Tag Archives: growth

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.

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: 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