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reconnecting with all the things that make life worth living like family, parenting, friendship, & spirituality

Finding My Voice, Here’s A Shot Of Whiskey

Shot of WhiskeyOver the last few months, I’ve been giving some serious thought to just what the hell I’m doing here. If you start poking around the archives on this site, you’ll discover that I’ve been writing Bailey WorkPlay for just over 12 years. In internet years, that feels like a lifetime and a half. I started writing back in September 2004 as a way to build an audience for a budding career coaching business. Since then, so much has changed. Our family has uprooted and moved twice as I’ve tried on different careers in different industries (and supported my wife as she has done the same).

But perhaps the greatest change has been with me. You’re thinking, “No shit?!? Twelve years is long enough to change anyone.” Yet, I have to admit the one constant that didn’t change throughout this time was the uncertainty and self-doubt about my Voice. The one writing to you right now. The one that has given presentations in front of hundreds of people. The one that has tried to sell my entrepreneurial business ideas to executives. The one that was quiet for months at a time while I struggled to climb out of the dark hell known as depression.

Perhaps you can relate.

Now I don’t know if it’s because I’m on the other side of 40 or whether I’ve just gotten more ornery (probably a bit of both), but I’m coming to a place of clarity about my Voice. It’s a place I like to call: “This is Chris…in all his beautiful, fucked up, mischievous, loving glory.” Yes, I enjoy being snarky and cantankerous and crude. Yes, I am constantly awed by the astonishing wonders of this universe. Yes, I’m a flawed and creative and strong human who believes that Love is the force that holds us all together. As Walt Whitman astutely wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

In the past, I would have been scared witless to write this. It didn’t feel “professional” or “proper” to admit that I am a fucked up human being full of love, fear, strength, and doubt. But when I put this out there to you, I feel a freedom that is indescribable. Because here’s the thing…if I don’t have confidence in my own Voice, how can I expect you to have confidence in it? I know I have a Voice that can inspire those who need an uplifting moment as well as a Voice that can call bullshit on the stupidities of modern work and life.

And if my Voice with all its salty language and quirky personality and heretical beliefs make you feel uneasy…that’s cool. I’m not meant to be everyone’s cup of tea. Please don’t get me wrong. I’ll still struggle at times to fully speak with my Voice. I will always hear my protective ego whisper, “But Chris, what if no one likes you or your Voice?” So I may need help from you to keep me honest. And in return, I’ll do whatever I can to help you clear through the muck to fully claim your own Voice.

So here we go. If you’re still with me, thank you. Our work is too important to do half-assed. And our workplaces need some serious retooling. Let’s see what kind of shit we can stir up.

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You Gotta Jump

All I can say to this bit of inspiration from Steve Harvey is…damn right.

Jumping off the cliff – even knowing you have a parachute – is scary as hell.

And I’ll be absolutely candid. I’m still falling, tugging at the ripcord. I’ve been torn up and beaten up on my way down. I’ve experienced things that, at the time, made me wish I never jumped at all. But I’m glad I did. I’m glad I took the risk of jumping into the unknown. I’m glad I tried different careers and moved to different places with no idea what was on the other side. I have scars and I appreciate every single one of them. Each one is a reminder that I am alive, I am whole, I am worthy, I am enough.

And here’s the kicker…I do have faith that my parachute is opening. And yours will too, if you choose to jump.

However, as Mr. Steve says, if you never jump your parachute will never open and you will never soar.

So tell your fear – no matter what shape it takes – to go to hell because you gotta jump.

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My Vacation To The Lake And Learning To Care Intentionally

Lake TimeThere I floated on my bright yellow raft, not too far away from the dock. It was the first morning of our summer lake vacation and was starting to warm up into one of those typical late July hot southern days. But instead of feeling the peace of being on the water and the relaxation of being on vacation, I unintentionally brought something else along with me. A big, nasty ball of feelings that I had slowly and gradually crunched up in the pit of my stomach: bewilderment, anger, sadness, and more.

Yep, I made the critical error of bringing my job – and the frustrations of the last few weeks – along with me. I wager that every single person who works inside a nonprofit wrestles with an existential crisis at times. I was wrestling with the question of whether anything I was doing in my work really mattered. So there I floated, eventually coming to a point where the constant refrain in my head was, “…I could so care less.” I had gotten to a point where I was starting to find easy solace in apathy. 

Eventually, the slow ebb and flow of the water did its job and I felt my muscles and mind start to relax. The sounds of the birds and the cold beer in my hand led me toward some much needed inner solitude. I questioned how I had arrived at this place where “Screw it all!” was an acceptable landing spot.

I needed to confront head-on the confusion of experiencing this apathy in work that I deeply enjoyed and was exceptionally good at for an organization in which I believed in its mission. What the hell was going on that would make me accept the possibility of caring less?

Then, I recalled something a trusted mentor told me not long ago. I didn’t actually want to care less. My problem was that I was caught in a pernicious trap of caring too much. How is caring too much a bad thing? For me, caring about the outcome of every single experience, every single event, every single opinion in my workplace was exhausting. Further, it only led to disappointment and cynicism when those outcomes failed to match up with my expectations. It was a sure-fire road to burnout and I was on the express bus. 

Fortunately, I was able to pause. I quieted the thoughts about how I should care less or care more. Instead, I started to reflect on how to be more intentional as to what I truly do care about.

Not everything is worth the battle or engaging in the fire drill. We don’t need to actively participate in everyone’s drama. So many things exist far outside our control. However, what we can control is our thoughts and reactions to the daily dramas. When we get clear about our values and goals, we can make better choices about how we want to matter.

Later that evening, I sat on the deck overlooking the lake and spent time with the person I am at my core. I took some time to recall my values and why I returned to the nonprofit world. I sketched out the big picture goals for my work. Anything I could use to reorient me toward giving my best effort to my organization as well as my career. Shortly afterward, I let go a great sigh of relief and settled into enjoying the next few days of special quality time with my family.

By the end of the vacation, I left the lake with what I call my Roadmap for Intentional Caring.

For those of us working in nonprofits (or really any occupation where we know our work matters), the temptation to care too much is always there. And the relative “safety” of trying to not care at all is always there, as well. It’s locating the sweet spot in the middle and being able to get back there to intentional caring when we swing toward either end of the spectrum.

We passionate nonprofiteers tend to be a curious lot who strive to improve ourselves. However, it’s also not always about learning about how to write a better grant or develop a better campaign or host a better event. Sometimes it’s about learning how to look after ourselves so we can continue giving our best and being of use in this world that still clearly needs us to care.

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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?

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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.

Yeah.

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.

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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

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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.

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10 Things I Learned In 2013: The Year Of The Existential Speedbump

It’s taken me the better part of a month to assess the past year and take in the learning. I re-read my 2012 review post and I’m rather unnerved by how it’s eerily similar to my initial thoughts on 2013: the importance of love, courage, and vulnerability.

Well, no sense beating around the bush: last year sucked. There really is no other way of putting it. For the better part of 2013, I was a nervous, anxious wreck. I was frequently visited by a sense of fear – almost bordering terror – that clouded my sense of self-worth. I was mired in a depression that was horrific in its depth. All of which led to some bad career decisions (and subsequent professional ass kickings) from which I’m still working to recover.

Yet, I am incredibly thankful for my experiences from 2013. Every single one of them. The few highs and the many lows served as a kind of existential speedbump that helped me to slow down and reassess my life, my choices, my expectations, my faith, my purpose.

Here are 10 things I learned (or at least learned how to appreciate) in 2013:

1. Take care for my health – both physical and mental. Recognizing my own long-time struggle with depression and anxiety has helped me to be a more compassionate advocate for all mental health issues. I’m starting to find the courage to be a voice for mental health and want to ease the stigma our society still has around mental illnesses.

2. Stop trying to have all the answers and start asking more interesting questions. I’ll always struggle with this. I found an early identity in school as The Kid Who Knew The Right Answers. That’s a shitty identity to assume, particularly when you get older and have to contend with the reality that there are often no right answers in life. I’m learning how to ask more questions and being comfortable with uncertainty.

3. Stop comparing myself to others and letting my Inner Critic beat me up with his horseshit. My Inner Critic looooves playing the social comparison game. He’s the LeBron James of his grotesque sport. And as I approach 40 years old, he relishes each opportunity to remind me that my life isn’t what it should be when so many other 30somethings have already achieved personal and professional greatness. Well, it’s all a load of steaming horseshit. It assumes there’s only one way to live a purposeful life. Some of us just take longer to figure out what that means.

4. Stop chasing. Did I ever chase the wrong rabbits this year. I chased money in a high-demand profession and for a company that was such a poor fit for me, my talents, my passions. And I not only did it once…I did it twice in one year. Why? See #3 above.

But if I can pull some positives away from these two experiences: both were my attempts to do things I had never really done before (business analysis and product marketing). So I can continue to take pride in my ability to take risks even when those risks don’t pan out (much like unsuccessfully starting businesses in 2012).

5. Stop settling. Settling is a Siren’s song. Sure, accepting a paycheck in exchange for doing work that doesn’t fulfill us sounds like a decent compromise, but the cost can be our soul getting smashed on the rocks. For me, I’ve discovered that I would rather live frugally and do work that improves the world than settle for a bigger salary that ties me to work that doesn’t matter. Does that sound idealistic? Fine by me.

6. Quitting a bad situation is sometimes better than sticking it out. No one likes a quitter, but there’s a certain idiotic futility that comes from not leaving a bad job situation. See #5 above. Life is far too short to do work that provokes panic attacks, causes us to doubt our competence, or simply isn’t bringing out our best self.

7. Failing is not an end but a beginning. As a recovering perfectionist, failing has never been easy for me to accept. Actually, that’s not true – if I fail, I’m more than happy to accept the blame. However, I’m trying to practice a different way of thinking. Failings are just data suggesting we make course corrections. They’re learning experiences. They’re guides toward better ways of working and living.

8. I am responsible for my own happiness. I can’t pawn this off on anyone else. If I want to live a happy, fulfilled life then I need to own it. It’s not going to come from wishing for better life situations (better job, nicer house, badass truck, etc.). That whole “I’ll be happy when…” internal dialogue is full of lies that keep us from embracing the changes we need to make in our thoughts and actions.

9. Self-compassion means accepting my weird quirks, embarrassing flaws, and contradictory thoughts. Self-compassion is one of the greatest gifts we can give our selves. It’s also one of the most difficult gifts to give. It means accepting and boldly claiming our own oddness and eccentricities. It means acknowledging that there are some folks that are just not going to get who we really are. It means being cool with our own innate contradictions because life is messy and non linear.

10. Don’t give up on finding my soulful work. Finally, never give up on the idea that our work can be meaningful and inspiring. For me, it’s coming to a place where I am choosing to go back to the work of the nonprofit sector. I left it several years ago largely for reasons outlined in #4 above. Since then, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of experience, skills, and insights in the for-profit world. I’m excited to bring my ideas, passion, and commitment to achieving great things to nonprofits that share a mission to create a positive impact in the world.

My sincerest hope is that at the end of 2014, I’ll look back on this post and remark on how it was a year of success, of growth, of courage and love and self-acceptance. And may it also be your greatest year, as well.

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Video: Being Real, Telling My Story

A continuation of my last post on letting go. I was out for a brisk walk this morning and felt inspired to offer my thoughts on having the courage to share not only all the awesomeness in our life, but the sadnesses, struggles, imperfections, and everything in between. I feel called to Be Real in 2014 and hope you’ll join me.

What steps can you take to Be Real? Share them here or through social media using #bereal2014. I can’t wait to hear your ideas.

Love, Chris

P.S., Once upon a time, I would have been too self-conscious to do this. I would have worried over the lighting, sound, messy hair, shaky picture. And forgive the vertical resolution…I’ll remember to record horizontal the next time. Taking baby steps, though. Hope you can see through the imperfections to the deeper message.

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On Letting Go and Letting In

Joseph Campbell Quote

I’m really not sure how to start this post. There’s a voice that is trying to convince me to delete it this very moment. My Inner Critic whispers to me in his most lovingly insidious voice, “No one wants to hear about your problems and fears. No one likes someone who is weak and vulnerable and struggles with life and career. No one wants to hire a man who is emotional, fights off self-doubt, bears his soul to the world and is an idealist at heart (besides, you’ll just get chewed up by hungry, focused, competitive, driven professionals that organizations want anyway). So, shut up and stop being such a damned martyr.” Yes, this is what that voice sounds like in my head. He’s a true bastard.

There was a point not too long ago when I would have ceded to this voice. It’s why I didn’t blog for months. It’s why I allowed myself to stay quiet and unassuming. Yet, I recognize now this was the lie of depression. Problem is, when you live with a voice for so long, you hear it softly lulling you into the supposed safety of smallness and inadequacy, it becomes a tough relationship to sever. And that’s where I am right now…trying to be at peace with this voice while allowing for other voices of purpose, confidence, humor, and compassion to emerge, as well.

My past few years have seen their share of ups and downs. They’ve also been full of heartbreaking struggle and it’s largely because I have clung so tightly to my past with its burdens, fears, guilt, and emotional anchors. I’ve lied about what I want from life and ignored my true self fearing the ridicule and judgment of others, particularly in my career. I didn’t want to be seen as weird, incompetent, unprofessional. I chased after work that didn’t fit my strengths, that didn’t excite my passions, that didn’t fill me with purpose but they were in-demand jobs that held the promise of money and prestige. Alas, these jobs didn’t last long and I fear these recent professional missteps – though I learned much in the experiences – could serve as my own scarlet letter in the future.

However, I am also waking up to recognize that all of this I have gone through has been preparation for something much bigger and much more important. I don’t yet know what this is…but I know as I approach 40 it is about emerging into a truer form of my self, one that this world needs right now. It’s about letting go of the past and unmet expectations and letting in the possibility of new beginnings. It’s about meeting whatever comes next with an excitement and a belief that what is emerging has the ability to be a force for good. It means choosing to live a heartful life and commit to work that truly matters. It means being free to be weirdly and soulfully me…and resting secure in the notion that while I may not fit every organization’s ideal model of employee, there are some organizations that are looking for all I bring to the party.

I hope that if you are finding yourself in a similar state of emerging as we move toward 2014, that together we can embrace the life that is waiting for us. If I can help you in your journey, reach out and let me know what you need. We’re all in this together.

Love, Chris

P.S., Special thanks to Licia Berry for inspiring this post.

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