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“This is Totally and Utterly Pointless. A Complete waste of time”
I knew the words weren’t nice ones…..but they fit how I felt.
As 2 undersized Jewish kids from the suburbs, we realized our only real chance of making it to the NBA relied on a self imposed carrot and the stick discipline – big baskets were rewarded with enthusiastic high fives and missed 5 footers were punished by the brisk jog of shame around the Abramson’s carefully coiffed pool and 1/2 acre back yard.
We had been doing this for going on a full week, and both of us were convinced it was our ticket to top shelf pre-pubescent fitness and a lucrative career as professional point guards for the philadelphia 76ers.
Somewhere in that 3rd lap I had an epiphany.
In one bright and frightful moment, I realized I was never going to play professional basketball.
I would never hear my name screamed by the roar of the crowd.
I would never trade knowing nods with Dr. J before a big playoff game.
I would never hear Magic Johnson talk about the difficulty of guarding me one on one with the game on the line.
Having been a kid who wore bright red NBA style wrist bands to all but the most solemn occasions – everything BIG I believed in up to that point in my life was taken from me….in one white hot bolt of terrible truth.
I began to run faster.
I was in the midst of my first existential crisis.
I was 9 years old, and had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Maybe like you, I’ve spent most of the years since looking for something big to believe in.
Something that matters.
My own pursuit of passion – both personally and professionally alike – has lead me on many odd, unusual and even ominous paths.
And every time I’ve felt (or found) myself beat up, busted and broken……one thing has always redeemed me.
Believing in something big.
Serving something bigger, bolder and more important than myself.
And trusting that there was a wisdom in betting BIG on that something to show me the way.
I’m not talking about religion per se.
Or dogma, ritual or blind faith.
(although that’s certainly ok if that’s what motivates You)
I want to share 3 quick stories with you.
They are a bit revealing in ways that I don’t typically share – but I hope that they help you connect to your sense of what that big thing is.
If there is a point in any of these stories that it seems like I’m sounding like a saint – or someone who goes out of his way to do good for the world – trust me – while I’d love to believe that was true – it’s not. (or even remotely close)
The first story happened when I was 18.
A freshman in college.
I was leaving a party with 3 close friends.
It was midnight and each of had far too much too drink.
We had a long stumble home…..as the party was on the opposite end of campus from where we lived.
As we made our way…laughing and being loud and obnoxious and doing silly stupid things that 18 year olds do when they’ve only been away from home for a few months…….I spotted something unusual in one of the bushes.
At first I thought it looked like a small animal was trapped.
So I stopped and looked again.
It was dark….but I could see something moving.
So I walked closer.
And as I got closer, I realized it was a person.
A teenager, who looked about my age – was lying in a heap behind the bush.
I looked up and could see an open window in the dorm 3 floors high.
He was wildly shaking and quaking and trembling and bloody I had absolutely no idea what to do.
So I yelled for my friends to get help.
And I got down on the ground with him and tried to hold him and tell him it would be okay…and that help was coming.
He was bloody and contorted and convulsing and not responding to my touch.
I was scared….and thought he may be dying….and had no idea what to do.
As I tried to keep him from violently shaking I realized he was far stronger than I was…..and I kept losing my grip.
So I just sat there and talked to him.
And told him it was going to be okay.
And I don’t know why……but as bad as it looked, all of a sudden……I knew he was going to be okay.
I felt a weird peace. As if we were momentarily sharing some strange space together where everything was fine.
And the shaking and quaking seemed to slow down until he became totally still.
The next thing I knew…….the paramedics arrived, pushed me out of the way and yelled for us to go home.
I watched as they tried to get him on the stretcher….and then, as we were being pushed back, I could see no more.
The next day, the dorm director for my part of campus paid me a visit.
She told me he was a high school junior.
And had fallen out of poorly secured window after drinking with friends.
He was badly injured. But going to live.
She thanked me….and told me that when he was up to it, he and his family wanted to say thanks, too.
It was a great feeling, and I felt a “high” very different than the one I was used to at the time, for a few weeks thereafter.
And then…..as the moving parade of life continues, – I forgot about it, we never spoke……and the experience became buried in the avalanche of experiences that comes with college life.
I had my next existential crisis at 22.
My goals were no longer to play in the NBA – but instead, just to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
I had become the poster boy of underachievement.
I was perpetually disinterested…..and barely passing my classes.
I was now in my 5th year of college, lying to family and friends as to why I hadn’t graduated yet and regularly sleeping until noon.
Rather than thinking about getting a job after college…I would think up wild entrepreneurial ideas that I lifted from the back of some supermarket “get rich quick” magazine while eating free bulk food isle candy……. and pitch anyone who would listen to me on one wild idea after the next. (at this point – mostly my Mom and my roommates)
I started to lapse into a depression.
And even though I was only 22…..I had this weird sense that I was destined to become a failure. That I would perpetually under-achieve and disappoint. I began to feel intense regret, and started to obsess over many of what I thought at the time were disastrous life choices. (most neurotically – about even choosing the very school I was now in my 5th year of attending)
One day, as I sat in local pizza place with my girlfriend….I had the very strange sensation of being stared at.
I looked up and saw this very muscular, very tattooed and very intense guy looking my way.
At first I assumed he was checking out my girlfriend – and then sizing me up next.
And that he would stop when that grew old.
But apparently it didn’t.
Because he didn’t.
And every time I looked up, his intense and increasingly uncomfortable gaze was fixed on my face.
I decided, if I was going to get beat up, my pride would prefer it happen far enough away from my girlfriend that I could lie about what happened.
So I got up and walked to the counter of the pizza place, out of her view.
And he got up….and followed me.
As he walked over…….I thought about trying a sneaky head butt move that I learned from Patrick Swayze in “The Roadhouse” but it felt too risky, so I just stood there like the pacifist that I am.
Is your name Ian, he asked?
I noticed he was trembling.
Surprised….and now preparing for an even worse ass kicking, I nodded in the affirmative.
“You saved my life….and I never got a chance to thank you”
As we sat down…..that night came flooding back.
While we were roughly the same height – he was much bigger and stronger than I….and standing in front of me now, I could see why I had such trouble trying to hold him so many years earlier.
He told me his parents sued the school.
That he had been messed up pretty badly for a while.
But that he had gotten a ton of money and a fully paid college tuition wherever he wanted to go to school.
He told me he had thought about visiting me many times….and had seen me at my Fraternity house with friends, but was too bashful to come over.
He asked if we could keep in touch.
I said yes.
We hugged and his eyes were misty and thankful and full of love.
And the fog lifted.
And for the first time in a long time, I could see myself in the world.
And making good.
A week later I moved out of the 4 bedroom house I shared with 5 of my fraternity brothers and moved 20 miles, but a city and a world away.
I started a new job on the VERY ground floor. (a phone operator)
A year later, with the help and investment of one of the friends who still listened to my wild entrepreneurial pitches, I owned the business.
When I was 30 I had my broken heart, broken open.
I was successful. And running the business above.
I had bought out my partner years earlier and worked like a demon.
My fiancee at the time wanted to live at the beach.
My office was in the city. So we rented a house at the beach and I promoted a well deserving employee to manage the business while I was away.
Life was going to be good.
But it wasn’t.
Because I hated my work.
And work was my life.
So I hated my life.
One day, I found out that my fiancee had grown to hate her life too.
I had begun to spend my weeks in a hotel room near my office…..2 hours from our home at the sea, thinking I was “taking one for the team”
One day she called me and said – “you don’t love me. I’m leaving”
I said – “Okay…sure. I’ll be home in a few hours.”
I did the speed limit and stopped twice for coffee.
When I got there, she was gone.
Most of her important stuff gone.
1 dog went with her.
The other waited patiently for me to arrive.
I sat down and waited.
A day passed. And then a week.
Our house no longer felt like a home.
I was empty.
So – so too was the home.
With a suitcase in one hand and a boston terrier in the other, I locked the door behind me and didn’t look back.
I arrived in Key West by accident.
The plan was Mexico.
A long, much needed week and a half away from work…..in the warm, welcoming waters a world away.
But my life was falling apart.
I had missed my flight by a day.
I literally was so cognitively discombobulated that I set for the airport a day after everyone else on my flight arrived at our destination.
Once again….I found myself unable to think, or see myself clearly.
Knowing I had to go somewhere – and being only a few days Christmas, I got in my car in New Jersey and pointed it for Cuba.
And arrived in Key West a day and a half later.
(Where thankfully, my friend and business partner who once trusted in my wild ideas lived)
Only this time – I didn’t have an ideas or inspiration to impart.
I just needed to rest my throbbing head.
On my 5th day I met “Mama”.
Mama was a big and beautiful woman of Jamaican ancestry who lived on the street.
Her smile was big and warm and she pushed a “Publix” shopping cart around the island where she stored her most treasured belongings.
Mama and I became casual friends.
I would give her a few dollars and she would smile at me and we’d each get something we desperately needed without having to say much.
It was New Year’s Eve and I bumped into Mama while meandering around the island.
I asked her what New Years was like in key west.
She told me she loved living here……but the holidays were difficult.
This week, she told me in her quiet voice…….made her feel like she didn’t belong.
So many strangers. So much celebration.
And that it was hard to get something to eat.
And I thought about that for a second.
I asked her where she would eat if she could pick one restaurant on the familiar path she walked every day.
She laughed and said she doesn’t’ like to go inside anywhere because she can’t bring her stuff.
I said – what about if I brought it to you?
She seemed to consider that for a moment…..and told me about the French restaurant that smells so good every time she walked by.
So I took her order.
And told her I’d be back at 10.
My friend, previously supportive of my wild and wacky and weird ideas…..considered this one to be a bit too much.
“Dude, just get her a cheeseburger or something. She’ll be super happy and won’t know the difference C’mon – you’re going to screw up the whole night.”
But I desperately wanted to believe in something big.
And ironically, if you’ve seen “SUPERSIZE ME” you already know a big mac isn’t it.
But watching Mama eat that meal, huddled together in silence on the ground in a small cramped corner while fireworks went off in the street and new years eve debauchery exploded around us was magic for me.
And when she showed me her half eaten big mac….and apologized for starting it because she didn’t think I was really going to show up, I knew this was more of a gift for me, than for her.
And the fog began to lift once again.
And hours later…….I began to plan again.
And thoughts of a home once again feeling like home seemed possible once again.
And with a suitcase in one hand and a boston terrier in the other, as a new year officially had begun, I said my goodbyes, pointed my car north and planned something big.
On my 35th birthday an old man changed my life.
I’m not going to get into all of the details here to avoid hurting anyone unnecessarily…….
But I was in the process of purchasing a new business.
Something that at first……looked really profitable on paper.
But that I knew in my bones was wrong for me.
And yet…..at that point, I was too invested in too many ways with too many other people to turn back.
But I had an ominous feeling about the future….and I couldn’t shake it.
On my 35 birthday, over drinks and dinner……papers were to be signed.
I was in a bad neighborhood, sitting at a red light, about to pick up the interstate for my date with destiny.
An old man intervened.
I noticed him standing on a street corner. With his outstretched hand oddly placed on a telephone pole.
From a distance……and from where I sat in my car, he almost looked to be in a tool cool for school “Fonzi” pose.
It was dark. And I was late. The only option was go straight.
So I did.
And as the interstate approached……..a little voice inside of my head said – “Go back. Now.”
So I made a quick unfamiliar left….and circled back……not quite sure why I was doing what I was doing.
And when I got back he was gone.
For a minute I was relieved.
But before I could get my bearings…….I saw him on the ground. At the base of the telephone pole.
And not moving.
I ran to where he was. It was dark…..and he was lying there, a bag of leaking milk soaking his clothes.
He told me he had snuck out for groceries…….gotten lost…….and couldn’t remember the name of the place he called home.
We gathered up his bags……got him in the car, and drove around the city looking for home.
He had no ID on him.
But he told me he was 90.
And that he missed being able to drive.
And that he enjoyed taking late night walks for food and cigarettes….even though he sometimes struggled to remember how to get home.
But he had never fallen before.
And he had never gotten this lost before.
He was worried about getting in trouble.
And as we drove in seeming circles….he started to tell me about his life.
How he lived, what he loved and what he would do differently today.
He talked about things he loved as a boy…..and as a young man…..and things he had forgotten to love enough as a man……until he was too old to love them the same way.
At some point, it slowly sunk in….that whether he meant to or not, his meandering message was for me.
And maybe it was dumb luck and strange serendipity that on my way to a date with destiny that felt dubious, dangerous and oddly ominous that I would feel the need to go back for an old man who seemed to be reliving his losses to remind me re-connect with the things I loved and lost myself…..before it was too late.
Because too late arrives too soon for all of us.
And most of us never know will the beauty and bliss of doing what we’re truly called to do.
And so I did.
And that’s why this is what I do now.
The funny thing is……..
When we finally found his home, and pulled up the long circular driveway, he just got up and walked out.
He didn’t even say goodbye.
And as the nurses and staff flooded outside to hug and squeeze and reprimand him…….
The usual insatiable impulse to attract attention to my good deeds vanished.
I just drove away without a word.
Feeling immense gratitude for being reminded to believe in something big.
I’ve passed over more moments to do great things for others than most, so the stories above are not meant to make me sound super duper gracious or charitable or really nice.
No matter how many times I’ve been broken, (and it’s been far more than 3) it’s service and a sense of personal purpose and contribution that has made me whole.
Reaching out to others and giving what I have at the moment to offer.
No matter how high I’ve flown….when I’ve forgotten that fact, the fall has been fast, fierce and far more painful than the previous plunge.
I’m not a religious person, but a connection to something bigger, smarter, stronger, wiser and tougher and has defined every major success I’ve had in my life.
My failures are always all about me.
We’re all a bit broken.
But yet so perfectly put together as well.
Connecting to that perfection sometimes is merely a matter of where you fix your focus.
I know that some of you think the whole “Passion, Purpose and Profit” thing is a bit gimmicky and trite.
I believe that everyone reading this has unique gifts.
And that your obligation is to put those gifts out into the world to help others who are weak where you are strong.
And that each of us who wants to succeed in business has THAT as our primary challenge.
And that whether you believe those gifts are hardwired into your DNA by a loving creator or breathed into being by a compassionate and awakened universe or simply are yours due to the magical and miraculous work of mother nature, believing in something BIG will make your marketing much more meaningful.
That’s what this is about for me.
And hopefully, if you’re still reading this far, you still feel the same way