As an introvert, I usually prefer to keep to myself and avoid the limelight. I’ve noticed, though, that I like to stand at the edge of the shadows. I look and I listen, passively participating as others with more gusto express themselves uninhibited. If living a full life is about enjoying experiences, I sometimes fill my void by living vicariously through others.
I’m most inspired by people who have the courage to put themselves out there even though, like me, they’re inclined to hold back. They’re often the ones that surprise me with something new. Something different. Something I don’t get from those who normally live in the public eye.
That is why I am here. And why I am sharing my writing publicly.
Unlike others on Medium, I’m not a published author. I don’t consider myself a good writer, but others have taught me that it’s not a prerequisite to making a meaningful contribution. What’s more important is staying true to yourself and telling your story. Not to be recognized. Not for the green hearts. (I can’t deny they’re encouraging.) But to share something that might make a difference to someone else.
So this piece goes out to everyone standing at the edge. Nothing wrong with staying there. It’s a comfortable place to be. A fulfilling life can be lived in so many ways, with or without the limelight.
For me, sometimes that’s not enough. So I intentionally get uncomfortable and do things I love for public consumption. I record my DJ mixes and post digital versions on MixCrate. I create a YouTube video for my kids of me dancing in the living room. I write about my career insights on LinkedIn. And I share my miscellaneous perspectives on Medium.
As hard as it is, I try not to be too concerned with the number of views, likes, or recommends. When I focus on how the public share might help just one other person, I’m satisfied. I simply find exhilaration in the act of creative self-expression. It bridges the gap between the shadows and the light. Between my comfortable introversion and my wannabe extroverted side.
Where I work, there are two expressions that frequently come up in the corporate lingo:
Leave it better than you found it
Those words resonate with me because I like to apply them to my personal life as well.
If you’re up for it, why not join me for the occasional moment of gusto? No talent necessary. Just be yourself and have some fun. There’s security in living vicariously, but I don’t think you’ll regret occasionally stepping out and doing a little dance. Your dance. You just might inspire someone, in a way that only you can. In doing so — to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson — you’re succeeding at making this world a better place because you have lived.
Our yard, especially our front lawn, was never really healthy. I could blame the builders and the company contracted to initially sod our lawn, but as the owners, we haven’t done a very good job of fertilizing and maintaining it.
To provide some relevant background, I am not one to spend hours on the lawn every weekend. Even though it may need mowing, I sometimes skip a week. I tackle the weeds only when they become a major eyesore.
That should help explain why I burned the lawn when I tried to fertilize it about a month ago. I quickly reviewed some YouTube videos and skimmed over the instructions on the fertilizer bag. A few days later, I had burn marks on the sidewalk from the granules that spilled over, and patches of my lawn were brown from too much fertilizer.
It was embarrasing to say the least.
One evening, as I was taking out the recycling for pick-up, one of our not-so-friendly neighbors happened by, totally ignoring me, and scowled as she looked at our front lawn in disgust. Without saying a word, I could hear her judgment loud and clear.
This bothered me so much, I kept dwelling on the mistake I made.
Now, several weeks later, I’m over it. Things always seem more intense in the moment. In retrospect, I learned a few things.
Life After Death
The brown patches were areas of the lawn where the grass was unhealthy. They were thin and weedy to begin with and the excess fertilizer actually finished them off. Based on some online advice, I spent an afternoon dethatching the brown areas and removing the layer of dead turf. I also gave the lawn some extra water.
As the weeks passed, the stolons from the healthy St. Augustine grass began growing to fill in the unhealthy areas. While I’ve read it will take time for a complete recovery, the grass is growing better than before.
I needed to remove the bad grass to make room for the good grass. Where there was death, now there is new life. And the grass is greener where I watered it.
My Theory of Relativity
At the time fertilizer burn took over my landscape, everyone else’s lawn seemed so much greener. That’s when I felt the worst about the mistake I made and how I looked in comparison.
What’s interesting is that, since then, the hot summer sun and lack of rain has made other lawns in the neighborhood full of brown patches. In comparison, my lawn doesn’t look so bad anymore. It really hasn’t changed that much yet. It’s just that, relative to others, what I thought was the blight of the community, is now just another lawn needing to weather another hot dry summer.
It’s all relative.
Because I was fixated on the results of my mistake, it seemed so much worse, and it felt like it would take forever for it to get better. Once the surroundings changed as well as my frame of reference, the time to heal seemed to speed up. And I no longer felt so bad about the mistake. It taught me a lesson and reminded me about the importance of perspective and how relativity can significantly alter the way we see things.
“When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.” — Albert Einstein
Change of Seasons
My summer experience reminded me about keeping things in perspective. Not to be too hard on myself. Fertilizer burn is not the end of the world. Even though we’re told not to sweat the small stuff, it’s funny how we react in the heat of the moment. I made a mistake and I learned from it. I’m grateful and carry on.
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” — Albert Einstein
Some change happens naturally, like the change in seasons. Individual changes are up to us. We need to try new things and mistakes are inevitable along the way. No need to dwell. Learn your lessons and move on.
The kids start school again tomorrow. It’s the end of summer break and fall is around the corner.
As this season ends and the new one begins, I’m feeling good about the changes to come and the lessons to learn — especially from the little things that happen every day. It can take time for some changes to make a real difference. Some of the best changes happen over several seasons. And we sometimes need to make room in order for better things to come our way.
A month ago it started. I would have about 5 weeks to myself and thought about how much I could get done while my wife and three kids were in Argentina traveling and visiting with family during summer vacation.
An entire month of extra ‘me time.’
That time is now almost over. I pick them up from the airport next week. My time alone didn’t go as planned, but I did learn a couple things from reflecting on how I spent it.
To start the 5 weeks, I reviewed my Honey-Do List and made several lists of my own. I like lists. They give me focus. They give me an outline of steps to take. It feels good to check items off the list and say “Done.”
Lists are also a source of great anxiety and a misleading tool if used improperly.
My to-do lists usually contain a mix of items that fall into opposing camps: creative vs. maintenance, recharging vs. charging ahead, big and time-consuming vs. quick hits.
Taking a breath and thinking back on the past four weeks, here are some observations.
Maintenance items and quick hits lure me away from the more important things. With every check off the list, I feel like I’m getting a lot done in a short period of time. I gain momentum which leads me to the next quick hit. I go through the day thinking I’m getting a lot done, but at the end of the day it ends up being the trivial many versus the vital few.
Lists focusing on Doing rather than Purpose are like a big helping of empty calories. Short-lived satisfaction without any long-term sustenance. The day ends with regret from just spinning my wheels and not really getting anywhere meaningful. The negative effect of shifting my focus on what’s past — regretting a day lost — also distracts me from being at peace and appreciating the present moment. This perpetuates a vicious cycle.
With the one week I have left, here are the changes I’m committing to.
First Things First, as Stephen Covey would say. Or if I can only get one thing done, making the priority my “One Thing” as Gary Keller wrote. The maintenance work still needs to get done, but I’ll put the big rocks in my jar first and then let the sandy maintenance items fill in the remaining space.
Follow some advice from James Altucher and time-block my day based on balanced themes instead of to-do lists. By aligning daily choices to address what’s important for my spiritual, emotional, mental and physical needs, I’ll be more likely to make healthy decisions on how I spend the time. These are the four big rocks (themes) for me.
Put Into Practice
All fine in theory. But what would this look like from day to day?
This post is one example. In the beginning of “Me Time” I had planned to use the extra time to write about and publish several ideas piling up in my drafts folder. Four weeks later my list of ideas is even bigger, but I didn’t complete a single post. Today, I traded-off a few hours of maintenance items to sit down and follow-through on something that simultaneously feeds my spiritual, emotional and mental needs. As I wind down this article, I not only feel good about checking something off my original list, I also feel nourished. I made time to recharge my energy and be creative.
For all the other scenarios out there — for whatever you might be personally experiencing — the one take-away is this. Shift your focus from simply doing, to doing the right things.
As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, narrow your focus to what’s essentially important to you and be willing to trade-off the trivial many (e.g. checking my phone every other minute, staying up late binge watching Netflix, etc. in my case.)
In The One Thing, Gary Keller recommends we ask ourselves some variation of the following question, “What’s the one thing I can do today/this week/this month to [insert context for family, career, exercise, whatever applies to you] such that by doing it everything will be easier or unnecessary?”
Using my personal example, I asked “What’s the one thing I can do today for my peace of mind, body and soul such that by doing it everything will be easier or unnecessary?” My answer: Block out a couple of hours to reflect, collect my thoughts, then write about them.
As I close, I already feel the nourishment kicking in. I still have a lot of necessary chores to do, but I’ll get to them in between more important things. Instead of rushing back to attack my to-do list, I’m going to take the dog for a nice leisurely walk (without my phone) to enjoy the sun, the warm breeze and the simple pleasure of pausing to sniff the roses.
the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.
“such synchronicity is quite staggering
the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
“a fortunate stroke of serendipity”
“We often dream about people from whom we receive a letter by the next post. I have ascertained on several occasions that at the moment when the dream occurred the letter was already lying in the post-office of the addressee.”
― C.G. Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle
“Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.”
“Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.”
― Louis Pasteur
“According to Vedanta, there are only two symptoms of enlightenment, just two indications that a transformation is taking place within you toward a higher consciousness. The first symptom is that you stop worrying. Things don’t bother you anymore. You become light-hearted and full of joy. The second symptom is that you encounter more and more meaningful coincidences in your life, more and more synchronicities. And this accelerates to the point where you actually experience the miraculous. (quoted by Carol Lynn Pearson in Consider the Butterfly)”
― Deepak Chopra, Synchrodestiny: Harnessing the Infinite Power of Coincidence to Create Miracles
“I do believe in an everyday sort of magic — the inexplicable connectedness we sometimes experience with places, people, works of art and the like; the eerie appropriateness of moments of synchronicity; the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.”
― Charles de Lint
“At various points in our lives, or on a quest, and for reasons that often remain obscure, we are driven to make decisions which prove with hindsight to be loaded with meaning. (225)”
― Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras
“As soon as we notice that certain types of event “like” to cluster together at certain times, we begin to understand the attitude of the Chinese, whose theories of medicine, philosophy, and even building are based on a “science” of meaningful coincidences. The classical Chinese texts did not ask what causes what, but rather what “likes” to occur with what.”
― M.L. von Franz
It was the summer of 1991. Although I hadn’t officially finished school, I boarded a plane for Tokyo after being accepted into the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme. I had taken a semester of Japanese language during my freshman year but proficiency in Nihon-go wasn’t even a prerequisite.
My time as an Assistant Language Teacher was only contracted for a year. Six years later, I was still working in Japan. I had extended for a couple more years with the Ministry of Education. Then as I was packing my bags to head back to the States, a Japanese student/friend referred me to the CEO of a local language school which led to another 3 years in the private sector.
The entire cross-cultural experience influenced my perspective on everything from communication to customer service to relationships in general.
In terms of communication, I quickly learned the value of paying close attention and listening more than talking. It took incredible concentration just to carry on everyday conversation in a language I could barely speak, much less read and write. Surprisingly, even if I couldn’t find the right words, I was still able to carry on meaningful exchanges. Sometimes it was enough to just listen respectfully and then combine broken Japanese, simple English and a whole lot of gestures to respond. When totally over my head, I would bow and excuse myself as gracefully as possible. Sumimasen! To the Japanese, there were unspoken expectations and varying levels of formality depending on who you were speaking with.
Being a gaijin (translation: foreigner or outsider) I was often excused for making inappropriate or ignorant comments. I knew I could only play that card for a limited time. After the first year, I had no excuse not to understand the local lingo. More importantly, I needed to better understand the cultural expectations and social context surrounding both verbal and nonverbal exchanges. The more I familiarized myself with what made the Japanese culture unique, the more I appreciated the differences. It became easier and easier to understand what my Japanese friends really meant despite what they actually said.
My Takeaway: Words Are Important but The Nonverbal Means So Much More
More than 20 years later, this perspective still influences every interaction regardless of whether I’m with a client, a co-worker or family and friends. Understanding the subtleties of body language, or knowing when it’s better to keep my mouth shut, has had a huge impact on the quality of my relationships and the differences I’ve made in the various roles I’ve played. It has shaped who I am today and the opportunities that have come my way.
For example, when I DJ a party, the music is the language of choice. How I segue from one song to the next is based on how I read the audience and the mood of the moment. I pay careful attention to how smooth the transitions flow and how the party reacts. When I’ve done my homework and made the effort to understand the audience before the event, our “meeting” leaves everybody pumped up. I put the needle on the record and communicate through the song selections and the crowd replies by packing the dance floor. A track record of packed dance floors makes securing the next gig easy.
Whenever I’m responsible for a team, I flex my management style depending on the person or the group. As I’ve mentioned in my post about simply effective leadership, I always take the individual and the situation into consideration. This tends to produce much better results than the one-size-fits-all style I used to have. In turn, being an effective leader has afforded me greater responsibilities with greater rewards.
At the heart of it all, it comes down to understanding the details within the context of the bigger picture. The meaning of any words spoken or actions taken can change drastically depending on how you frame them. The frame can shift the focus. The context can change the meaning.
So this is what I learned so many years ago thousands of miles away:
It doesn’t matter what language you speak (Japanese or English, Music or Business). what you do and how you respond can mean so much more than the words you actually say. There’s a universal language out there that we all understand, and words have little to do with it. Da yo ne!
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
― William Shakespeare
“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Do not chase people. Work hard and be you. The right people who belong in your life will come find you and stay. Do your thing.”
“Sometimes I pretend to be normal. But it gets boring. So I go back to being me.”
From the Very Wise Dr. Seuss…
“Today you are YOU. That is TRUER than true. There is NO ONE alive who is YOUER than YOU!”
“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose!”
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
“When it comes time to die, let us not discover that we have never lived.”
― Henry David Thoreau
“Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
“Each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself….His task was to discover his own destiny – not an arbitrary one – and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one’s own inwardness.”
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”
― Mark Twain
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
― Steve Jobs
“It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.”
― Hans F Hansen
“Sometimes I have to remind myself that I don’t have to do what everyone else is doing.”
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Words from George Bernard Shaw
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
One day, Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. “Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”
― from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
“Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.”
― Shakti Gawain
“Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in this life has a purpose.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
“Since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of time, you are incomparable.”
― Brenda Ueland
“There is a vitality. a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
― Martha Graham
“To thine own self be true.”
“…there are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time―longer than most people imagine….you’ve got to apply those skills and produce goods or services that are valuable to people….Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it…it’s doing what you love, but not just falling in love―staying in love.”
― Angela Duckworth, GRIT
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then, do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.”
― Margaret Young
“Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.”
― Joseph Campbell
“There is a path for each of us. When we are on our right path, we have a surefootedness. We know the next right action―Although not necessarily what is just around the bend.”
― Julia Cameron
“The purpose of life is to know, and to recreate, Who You Are.”
― Neale Donald Walsch
“Life is raw material. We are artisans. We can sculpt our existence into something beautiful, or debase it into ugliness. It’s in our hands.”
― Cathy Better
“Whatever you are, be a good one”
― Abraham Lincoln
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
― The number one regret of the dying, reported by a palliative nurse in The Guardian
“Remind yourself. Nobody built like you. You design yourself.”
― Jay Z
“When someone says: “So what’s next?” As in, “how are you going to top that?” You don’t have to have an answer. The answer can be: “This.” Your life doesn’t have to be about impressing other people or a successive series of achievements.”
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
— C.G. Jung
“There is nothing more satisfying than being loved for who you are and nothing more painful than being loved for who you’re not but pretending to be.”
— Neil Pasricha, The Happiness Equation
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
“If―” by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream―and not make dreams your master;
If you can think―and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph or Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings―nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And―which is more―you’ll be a Man, my son!
“According to Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild, if you’re feeling an intense emotion like anxiety or anger, there are two ways to manage it: surface acting or deep acting. Surface acting involves putting on a mask–modifying your speech, gestures, and expressions to present yourself as unfazed…In deep acting, known as method acting in the theater world, you actually become the character you wish to portray. Deep acting involves changing your inner feelings, not just your outer expressions of them…Deep acting turns out to be a more sustainable strategy for managing emotions than surface acting. Research shows that surface acting burns us out: Faking emotions that we don’t really feel is both stressful and exhausting. If we want to express a set of emotions, we need to actually experience them.”
For a while I believed I was exempt. I had already survived several mergers and acquisitions over the years but then it happened. Where and why doesn’t matter here. This is about the process that followed. Some career breaks are planned. This one was not.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
First, there’s the shock. For some it’s expected, but as I mentioned, I thought I was immune. Like falling off a ladder, it hurt. My ego was bruised.
“The fall from low to lower hardly hurts; the fall from middle to low is devastating.”
– Adam Grant, Originals (p.83)
Insecurity set in. Questions about the future felt overwhelming. Looking back, how I decided to respond made the difference. I put my psychology studies into use and self-administered some therapy…
Get Over It
Easier said than done, I know. My first reaction was to immediately get back in the game and lock in the next gig quickly. I decided to be methodical in my approach. To measure my efforts, I kept a log of everything related to the job search and the results of every interaction. Every call with recruiters, every interview, every resume submission…all of it. Months of calculated effort were only leading to wrong turns and dead ends.
Depression eventually caught up with me. Anxiety prevented any restful sleep, no matter how exhausted I felt. I was spiraling downward and couldn’t break the funk. Then I made a concerted effort to slow down and pause.
What you choose to pay attention to can dramatically alter your experience (the whole “perception is reality” thing), so I chose to focus on right now instead of dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. Some days were easier than others, but I kept exercising a skill that had atrophied in recent years – my ability to choose rather than fly on autopilot. It wasn’t long before I crawled out of my hole.
Time heals all wounds. I just didn’t want it to take too long. Sitting around feeling sorry for myself wasn’t doing anybody any good. It was time to move on, ready or not.
Look in the Mirror and Then Out the Window
Looking in the rearview mirror, I took a good chunk of time to reassess how far I’ve come and the road that got me here. Then looking at myself, I was no longer sure that I was happy with what I saw in the mirror. Who had I become? What would I have done differently? How could I correct course? Where am I headed now? Is it time to go in a different direction?
At least, I felt I was asking the right questions.
I had become a workaholic. Developing the discipline to work long and hard hours was a badge of honor for me. Getting up every morning at 4:30am, working 12-14 hour days, and not sleeping until after midnight eventually led to burnout. Promotions and financial rewards fueled that fire for many years but towards the end, I burned up any remaining mojo and was only running on fumes. All the while, I failed to realize―or maybe I was denying that―I was trading off important things for all those work hours…time with my family and time for myself.
Now was my chance to slow down before I ran myself off a cliff. To find balance instead of working all the time. To remember what was really important to me. As I looked ahead, the fog began to clear and I hit a fork in the road.
To the right, was the continuation of the road I had already been traveling. I could get back into life as a corporate executive and continue my climb up the proverbial ladder. It was a toll road, and at what cost, I could only imagine. To the left, looked like it might take me back home but I could see the route might be a bit bumpy.
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
If you’ve already read the post about my colorful career path, you know I chose the road less traveled. Once I made that conscious decision, I simply started by making a few promises to myself:
Remain true to who you are
Live in the present and use good judgment
Leave it better than you found it
“To thine own self be true.“
Over the past few years, I got a little lost and lost myself in the process. I became increasingly insecure about who I was and found myself trying too hard to be what others wanted me to be. For example, although I’m an introvert, I pretended to be an extrovert. I thought that was the only way you could be successful as an executive. I do believe it’s possible to “fake it until you become it.” That said, I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t me. I wanted to be myself. Being myself also meant doing things at my own pace. As an executive, I often felt rushed and pressured to deliver results quickly. In most cases I was able to adjust as needed, but lately I saw more and more that quality was being sacrificed for the sake of speed.
After reading Quiet by Susan Cain, I began looking at introversion in a new light. I became comfortable in my own skin again. Another book, In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, helped me slow down and appreciate ‘tempo giusto’ – what musicians use to refer to the “right speed.” (Used in reference to living life with balance…fast when needed and slow when called for.) Moreover, this respect for time translated to better appreciation for the present. The gift of now.
“If you presence doesn’t make an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”
Ever since childhood, I’ve found it difficult to live in the moment. The exceptions were times when I was absorbed in activities such as blending vinyl music with 2 turntables, choreographing a hip-hop dance routine, or pushing out one more rep in the gym. My usual MO was to dream about the future or worry about the past. I found it hard to enjoy the present because my mind was always elsewhere. If there were only one important change I could make to my approach from here on out, it would be to live in the here and now.
(This usually requires an inside-out approach which begins with yourself. To some, this is misconstrued as selfish behavior. Important to get past that stage. I’ve learned that living in the present is much easier when what you focus on is self-less rather than self-centered.)
Here’s how I see it: The past is past so no sense lingering there. No one knows what the future holds and life is rarely linear. The best way to set yourself up for a good future is to do the best you can with what you’ve got today. You don’t have to be perfect. You just need to use good judgment and make every effort to leave everything better than before you found it. That includes every action and every word spoken (or unspoken). At the end of the day, you’d be surprised how big of a difference you made to the people and world around you. All those thoughtful actions, no matter how small, add up.
Oh, I promised myself one more thing. Never take for granted the blessings you already have.
There’s really not much more to say about this. I just realized that more is not necessarily better. By appreciating all the good things already in my life, I’m learning to be happy with less. I drive a Prius and I’m cool with that. I live in a modest home, have great neighbors and live comfortably. It’s almost 20 years later and I think my wife still loves me ;). Honey, I’m good. Three beautiful children to kiss goodnight. I am blessed.
I believe that everything happens for a reason. In the moment, it may not make sense, but it often does in retrospect. What felt like an imposition turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to reassess my life to date and what was truly important to me. This was what I needed. I was so obsessed with achievement and accomplishment that I was taking for granted my family and losing myself in the process. The break in my career gave me time to realize that, before it was too late.
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast―you also miss the sense of where you are going and why” – Eddie Cantor
In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I Don’t Have a Degree I get e-mails every day. “I’d like to work at Google but I don’t have a degree,” Or, “I’d like to be a success but I don’t have an MBA.” And it’s not just degrees. I get e-mails from people who think they need yoga teacher certification. Or a medical degree (you can be a healer without writing prescriptions). Or any flimsy piece of paper that ultimately is no indicator of value. Google’s head of HR has even announced that graduates’ GPAs are a waste to look at. And that more and more of their hires have no college degrees at all! It’s just another way the world is changing, and you have to grasp it now. It used to be that a stranger knew he could cooperate with you if you had that stupid piece of paper. Come up with ten ideas on how you can escape the trap of the degree and demonstrate you still have value. Ideas for the company you want to work for, or the person you want to work with. Or just go get a camera and start making movies without a film degree.
When actor Andy Samberg was starting at Saturday Night Live he didn’t just huddle in the writers’ room with everyone else and try to come up with jokes. There was too much competition! Instead, he took a camera and with his buddies Jorm and Akiva went out and shot “Lazy Sunday,” which was the first YouTube video to get over 100 million views and became his first SNL digital short. He didn’t wait to rise through the ranks and hopefully get a joke or a sketch produced. He went out and produced it himself.
Before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” got a billion views on YouTube, the rapper turned down every record label. He realized he didn’t need the validation they have provided to generations of artists. The distribution is there to reach the world no matter what your field is. You validate yourself now through your work.
Apologies to Mr. Altucher for taking that much verbatim from his book. I just read those pages this morning and it hit home.
The Trip Full Circle
I fall in the category of those who dropped out of college. While I had many an opportunity to finish, life went on and I eventually decided not to. When I’m having an insecure moment, I like to remind myself that I only had two classes to finish (and they were both freshman level electives!) so really, I earned pretty much everything I needed for that Liberal Arts degree in Psychology. I guess I just didn’t cross the finish line which could be perceived as inability to follow through. I understand and respect other perspectives. I just don’t personally see it that way. It doesn’t have to be a negative. I have worked very hard since then to show that it doesn’t have to matter if you don’t let it.
The Road Not Taken
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
It was 1991 and I was scheduled to graduate at the end of Spring semester. This was all the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) needed to know at the time I applied and interviewed. They didn’t actually ask to see my degree before it was time for me to board the plane that summer. By the time the University of Illinois notified me that I failed two classes (English 101 Introduction to Poetry and Classic Civilization 115 Mythology of Greece and Rome), I was already all set to leave for Japan. Although becoming an Assistant English Teacher (AET) had nothing to do with my major, it was a 1 year adventure abroad with all expenses paid as well as a monthly salary. I wasn’t about to pass on the opportunity unless absolutely necessary. That degree would have to wait.
I had lady luck on my side. After the year was over, I had the option to extend for another year and I definitely wanted to. The only catch – I had to renew my work visa and I was told they required a copy of my college degree in the process. I figured I had better start packing my bags but then again…why not just go through the motions and see what happens? Even if they sent me home, I already had my adventure. For some unknown reason, the Japanese government renewed my visa without any questions. One year turned into two and next thing you know 3 years later I was still in Japan. That was the maximum length that anyone could stay with the Jet Programme. As the third year winded down, a Japanese friend referred me to the CEO of a private language school under the Terakoya Group. They offered me a job and I had to go through the process of renewing my work visa for another year. Again, nobody asked to see my college degree. Surprising enough, the person in front of me in line was asked for his. To this day I can’t figure out how I got away with it year after year, but my luck lasted long enough for me to meet my future wife. Caro was on a 9 month work-study program and just happened to be assigned to Matsuyama City where I also lived. After 6 years in Japan, instead of calling it luck, I’d like to think it was serendipity.
Unlike I did in college, note that I wasn’t just sliding by while I worked in Matsuyama. Knowing that I didn’t finish school, I felt like I had to prove something and make my mark anyway. My second year, I was elected as the Ehime Prefectural Representative for AJET (The Association of Japanese Exchange and Teaching) and after 1 year at Terakoya, I was promoted to Head Teacher at the private language school.
Ok. The story goes on, but I need to pause here for now. The kids are awake and I’ve been writing since 5am.
[2/16/2016 4:38am] Picking up where I left off…
When I returned to the States in the summer of 1997, it was like “Oh sh*t, what do I do for work now? I don’t have a degree.” I was going on 28 years old and still didn’t have any solid plans for my career. I was back with my parents and when my Dad asked me what I was planning to do next, I told him I was thinking about starting a DJ business. I could sense his disappointment. When your parents go against all odds to earn their college degrees in the Philippines and then move the entire family to the Unites States so we can have a better life in the Land of Opportunity, I can understand why being a DJ might not be what they had in mind for their son. When I was still at the University majoring in Electrical Engineering, I think I was living up to expectations. We all imagined my future becoming an engineer like Dad and having a secure and well-paid profession for life…I guess I’d be disappointed with my DJ ambition too.
Got to get ready for work. I’ll continue later.
[2/16/2016 7:45pm continuation]
While I worked to put things in place for the DJ startup, I took a commissioned sales associate position in retail. Retail store positions don’t often require a college degree. I chose Bachrach, a men’s clothing retailer founded in Decatur, IL with locations all around the Chicago area. I’d always been into fashion so this would be aligned with my interests. Sales was not my strength, but it paid the bills and helped fund the DJ equipment and music I would need. For years, I tried to work both paths in parallel without any breakthrough success. I knew very little about operating a profitable business and everything I learned was from trial and error.
The DJ business wasn’t growing fast enough and we were getting deeper and deeper into debt. Thousands of dollars spent on music, lighting and other gear without enough gigs to pay for it all. When I found out that Caro was pregnant with León, I knew I needed to change my approach if I had any chance of providing for my growing family. I decided to focus on Bachrach and work my way up the ladder. We could stabilize our finances and buy me time to figure out what to do as an entrepreneur. Looking back, that was a pivotal point. After my motivation shifted from selfish ambitions to providing for the family, my career started to take off.
Within a few years, I went from Sales Associate to Store Manager to Director of E-commerce. (I’ll save my success strategy for a different post.) I worked in several locations and eventually had my own office at the downtown Chicago corporate headquarters. There were several rungs in between and along the way, but I won’t get into those details now. What happened with the DJ business? One thing led to another and it eventually led to the launch of ChicagoWeddingServices.com. Although small potatoes compared to other dot coms, it was a business model that made money while I slept and the site could often run on autopilot. It supplemented my income at Bachrach quite nicely. (For more details, see my post on Website Experiments Throughout the Years)
After 10 years at Bachrach, I had to move on. Too many acquisitions had taken place and it was no longer a fit. I began looking elsewhere. When I was offered a position at Dreams Retail in 2008, I jumped. Fortunately, during the interview process, my college education wasn’t a deciding factor.
I would have to say that my years at Dreams, Inc. have been the highlight of my career to date. Kevin Bates and the team he built created a work environment that brought out my best. I started off in an Account Management role but followed the same strategy I used to work my way up at Bachrach. I went from non-management to executive management with a team of more than 50 people to lead. I eventually got promoted to Director of Marketing and in less than two years after that, became VP of Marketing.
This too eventually came to an end. Dreams Inc. was acquired by Fanatics Inc. and I relocated from the Chicago area to the Jacksonville, Florida area. (The kids didn’t like the move, but we had a new house built in a nice neighborhood. It also helps that we live only a couple hours from Disney.) I was able to keep my position as VP of Digital Marketing but with so many changes during and after the integration period, it was the beginning of the end for that chapter. My time at Fanatics officially ended in January of 2015. Without having anything lined up yet, I spent 6 months in what I call “mid-career retirement” – a career break if you will. We didn’t have to worry about finances, at least for a while, so I had the luxury of time to decompress, reconnect with my family, and think about the next chapter. As scary as it can be to lose a 6 figure salary, I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten in return.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
– T.S. Eliot
Today, I feel like I’ve come full circle in a way. I’m back in fashion retail and am making about the same income as I did when I first started my career. I see everything through a different lense though. While money is still important, it’s no longer the carrot. It’s no longer about the prestigious title, but more about the unique contribution and value. Being hourly no longer has a negative connotation to me. It now means I have more work-life balance. Instead of thinking so much about what I want in the future, I spend more time appreciating what I already have and whom I’m with today. Things will have to change again I’m sure. Even though we’ve always lived below our means, our current lifestyle is not sustainable in the long run with my current income. Surprisingly, I’m not very worried though. We’ll figure it out. I know because we’ve done it before.
Regarding my college degree, or lack thereof, it has definitely made a difference in my career choices and the life I’ve lived. I’ve spent most of my career proving that you can succeed without a degree. When the competition was smarter, I just worked longer and harder to compensate. Most of my lessons learned were from the school of hard knocks. I learned the simple yet important lesson on how to make a positive difference…always strive to leave it better than you found it.
I’m content with what I’ve accomplished as a college dropout. I have no regrets.
Caro and I were married in 1998, not too long after I started at Bachrach. Although she has seen and experienced all the ups and downs of my career, she has never stopped being supportive. Even when she didn’t agree with all my choices, she has stood by my side and was always there to give me strength when I needed it most. I can’t imagine how things would have turned out without her. All these years later, I don’t worry too much anymore about climbing the corporate ladder or making lots of money. With her and our three beautiful children, I already feel successful. Together we’ll make life good no matter what comes our way.
To my band of brothers who joined me on my crazy adventure as an entrepreneur: That was an awesome ride, let’s do it again!
Grateful to the many coworkers who I had the privilege to work with, and my bosses/mentors who also shaped who I am and how I work today – they were some of my best teachers. To the organizations and hiring managers who took a leap of faith and gave me a shot, thank you.
I also want to give a shout-out to all my family and friends, near and far. You’ve never judged me and accept me for who I am, warts and all.
And special thanks to Mom and Dad, for always loving me even when I disappoint. From you I learned what is possible when you work hard. [2/17/2016 4:38am] Today is Dad’s 70th Birthday. I dedicate this post to him.
Essentialism /əˈsen(t)SHəˌlizəm/ (as defined by Greg McKeown)
The disciplined pursuit of less
Even though I specifically wrote down at the beginning that I would curb my smoking this past weekend, I didn’t. I think I actually smoked more than I usually do. I often blame stress as one of the main reasons I smoke. It helps take off the edge I say to myself. So when I work, I smoke due to the stress at work. You would think, then, that I would smoke less when I’m off work. For me that hasn’t been the case. At home, I smoke due to a different kind of stress. Being a parent can be stressful. When the children test your patience, or you feel non-stop busy running the kids around to their various activities, or just daily chores you feel obligated to attend to. Of course, it all depends on what you focus on, and your attitude towards it. When I find myself overly concerned with the things that I want to do, then everything else is a distraction, but when I catch myself doing that, I can often course-correct and start focusing on what I can do for my family since I’m home. This is my way of transforming the stress to joy.
Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Lenten Season. Growing up, I was always under the impression that we had to give something up during that time. That’s how my Dad stopped smoking. He gave it up for Lent one year and then never went back. In the last few years, I haven’t taken the tradition very seriously. This year, I had no real intention to give anything up, but then yesterday Sofia asked me what I was giving up for Lent. She noticed that I went out to the backyard to smoke and had already done it only about an hour before. She cautiously mentioned that she knew something good that I could give up for Lent. Smart cookie that one. Very subtle and sincere without leaving me feeling picked on. I didn’t feel angry like my knee-jerk reaction would have it. I felt guilty because I could see Sofia really cared and she said it with that childlike innocence that you just can’t get mad at. Normally I would get annoyed, whether it be at Caro or Mom, because I simply get bothered when the topic comes up. Everyone means well so I try very hard to keep my knee-jerk reaction in check.
Anyway, I was thinking about it again this morning. Giving up something aligns with the whole “Essentialism” philosophy I’ve been drawn to after reading Greg McKeown. I’ve learned from earlier attempts that promising to stop smoking would just lead to disappointment for everyone. What could I give up that was doable and be a good thing to let go of so I could focus on better things? It would have to be something challenging but that I would be confident enough to pull off. As I did a cursory mental review of how I spend my time, I thought of just the thing…watching TV. That would include Netflix and Redbox which I gravitate towards when I need an escape or comfort from the daily stressors.
This I can do. Even if the only side-benefit is to give me more time to sleep, that would be worth missing a night of Gotham or waiting a little longer to watch “The Martian” recently released on Redbox. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe if I can get a smaller win this Lenten Season, I’ll go for the bigger challenge of a smoke cessation program.
Although I prefer the whole abundance mentality thing, daily life can definitely feel like a series of trade-offs. Trying to do it all and have it all leaves most of us burnt out and still not satisfied. As pointed out in “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown, when deciding how to spend your limited time, it really helps to let go of the trivial many for the vital few. “Less but better.” In other words, find the discipline to do less of the unimportant so you have time to focus on what really makes a difference. Funny how we often choose otherwise.
So when it comes to Lent this year, I’m not giving something up for the sake of sacrifice. I’m exercising my ability to better choose how I spend my free time. Watching TV is now on my “to don’t” list, at least until the Lenten season is over.