“Who are you and what are you made of, really deep down in your guts?”
Recently, one of my mentors, Bo Eason, had me answering that question during his three-day storytelling seminar. I was floored, but telling him I was “kinda busy and er, craving a Starbucks right about now” just didn’t seem like a good option. I sent him the following:
When I was about 8 years old, I remember coming to the realization that there were a lot of things in this world I didn’t understand, realities I couldn’t reconcile with the way things should be. A lot of my idealistic dreams felt crushed.
My mom and dad split up, and I didn’t have a feel for how I fit in, so I “surfed life” instead of swimming in it. Around the same time, we found out something was wrong with my little 3-year old sister, and after a lot of tests we discovered she was what you called back then, “retarded.” Now they’d say “developmentally disabled.” I didn’t care what you call it, she was different, and I realized, helpless in many ways. So tricking her out of her cookies and making her Barbie prisoner to my GI Joe was out. And I love her to this day, but I knew I wouldn’t ever really know her like a big brother.
I loved other things too, like bike riding, and chasing Claire Ryerson, and kissing her under the big pine tree in her backyard right before eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches her mom made. But the high point of my week was Saturday cartoons. My mom would let me get wired on sugared cereal and watch TV in my Spider-Man pajamas all morning.
My favorite cartoon hero at the time was Underdog. Remember Underdog? A dog with a cape and a secret power pill, who spends his days as Shoeshine Boy; a mild-mannered nobody. But whenever Polly Purebred, his love, is in distress, Shoeshine Boy runs inside a phone booth and…BOOM! He comes out in his superhero suit . . . and the phone booth always explodes. (My wife says that part “explains a lot”.)
Underdog flies to the scene of mayhem with people exclaiming “Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! (One old lady with glasses says “It’s a frog!” Someone replies, “A frog?”) And he reassures the crowd thusly:
Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog,
It’s just little old me… (whereupon, Underdog would crash into something, then sheepishly finish) Underdog.
Underdog usually caused a lot of collateral damage; and whenever anyone complained, Underdog replied, (always in a rhyme of course):
I am a hero who never fails;
I cannot be bothered with such details. (There’s another spousal raised eyebrow)
Of course, Underdog had his “arch enemies”, primarily Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff, who would victimize unwitting people in carrying out their various schemes for power. Simon Bar-Sinister would take over someone’s mind, their eyes would turn funny, and they would repeat, over my vociferous protestations, “I will do what Simon Says!”
I never connected it, but I ended up with two responses to deal with what I saw as injustice or unfairness: I would live in my own world in my head, sort of disconnected from a lot of what was going on out there…
…or sometimes I’d swoop in and fight back. And sometimes, I’d cause some collateral damage just like Underdog. But it’s the thought that counts, right? Besides, I’m a big-picture guy, I can’t be bothered with the details.
There was this time in 3rd Grade where some boys were making fun of the “special” kids in the hall - only, my sister at home was also “special”. I got so mad, I pushed them against the lockers and socked one of them. I remember being proud, even as I was explaining what happened to the principal. I’m still proud, because some lessons need to be painted in red. I bet that kid still remembers how his face hurt that day!
I was what you might call a “feral child”, so it took me some years to figure out how to channel this fire inside me, which animated me, into more productive means. And I never thought much about the meaning of the events, circumstances, and choices driven by that fire. I just lived every day.
But I recently went through an exercise with a marketing and branding agency run by a brilliant guy who has become a friend, Eliot Frick, who totes around this amazing brain and runs a branding agency called Bigwidesky. In the process of bringing my product idea to the marketplace, Eliot brought me through a process of discovery that connected Underdog, my idealism, the blood I’ve given up and battle scars I’ve collected over the years.
I’ve heard that 80% of college graduates never go on to a career in their area of study. Most of us arrive at what we do for a living through some circuitous path. We just sort of end up doing something. We go through phases and pick up roles. Troublemaker. Crusader. Dad. Entrepreneur. But Eliot’s job is to purposefully tie together all of the things you do and are into an overarching theme.
Cutting-edge marketing agencies work to extract your “brand”, which is modern-speak for ‘who you exhibit yourself to be’, from someplace deep in your heart – not the things you say you are or believe in, but the raw, soft parts of you that actually manifest into reality. Because whether we realize it or not, our psyche, our makeup, the thing that drives us to create and sometimes destroy, comes from our experiences, usually in early childhood, as interpreted through the framework that’s hard-wired into you.
So here I was, excited to talk about product-market fit, and traction, and other geeky startup stuff. But Eliot didn’t so much want to talk about what my product is, or what my company does, as to delve into the things that drive me, the experiences that forged my soul. Some of it was awesome to talk about, and a lot of it was quite painful, vulnerable, messy. And perhaps the most beautiful discovery I’ve had in my whole life, certainly in my post-30 adult life, is the theme that we came up with through that process.
I realized that until that day, the rhyme and reason behind events of my life were obscured.
My epiphany? Whether it was insisting that my mom turn around to pick up a hopelessly injured bird, or sitting with the crippled old man next door that the other kids were scared of, fighting for freedom through politics; checking out and partying a few years away in protest, or winning a jury trial (without a lawyer) against the insurance company who wouldn’t pay, it’s all been the same:
I’ve been fighting Simon-Bar Sinister, the arch-nemesis who robs peoples’ potential away, takes over their minds, steals their hope, crushes their dreams.
I had to have my identity spoken back to me: “Your a guy who can’t stand the idea of the little guy not having the fair chance, being taken advantage of by outside forces and actors. You’re a hero of heroes.” I cried over these words later. But it’s true – I believe if we can just get people out of their programmed minds, out of the robot existence, into the fullness God envisioned when he made them, they have the power to be the heroes in their own world.
It’s truly profound to me that a business branding exercise eclipsed years of therapy, helped me reconnect with my inner warrior, and face the fallout of sometimes being alone in my battles against those who would shackle others’ minds and futures. I know now, THAT’S what God put me on this earth to do. (Even if things get a little messy when I fly in and crash into something.)
That’s the answer; it’s “who I am”. So let me ask you, “Who are you, and what are your guts made of?” Only you can answer that – and no matter what kind of life you’ve had, the answer can be abstracted from your real-life, messy story.
You may think you don’t have time to answer the question. Maybe no one has asked you the question until now, but now that I have, a vacuum has been created in the universe – and it will never go away until it is filled with the power of your words.
I encourage you to answer, share YOUR story – maybe here, maybe somewhere else. The answer to that question just might be the entire point of the rest of your life.