Updated: Feb 3, 2022
My job required 24/7 accessibility, so I was never away from anything very long -- checking emails at least every hour or so, with emails from key people in the company alerting me by text and an emergency notification system letting me know if anything was amiss with the company’s operations. And once the operation got big enough, there almost certainly was. Despite staying almost continuously connected, I always had an uneasy feeling.
And it just kept growing. It started out with a nervous feeling in my stomach on Sunday evenings. I thought my body was telling me that I wouldn’t be prepared for the rush of issues I was going to have to deal with on Monday. To battle this feeling, I started doing the work I had planned for Monday on Sunday night so I could start the week ahead and be ready for anything that came my way. As the President and Chief Operating Officer, and with my perfectionist personality, everything did. This approach seemed to work for a while, but then I started getting the feeling earlier, on Sunday morning. So I blocked time and made my Sunday evening work a scheduled event on my calendar. When I started getting nervous, I could tell myself to calm down because I had a plan. That worked for a while, but it didn’t last. So I started waking up early on Sunday to work so I would get it out of the way. That too worked in the short run, but after a while, I could never do enough work to turn off this feeling.
In the end, my weekends went like this: Last to leave the office on Friday night, I would hit the road back to Boston after traffic had died down, arriving home around 8, an early day for me. I’d take my wife to dinner, which was the highlight of my week, have a few drinks, go home, pass out on the couch, wake up and crawl into bed. Anxiety from Sunday had moved to Saturday, so Friday night was my only night of freedom. Generally, I was so exhausted on Saturday that I would wake up, perform some mindless activity (Could I set the Guinness World record for how many Sudoku puzzles I could do in an hour?), take a long nap, and rest up for dinner with my wife. I couldn’t relax enough to so something really enjoyable without feeling guilty. Saturdays were really a waste, except for dinner with Laura. I didn’t have enough energy to engage in meaningful restoration or recovery.
I am embarrassed to admit how bad it got. Down to zero exercise. Blood pressure and cholesterol meds for the first time in my life. Irritable. Impatient. Indecisive. Lack of focus while constantly multi-tasking. Lack of engagement with the people I loved most. Little muscle. Weight alternating between overweight due to lack of exercise or underweight because of a diet I was experimenting with. I went in to see a doctor who looked at me, did an examination, and told me I needed to take the next 60 days off or I might drive myself into the ground. I was not allowed to exercise because my adrenal system was too weak. My body, in an attempt to control stress, had shut down my adrenal system and stopped making cortisoI. It wasn’t doing too much for my testosterone either, if you catch my drift.
I was a former nuclear submarine captain. I had faced far greater challenges than this, but I was melting down. How could this be happening to me? I was tough; I was tenacious; I had what Angela Duckworth (Penn professor and New York Times best selling author) has defined as grit, until I didn’t. My breakdown was total. It seemed abrupt, but in reality, it was gradual. Everyone could see it but me.
On paper, I had the life that I aspired to, by conventional definition extremely successful. But I wasn’t happy and pretty much everyone close to me knew it, except for me. I was fortunate to have the love of my family, friends, and the people on my team who supported me and tried to help me. I can’t tell you how many times the people I cared about at work would come in and say that I wasn’t myself and I needed to take a break. I just couldn’t stop. I knew that they were right, but I felt powerless. Most people would normally consider me a self-aware person. I loved to read leadership and self-help books in a continuing attempt to make myself better. But I was going off a cliff and couldn’t stop myself. I was going to literally work myself into the ground and knew it but I couldn’t change.
Maybe it was because I was leading a technology company and I was insecure that I didn’t have a development, systems operations, or product background. Maybe it was because my boss was a world-class genius and workaholic who could do everyone’s job in the company, someone who expected me to have immediate recall of any number associated with a billion dollar P&L because when he was running the day to day operations, he did. Maybe it was because growth was slowing and I felt responsible. Maybe coming from a humble background I felt uncomfortable with high powered board members from the top private equity funds in the world. Certainly, the constant pressure of a public company P&L, with a focus on hitting the numbers above all else was a major factor. All of these reasons contributed, but they fundamentally boil down to this: I was living the life that my ego told me I should be living and not the life that was consistent with my truth, who I really was because I didn’t know who that person was anymore. My assumption throughout my life was that I have to jump on the biggest challenge that I could find. I was an overachiever. I had to lead. I had to put it all on my shoulders. Success in our society is defined a certain way, there are rules of the game, and I wanted to win. I couldn’t say no to people. I couldn’t stop working unless I was perfect. And I wasn’t. No one is.
Emotionally exhausted, physically exhausted, spiritually exhausted, I had to find a way back. My life depended upon it. And so I have. The voyage to meaning, fulfillment, and enlightenment is never over, but I believe that I have learned something worth sharing. In coming to better understand my true self, I recognize that my outer purpose is about service, teaching and coaching, about helping individuals and teams reach their potential. But really deep down it’s just about living, breathing, and being present wherever I am.
I am in the process of reinventing myself for the fourth time. I’ve been a nuclear submarine captain, a strategy consultant, and President and COO of a public company with over a billion dollars of revenue (Not including the two weeks I was the junior fried chicken cook at KFC before I was fired) Each experience has taught me a lot about myself, but to really learn, you have to take the time to listen, not to all the voices in your head, but to the space between them, I had to find that first, because it no longer existed.
Each time I’ve made a transition in my life has been difficult, sometimes forced upon me when I wasn’t expecting it, but what I have learned along each step of the journey has taken me closer to me, my destiny, and a path towards happiness and fulfillment.
Through my studies and reflection, I’ve come to recognize a few things that might be intuitive but are not fully proven or understood. Our mind, body, and spirit are connected. We’re also connected to each other and the universe as a whole. My failure to live a balanced life, to operate consistently with my purpose and values, affected my physical and mental health, my spirituality, and the relationships with the people I care most about.
As you read this, maybe it resonates. Maybe you find yourself in a similar personal crisis or just have a feeling of uneasiness. I have been there. I want to help you, but only if you want the help.
I am naturally an intuitive person and a systems thinker. I see the connections and interrelationships between forces. I am also an operator. I pull together concepts from different disciplines and translate ideas into operating systems that simplify execution. There is a gap between deep spiritual literature that is difficult to consume and not very operational, academic research that focuses on what can be absolutely proven, and operating systems that often help you continue to do the wrong thing effectively. In this blog, I will share my experiences with you. I’ll describe what I once thought of as successes and failures, which I now realize are all part of the journey to find my path. If you are interested, I’ll share with you the operating system that has worked for me, helping to uncover who I truly am, and connecting me to the people I care most about.
Everything I’ve discovered builds on the work of others. There is ancient wisdom that we have ignored or forgotten, often because of our arrogance that we can outsmart the universe or our desire to take shortcuts. Writing helps me process what I’ve learned, to understand it more deeply. In the blog, we’ll discuss and apply some ancient wisdom, layering in new developments in behavioral science, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and positive psychology to share an operating approach to life that works for me and maybe can help you too.