It’s No Big Deal

There are certainly many habits that make me who I am. I diligently work at being deliberate about all aspects of life and I think that’s a fundamental must. Then I work to create solid habits from that foundation.

Everyone struggles, to some degree, with fear, stress, lack of confidence and various other worries. Then we couple them with a perspective that we don’t have enough time or aren’t equipped to actually achieve our goals. This gives us a solid platform to formulate excuses as to why we can’t achieve something or act a certain way.

Running a marathon is no joke. It takes a lot of dedication, preparation and mental and emotional fortitude. The same is true of starting a new business, writing a book, getting a degree or traveling to a distant country. Humans are quite skilled at justifying and making logical excuses as to why these things are insurmountable or irresponsible.

We’ve constructed a societal agreement of welcoming seemingly intelligent excuses for not straying from the status quo. It’s unsafe, unwise and irresponsible to believe you can climb that mountain, finish that marathon or learn that new language. You’ve got more responsible things to focus on like fitting in, accumulating material wealth and setting yourself up with a great retirement plan.

About eight years ago, I had an epiphany. I’d recently dropped all my belongings and a partnership at a successful private equity firm I had co-founded in Nashville, TN. I was standing on the edge of Lake Kivu between Rwanda and the DRC appreciating the magnificent beauty of the sky, the crystal clear lake, the vast mountain ranges, glowing volcanoes and the rawness of Africa. It was awe-inspiring.

Then I realized something.

It really wasn’t that difficult to get there. The biggest challenge was psychological. I didn’t have any great connections or a long term job there (just a project). I didn’t have much money and I didn’t know anyone at all on the continent. By most anyone’s standards, I was not well prepared. The same was true when my wife and I moved to Mombasa with only $800, no job and we didn’t know a soul in Kenya. But now we’re thriving.

I see this all the time when people finally come to Africa to visit. They’ve been talking about it for years, but they made it into such a big deal that they developed a habit of viewing it as impossible. But then they finally work it out. They take the leap and visit. Then they find themselves back home reflecting on their trip and saying, “Hmm, I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal after all. I’m already back home!” No one died. It didn’t cost their life savings. And it really wasn’t even difficult.

We have a tendency to make things into a huge ordeal. We build things up as if we are about to tackle Mt. Everest. But most of our heroes are just people that have developed habits of not making a big deal out of everything and simply putting one foot in front of the other until they arrive at the goal. We humans can do just about anything we put our minds to.

I see street kids in Africa without a day of formal education that speak seven languages fluently. My friend Chris Guillabeau has visited over 250 countries. We see people like Dick Hoyt running marathons while pushing his paraplegic son in a wheelchair or Philippe Petit walking a tight rope between the Twin Towers with no safety gear. People do crazy, super human things every day. Learning a new language or starting that yoga habit should certainly be within just about anyone’s grasp.

What’s my best habit for productivity? The habit of not making things out to be bigger than they really are. Just start. Take the first step. Repeat.

And remember that whatever you’re wanting to achieve is only as big of a deal as you make it.

*This was written for “What’s your greatest habit for productivity?” for IdeaMensch


What Are You Working For?

I’ve always viewed my work, whatever it may be, as my art. It’s my contribution to the world. I’m going to give my best because I care. I care that it’s done well and that it serves someone else well or brings them some joy.

My work has never been about making money. Yes, I know how to make a strategic financial agreement and I do it regularly, but it’s not my primary motivation. I do work that is worth doing. If it’s not worth doing, I don’t care how much money is at the end of that road; I’m not interested.

When you find yourself in a situation where you’re just chasing money, your art suffers. That goes for businesses as well as individuals. You can’t create extraordinary work when the primary goal is to make money or just push out work to tick a box on a task list.

Lots of people make lots of money doing mediocre work. Our economic system allows plenty of room for that, and in fact, promotes it. But it’s a choice. And it has consequences (mostly in regards to your happiness).

There are lots of good doctors. Not as many remarkable ones. There are lots of good musicians. Not as many remarkable ones. Same goes for politicians, athletes and teachers. It’s usually pretty easy to see what motivates a person by the quality of their work. Is it art, or a merely means to a paycheck?

If you’re primary motivation is cash, deadlines, or just ticking the task box, it’s unlikely you’ll do anything remarkable (other than possibly making lots of cash). If you’re motivated by the opportunity to make a positive impact through your art, you just might create something extraordinary.


We’re Gonna Need More Phils


I met Philip almost three years ago on our first night in Mombasa. Ilea and I showed up at his eighth story flat in the center of town. He graciously welcomed two strangers into his home that was already overflowing with life (largely in the form of other travelers that also became close friends). He offered his room because, “you guys are married and it has the best view”. That’s how it began.

The plan was to stay for a couple weeks until we found our own flat. Four incredible months past. We lived so much life during that time. We were happy. All of us. Together.

I love those moments when you’ve just met someone but you feel as though they’ve always been a part of your life. And perhaps they have.

We walked the streets of Old Town late at night through dodgy alleyways to sit on the peer with the Muslim youth. We sipped spiced coffee while sharing stories and soaking in the experience of other cultures and perspectives. We ate marahagwe nazi (beans and coconut) packed full of fiery hot green chilies at the local restaurants for $2 a meal. The filth of the streets saturated our sun-beaten clothes. We take in each nuanced experience to the fullest. This is where we feel most alive.

We lean on each other when the times are tough, as they often are here. We braved the Kenyan elections, terrorist threats and frequent grenade attacks. We bonded and clung to each other.

On Sundays, we spent the day at the beach soaking in the rays and eating coconuts and spiced mangos. In the evenings, we sat on my roof, gazing at the stars and arguing about politics, film, philanthropic methodology and the human condition.

Nothing gets Phil down. He always finds beauty, even in the most devastating and hopeless of times. He exudes happiness and joy, no matter how dire the circumstances. He’s an ardent optimist, so much so that it drives me nuts at times. But more often, it inspires me to have a more positive perspective, to have another look.

He’s visited 82 countries, and I’ve no doubt he’s inspired them all. The experiences he’s had along the way are beautiful, intricate threads sewn into the fabric of his life. He carries the lives of others within him. He breathes that life into the room, leaving a profound watermark of happiness on everyone he meets.

Phil’s generosity knows no bounds. He gives and gives and has no expectation or desire for that kindness to be returned. That’s not the point. He’s not naïve. He does it because it’s part of who he is.

Phil represents so much of what I care about in this world. The other day, in an email conversation, he said, “Stay strong. There are perfect societies in our hearts and minds and in the small human moments of goodness. They have just yet to be realized.” That’s a typical Phil thing to say in the middle of a conversation. I love that.

Phil is living, in the truest sense of the concept. He’s “sucking the marrow out of life”, as Thoreau so eloquently posited. He and his equally whimsical and inspirational Spanish partner, Estrella are a force. She glides. Together they’re captivating. They are an experience; one worth having.

Phil is the “why not?” guy in my life. His influence is liberating. I think that’s beautiful. It makes me want to live life more fully. More full of humanity and love; raw and unbridled. He inspires me to experience more and to do things I’d easily find reasons not to do. He challenges me to truly live.

He’s brought so much love, light and happiness into our lives. Not just mine, but Ilea’s and Francois’ as well. And of course, Saoirse got her beautiful name (meaning “freedom” in Gaelic) from Uncle Phil. I know she carries some of his light within her.

The most important thing in our family is relationship. It trumps everything else. Everything. Phil embodies what that means to us. He makes us better people. He has truly become part of “us”; a part that we cherish. I’m grateful for Phil. Grateful for his influence, his friendship, his perspective and his inspiration.

Phil once said, “There aren’t enough Gandhis in the world. We’re gonna need more of them.” I’d have to agree. And if we are striving for more of the beautiful and extraordinary, we’re also gonna need more Phils.


The Easy Bowl


People crave comfort, security and ease. We have a long history of attempting to make life an easier ride. We call it “progress”. Towards what?

Just like anyone else, I appreciate when something like communication or transportation or design is made easier through technology. That type of innovation enables me to more of what I believe is worth doing. And it keeps me more connected to those I love.

But mixed with this wave of increased efficiency and productivity there arises a tendency to always search for the easiest way to get to the finish line. We’ve developed a culture and set of habits around finding the easiest solutions to life and walking away from challenges we know we can just avoid altogether.

Even outside privileged societies, we see the pull towards easy. I see it in the villages and slums of Africa all the way to Sunset Boulevard and Trafalgar Square. People crave easy. They seek it out. They compromise goals and aspirations in the pursuit of it.

Relationships aren’t easy. They come with challenges. The beauty is found in how we overcome those challenges together and grow closer in the process. We discover who we truly are. The experience on the other side of challenge is profound. And it’s only found on the other side. There’s no easier way to get there.

I don’t want an easy life. Sure, I want easy when it comes to an all-in-one tool or access to a film or music. But I don’t want my life to be so easy that I forget to feel and think. Eight years ago I chose to live in East Africa because easy is not readily available (though you can certainly find it here, too). You have to struggle through the day to accomplish your goals. Along the way, life smacks you in the face enough to keep you alive and thinking and feeling.

The struggle brings out the best of who I am, or can be. Without it, I’m just a shell, merely existing.

We formulate rules and regulations and beliefs that create sort of a fish bowl environment where we can keep most of life at bay. We’re safe and secure in our little “easy bowl”. We adapt to the bowl and make it our home. When something threatens that environment, we fight to keep it going. Preservation of the easy life replaces the quest for the extraordinary.

As a society, we’ve figured out how to create and foster an environment that suits our desire to take the easiest, most comfortable path. It allows us to disconnect from humanity. The easy bowl spares us from having to think at all.

Too much easy takes you out of the experience of life. It makes us dull and disconnected. It reduces the amount of choices we have to make. In our quest for easy, we’ve insured mediocrity.

Fortunately, the easy bowl is a choice. We can just as….easily choose a life of adventure, challenge, connection, engagement and conversation that urges us towards a more extraordinary experience.



Stop Moving On

a photo of a friend espcaping westgate {elaine dang, injured by shrapnel}

a photo of a friend espcaping westgate {elaine dang, injured by shrapnel}

The Westgate battle is over. 67 lives were taken. Al-Shabab made it clear that their malice and bigotry is both strategic and boundless. If you want to get people’s attention, hit what they care about most; money. How do you do that? Instill fear in the expat (foreign) community that contributes so much to the Kenyan economy.

Al-Shabab knows that scaring out the foreigners (expats and tourists) will do more damage to Kenya than killing thousands of people. Kenya knows it too. Sad but true. This attack was well planed and very strategic. One can only assume this is a sign of what’s to come, not only in Kenya, but across the globe.

Unfortunately the issues that caused this tragedy will persist. Just like in the aftermath of 9/11, people will be more focused on “getting back to normal” than accepting the responsibility of proactively addressing the deeper issues that caused this event and so many others like it around the world.

Society has perfected the habit of choosing the easiest route back to comfort and perceived safety. Just put it behind you and get back to work. What?

My hope is that this tragedy brings more attention (and action) to the real issues at hand.

Greed and bigotry eventually result in violence. People die. People seek revenge. Repeat. Violence begets violence.

But those in power, worldwide, believe they cannot afford to patiently and holistically deal with the root issues that lead to these outbreaks. So they create short term “solutions” like getting back to normal and moving on in order to appease and comfort the general public. Along with it, they conjure up whatever lies suit their short term needs. In time, most people will move on from those too.

People prefer to stifle their fear and get back to business. It’s the standard response to tragedy. We rarely even allow time to mourn. This keeps us stagnant and vulnerable for the next catastrophe to unfold.

If the horrific loss of human life like this doesn’t cause society to pause, contemplate and proactively dismantle the misperceptions that lead to hate and bigotry, what will? When we will stop fighting the issue and start making actual peace? Peace doesn’t manifest from bigger guns.

If you follow the Twitter feeds (not recommended) you can see that there are two very basic, natural and pervasive reactions to this type of tragedy.

  1. The desire to move on and get back to normal as quickly as possible.
  2. The desire for revenge.

Both are symptoms of fundamental misperceptions. We have to start fostering reactions of peace, grace and patience. But these things are so uncommon now that they almost seem unnatural, (which is absurd). Society typically alleviates its responsibility to manifesting these concepts by writing them off as “idealistic” or “utopic”.

This isn’t a religious war. It’s not about Christianity and Islam or Americans, Kenyans or Somalis. This is about who controls the most people. This has provided an immutable platform for thousands of years of war.

Society’s desire for control and comfort continues to trump the value of human life and relationships. Until that shifts, we will continue to experience these atrocities, likely at an exponential rate.

Things usually get worse before they get better.

I am not eager to move on. I’m desperate for a paradigm shift in how we deal with the misperceptions that result in real terrorist acts and all that leads up to them. My heart hurts for the thousands that have already lost their lives to this game society is so willing to engage in and perpetuate.

Should we be so motivated to move on? What’s the real motivation behind that desire? What does that do to prevent these atrocities from reoccurring?

Is there an easy or all encompassing answer? No. But it will take patience. A lot more than we, as a society, are used to exhibiting. Something has to change.

I’m not expecting this to be a popular post. I’m well aware that my perspective on these issues is not typically appreciated. Most people will write this post off as idealistic, naïve and insensitive.

I would argue that paradigm shifts are intrinsically linked to idealism. And idealism is only appreciated after it’s proven to work. Prior to that, it’s viewed as naivety.



Default Settings


We have two foundational elements that contribute to our perspective and I’ve always been a big advocate of being deliberate about the process.

1) The experiences that happen to us that are well beyond our control.

2) The experiences we deliberately engage in to intentionally alter, expand and contribute to our perspective.

I spend most of my time focusing on the latter. But the first point is equally important. Either way, our perspective is largely formed by our experiences. Our perspective is how we see the world. Our every action, or inaction is driven by that perspective.

When Ilea and I got married, we wrote our own vows (naturally). We said we would be deliberate about developing our default settings towards each other. We would program ourselves to default to the positive, rather than the negative assumptions about any given experience, circumstance or problem.

We don’t have a choice about everything that happens to us, but we do have a choice about how we react to them.

My sister, Ashley, sent me this video yesterday. It’s beautifully inspirational and quite articulately describes the process of deliberately crafting your default settings towards life, and the importance of doing so.

Life is going to happen. Best we be prepared when it does.



Choosing Empathy

In order to truly serve humanity, we must develop and foster our ability to empathize. There must be a constant flexing of our empathetic muscles.

We must embrace the risk of deeply engaging with other humans. It opens us up to disappointment, hurt, confusion, difficulty, betrayal and the unknown.

When you empathize, you allow your mind to experience something outside your own reality. In essence, you are provide a conduit for our soul to connect with another’s, for better or worse.

Empathy creates a relationship; one with the potential to elate or shatter us.

Life is easier when we keep to ourselves and create a habit of compartmentalizing and keeping humanity at arms length. They say ignorance is bliss. For most, ignorance is a choice. A choice not to engage more deeply with humanity.

But we can choose to go deeper; to allow ourselves to empathize. To truly understand the lives of others. To experience life more intensely. To open ourselves up to the extraordinary relationships and experiences discovered only through difficulty. To allow ourselves to be truly human.

As always, the choice is our own.



The People With Power

“The power in people is so much stronger than the people in power.” {Bono}

Now, more than ever, the people have the power. We have the knowledge, access and the tools for change. We have the ability to create momentum and alter the status quo like never before.

We are democratizing our global society more and more each day. Revolutions are happening. It’s our choice to join. Our choice to embrace the power and opportunities we’ve been blessed with.

We are the people; the people with power. Remember this. Engage.



Hold Fast

If you want to be a world changer, you must embrace your idealism. Hold fast to your ideals so passionately that your life becomes a mechanism for bringing them into fruition, no matter how outlandish.

Today, more than ever, it’s easy to be an idealist. We have more information, connectivity and inspiration at our fingertips than ever before.

The excuses that used to hold us back are no longer valid. The world has become accessible.

The Internet has become a bastion of endless chatter of achieving an egalitarian society. But it means nothing if our lives don’t reflect that altruistic idealism.

We cannot let apathy and the tug of the status quo prevent us from inciting positive change. We cannot allow “life” to prevent us from engaging and pursuing our passion for a more loving world.

If your life doesn’t reflect your idealism, you’ve squandered your greatest opportunity to be truly human.



Write A Story Worth Telling

We’ve all contemplated the questions, “what is life about” and “why are we here”. I contemplate them daily.

There’s almost a gravitational pull towards letting life get away from us. Life tends to live us, rather than the other way around. But we all have an opportunity to paint a beautiful picture on the canvas of life if we choose to take the reins and be deliberate about it.

We all have an opportunity to write our story. Something that teaches, inspires, compels or incites change.

And I ask, why not? What else is there really? My answer to “ why are we here” has become “to write a story worth telling”.

We have the opportunity to write a story that ultimately makes the world a more loving, peaceful place. Everything we do either contributes to or detracts from that. We may make installments, lose ground and sit idly, but it’s all connected.

My story can be whatever I want it to be, or nothing at all. I can merely exist if I choose. But that seems like a wasted opportunity when I could write something inspirational or even revolutionary.

We make our impact by what we do, what we accomplish, who we help, how we treat others, how we innovate and even in how we look. I like to try them all. It gives me purpose. It drives me to be a better human being. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The reason we have such a thriving entertainment industry is because we love great stories. Unfortunately, technology has made it so easy to live vicariously through others that many have forgotten to write their own stories.

If your story were made into a film, would you be compelled to watch it? Would it inspire you? Would it be worth watching? What would it be about?

Whether you’re actively engaged in it or not, you’re writing it right now.


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