Taking Time to Process Experiences

This writing is being typed and posted from 35,000 feet somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean enroute to Florence, Italy via Paris, France. Ten days in Italy and France will end a month filled with a lot of travel and enlightenment. It's been a whirlwind, which frankly did not leave much quality time to thoughtfully process the experiences I was having. Just a few hours into this eight hour flight and I'm finally getting a chance to simply think and reflect. Without reflecting upon and processing our experiences, we risk capturing the full meaning of our lives and applying what we've learned in future experiences.

I was fortunate to travel to Big Sky, MT to deliver a speech on my experience with South Dakota's 24/7 Sobriety Program for the inaugural National 24/7 Summit. From there, I went to the Utah Fall Substance Abuse Conference to give a presentation on the use of technology in supporting addiction recovery -- this was the second year in a row that I've presented at the Utah conference. Last, the month ended in San Francisco at the Rock Health Summit -- a conference dedicated to digital health solutions.

While I was bouncing around the country -- living the dream, as they say -- Pollen published an incredibly well-written and illustrated feature on me and the work of Face It TOGETHER. I am really grateful for this piece because of the dignity and care all the people at Pollen put into it.

The intensity of life over the last couple of months has been managed in large part because of the wellness techniques that are simply embedded in my regular routine. For a few years, I have begun every day with a short five minutes of meditation. Most recently, I've followed the meditation with 120 seconds of planking. It was only after I returned from San Francisco and while unpacking, doing laundry, and repacking that I consciously recognized how at peace I was and how slow time was moving. Nothing seemed rushed, despite having very little time to relax. The only think I can attribute this calmness to was the commitment I've made to small but over time significant wellness activities. 

It was in this moment that I knew I needed to take a few moments to simply think about the experiences of the last few weeks.There is nothing complicated about taking brief moments to think. In a world when every moment of our waking day can be occupied by screens, news feeds, and text messages, we generally fail at simply letting ourselves be bored and to daydream. We have to do this, otherwise when will we contemplate conversations and moments with both the important and least significant in our lives. If we don't allow our brains to naturally review parts of that conference we just attended, will that big idea pass us by?

There's something to be said for slowing down to think; to let our mind wander. I plan to do a lot of that during this well-timed and much needed vacation. I'm going to Paris for the first time in my life... that will be an experience! It will likely be information and stimulus overload, but in the moments between great architecture (minus I.M. Pei's Pyramid at the Louvre), wondrous food, and quality time with my wife, I'll think about what all the travel and speeches and conferences were for -- not the surface reasons but the deep meaning in it all.

Maybe the next writing will be a report on what insights were gained from all the contemplation and processing. Stay tuned.

Intentionality and the Epicenter of Good Notion

Two January's ago I had the great privilege of delivering a TEDx talk in Sioux Falls. In that talk I extolled the virtues of Sioux Falls, or more precisely, the virtues of those that became my social network during a crucial transitional moment in my life. One important connection was just one connection removed from the CEO and Co-Founder of Face It TOGETHER, Kevin Kirby. Ten years later I work with Kevin and others on designing and executing solutions for the disease of addiction.

Whenever I tell this story, I often say: "It's no accident that I now sit seven feet from Kevin."

Until the most recent OTA Sioux Falls event, my framing of that statement was purely spiritual or meta-physical. In other words, it was meant to be. While that may be true and is certainly a belief I strongly hold, 10 years ago, the entire string of connections that led me to whatever success in life I have today seemed like an enormous folly. The meta-physical blanket simply provides a way of adding structure to something that can seem very random -- humans have been doing this for Millenia.

Credit: VPD Studios 2015

Credit: VPD Studios 2015

The more I think about the series of connections that helped me in my journey these last ten years, the more I wonder whether it is possible to take that seemingly random but impactful experience and get more intentional and even predictable with connections that are made.

One of the greatest frustrations in medicine is the mystery of certain illnesses. Addiction is shrouded in mystery ... from the nature of the disease to the efficacy of treatments. The mystery keeps people sick, and for some, kills them. What if we could shred some of the mystery around what it takes to get well and stay well? What if when we are rebuilding our social network we could be plugged into connections that are more likely to yield a positive outcome versus simply relying on hope and luck?

We've come to know a lot about the workings of social networks (not the digital kind, but real, human, analogue kind). I'm becoming more and more convinced that while the network I was plugged into was unintentional and seemingly random when it happened, it's effect and probability for success can be retroactively measured and modeled. By knowing just a few data points about a person and a few data points about a social network -- series of individual and group character profiles, if you will -- we could steer individuals into better networks, either on the periphery or right into the epicenter of good. 

I think we can take the mystery out of the phrase all of us first hear in addiction treatment: "You must change the people, places, and things in your life in order to get well." I'm not sure we need to be so dramatic and so drastic with people and their lives at a such a critical moment in time.

Which Wolf are You Feeding?

Recently, I was introduced to a parable that was new to me. It's the parable of two wolves and it goes like this:

An old grandfather told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, and resentment. The other is good. It is joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and bravery.”

The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

My introduction to this parable was somewhat happenstance. I follow Simon Sinek on Twitter (author of "Start with Why"). He tweeted an interview he did with a podcast called "The One You Feed". I needed something to listen to for a three hour drive and queued it up on the iPhone.

Instantly, the parable and the premise of the podcast resonated with me. I was so struck by the parable and how I had applied a form of the parable to my life over the last decade, that I completely reworked a speech I was to give at the end of my three hour drive at a drug court graduation.

The parable of the wolves worked wonderfully for the drug court speech. Here were a number of individuals, some graduating the program and others at some other stage, but all faced with the great weight of the court as they work through significant life changes.

We can easily commit ourselves to the doom of failure, especially in a criminal justice like situation, if our focus is not on feeding the good wolf. The given is that life with the restrictions and requirements of a drug court are tough, but the alternative is worse, right?

That's quite the tricky question, actually. For some, time in jail or prison is relatively easy compared to having to face real life.

Even for the average person out there, the tendency may be to go through life choosing the path of least resistance. This person makes safe choices in life, which over time, equate to a steady, but anemic feeding of the good wolf. Thus, this person may never quite reach their full potential.

My philosophy over the last 10 years has been see the path of least resistance but not to take that as the given path. Many told me not to go back to college just six months after getting out of jail and being very early in my addiction recovery and new life. I listened to their advice, but was not satisfied with such a safe option. Sure, I might limit or eliminate the danger that could trigger a relapse, but frankly, relapse was no longer a fear for me. For years of fighting addiction and cycling through periods of treatment and recovery, everyone put the fear of God in my mind that a single relapse was the end of the world and the the only way to win was to fear alcohol and everything associated with alcohol.

That fear was feeding my bad wolf. 

When I started college, I immediately began counseling sessions at the student counseling center.  Through that consistent counseling, I learned and improved upon an ability to identify positive and negative energy, people, places, and things. With practice, I got real good an assessing situations and people and running them through a personal cost-benefit analysis. If the scales tipped in favor of being a positive impact on my life as I was constantly defining it, then I would further explore the situation or relationship. If not, I graciously found ways to reject negative.

This was me starving my bad wolf and feeding my good wolf.

It worked. 

My life dramatically improved. I accomplished goals many didn't think were possible. I took risks, but not without intentionality and thought.

This process continues to this day. I just have another way of viewing it. 

Reflecting on the Last Decade

At the start of 2004, a series of events began to occur, which would eventually contribute to the most significant alteration to my life in its present form and ultimately to its future form. When I was completely free from alcohol on July 4, 2005, I was a sick and broken human being. Society, family, friends, counselors, and others saw alcohol as the epicenter of my problem. Remove the alcohol and suddenly I’d be better; a better son, brother, friend, co-worker, citizen.

Alcohol was never my problem. My problem was much deeper. Alcohol became the thing I used to cope with a host of symptoms that I did not know how to deal with. 

Over the course of the last decade, I have spent considerable time with counselors and psychologists working through the roots of what afflicted me. The outside world saw me addicted to alcohol. But the addiction to a substance was a reaction to underlying issues not the action that produced the issues. For instance, I did not know that I suffered with depression as a child — how would I know? This depression went undiagnosed and untreated for decades. Only during the last 10 years have I learned how to treat and cope with my depression. I can sense the symptoms and begin to be mindful of the depressive state that is inevitable. Fortunately, my depression isn’t debilitating — not anymore. I know how to cope and work through the day.

This is a far cry from where I was 10 years ago.

Depression was just one element among many that required focused attention and intentional action to address the issue in a positive way. What I’ve learned over the last 10 years and have used as a young(ish) leader is that there are many similarities between how one must address adversity in our life and how leaders must act when directing an organization or engaging in another form of leading. Here’s a short list of attributes survivors of addiction (or adversity) have in common with great leaders:

  • You have to know what your problem is. Overcoming addiction for me got real easy when I stopped focusing on the substance of alcohol. Alcohol wasn’t the problem — it was part of the problem, but not the problem. Once you are able to lay out the problem and the various factors that contribute to the problem, you can then begin to devise strategies for solving those problems. Thus, instead of solving one big problem, you work to solve a bunch of small problems. Over time, the aggregated smaller solutions begin to have a significant impact on the larger problem.
  • You have to be patient. At the heart of the disease of addiction is a constant striving for instant gratification. Major change, no matter what it is, does not happen over night. Once you’ve identified the problem, devised a strategy to attack the problem, you have to patiently work the strategies. If the strategies are good, as Sam Cooke says, “A change is gonna come."
  • You cannot work in a vacuum. Individuals do not overcome addiction or other challenges in complete isolation from others. Major change requires a team of people, each with their own set of skills necessary to solve the problem. As the primary change agent, the leader (or individual overcoming illness, etc.) gets to see the entire landscape and team of people working in concert like an orchestra. If any one member of the team or the leader work in isolation, the problem will not get solved.
  • You must have a vision for the impossible built on a path of reality. The impossible becomes possible not because we begin with the moon shot, but because we begin with something much smaller and doable. In addiction recovery parlance: One day at a time. But I don’t really like the “one day at a time” philosophy because it ignores, I think, the existence of a much bigger goal. For instance, the “one day at a time” mantra is used to help individuals not consume for the day. That’s all well and good, but fundamentally something is missing — then what? There must be a plan for that single daily victory, but it must fit into a larger plan to achieve the impossible.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but I think this is the core of what it takes to truly overcoming addiction and leaving that illness behind. In life, we will be afflicted by many illnesses and challenges. We cannot let a single act or issue define us — we are way too complex for such narrowed living. Yes, an event or illness may be defining, but we must think of that moment as being a life pivot. Entrepreneurs know and embrace the pivot. 

July 2005 was a critical pivot for me — addiction was about to take a back seat in my life. In early 2007, I pivoted again and went from focusing on a return to the broadcast profession to setting a course to become a lawyer. Then in 2012, after graduating law school, I pivoted from wanting to practice law, to joining Face It TOGETHER and being involved in a massive social entrepreneurial enterprise. There will be more pivots to come — this I know and this I embrace.

I've built a great team around me and my vision for the future may seem impossible at times, but I'll keep working at the small problems and we'll see what the next decade brings.