Different Roads

If there’s a virtual equivalent of punching each other in the face, Mike Sloan and I have gone a few rounds on social media. We’ve both done that more than a few times with other people as well. We blocked each other a long time ago and our attentions have been elsewhere but recently I’ve been thinking about Mike.

I have been doing a lot of reading over the last few years trying to understand why I act and speak rashly and why I am so quick to anger. I can be a decent enough guy sometimes but I can also say and do some pretty stupid things too. So I’ve been reading a lot about consciousness, behavioural psychology, evolutionary psychology, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience and more in an attempt to get a handle on my demons and I think it’s put me on a path to understanding, accepting and examining my darker self. That said, I’m still carrying around a lot of baggage and I’m occasionally thousands of miles from being calm, thoughtful and reasonable … but I’m trying.

In thinking and feeling my way through all of this dark stuff I am also looking hard at my relationships, the people who I embrace in life and the people I have locked out.

Until recently, I never really put much thought into existence and how we became the people that we become but, after reading a small mountain of books and following some of the smartest people in the world on Twitter, I’ve come to the place where I realize that most, if not all, of life is luck.

I am the straight son of loving, white, middle-class parents. I’m physically healthy. I survived an aborted suicide attempt in my teens but my mental health issues are easily manageable now. On the career front, I managed to break into an industry in its infancy and skated through 30 years in a profession with only a high school diploma. None of my stupid decisions have tanked my life yet. I have a small group of smart, kind, patient, loving friends.

And every bit of that is built on luck. Go back and change any one of those things and my life changes radically. What if I was born with a brain defect or gotten a concussion? We’re all fragile beyond belief. What if I was born gay and came out in the 80s? The community I was living in certainly wasn’t as accepting as it is now. What if my mother didn’t instil in me concern for other people’s feelings? Would I have steered out of the way of that transport truck to save that driver a lifetime of seeing my mangled body? What if I didn’t pick up that magazine and read about this new field of IT? I’m not saying that any of these things would have been had a negative impact on my life but they certainly would have changed the trajectory of my life radically.

We have no meaningful control over any of the things that brought us to today and today I am lucky enough to have a loving wife in a beautiful home in a perfect neighbourhood with two adorable, a–hole cats.

Why does Mike Sloan figure into my mid-life, existential breakthrough and why now? Well, Mike is dying. Mike is dying from cancer.

Mike wasn’t nearly as lucky as I was. From everything I have heard, Mike has had an exceptionally challenging life, a life that most of us could probably never truly comprehend. It might sound simplistic (it’s anything but simple) but Mike had more than his fair share of terrible, tragic, luck. We all act and react the way we do based on thousands of events, big and small, that have illuminated or obscured the path ahead. The paths available to Mike weren’t anything like the choices that I had – and those possibilities make all the difference. People don’t wake up in the morning and decide to inject drugs or steal out of cars or attack people on social media – we have all arrived at this point in our lives through a long, complicated road that nobody else can truly understand.

Everything lies on a spectrum and the distance between any two of us isn’t nearly as far as any of us thinks it is. We have to stop judging people when we have no knowledge of their path … and I’m as bad at that as anyone else. We have to listen more intently, we have to practice more patience and we have to respect each other’s story.

We’re are all flawed humans and we’re all just trying to survive by making the best choices for our circumstance. Some of us get second and third and fourth chances and some of us get cancer after a long, hard road. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s just opportunity and chance.

Mike, you’ve faced down a lot of terrible stuff in your life and I hope you continue to find strength and courage as you walk the path ahead.

All In My Head

My old life is six million seven hundred thousand steps, six thousand kilometres, fourteen months and four pairs of shoes behind me now and I don’t know if I’ve gotten closer to any answers. If anything I have more questions, a lot more questions, than when I started.

Walking saved me when I needed saving.  Everyone knows that sunshine, fresh air, exercise and spending time in nature are all positively correlated with better overall physical and mental health, right? I never gave any of it much thought but now I was going to be off work for a while and I needed a new way to occupy my brain. Fortunately the office was participating in the Global Corporate Challenge and that was the shove I needed to get out walking.

For the first while I stuck close to home and listened to music on my walks but the novelty of that wore off pretty quickly and I pivoted to fiction audiobooks like The Martian, American Gods, Ready Player One, World War Z, The Shining (and its sequel) and the Mr. Mercedes trilogy.

I never considered listening to business books on my walks but I was feeling the need to dive into something serious and I soon started dabbling in Cal Newport, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell, Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, and Ori and Ram Brafman.

It was the listening to the last four of these authors that started to spark my interest in deeper subject matter; genetics, neuroscience, behavioural economics, behavioural and cognitive psychology, and philosophy. I started chewing up Daniel Kahneman, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Stuart Ritchie and Yuval Noah Harari.

This is all pretty heavy stuff for me so when I was in the mood for shorter form brain food I switched to podcasts like You Are Not So Smart, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, Philosophy Bites, Revisionist History, Waking Up with Sam Harris, Freakonomics and, my personal favourite, Very Bad Wizards.

Now I find myself waking up before 6:00am every day hitting the Thames Valley Parkway for a ten kilometre walk with the brain trying hard to absorb all the information coming through my headphones. I’ve overcome some of my self consciousness and gotten used to laughing out loud as strangers walk past (Very Bad Wizards is as funny as it is deep). I occasionally lose track of time (and my location) but I’ve gotten a new appreciation for the beauty of my city along the way and to top it off I’m feeling more intellectually stimulated than at any other time in my life. I’d walk four hours a day if I could.

I set out with the intent to keep my black dog on a chain but my feet have taken me to this wonderful, unexpected place. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t purport to be any smarter than I was at the beginning of this journey, I’m still a big dummy where most of this material is involved. After all I’m living with a 48 year old brain that just doesn’t process these concepts like a 20 year old brain would, but I’m loving it, right here, right now.

Every week someone asks if I’ll start a running routine but walking isn’t in my body, walking is all in my head.

A Year of Learning

Back in January I remember looking back at 2015 and thinking how crazy the year was and how I was looking forward to putting life on cruise control and really letting life just settle down for a while.

Clearly that never happened. This has been a year of radical change, reflection and personal development.

Here are a few of the things that I learned in 2016:

  • I need to read more. I consumed a bookshelf full of books this year and my brain is LIT UP. I’m loving it.
  • I love walking, a lot. I walked over 2500 km in 6 months and can’t wait to get started again in the spring.
  • Exercise, fresh air, nature and sunshine do wonders for my state of mind. I’ve no doubt that I would have slipped into a deep depression without them this year.
  • 183 lbs is overweight for someone of my height and frame but walking alone can chop 30 lbs off of that.
  • Audiobooks are an amazing way to enjoy a 2-3 hour walk. It passes by in a flash and I can consume a book in less than a week.
  • How dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin impact our behaviour (and how endorphins make walking so enjoyable).
  • Why the notifications on your phone are so addictive.
  • The LRH project showed me that I need to focus more of my energy on things that are less ephemeral.
  • While I had a sense of purpose in the things that I did outside of work Pints, Urban League, LACH, etc I had lost my sense of purpose at work.
  • Not having a sense of purpose at work wasn’t something that I could just sweep under the carpet, not for long anyway.
  • I can live without a lot of things but I can’t live without a sense of meaning. I will spend my time chasing fulfillment, not happiness.
  • Trust, love and respect aren’t finite resources, the more you give the more you get.
  • Management and leadership aren’t the same thing and have very little overlap.
  • Trust is the cornerstone of leadership.
  • A leader’s most important job is to develop other leaders.
  • The roles of initiators, supporters, observers and blockers in organizations. While I do three of these things with varying levels of effectiveness I really need to work on the observer role.
  • How incentives trump altruism.
  • The language that we use to convey ideas can be really exclusionary.
  • Neuroscience fascinates me to the point where I’ve considered going back to school to learn more.
  • The day that you were born can have as much to do with your success in life as anything that’s under your control.
  • Mission, vision and values aren’t complete bullshit. They’re important for finding your tribe and staying on course.
  • I need to hold onto my strong beliefs a little more loosely.
  • I really need to be a lot easier on myself.
  • I’m surrounded by people that will break my fall.
  • I need to tell people how much they mean to me.
  • I need to hug people more.
  • I have the courage to start again.

I’m ready for you 2017, let’s dance.

Time Enough to Start Again

Yesterday marked my 15 year anniversary with the amazing rtraction team, today marks my last day with the team as today I start writing the next chapter of my life.

I could write a small book on my time at rtraction, the fact is that my life today in no way resembles my old life. The people that walked the road with me have radically changed my life – for the better. I can’t even begin to recognize all those people in this blog but you know who you are.

I had always intended to stay for the full ride – stick with it to the heights of success (or the depths of failure) but that changed last year with the move to the London Roundhouse. When I first stepped into the old Great West Beef I couldn’t have guessed that a project that brought so much purpose, passion and meaning to my life would result in an existential crisis at the end. While I was just a small part of the project it had become my life and my passion for 2 years and with the project complete I was lost.

Back in May I made the decision to change a bunch of stuff to try to break out of my patterns and try to find a new direction. I was hopeful that when I found “it” that I’d see another opportunity to bring something of value to the team but there was a little voice in the back of my mind telling me that the change would be profound.

I shut down the “noise” that kept me from facing the change that I needed (video games, social media, etc). I went on a crash course of radical self-care and that seemed to do the trick, I gained focus and started to find my purpose. Once you find your purpose there’s really no sense in fighting it, no matter what the consequences. And my purpose is going to take me down a different road from the team that I love.

So it’s time to start a new chapter.

If you gave me the chance to go back and change anything in the last 15 years I would politely decline your kind offer. No regrets. I have only love and appreciation for all those people who walked this road with me.

What a ride it’s been. Dave, Josh and I have been through the wars, three guys thrown together out of necessity that ended up making pretty damn good business partners. We might not have done it the way anyone else would have but we built something remarkable, a business with a heart and soul. I’m a better person for having known Dave and Josh. Thanks guys for all your patience and support. I’m proud of this beautiful thing that we built together.

I have to thank Jodi for supporting me emotionally through all of this, she’s a treasure and I love her more every day. Thanks baby. xo

So, what’s next? I’m going to spend a little while building out an idea with a couple of good friends. It’s going to be a scary time but we have an idea that we’re really passionate about and we think it can make a real impact. Time enough to start again.

101 Days Ago …

It was May 24, 2016 and this was me:

  • I had just decided to take an extended break from work, 4 to 6 weeks was the plan, the longest break I had ever taken from work. I was feeling burned out, short tempered and WAY too connected to work.
  • I was feeling lost and wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do.
  • I was drinking WAY much. Just about every night I had a drink and for someone with a family history of alcoholism that wasn’t a good direction to be heading.
  • I was playing video games for 2-3 hours every day. I told myself that it was a good way to have some laughs and blow off steam at the end of the day.
  • I had just started the Global Corporate Challenge with others at Ellipsis Digital and Engine SevenFour.
  • I was 1 week away from turning 47.
  • I was the heaviest I had ever been in my life tipping the scales at 183 pounds.

And I knew it was time for serious change.

So here we are on September 2nd and what’s changed?

If I was going to fix anything I was going to need a little help or even just some reassurance that I was going about this whole thing the right way. So, on the first day of my break from work, I started seeing a counselor. It wasn’t life changing or anything but I was able to put a bunch of stuff on the table and start picking through it all. I told the counselor about my plans and they agreed that I was doing everything on the “how to set yourself straight” checklist: get fresh air, exercise, stop drinking, spend some time in nature, take a break from your routine, take some time for yourself and try to eat better (diet was the only thing that I had a pretty good handle on).

I jumped into the fitness stuff with everything I had but I blew it. I ended up hurting my knees and had to take it easy for a while. Finally, after buying good shoes, shorts, shirts and, most importantly, socks, I was able to really get it together. I did ok for an old man. I was out morning and night and walking pretty much everywhere.

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 2.23.31 PM

Now normally I would be bored out of my mind walking for 3 hours a day but I really got into audiobooks and was blowing through a book or two a week: Armada, Passenger, Contact, Ready Player One, American Gods, The Martian, Girl on a Train and the list goes on. The time flies by and at the same time I’m warding off my black dog with fresh air, sunshine and all kinds of juicy endorphins.

All that and I’m now tipping those bathroom scales at 159 pounds down 24 pounds. None of my pants fit anymore.

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I know the chart shows my peak weight at 181. TBH I couldn’t bear to type in 183 into the app.

On top of that I quit playing video games. That might not seem like a big deal but I had been playing 2-3 hours a night for 7 years but I quit cold turkey. Now I’m going to bed earlier and sleeping longer. As much fun as I had playing games I also think they were probably just as frustrating as anything. Bottom line: I’m not missing playing and it’s all good.

And lastly I cut out the drinking. I was way into unhealthy territory and it needed to stop.

It’s been a big summer of changes but the most important things haven’t changed, I’m still surrounded by amazing people (especially Jodi) who support me and keep me moving forward.

And now onto the next 100 …

The Hard Work

It’s coming up on two weeks since I’ve checked out of the office and I’ve managed to stay clear of work with only a few exceptions. I busted into my email once to get a spreadsheet that I needed, I had one phone call and I attended rtraction day (our anniversary celebration) with the team.

I have managed to get out and exercise for an hour or more just about every day. I’ve invested in a Fitbit, good headphones for walking and some new running shoes. I’ve dropped 5 pounds as a result without having to make any major dietary changes except for one.

I’ve stopped drinking at night. I wasn’t a heavy drinker but I was having a drink maybe three nights a week after work plus whatever social stuff I was doing on the weekend. My father had trouble with alcohol when I was young so I’ve tried to be hyper aware of my alcohol intake and it was getting a little too much just before I took the break.

I’ve been reading quite a bit more but I was also getting very distracted by social media so today I made the really big change and am taking a two or three week vacation from Twitter and Facebook* (I’m sticking with Instagram). If you know me then you know this is a really big step, I’m used to being plugged in ALL THE TIME and now the apps are off my devices and there’s no reason to pick up the phone to check anything. This is uneasy territory for me. I may blog more to compensate, we’ll see.

Tonight I will also have my second visit with a counsellor since the break began. The first visit was a lot of “getting to know you” stuff but I think we may have caught a glimpse of something and I’d imagine that we’ll continue down that road tonight.

This is usually the point in my vacation where I would start thinking about returning to work but this time there’s still a month to go so we’re entering unknown territory now.

The hardest part of this whole thing is not being around the team. I hope there’s something down this road that makes that sacrifice worthwhile. I do need to thank David, Josh, Jennifer, Jordan and Alanna for making this possible and for covering my ass while I’m away.

I don’t imagine that I’m that different from a lot of folks when I say that the hardest kind of work is working on yourself.

And on we go …

* This blog is programmed to auto-share on those platforms but I won’t be there to see any feedback so please use the comments section below.

A Break

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting and something inside of me snapped. I was angry, really angry, for almost no reason and I immediately knew something had to change, and fast.

Within a few hours I had lined up some time off, a LOT of time off (for me anyway) – six weeks.

Jodi’s been trying to get me to see something for a few years now that I’ve been unable, or unwilling, to see: I have an unhealthy relationship with my work. It’s my last thought at night and my first thought in the morning, it invades my thoughts every hour of every day. It’s actually stressful to not be in constant touch with everything that happens with the team. My life orbits around my iPhone, my constant tether to the office.

So today I cut off all of my access to the office systems: social media accounts are controlled by someone else, email is being auto-deleted, Slack is gone and JIRA is gone. Right this moment I’m feeling a lot of anxiety around that in spite of the fact that it was my decision and I’ve had weeks to come to terms with it.

This all started to come to a head last year after we opened the doors to the roundhouse and it’s been getting worse every month. I knew it was coming too and I even engaged a coach to help me get ready for it. It still hit me like a ton of bricks. “You’re done Shawn, you’ve played your part in this big, amazing thing and now it’s over. The team has moved ahead of you and you’re playing catch-up. It’s time to choose, what are you going to do with your life now?”

I do my little bit in the community sometime I wonder if it’s only a distraction from work or is this something that I truly love? What part of that community sets my heart and mind on fire? Where does my passion intersect with my creativity and my utility? It’s time to look down some dark holes that I’ve been ignoring for far too long.

And what if this is just my lifetime companion making me feel this way?

Right now I only have questions but maybe the next six weeks will point me down the right path.

Here’s the part that’s going to suck: I’m going to miss the team intensely. I get to work with some incredibly talented, caring, intelligent people and that ain’t easy to leave behind. But my burnout is causing me to be short tempered and that’s not good for this team that I love (nor myself).

Monday I start seeing a councillor to try to help me deal with this shit and try to find out what Real Shawn looks like, because I only know Work Shawn now and that guy isn’t happy a lot of the time.

Let’s do this. Six weeks. Here we go.

Even the Dogs Know Ron

I’m not actually sure how long Ron was in our lives but I can still remember his face.

When I was a kid my folks broke up and my brother and I lived with my Mom. Dad was in the Canadian Forces and got transferred out west so it was just the 3 of us living together in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

My brother and I had Big Brothers for a while which was kind of nice. But after a while Mom met a really nice guy named Ron and they started dating (I guess that’s what it was, strange to think of my Mom dating now). I wasn’t even a teenager at the time but I remember spending time with Ron and I remember that he seemed to know pretty much everyone in the city, we couldn’t go anywhere without running into people that he knew and I only ever saw them greet him with a smile and a hearty handshake. My Mom used to say “even the dogs know Ron” regarding these frequent meetings.

I know now that having a man around when you’re barely 12 can have a formative effect on a kid. Ron always seemed like a stand-up guy and I’m sure that had some kind of impact on me.

And so it was for a while, Ron was often away as he worked in the oil industry doing exploratory drilling and he would be gone for many weeks and then back for weeks (I can’t recall the exact rotation) but it was good to see him return.

Then, in early 1982, Ron shipped off for another tour on the rig. It was the last time that I would see him alive.

At 7:00pm on February 14 his rig was struck by a rogue wave and his offshore drilling platform, the Ocean Ranger, was severely damaged. At 1:30am on February 15 the last communication came in, the crew was abandoning the platform. They were in the middle of a terrible storm just off the Grand Banks. There was probably never much hope for survivors, the Atlantic Ocean in the winter is an unforgiving place. All 84 souls were lost. Ron’s was one of the 22 bodies recovered.

Not long after a memorial service was held at the Basilica. I barely remember that day, it’s hard to know whether that’s just age or if it was grief but I do recall walking up to the side door of the church and seeing a dog, ownerless, quietly, sitting in front of the door.

A year after that Mom and Dad got back together and remain together to this day.

What’s the point? None really, I just woke up this morning and felt that I had to type that out.

(This whole blog is subject to change as I’m sure my Mom will refresh my 35 year old memories on this whole thing)

My Lifetime Companion*

I’ve lived with this guy for years. He & I used to have the most brutal fights imaginable. On 3 occasions he almost killed me.

When I was a teen he ruled my life. He was everywhere, all the time, screaming at me, insulting me, pulling me into the mud.

The first time he tried to kill me I got help and spent a month in the hospital. I decided that I had enough of his shit.

But there’s no shaking him. I’ve learned to live with him. Most days he stays at home by himself but some days he follows me.

Some days he’ll walks into the room when I’m laughing with my friends. Most days I’m lucky and he’ll just sit in the corner.

But sometimes he’ll whisper poison in my ear and sometimes he’ll slap me hard across the face. Fortunately not often.

And when my friends ask “what’s wrong” I’ll say “nothing” because that’s what we say isn’t it?

I’m on the wrong side of 45 now and I’ll live with him until I draw my last breath, because he is me. There’s no running away.

But knowing that gives me some kind of messed up certainty. I know there are fights ahead and I know when he’s in the room.

It’s taken decades but I’m stronger than he is now. I’ll have my moments of weakness and he’ll be there to take advantage.

But I’m a stubborn sunnovabitch and I’m not going to let him win. Of course … that’s the strong me talking isn’t it?

Tomorrow’s another day and I’ll face it as it comes. Because that’s life with my depression.

*I posted this on social media as part of Bell’s Let’s Talk effort but wanted to capture it here and World Mental Health Day seemed like a good occasion.

One Good Reason

A song just came up on my playlist and I felt compelled to write this.

Let me just say right away that I had strange taste in music as a teen (come to think of it … I have strange taste now too). My parents didn’t know who The Eagles were until the 21st century so I’m going to go ahead and blame them for that.

My recollection of all of this stuff is a bit foggy. Under the best of circumstances I don’t remember things well and these were far from the best circumstances.

As I’ve mentioned before, the 18th year of my life was bumpy, so much so that I almost didn’t have a 19th.

Immediately after my near death experience I drove to school and told my guidance councillor what I almost did. Not 5 minutes had passed and I was obviously in a pretty rough state. I told her what happened and she made a couple calls after calming me down a bit. Then we drove to the hospital.

I can’t remember a lot of the rest of the day but I checked in to the psychiatric ward. They probably asked if I’d try it again and I was certainly not in a state of mind to guarantee that I wouldn’t.

Over the course of the next 3 or 4 weeks I talked a lot and spent a lot of time by myself. I had a DiscMan with me and listened to music a lot but not a lot of music. I listened to one Paul Carrack CD for the most part.

Did I “get better”? No, not really. I was depressed and that’s not something that I’ve ever really left behind. There was no breakthrough from my time in the hospital, maybe all I needed was space. High school was a lot of noise, too many thoughts, too many pressures and my brain was ill-adapted to deal with all of that.

I checked myself out and got on with life. My friendships were never the same. Nobody knows how to deal with a kid who does something like that. One girl went so far as to write me a note saying that she needed to focus on her study and couldn’t deal with me anymore. That one still sticks with me.

I’ve had a couple of relapses since, including one close call a decade ago, but I live a very different life now. A rich life filled with excellent people, a fulfilling career and I’ve found a purpose.

The name of that Paul Carrack CD was One Good Reason and the chorus of the title song was:

Just give me one good reason baby
One good reason now
One good reason, I should
I should hang around

I have so many good reasons to hang around now. The darkness is only in the corners of my mind and heart now. Thank you to all of the wonderful people who fill my life with light and laughter.

And thank you Paul for keeping me company through the darkest time.