Have you ever noticed that when you listen to a friend tell their life story and all you ever walk away with is this sinking feeling saying to yourself, “wow, why is it so easy for them to achieve success? What have I done wrong?” Well first off, chances are they are editing their story quite a bit, adding some fluff and leaving out the grind. Unless you were born into wealth, everyone has started from the bottom. Life is hard. It’s full of struggles, failed experiments, trials, and errors. If we were all transparent about our struggles perhaps this would then inspire future generations to know that struggle is an essential part of the journey. It’s all about how you handle and grow from your experiences. If done right, man, what a greater, fuller life it makes.
Throughout my life, I have been drawn to stories about perseverance. Overcoming the daily grind, doubt, negativity, and even insecurity. To rise above.
So here is a little story. Picture this: fresh graduate from college, as bright-eyed and hopeful as they come. I was newlywed and newly transplanted to Sarasota Florida to work in a Fortune 500, nationwide engineering firm in a city with white-sand beaches and clear blue water. I was designing projects on a team that was winning national awards. I was enjoying my new marriage and falling in love with the idea of this being my life forever. I frequented places people dream about regularly. I spent every weekend at locations most people save all year long to visit. I was on top of the world and life was good but little did I know a certain series of events were headed my way.
In my profession, landscape architecture, you go through the day wearing multiple hats. You become a master of multitasking. Meetings, submittals, code reviews, renderings, deadlines, plant selection, site plans, and public presentations are all the norm on a daily basis. Balancing all this while attempting to be creative and staying focused on personal and professional obligations. The list of tasks & expectations was endless.
Very quickly, the stress of wearing so many hats in a day began to take its toll. On top of that, there was this expectation being set by my superiors that I was supposed to find success in my career by helping them achieve their own. Now I am in full support of working as a team, however, this expectation to finish other’s deadlines came at the expense of my own, and therefore my own integrity. This constant performance-based lifestyle absolutely drained me. I remember working my first all-nighter on a park project one month after starting that was to be presented to the mayor that next morning. I was thrown right in after graduating college and had to adapt fast. Part of me loved it, but part of me didn’t. It was a rush at times, a thrill to see how far I could push my mind and my body to continue to perform at that pace. I pushed myself beyond what I thought was possible. I specifically remember heading home after working an all-nighter with loud music blaring in my motorcycle helmet, in a complete daze wondering if this was to become my new professional norm.
“Is this what is expected of me in order to succeed”
“Am I even capable of sustaining this?”
Working long hours and wearing multiple hats was exhausting me. Worse this was becoming common practice in the industry because the US economy was beginning to crumble. It was 2008 and due to the stress on the economy, a culture of attempting to out-perform your coworkers to show your worth became commonplace. We were pitted against one another in a gladiator-style fight for our jobs. We saw co-workers begin to lose their jobs left and right. We were told, more or less, “work harder, or lose your job.” To make matters worse, I was now at the dead center of this bust in the worst-hit state of Florida. The office was beginning to look like a ghost town with the empty desks of my coworkers. I can’t tell you how many “last day of work” get-togethers I went to. There wasn’t enough cake or beer to drown their tears. Florida was hit so badly that Obama declared a “state of emergency” in North Port, the worst-hit city in the nation at the time, just one hour south of my office. This state of emergency mentality became the new norm at my office as well. Work harder, achieve more…and this was slowly chipping away at my resolve.
Feeling constantly under attack that I could lose my job was taking a toll on my mental health, my physical well-being, and even my marriage. Working 60-80 hours a week does not a happy marriage make. Every night I would return home to my beautiful new bride and take note of the look of terror on her face when I told her how much I had accomplished that day. 14-hour days were common at the time and my superiors discovered more ways than I can count to remind me that I had to work harder for the bottom line and for the good of the company.
And then the firings ramped up. The more they fired, the harder I had to work.
Productivity was my new god. The goal of my life.
Working hard became a type of barometer for progress and not the gift of joy I had always heard about from my father. Multiple hats on multiple bases, day in and day out all mixed with amazingly fun explorations of the fun Florida had to offer. All this was emotionally draining. I look back now and realize that being in Florida is probably what made it all bearable. Being able to find release by heading to the beach after work, fishing in the everglades with my friends, and racing sportbikes over bridges with clear blue water beneath me somehow relieved to pressures I was experiencing.
And then one day at the beach, it hit me. I discovered something so significant in my life it was staggering. You know that moment when you’re sitting in front of the vast ocean with all its interconnected life systems and you realize there is more to this journey than you think. There is more to being productive for someone else.
I discovered that day at the beach that of all the hats I was wearing there was this one that I really enjoyed wearing. This specific hat, the one where I was creating systems, inventing processes, and teaching practical skills- made me feel alive. I realized when I worked on teaching others I had this feeling that I was born to do this. Whether it was creating a new marketing graphic or figuring out how to systematize something as simple as answering the office phone, it filled me with life. It filled me with hope. But when I was wearing that other hat, the one where I was just a designer for my employer, it drained me. Both were hard work but one provided enthusiasm for life while the other didn’t.
So I began to seek this new realization out. I started creating things that improved my surroundings. Then creating other things then more things related to those things, all were very demanding and really really hard work but it had this flow. It was as if I could spend all day working on these things. No matter how hard it was it filled me with a sense of, this is why you are here, keep going, keep creating.
This sent me off in a direction I never expected. I began spending lots of time at the office making things more efficient. I began spending time trying to leverage the work I was doing to help improve my systems. I was on to something. It was invigorating to see the things I was creating help, other people. Meanwhile balancing this with my expectations in the office I would then head home and spend another hour sometimes more into the night working on additional processes that were sure to revolutionize my work. All the while feeling excited and boldly moving forward with my craft.
When I was messing around with these ideas, I felt excited. Unfortunately, I was part of a system that worked a certain way where I needed to wear multiple hats, some of which I didn’t want to wear. One was a project manager with deadlines the other was a creator and teacher. I found that the creator/teacher hat was what I felt I was born to do and the other I was not. Unfortunately, I was a part of a system with its own conventional wisdom, understanding, and rules on how things should work. Being a teacher wasn’t something that had a perceived value to my employer. Feeling discouraged I went back to the drawing board and headed back to the beach. This always got me thinking.
The more I created systems for my employer the more I realized there was an underlying passion for starting my own business. It didn’t look like any path I had seen before. I felt bombarded by countless ideas and the more I chased these ideas, packaged them up, and put them into a format that made sense the more ideas I found I had. I found myself consumed with these ideas and often times I found myself sitting in a meeting discussing how important it is for me to do “x” and all I could think about was the letterhead of my future business or how cool a marketing meeting would be at a local Brewery with my team, not this stuffy taupe colored boardroom. I was present physically in that meeting but my mind was always on the future thinking of innovations for my own small business. It was exhausting.
I remember discussing with my wife this crazy dream of small business ownership. To everyone around us, we would seem to “have it all”. Living in sunny Florida, working and growing at a Fortune 500 company, surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the country…but I was still unsatisfied. All the while there was this voice deep inside me telling me about my true self. It was killing me. I remember wanting so badly to tell my employer that teaching and creating systems is what I was passionate about, not this other menial stuff they had me doing. But I couldn’t. I was tied to the paycheck, the 401k, the medical insurance, the vacation time, and the feeling of security.
Early in my career, I spent a ton of time feeling guilty about all the things I wasn’t doing correctly at work, constantly being reminded of all the things I wasn’t very good at by my superiors. It wasn’t that I was bad at landscape design, I was actually really good at it, it’s that I wasn’t passionate about it. I’m not the best at just sitting there being told to follow the status quo, to continue to follow the systems that work for a select few but not the entire team. My place was to lead a business, that’s what I was good at. I was meant to create better more efficient ways for others to succeed. I was meant to make work fun again for employees. I was meant to bring ethics back and enjoy what I am passionate about. That made me feel alive.
So in 2010, I began to seek wisdom from friends and family on what I should do and everyone I spoke to confirmed my thoughts. It was like I was finding my true inner self, that you behind you. Do you know what I mean?
Every person I spoke to saw in me what I was beginning to see in myself. I began to realize that my ideas weren’t crazy. All these things I wanted to create all made sense to other people and some were so excited they wanted to start a partnership together. I began to see business ideas that I failed to capitalize on being implemented in other companies like using Google Drive for remote team management or using Mailchimp to automate onboarding new clients. There were multiple instances I would be reading about a guy on LinkedIn who revolutionized the industry with “x” product and it left me thinking- dude I thought of that! I wondered, should I take the plunge?
Unfortunately, I didn’t take the plunge. I decided to spend the next several years divided between these two hats because of job security. It was the most sobering and dark place I have ever been in my life. I felt like a coward.
Eventually, in 2012 my wife and I decided to escape the stress of corporate America and move across the country and chase a dream we had to live in Colorado. Our desire was to return to nature. To return to seasons. To find new opportunities in mountain streams, evergreen trees, and people with different accents. I landed a job in a small little design-build firm in Fort Collins that focused on small-scale design. You know the really small-scale stuff. Stuff that was less than a million dollars to build. Stuff that was really important to families of building residential landscapes unlike parking counts and zoning variances like before for a project in a city I had never even or ever would visit.
Ironically, I discovered I really loved the small scale. It slowly began to sink in that this might be the training ground I was looking for all along. The new company I landed in provided avenues I hadn’t been exposed to yet. Sure I did a lot of intricate and thought-provoking design with my previous employer but I never actually got to “turn the wrench” so to speak. Each design was very exciting but at the time I was still doing it for someone else. Something was missing. The fun part was that I knew that each day spent in this environment, each day in the design-build world, was one step closer to the dream I realized several years back on that beach. I was headed in the right direction.
I continued to learn everything I could get my hands on that year with this new job thinking of it as a training ground for something bigger. All the while continuing forward to craft and perfect an entire business on the side. I went through all the emotions one does to start a business, I worked through a business plan and even got approval for a small business loan, I completed employee manuals for people I hadn’t even hired yet, I envisioned what the business was going to look like 20 years down the road, I made it into everything I wanted it to be and I put it all down on paper.
But the coward in me still didn't allow me to take the leap. Instead, I dabbled. I dipped my toes. I loved the idea of sole proprietorship but the market was still in a scary place so and continued to spend countless hours building a business that one day I would launch. At one point I was so busy with both jobs that I had an emotional breakdown about the health of our dog. This being divided was killing me and I realized I needed to do something and do it quickly.
I went on to complete numerous projects with my employer that actually won state-level awards. I built friendships with my clients which was something that wasn't possible at my previous job. I was featured in a local magazine twice. All the while helping my employer to use systems I built privately and would one day use with my own business. Occasionally, my boss would see its value, and guess what, when he did it worked! I watched a small design-build business go from 1.5 million in revenue to 2 in three years using systems I created. They grew faster than they could imagine. I learned a valuable lesson in those years. I realized that if ethics are missing in a business, no matter what you do to serve, it will always be to your detriment. I learned what greed looked like and the importance of how to treat your staff as a small business owner. I watched as they went on to use the knowledge I shared for their own benefit. They grew beyond themselves and it became apparent to me and a number of others that we were being used and that’s what the future held if I stayed.
The time finally came when there was nothing left to learn and I realized that I had progressed further than my employer would compensate me for. I learned some really valuable lessons in those years. One day, with my wife’s support, I decided to leave that toxic environment and venture out to see what was ahead.
In 2015 God readily provided me with another opportunity with a small 6-person design firm. This one actually blended the large-scale planning I was familiar with before with the small-scale design I had now become passionate about. I remember seeing and hearing so much of my own business in them during my interview. I thought for a brief moment that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t need to be my own boss. That this could be an opportunity to share my ideas about ethics in business and the systems I had built to help others. All the training I had put into my own business I could share here and be successful.
But for the first time in my journey, I quickly learned that they didn’t share my same opinions. They needed to fill a position and were willing to say whatever I wanted to hear to get me but they didn’t share my thoughts on how an office should run. They didn’t see the value in my knowledge and only decided to capitalize on it when convenient for the bottom line. I learned so much at that time about the importance of communication and again ethics. I still attempted to join the team at first but quickly realized I was an outsider.
You see people are flawed so, therefore, offices made up of people are flawed. As a small business owner, you have to mitigate this with trusted practices and systems that provide flawed people tools to succeed. This new office had it all, yet they didn’t have the support of a unified vision. There were two owners, both arguing over what direction the business was headed with the newest one usually succumbing to the stronger more opinionated older. One would think this to be a perfect environment for change, but it wasn’t. They didn’t have the perceived value and ability to change as I had. Why would they? They were making a comfortable living with the house, vacations, and prestige. Why change that? The old, “it’s how we have always done it” mentality was prevalent. Unfortunately what happened is that it promoted an island mentality among the staff. Each performed their tasks individually and everyone did it their own way, not as a team. Chaos reigned.
The worst part for me is I loved working for the new owner. I loved the idea of where he wanted us to be as a company in five years. Tragically, I never really heard what his vision for the firm was. It was like being in a race without knowing where the finish line was. I did however gain several friendships in the office that I will cherish for the rest of my life, quality people that really cared for one another and wanted the same thing I did. We all weren’t angry at the owners we were just disappointed. I heard one thing in the interview and was provided another. Again, like a race, how do you know where you’re headed without a finish line in sight? No vision = no growth. The mystery of not knowing where I would be professionally, financially, and personally was now killing me.
My indecision to start a business and my poor workplace choices had taught me so many valuable lessons but the lack of decision to start a business and create a sustainable income forced us to move in with our in-laws not knowing what the future was going to hold. For the first time in our lives with less than a thousand dollars in our bank account and no savings, we felt out of control and worried about what the future was to bring. All this was about to change.
So people ask, how do you find your passion in the world? My response is what doesn’t go away? What’s the fire that doesn’t go out? What's like that passage in the book of Jeremiah that’s “like a fire shut up in your bones”? The year is now 2016. 6 years of planning, training, reading, studying and asking questions. Six years of learning valuable lessons about, relationships, leadership, trust, and above all ethics in business.
I sit here writing this having realized that life will always throw you difficulties. It’s hard enough to walk through life why not go through it happy and chasing your passion? So its time to shed the cowardice, it's time to launch. It's time to take my skills and share them with the world. FINALLY!
I realized after all these years, the struggles in my professional journey were valuable and should be shared so others could benefit. I learned the value of…
Its time to start sharing this knowledge!
In my journey, I regularly sought the wisdom of people smarter than myself and they always told me, you ultimately just have to do it, David. You have to follow your path because the analysis of failure is overrated. No one can predict the future. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to not worry about the future though, “Give us this day our daily bread” not the next week or month. “Stop worrying about the future” I was constantly reminded of this.
Never attempting to start a business and going through life wondering what it would have been like would be a greater failure in my mind.
Have you ever looked out into the world and not seen anything happening? The reason is that you are supposed to be the person doing that thing! You are supposed to be the boss you always wanted. You are supposed to hold marketing meetings at a local brewery. It is ultimately up to you to change the way things are done not someone else. THAT’S JUST HOW IT WORKS!
There are times in life when in order to keep being you, you have to go against how it’s been done. There are times when you challenge the system and you subvert the dominant paradigm. The people that I know who are thriving, people who are doing meaningful and I would add enjoyable work in the world, if you stop them and ask deep questions about their journey you will notice there are these key moments when there was a way it was done, a specific process, a system they used. It’s not like they are ignorant to the way it was done, essentially you have to know the rules in order to break them but they had done the internship, they got mentored, they got the degrees, whatever it was, they learned the rules, then they took all that accumulated knowledge and left that well-worn path and headed out on their own path.
It doesn’t mean they were angry or rejecting all the intelligence, no, they took all that with them and started their own version, their own take in order to feel alive. If it’s parenting, how you manage your day, how you spend your money, or how you create a business, if you listen to people who are doing fresh new innovative things, you will find they all had this dream this inner voice this fire that just wouldn’t go out. That purpose you have deep in your soul and that moment you take a step towards whatever it is will often be a moment where you are going against the conventional wisdom and assumptions and are breaking some rules.
Are there some rules you have accepted that you don’t have to?
Are there assumptions you have about how things are done that you need to challenge?
I can’t tell you how many people I have met that have this passion this drum beating in their heart and it’s obvious what they need to do with their life and they say, “Yeah well you know people my age don’t do that.” WHAT? To be true to what you are, there should always be some disruption. Often the most life-giving actions require a different path. You being you, now that’s interesting.
So for me, there is this passion to make things for people. The guiding thing for me is the joy of making it. Then occasionally there is this grace upon grace where what I create actually does something for people. It’s all about just taking the next step. No more standing at a distance from myself. There is no need to define it. There is no need to spend 6 more years figuring it out. I’m done doing that. At times it’s all about taking a chance. It’s all about faith.
So I have put in my 10,000 hours and now need to take a step forward. I’m looking forward to finally paying attention to my inner voice. You know that voice that says you’re loved, that cauldron of emotion that calls to your true self. My new journey to help others.
There is this great story in the Christian tradition about a reason for being, a goodness to being here in the moment. You in me and me in you as Jesus once said. So with $952.33 in my bank account, while living in my in-laws’ house, it’s time to start over. It’s time to be fully alive, independent of what other people may think or the fear of the financial implications this decision might or might not have. It’s time to try something new. It’s time to start a business!
THAT’S JUST HOW IT WORKS!
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