Every Hero Needs A Theme Song

Leathers - Deftones“They’re my theme music. Every good hero should have some.”
Bernie Casey as Jack Spade
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

Bernie Casey is absolutely right. If we’re to be the hero of our own movie (and we damn well better be) then we’re going to need a badass theme song to match.

To this day, my theme music is Leathers by Deftones.

When I was living through my own hellish nightmare of depression a couple of years ago, when all seemed lost and felt empty, this song was my constant companion. There was rarely a day when I didn’t plug earbuds in to my iPhone and let the ferocity of the song wash over and drive through me.

Chino Moreno – through his lyrics and voice – was able to help me rediscover (at least for short periods of time) my inner power that had become elusive and difficult to grasp. While I know Chino wasn’t writing specifically for me, the timing of the song’s release in late 2012 and its intense message felt like an uncannily personal plea. It is an anthem challenging me to be courageous, to not allow the diminishment of my self by others, to own my wholeness that includes strengths as well as inadequacies, to show what I am made of.

The song opens like this:

This is
Your chance
revolt, resist!
Open your chest, look down, reach in.

Shedding your skin,
Showing your texture.
Time to let everything inside show.
You’re cutting all ties
Now and forever, time to let
Everything outside you

Even though I’ve moved beyond this dark place in my life, Leathers continues to hold meaning for me. It remains my theme song…so much so that I have a t-shirt for days when I want to openly claim my badassery. It reminds me not only of where I’ve been but also galvanizes me to create a present and future in which I am unafraid to express my full self.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m moved primarily by metal and hard rock. Your groove may be more geared toward pop, country, or gospel. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have your own theme song that brings out your hero or heroine.

What’s your theme music? Your anthem that propels you through the dark and rough times, inspires you to remember who you truly are, strengthens your resolve and focus needed to kick the shit out of anything that gets in your way?


Five Observations For Surviving The Modern Workplace

Zigzag MazeThis post might serve as some indication as to the type of week I’ve had. One where the veil has been pulled aside to further clarify some observations that I’ve noticed in my long and winding career journey.

1. Our organization is not our family.
This very notion that my organization is a family has always made me cringe. Unless we’re related by blood or marriage or some other legal compact, there’s not one shred of truth to this. Further, it feels cultish, like I’ve joined up with the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, goes so far as to say that its one of the worst lies a company can tell its employees. It’s misguided at best and deceptive at its worst.

In a Harvard Business Review article, he elaborated:

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: ‘We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.’

2. Our organization is not responsible for our happiness.
On the face of it, this feels stupidly obvious. But how many times have we felt pissed off, frustrated, and ultimately unhappy only then to blame our organization for it. Take a moment and reflect on your recent experience. Go ahead…I’ll wait. Hey, I did it just this week. It’s all too easy to feel we’re owed happiness at work by the very organization that feels it’s owed our loyalty in return for a signed paycheck.

However, who gets to determine our happiness? We do, of course.

3. Our boss is not our friend. And conversely, our employee is not our friend.
This isn’t to suggest that the boss-employee dynamic shouldn’t be friendly. But do not mistake that dynamic for a true friendship. The boss still holds the upper hand in the power structure. Don’t believe me? The next time you have the chance to do what you want versus what your boss wants, go your own way. Where your friend may be irritated, your boss is likely going to see it as a direct challenge to their authority. Do it too many times and you’re going to find yourself taken behind the woodshed for a professional whipping.

And god forbid that you work for a friend or hire a friend. The times when this works out for everyone is vastly outnumbered by the times when it ends in tragedy.

4. Our job does not define our identity.
I am an entrepreneur. I am a dentist. I am a diner waitress. I am an assistant to the traveling secretary of the New York Yankees. Or for me, I am a digital nonprofit fundraiser.

Yes, these can all be true statements…and untrue if we believe our job is our sole defining role. The times when I’ve identified myself as primarily a marketer, an entrepreneur, or a fundraiser are the times when I have been a shitty husband, father, and friend. These are also the times when I forget that I am a writer, a hiker, an amateur naturalist, a Steelers fan, and several other things that I enjoy in my life.

5. Our work is not our life.
There’s a thin line between being invested in our work (which is good) and being over-invested (which can lead to the type of obsessive behavior that robs us of strong relationships and our well-being). Over-investing in work can also lead to a type of vicious anxiety where the work isn’t just part of our life…it can feel like it’s life or death.

One mistake can cancel out several superb accomplishments. Then, fear of committing another mistake can prompt job insecurity and a paralyzing fear that just one more mistake can lead to a pink slip. And then we’re marked by the stigma of the Scarlet Letter F – for Fired AKA Failure-at-Life.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. But wait.

If you’re still with me so far, hang on. I’m about to take this whole line of thinking for a U-turn because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe this is my cynical persona taking me for a ride.

Instead, if I listen to the quiet voice of inner wisdom that whispers in the space where my ego screams, it reminds me that all is One and Life is interconnected. And our Work is a testament to our love not just for our self but a gift to this fractured world.

As someone who has experienced career success as well as career hell, here’s where I openly admit that I struggle with two concepts: realism and idealism. The real provides a protective fence for my ego. By avowing that my organization is not my family, it allows me to keep the group at arm’s length so I can’t be hurt. By acknowledging that my employee is not my friend, I can more easily make the decision to cut him loose with a parting comment that it’s “just business.” Maybe this protective fence is what keeps me from fully living life, fully sharing my talents with others, fully being human (and therefore vulnerable) with each person I encounter in my daily journey.

Perhaps these five “cynical” concepts I’ve described above have the opportunity to be turned around and transformed into something more spiritually rewarding, and therefore more radical in society and our modern workplace. What if organizations can be more human spaces where respect wins over condescension, courage over fear, service over power, and vulnerability over arrogance?

I wonder what our organizations would look like?


Baby Steps Getting It Done

Baby StepsI’m an impatient person. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a “why the bloody hell hasn’t it happened, yet?” That’s the problem when I start to see five steps ahead. I want to skip the first four steps and get right to the end point. And yet, I know that totally ignores opportunities for personal growth and the learning that comes with the sometimes long and tedious journey.

Now, let’s add that I am a recovering perfectionist, which means that I want to make the colossal jump to step five with brilliant strategy, ideal focus, and flawless execution. Kind of like hitting a Dangerfield-esque Triple Lindy with no practice.

Put those things together and you have someone like me who wants to do so much so fast so perfectly that I get overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all and have trouble deciding on the next step. Hello, analysis paralysis.

This tendency (or neurosis if you choose) surfaced at work a few months ago during a planning session with my director. After a few minutes of generating ideas, I was already moving along to what it would take to initiate all the step fives of the master plan for digital fundraising domination. Who has time to wait for colleagues to come on board and help? Who wants to wait for the technology design to be created in order for there to be a shot at success? Who needs to adhere to an organizational strategic plan? Who can…wait, there sure are a lot of things needing to happen…um, which way should we go…oh god it’s just too much I think I’ll just sit over here and stew on this for a while.


It was at this point that my director asked if I ever saw the movie What About Bob? with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus. “Well, no,” was my sheepish reply. How could I have not seen this movie? It stars Bill Murray and was filmed at Smith Mountain Lake, near where my wife grew up (and little known fact: she kinda-sorta knows the real-life folks that owned the lake house in the movie). “Then,” she proceeded, “I’m going to introduce you to the idea of baby steps. Baby step to the elevator. Baby step to your desk. Baby step to doing just the first task we talked about. We’ll only get to digital fundraising dominance if we do it with baby steps. And if ever in doubt, refer to the movie.” See, in the movie, Bob is wracked by anxiety and overwhelmed by everything around him. Dr. Marvin’s concept of Baby Steps helps Bob focus on setting small, reasonable goals in order to escape his paralyzing sense of overwhelm.

That photo of Bob above with Baby Steps now is pinned to the wall directly above my laptop at work. It’s also formed a bit of short hand where if I jump too far ahead of plan, the words “baby steps” are merely uttered and I know to pull back. It’s now so ingrained that I toss them back on my director when she’s in danger of leaping forward too quickly.

Does any of this feel familiar to you? I know I’m not the only one who could use a reminder to practice a little more patience and focus on that next small step to get where we really want to go. So next time you experience overwhelm, remember…baby steps.


The Harmful and Ridiculous Lie of “Mentally Strong People”

Take What You NeedLast year, when I was in the hellish gutter of one of the worst depression and anxiety episodes of my life, I kept seeing articles pop up in my Facebook feed talking about “mentally strong people” and the actions they take every day. At the time I felt anything but mentally strong. I was just trying to get through each day, moment by moment, without completely losing my shit. Some days I managed to hold it together; others, I was in one of the office bathroom stalls quietly praying to just not exist. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want the continued pain of being. And then my internal critic would angrily ask why I was so mentally weak because mentally strong people – according to these various articles – don’t hang out on the toilet and contemplate the option of nonexistence. They’d be out there, kicking ass, making all the right moves, being generally awesome.

And that’s the insidiously subtle message of these articles: that if you’re not mentally strong…well, you must be the opposite. And when you’re struggling in a state of depression and anxiety, what other possible explanation could there be?

Yet, I persevered. I suffered, but I persevered and somehow came out on the other side to where I am today. And today is joyful and hopeful and meaningful. Does that perseverance make me mentally strong? Who knows but every time I read these articles and blogposts about mentally strong people, I don’t relate one bit.

This week, I saw another article about “mentally strong people” and felt angry because I wager there are people out there just trying to keep their shit together and don’t need any more of these types of messages. (Here’s my Facebook rant if you’re curious about the genesis of this blogpost.) If you care to see what I’m talking about just do a Google search for “mentally strong people” and you get plenty of these types of articles:

  • 10 Toxic Relationships Mentally Strong People Avoid
  • 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do
  • The 9 Essential Habits Of Mentally Strong People
  • 12 Common Lies Mentally Strong People Don’t Believe
  • The 13 Tough Habits Of Mentally Strong People

Now that I’m in a more healthy mental and emotional place in my life, I see this tripe for what it is: at best, lies masquerading as someone else’s vain attempt to claim toughness and superiority; at worst, linkbait for those who are worried they’re just not measuring up to some impossible standard of success. The more I think about it, it’s probably both.

Turns out I’m not alone. As I was doing the Google search referenced above, I came across this similar critique from Denise K. Shull in Psychology Today:

Despite the widespread appeal of the message, I can’t help but wonder: says who and based on what? How do we actually know what so-called mentally tough people (whomever that is and whatever the standard is) do? There isn’t a shred of psychological research referenced. It appears to be an opinion grounded in the rapidly deteriorating cases for positive thinking and intellect’s superiority over emotion. Sure there are a few valuable truisms like “don’t give up” but the undercurrent of stoicism running through the list is as likely to harm as to help.

Take the reader who is feeling any form of “bad” over a challenging economic situation. What’s the net effect? Does the idea that they are weak if they can’t always suck it up make them feel better about themselves? Does it make them feel more like they can go out and create a new economic opportunity? I actually suspect that deep-down, this list makes them feel more inadequate – or in other words, weaker.

Want to know how to be mentally strong? I honestly have no idea. And if someone claims they do, they’re sizing you up as a sucker. But here’s what I can say from my experience of wandering the mental and emotional wastelands. All we can do is live each day the best we can. Appreciate that we’re going to have joyful experiences and terrible ones. Find ways to see ourselves for the goodness and gift that we are. Perhaps, to be mentally strong is to simply love. That’s all. Isn’t that enough?

Photo credit: Jason Rosenberg


LeBron’s Homecoming Story Mirrors My Own Journey

LeBron James Comes HomeFor those of you who follow sports and professional basketball, the most recent LeBron free-agency media hurricane could be seen as fascinating, inane, or some combination of both. Most of us remember the widely criticized facepalm moment which was The Decision four years ago when The King decided to leave his hometown of Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach. At the time, I was one of his detractors, not just for instigating the circus but running out of a town desperate for one of their own to deliver them from sports purgatory. (All of which is rather funny considering that I’m a Pittsburgher with enmity toward Cleveland sports teams.)

He left his boyhood home, joined a successful franchise in the Miami Heat, and achieved what many expected him to do: win championships. But there appears to have been a nagging yearn to return to his roots and do something important. Think about it. It’s similar to the journey most of us make in our own lives. We grow tired of home with its constant expectations and suffocating familiarity. We wonder if there may be something better “out there” and leave it all behind. Yet it’s in that journey where we explore new territory, try out different identities, experiment, risk, love, and lose. This process helps us find out who we are and what we want from our life. Eventually, there is a point where coming home is the most obvious and desired choice. Perhaps its one of the reasons why the parable of the Prodigal Son is such a revered story in the Bible.

So, LeBron…I understand your decision to come home because it largely matches the decision I made this year. After leaving for Texas and the shiny attraction of the corporate world, I chose to come back to the East Coast and return to the nonprofit work where I began my career 15 years ago. It’s funny because I confidently swore at one point that I would never go back East and definitely wouldn’t go back to nonprofits after I fought so hard to escape them. Now? I laugh and understand why it’s never wise to use the word never.

My eight years in Texas was a journey where I explored new territory, tried out different identities, experimented in my career, risked much financially, loved family and friends, and lost my soul for a while. But I’m proud of that decision to leave for the Lone Star State and even more proud of the decision to come home. Now that I’m in Atlanta, I’m back near the old mountains that I love dearly, near the ocean that holds so many joyful boyhood and young adulthood memories, near family and friends who helped me become who I am, near my ancestral roots.

Plus, I’m back doing the work I know I was always meant to do. Each day, I put my talents, experiences, and passions to good use to help make a difference in the world and end poverty housing. Having lived through the good, bad, and extremely ugly of corporate and startup life, I’m all the more grateful to have soulful, purposeful work that I love to do (almost) every day.

Cheers to you, King James. And welcome back home.