child and we become irresponsible, selfish, candy-scarfing sprites, overwhelmed by life. Too much adult and we lose our zest – sad martyrs trudging through our existence.

Being a teenager is the ultimate test. Thousands of years ago, the teenage years were the time of transition to adulthood; when we finally got to hunt and gather. Now you get put into a school building with other judgmental teenagers while hormones wreak havoc on your bodies. That’s when you need an inner-parent the most.

But our inner-parent, instead of being the benevolent guide, can often turn against us, using our fears to find fault in anything we do. Instead of finding love and direction, we criticize and judge ourselves. “You’re not good/smart/talented enough. You’re broken/flawed/stupid. You’re not as good as [Insert name of person who was better at baseball]. You shouldn’t even be here.”

Could you imagine me saying those things to you? Or you saying that to me? No, it’s preposterous.

So how do you deal with it?

  • See the lies. Remember that the mean things you say to yourself aren’t true. They are oversized amplifications of traumatic events and interpreted narratives from our childhood. I’m sure I have inadvertently contributed to your insecurities, just as my parents did for me, but the storylines that take shape in your brain couldn’t be further from how I feel. You are amazing.
  • Love yourself. You are worthy just as you are. I grew up thinking I only mattered to people when I was achieving. Some people think they deserve love when they are attractive or dramatic or generous. Build the mantra into your life that you are good as you are. Channel Stuart Smalley: “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” 
  • Cut your child some slack. It’s good to break out into hysterical laughter, wrestle with dads and dogs (ones you know), run around like an idiot, and enjoy the occasional bag of M&M’s. Humans thrived as a species in part because we have a proclivity for joy when we’re with experiencing life together. Animal psychologists believe that play is not only good emotionally but makes animals more psychologically flexible. (Note: still researching health benefits of M&Ms.)
  • Practice inner-parenting. Actual parents (like inner parents) don’t succeed by instilling fear in their children, but from empathizing and giving the child just enough room to explore on their own. Before coming down on yourself, think about how you would support a friend who had the same challenges you are having, and use that as your guardrail for parenting yourself.  
  • Find your tribe. Hang out with people who love you for who you are, and don’t contribute to the insecurities. People who aren’t afraid to speak their mind and their feelings while respecting the feelings of others. People who celebrate you and make you laugh till the milk and M&Ms come out of your nose. 

We are not binary creatures. While our brains want the black and white, good v. bad, golden v. broken, the reality is that we’re a study in growth and Darwinian adaptability. We change. A lot. 

So on this, your first teenage birthday, and because we’re not there with you, I can only offer this $.02: be a kind, loving parent to yourself, for you have all the potential of the world inside you. And doggone it, people love you.

Happy birthday.

The Most Important Skill

When I was in 8th Grade (your age), I was voted “Loudest and Most Talkative.” I was what one of my favorite teachers called a “Sender” and not a “Receiver” – a one-way freight train of attention-craving prattle.

I was not a naturally good listener. Whether it was in class, meeting people, talking with friends, or even playing sports.

I remember in high school getting on a teammate’s case because he wasn’t staying to work out after practice. For weeks I lectured and guilt-tripped him about it. Then at one point one of his friends pulled me aside and said, “Dude, his Mom is really sick. He needs to help her out.”

As I aged, it dawned on me how much time I spent talking or waiting to talk. I thought I was being a good friend, but I was usually focused on me. Example:

Person 1: “I had a rough weekend. My ferret died. We had to put him down.”

Me: “Yeah, we had to do that last year with our Chinchilla. It sucked. It all started when he caught a flu from our budgie….”

My Listening Stare.
My Listening Stare.

Adults do this all the time. We think we’re empathizing by sharing a related story or experience. But usually we’re redirecting the focus to ourselves without realizing it. Conversations become a mutual rush to share, like two vacuum cleaners going after the same Cheeto.

What changed for me? Two things: one was being on the other side. When I was struggling and my confessions to friends were met with redirections, quick fixes, personal anecdotes and just being blown off, I got frustrated. Second was meeting your mother, who is hands-down one of the best listeners I have ever met. A renaissance receiver.

So I started learning how to be a great listener – to turn my weakness into a strength.

It was quite the rehab, but I slowly transformed. I became a better listener. In addition to the comically intense stare I developed to support my new habit, something surprising happened: I started growing genuinely curious. Not only was I building deeper relationships and making people feel heard, I was enjoying learning about them.

I realized there is a Shakespearean epic playing out inside every person (though some are more like Michael Bay movies in their emotional nuance). And if we can get past our own stories for a moment, we can interact with these living, breathing sagas.

And by bearing witness at a deep level, people light up before our eyes. Nothing draws people to you more than fully, genuinely taking in their experience.

To be clear, it’s fine to share your own stories – it would be strange not to have a good back and forth with friends. What matters is having a genuine curiosity in others, and building the listening skills to get their stories out. As Voltaire said, “Judge someone by their questions, not their answers.”

To me, a good marriage is based on this same ability: having a deep curiosity in your mate’s experience of life and the skills and compassion to bring it out. In focusing on the “other” and supporting his or her growth, we connect with ourselves in a surprisingly profound way and are capable of being together over the long run.

I later learned that Nietzsche expressed the same idea in Human, All too Human:

“Marriage as a long conversation. – When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this person into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time that you’re together will be devoted to conversation.”

My professional life was also transformed through curiosity and listening, allowing me to develop trust and deep relationships with employees and customers. Sales is a good example: most salespeople just machine-gun their agenda to patient eye-rollers, but the curious receivers relate to their prospects, understand their needs deeply, and are remarkably successful.

Learning to be a listener was like discovering plutonium in my personal development. (Or Ruthefordium or Einsteinium. Or one of the elements that doesn’t melt your face.) But as with anything that isn’t a natural talent, I make a lot of mistakes and must keep up practicing.

I see this skill growing in you every day. The depth of your relationships with friends are a testament to it. Keep following that path and the world will open up for you.

 

How to Make Real Change

I remember going to a party when you were four, and we met a guy who worked on Wallace and Gromit. Among many other things, he made the motorcycle and the helicopter.

And that Blew. Your. Mind.

Till that point, W&G was a magical landscape that existed outside of our world. Suddenly the curtain was pulled back and you were with the gatekeeper.

Me: “This is the guy who makes the magic.”

You: “You made the motorcycle?”

Him: “Well, with other people.”  

You: “You can make magic with other people?”

And like that, you were on board.

wallace-gromit-in-a-close-shave

“Making magic with other people” is still a line I love. That’s what this is about.

A Startup Story

Last summer I was bored. I had just sold the startup I was working on (not a winner) and was reacquainting myself with loneliness, frustration and malaise while figuring out what to do next.  

Even my fitness regimen was the equivalent of Saltines and water. The same old workouts and no community.

So I decided to change it up – if I couldn’t figure out my whole life pie at one time, at least I could start on the health slice. And maybe help some other folks along the way.

To start with, my weight had been the same since high school. That’s a good thing for most people, but I was a meathead as a teenager, so had more pounds than I needed for trail running, emails and parenting. I had done many diets, but always went back to my “zone” like a Weeble Wobble (toy from my childhood – look it up and be thankful you are in your generation).

Fitness apps didn’t cut it. Some people may meditate or jump rope when a bot tells them to do, but not me. I love you Siri, but I need people.

So I created a little company with a friend. The idea was an online community where teams of 7-10 people would commit to their goals, log their fitness data, get support from their group and have a high end coach to answer questions and send workouts. As one of the guys said: “Workout nerds keeping each other on track.”

And it worked. Actually, it exploded. The conversations were rich and plentiful, and the changes people went through were impressive. These mini-support groups tapped into the human need to belong. It was a tribe. It was accountability.  

I lost the extra weight and kept it off, changed my diet, did my first triathlon, experimented with workouts, and even curbed my wine intake. Now they’re convincing me to dunk a basketball (or whatever sized ball I can pull off).

It wasn’t “fixing my life” but it was changing a big part of it. And it served as a reminder that it’s no good to be lonely in our struggles.  

The startup has since been incorporated into a larger startup, with more experienced hands guiding it. I’m still a participant, and was happy to see it leave the nest. Karma.

My Point? 

Accountability works. Tribe works. We can make magic with other people.

So when we decided a few weeks ago that we would help each other stay on track towards our mutual goals, I lit up. Not only is this a way to for us to stay bonded while you’re gone, but knowing you’re on the other end of my commitments is more motivation than I could ever hope for. Even if we can’t talk that frequently.

I know your aspirations are about getting home soon (clearly a goal I support). For me, it’s about finding community and purpose again. I know, I’m a broken record about these things. But it’s a lifelong journey and what matters to me now is different than even five years ago. And now having you involved puts gas on the fire to get moving.

I want to be at at my best when I’m around you. And working through my own problems is my version of “putting my oxygen mask on first.” I’m a better father if I’m living a rich and full life. But I also don’t want to hide my journey from you. I would rather you be involved.

Teammates keep us headed in the right direction, distract us from the negative voices, help us navigate, and keep us honest along the way. And hopefully we enjoy the ride a lot more.

Even though I can’t be there, I’ll always be part of your team. I’ll be like Wallace in the sidecar of your aspirations, complete with goggles and leather helmet. Off to make magic.

Letters to Ellie: The Practice That Matters Most in Life

I saw your letter to future students, where you told them how to handle being at a treatment center:  not dwelling on what was or what could be, but to just be in the present and do good work.

I could not have been more proud of you in that moment (dumb presence joke). You innately deciphered the code to a good life: that we are capable of happiness if we let go of our attachments and feel the grass we’re standing on. 

jumping

They don’t teach this in school, or at least they didn’t when I was a kid. I didn’t even spell presence without a ‘ts’ at the end when I was your age. We were too busy memorizing rocks and battle dates, and meditation was in the realm of carob-chomping, sandal-sporting, Cat Stevens-esque groovykins. Not what you talked about with your football buddies.

Core to this ability is the knowledge that we are a conscious being wrapped in a body and mind. If we were in one of your dystopian sci-fi novels, we would be able to inject our consciousness into different host bodies (Obama, Ryan Gosling, Burmese Pythons).

The body has the thoughts, emotions and cravings that get in the way of freedom and happiness. This is what the Buddhists practice: dealing with suffering. Not denying suffering, but understanding and transcending it. The only thing certain is change, so be at peace with it.

On the one hand, suffering comes from the past telling us who we are (entrepreneur, artist, snake-lover, life of the party). Good and bad memories and patterns become our ego narrative. It’s not that we need to block out fond memories or deny our past – the problem is when our connection to history causes our suffering. Just read my old posts for a not-so-subtle nod to this “who am I?” pain. 

On the other hand, we have “if only” longings for a better future or the pleasures we think will make us happy. “If only I was (thinner, funnier, had my daughter at home, better at summarizing thousands of years of spiritual history in a short blog), life would be better.” 

It’s not that we can’t enjoy the fruit of this life. The problem is when we crave those pleasures at the expense of enjoying the moment.

You’re learning on your own to be aware of these thoughts and feelings – seeing them arise, and then letting them move through us.

Remember in Cincinnati when you, Hazel and me watched the highway looking for cars of a certain color?  Then for some reason, we would tackle each other when that color came through? That seems like a better way to witness our thoughts and emotions coming through us – like cars on a highway. Or as Eckhart Tolle says in The Power of Now, watch them like a cat looking at a mouse hole.

Mindfulness has become a big industry for our oversaturated lives. And that’s a good thing. Western culture rewards bigger/better/louder, especially with a big megaphone for the whole planet to shout into. To deal with the cacophonous reminders that we’re not good enough, people need meditation in the workplace, books, internet gurus. I’m glad we’re getting it, but it took crisis mode to get us here.

As a kid now, it must be incredibly hard, especially in your situation. I remember suffering at your age: wanting a girlfriend, wanting to be younger again, wanting to be better looking, popular, funny. Much of the years 12-18 were a mix of unbridled fun mixed with self-torture for what I didn’t have. If I had more practices and teachers back then, I would have saved myself a lot of pain (or is that “if only” thinking?).

Since my 20’s, I have meditated. I’m not enlightened by any means, but I practice. And when things start to suck, I find solace in my slowly-improving abilities to connect with the moment: watching my thoughts, counting breaths, repeating a poem, and life activities like jogging on the mountain, staring at clouds or even eating (poorly) with my non-dominant hand.  

Ultimately this is applause for you. You have intuited something powerful and vital in this always-on, mostly-depressed world; something that spiritual teachers have been preaching for thousands of years: instead of running off to the woods, we can have a uniquely human utopia inside ourselves with practice.

You are choosing to be happy, one of the most important and hardest decisions we make as humans. And that is more than I could ever hope for you.

Letters to Ellie: The Biggest Predictor of Success? We all have it.

I’m still energized from a visit to see Ellie last weekend. This letter came out of discussions around having a goal and a roadmap to keep the faith during difficult times. I hope you enjoy.


A lot has been written about grit lately, the courage and resolve to keep going despite challenges and setbacks. The ability to run marathons instead of sprints. 

A TED talk a few years back by Angela Duckworth (and now a book) claimed that grit was the best predictor of success in kids, not talent or intelligence. Since then it’s become a bigger meme for the TED-regurgitating smugsters. But with good reason – the evidence showed pretty conclusively that kids who persevere go on to do big things and are happier as a result. 

I agree wholeheartedly. But in my experience, a lot of us have grit. Perhaps all of us. It’s not a binary condition that some kids have and some don’t, like being a Belieber. I think it’s more like a reserve gas tank that we all have, but only opens when the purpose switch is flipped and we journey through life deliberately. 

a_long_journey_home_-_800x600

For many “successful” people in the world, grit comes from pain. Trying to make whole what was missing for us as kids. Trying to fight that shame gives people access to that reserve tank. Kids get messages like “you’re not good enough,” “you’re not as driven as your sibling,” “you’re different from the rest of the family.” That either winds ‘em up like a toy robot or winds them down into a spiral of self-doubt, sadness, chemicals and an over-reliance on others. 

Maybe pain isn’t the ideal source of purpose, but in my experience it’s okay. It’s the movement that matters. Movement leads to experience, insights and discoveries. A lot of my early motivations were based on vanity and insecurity (now try getting the Simple Minds song from Breakfast Club out of your head). It’s not necessarily a bad thing and comes with the territory at that age. And it ultimately led to a better place. 

For instance, someone may have felt shame as a child for not being smart enough. Instead of burying her feelings, it forced her to study like crazy, graduate and go on to an Ivy League school and highly respected job. To prove herself. 

After four years of working 80-hour weeks, she starts to question why. The only people who question her intelligence now are in her own mind. She imagines herself running a race only to discover there are no competitors or spectators. 

But along the way she traveled great distances, met people, learned how to get things done in the world, and discovered a deep-rooted desire to help others. She leaves her job and starts a nonprofit, now applying that same grit to a different problem. 

Maybe she still has things to prove, but she’s accessing a deeper reserve tank and deeper sense of self, and that will only continue.

I know a lot of people just like that. 

It’s why I got sad a few years back when I lost a sense of purpose outside the family. I no longer knew how to access my tank. I worked on a lot of “stuff,” but didn’t have the reserve power to keep it going. Only upon falling down, did I realize how important it was to work with and help people I loved and respected. Falling down was its own instigator of growth and movement, though it didn’t seem that way at the time. 

Our brains get dopamine hits when we accomplish little things on the way to bigger things. We gain strength and confidence when we work towards goals that matter. I write a lot more blogs now that you are the purpose. You give me access to the reserve tank. 

That’s why I believe strongly in your desire to have a big goal and a roadmap. We’re wired for that. If you have a life where your raison d’etre is constantly known and growing, with large and small goals and the tank to keep working towards them, I would feel like a charmed parent. 

Because eventually, when we have worked through the big “missings” and pain and insecurities, we no longer need a reserve tank at all. Instead we gain access to an infinite energy source, where life is a constant, humming connection to ourselves and others. Like Neo at the end of The Matrix when he could see the Matrix for what it was and no bullets could hit him anymore. 

That’s the beauty of it all: if we channel our pain to propel us forward, we survive, thrive, and eventually find ourselves on an more enlightened plane of existence.

To wrap it up: 

  • We all have grit, including you for SURE. I’ve seen it.
  • We must use our pain and suffering to drive us forward instead of turning inside ourselves and self-destructing. 
  • When we keep moving, we get the dopamine hits along the way and we keep growing and learning. 
  • As we continue to grow, we let go of our selfish dramas and move towards a deeper energy. 

And all of this is stuff I have learn again and again. Rinse and repeat. So don’t be hard on yourself. You’re already way ahead of the game. 

Letters to Ellie: How to Know if You’re a Good Rebel

We got to visit Ellie last month (first time I had seen her in two months), and it was amazing. During one of our conversations, we talked about what it meant to be a good rebel versus a bad rebel. This letter came out of that discussion.

Last night I had a football dream. (I know…sports–groan–but stick with me.) I was playing linebacker on defense and wanted to destroy the other team’s quarterback. I could see his eyes – he was cocky and taunting me. I wanted to take him down. I maneuvered around the backfield looking for the perfect line to blitz.

But another member of my team looked at me, saw what I was doing, and pleaded for me to cover the outside, not attack the quarterback. It was like telling a starving man not to touch the cheeseburger in front of him.

As hungry as I was, I relented and did my job covering the outside. I let the other players blitz, which forced the quarterback to throw an errant pass in my direction. I dove for the interception….

In doing so, my IRL body jolted awake in bed with a racing heartbeat.

But I was psyched – I’m pretty sure I made the interception! Maybe I’ll make All-Dream-League this year.

football

Why is this relevant?

Here’s my topic: when I was your age, I thought I was a rebel. When I felt disrespected or patronized, I would lash out: yelling at refs, coaches, teachers and anyone else who would get in my way. 

Problem was, I wasn’t doing it for what I thought was right for the world. I was doing it for my own selfish interests. For what made me look good.

And I didn’t understand the consequences and collateral damage I was causing. I was alienating myself from friends and creating rifts with adults through my typhoon of rule-breaking, yelling and petty battles.

The desire and ability to stand up to people ultimately served me well. But it took a while to harness it for good.

Part of being a good rebel is to stand for something: to have a belief, a voice and the passion to see it through. From singers to artists to athletes, rebels can reshape our understanding of what can be and cause us to question our assumptions. 

The other part is to work change from within, instead of constantly fighting the power directly. Collaborate with people to get things done. Prince was a rebel. He created groundbreaking music and inspired a generation of musicians. But he also worked for Warner Brothers and Arista music to get his albums out. He chose his battles on the dance floor.

“It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” – T.S. Eliot

What finally changed it for me was football: working with coaches and players I respected and giving myself fully to a larger goal than my own selfish desires. I didn’t agree with everything, but I played by the rules because I believed in it. And once I was a part of it, I could influence change from within. Trying to change from the outside is like trying to force political change in a country without speaking the language.

And those are some of my happiest moments: being a source of strength for other people on a good, shared mission, one that’s bigger than any of us.

I know you’ll have the same moments. You’re a natural leader, a strong voice, and a great rebel.

Letters to Ellie: What I Would Change About My Younger Years

Another life-lesson excerpt from my letters to my daughter. We finally got to see her a few weekends ago for the first time in two months. Amazing.

When I was your age (12) I got into martial arts. I mean, really into it. Karate Kid had just come out, and tae kwon do studios were everywhere. I wore kung fu shoes to school, memorized the Bruce Lee movies, practiced moves on unsuspecting kids at recess, and even referred to myself as The Master (sigh). 

Bruce

Lots of seventh graders have identity issues but I was a one-kid carnival show. Karate-guy was just one of many, in between breakdancer (complete with peroxided ducktail), skate punk, survivalist and weightlifter. Probably a rodeo clown and beatboxer in there too. 

I wanted to be respected, included, loved. And if I didn’t get that love, I would go all kung fu on myself. I had the shame of not being good enough, so struggled epically to earn people’s respect and to have them as friends. I just didn’t know how to do it. So it usually backfired as I willed these ridiculous characters into existence. 

As a younger adult, that fierce desire to fit in was still there. No more ducktail or nunchucks, but I still hungered for the drug of outside validation. 

This led to insufferable traits: boasting, raging and, perhaps most destructive, assuming the personality I thought would impress people, aka the “chameleon.” 

For business people, I would channel Richard Branson; for spiritual folks, Alan Watt; for hipsters, the guy into artisanal pickles and rare records. I could be anybody I thought they would like. One time I caught myself acting like someone into auto racing. As you well know, nothing could be further from my natural interest map than NASCAR.  

Most people work hard to look good socially, but stay true to their feelings. The chameleon will shape-shift for anybody and any situation. An indiscriminate Gumby selling out their feelings for inclusion. 

Awareness of the problem is a big step. But I would still find myself swept up into social situations without seeing it happen and I’d reflect on it later like Dr. Jekyll with a Hyde hangover: “Argh, I did it again, didn’t I?”

The bigger work was understanding why it was so important for me to impress. What happened that created this fierce desire to be admired. And ultimately realizing that my ego will get in the way of my happiness, both by setting a high bar for self-measurement and by making my happiness contingent on others. 

It’s that self-excavation work that helps us enjoy ourselves. Just like in Hollywood, we learn to love the bad guys when we know why they ended up that way. From Gru to Freddy Krueger, the backstory makes them sympathetic. 

So my advice would be to get to know yourself apart from egoic images. Catch yourself when you’re trying to impress and ask why. The more you learn to love your wacky, inner self, warts and all, the more you can let that self lead the way in life. And ironically, the more people will be attracted to you. 

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine” – Bruce Lee

Letters to Ellie: The Power of Canned Spam

In my continuing series of letters to my daughter, who is away for awhile, some thoughts about why humor is vital to a good life.

I was a class clown when I was your age (12). From cartoon impressions to soap opera soliloquies to Three Stooges slapstick, I prioritized laughs over academics. Getting laughs made me feel like I belonged and could other people happy.  

I prayed early on to the comedic gods through Steve Martin and Monty Python records. The other kids weren’t really exposed to English comedy, so they just assumed I was obsessed with Spam. 

silly walk

It irritated the teachers to no end, especially since they got used to my sister’s straight-A ways before me (“Are you sure you’re Kristin’s brother?”). 

It may have been due to my parents getting divorced early on and my home life getting messy. It’s a widely-held belief that comedians all have troubled childhoods (just try Googling it), but this was the 70’s and 80’s and divorce-driven latch-key lifestyles for kids were rampant. So in theory, the whole class should have been an ensemble improv sketch. 

Whether or not I was trying to make up for a difficult home life, making people laugh stuck with me. I was never a genius at it, but learned early on how well life flows when information exchange is wrapped in comedy. Like those peanut butter pill pockets you give to dogs. 

It can go too far, and many people use humor as an escape or coping mechanism. That’s why humor shouldn’t lead the way but play a supporting role. Just look at John Stewart or John Oliver. They have been changing the world by delivering news in a comedy pill pocket. The news is what’s important, but the delivery leads to smiles, not furrowed brows. 

Having run companies, I’ve seen how cultures can develop through humor, assuming of course that the organization is succeeding. No amount of pizza parties, “mixers” or joke emails are going to create a good culture when you’re not doing well. But if that company is succeeding AND has a wit and wisdom that surrounds its work, amazing things happen. People feel connected to something that opens up a part of them that hasn’t come out before. Everyone feels in on the joke and will do anything they can to help the company stay on top. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic because, in times like this, humor can be hard to access. I certainly has been for me. The wind is out of my sails and I’m missing one of my favorite riffing partner (hint: you). 

But all the more reason to seek out those people who can help add a silver lining by being our partners in laughter. People who not only get your humor, but improve it, who make you laugh, who make you love yourself when you’re with them. The people who understand the power of “Yes, and…” That’s when life is great.  

If you can’t find them right now, that’s okay. It’s just a flesh wound. I’ll send you a coconut. 

Letters to Ellie: Being Real

The outpouring of support I got from my last post on my daughter going away to an RTC floored me. Friends from every phase of life offering love, reflection and empathy. A reminder that the connected era isn’t all bad.

What it also did was open up even more stories – heartbreaking but all-too-real situations that my friends are dealing with every day: death, divorce, mental illness, learning disabilities. And a common theme of feeling alone.

opendoor

It’s not easy being a remote parent, but one of the channels for me is that I get to send letters to Ellie every day during the week. While a lot of the content is light or focused on specific areas of her interest, I also try to infuse them with what I’ve learned in my first half of life. And on the heels of that experience of reconnecting with people, I covered the topic of real conversations in one of my recent notes to her, part of which is snipped out below. 

Enjoy. And thanks for the inspiration.

One of the things that’s top of mind for me right now is real conversations. It’s one of the reasons your Mom and I are together. We both want authenticity in our life and relationships. We crave it. 

And the shorter life gets, the less patience I have for “empty calorie” conversations. 

Just to be clear, I’m not saying “I don’t do small talk.” That would be even more insufferable than publishing my blog. Light conversation serves a valuable purpose: it’s conversational warm-up and an easy way to hang with people you’re just meeting. And it’s great while doing other activities. I’m not going to wax philosophical with other parents while waiting for the bus.  

I’m talking about when long conversations and social events never get past (in my case) microbrews, vacations, workouts, humble-work-brags, remodels, and kids sports; and (in your case) Kardashians, Taylor Swift, apps and whatever else is being meme-d about these days. 

I’ve always sought out real interaction, but often forget in the course of daily life as ego and busyness get in the way. However, when I published the blog post, the response I got was amazing. It drove home how little we share what’s really going on, and how much time is spent on the useless wallpaper of life. 

If those interactions aren’t paying the bills, helping others or making me happy, what’s the point? And why is it so hard to maintain the authenticity in our lives? Do we need difficult times to make authenticity happen or can we keep it up in good and bad times? 

I was going to events because I was supposed to, because they would stroke my ego, or because I just needed to be social. It may have felt good in the moment, but only made me more disappointed in myself as I sold myself out. And I was other people’s empty calories because I was doing the same thing. 

So like other times in my life, I have become a calendar sculptor: chopping off people and items that don’t pass the filter, and seeking out the environments where I feel I can be myself and others respond accordingly. 

I known you’ve felt similarly about some of your friends – that they can be stuck in superficial territory. I think it’s okay to have friends like that, but you need to be careful. In some cases, it may just take awhile for them to open up. Or they may have different expectations of how much to share. Life teaches a lot of people not to share. It’s scary and you can get hurt easily. But we need to keep trying. 

So keep looking for your deep-peeps. And be bold in opening up with who you are inside. Not being yourself around your friends and family takes it toll as we have nowhere else to turn but inward with the built up emotions. That leads to a fun mix of aggression, repression, addiction, depression and more. And the more you open up, the more you’ll realize they’re probably struggling with a lot of the same things. 

I know you know a lot of this already. You’ve got a very good intuition in this area. But wanted to share my thoughts as it’s something I would love to have told my neurotic 12-year old self.