Interview Part 3: Sweat, Elephants, and an Acrostic Poem


Next—P I believe: Be present.

I grew up in a war.  I also trained as a fiction writer.   What both experiences have in common is they nourish an impulse to park the mind in a different place than the body and live with some inner distance or disconnect.  With war it’s basic survival.  Fiction writers just feel compelled to apprehend or explore or comprehend experience—which leaves some part of their brains observing at a distance.  Great for being reflective.  Not so great for being in-the-moment.  Disconnecting while wearing lots of hats [as navigator/engineer/mechanic of a half-built mid-flight airborne venture] gets problematic.

My employees laugh at my absentmindedness.  Almost every time I stop in at the kitchen I leave something important—like the checkbook—behind.  It’s a little ritual for one of them to come charging out after me as I’m driving off.   I’m sure they are laughing their heads off in there.  I’m happy to play the fool, but when it’s because my mind moved on without me, it’s not very efficient.  And if my mind wanders off into a field of worries and negative thoughts related to the risk and unknowns of what we are doing—that’s what one of my mentors calls “ruminating.”

A brain, at pasture, chewing cud.  Hence: be present.  Body and brain under one hat at a time.  In other words, don’t start writing a grant (or blog) at the same time that you’re balancing the checkbook. And no phone calls to order flax seeds when I’m picking my kid up from school.

So what helps:  My solutions are pretty primitive—mainly just sweat.  I extract it at the Boston Sports Club. I once heard Gary Hirshberg [the founder of Stonyfield Farm yogurt] talk about playing tennis at midnight to deal with the financial stress of starting a business.  He was very entertaining about the wonders it can do for your marriage to wallop a yellow ball.  But he’s an extrovert.  The extroverts at Boston Sports Club take spin classes.  Honestly, I would much rather climb in a vat of honey and then stand on an anthill than take a spin class.  If you ever need an instant way to determine if someone is an extrovert or an introvert, just offer them a spin class. Introverts put in earbuds and bond with a cardio machine off in the corner.  And, just to be clear, the cardio machine is one place my brain is welcome to drift wherever it wants to go.  For some reason it can’t chew cud when my body is sweating.  I usually zone out to a podcast and let that steady, relentless left-right-left-right motion, while dripping in sweat, do it’s magic.  I’ve put a lot of sweat equity into this non-profit this year.

By the way, did you know that your Boston Sports Club employs several resettled refugees? I did know that. It’s one reason I go there.

My other little trick is to take a short piece of music and listen to it very closely.  It feels like a form of meditation or prayer if I can manage to lose myself in it.  Don’t ask which piece.  That’s a trade secret.  Actually there are two.  The first is 1 minute 45 seconds which leads into the second which is 2 minutes, 40 seconds.  Performed by a Swiss flautist.

Ah, don’t you love that word?  Yes, it makes me feel incredibly cultured.  I work out.  Then I go to the sauna. Usually it’s empty.  Sauna’s are great for introverts too.  There’s some type of taboo against talking.  I close my eyes. I listen to my flautist.  I sweat. Four minutes, 26 seconds including one for the gap between songs.  I can hear him breathe. It’s like entering some type of slow-motion hyperspace. If I get distracted, I can always try again.

And the U?  Be unashamed.  I’m trying to accept that a start-up is not the place for a perfectionist.  And a crash isn’t out of the question.  And shame—shame is like the elephant in the Spiriva commercial, lumbering along behind, always shadowing risk and potential failure. If he could, he’d like to camp out on my chest.  I'm also learning that non-profits are very conservative animals. They don’t enjoy risk or disruption or the high seas of capitalism.  I’ve spent most of my career in non-profits, so I know that’s me too.  I wonder if it’s because a lot of non-profits want to honor and protect donated dollars.  But protecting [dollars] can easily become burying them in the mud where they can’t do any good.  I’ve heard that most larger foundations really struggle to pay out 5% of their assets every year.  They have to vet and run credit checks and design RFPs and pay experts to do all this, and this makes them increasingly conservative.  Meanwhile, entrepreneurship requires a pretty high toleration for risk.  Financial risk, reputation risk.  A taste for that adrenaline.  If Beautiful Day is going to be a successful social venture that pays for 80% of our job training costs with sales, then we need to figure out how to kick ass as a business.  So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’ve had some lucky breaks.  We’ve made a lot of progress.  We’ve introduced a new product this year that we hope could put us in all the local coffee shops.  But here’s the reality: 80% of new consumer products fail.  Nearly 90% of those backed by small businesses fail. I’d be frightened to see statistics for products backed by under-resourced, social-venture, non-profit hybrids. So even our existence is a risk.  The last two years have been among the most financially risky of my life.  That makes me feel a bit nutty.  If this thing fails I’m sure it will be very difficult.  I’ll be disappointed. It will be easy to be embarrassed.

So are you explaining why investment support is hard to find or wrestling with shame at the personal level?  Both.  They’re interconnected.  We’ve chosen to be in business, because we think it’s the best possible model to accomplish our mission.  It provides the job experiences we need to offer, while the business revenue could end up paying for most of our mission.  We absolutely have to be a non-profit—yet one that thinks and acts and tolerates risk like a business.  Like I said, there aren’t a lot of blueprints, so sometimes we feel a bit crazy.  At our board meeting this week we were tossing around the question of which we need more:  a development specialist or a marketing specialist. I guess I'm figuring out how to be comfortable with that.

And why do it?  The problems we’re tackling are really important.  Federal and state governments are pouring incredible resources into unemployment and underemployment and (so called) low-skill labor.  I love how potentially efficient and effective our approach is.   I have no doubt that refugees—and possibly many other vulnerable populations—would prefer a paycheck from us rather than a welfare check or a class about workplace etiquette.  I'm not against welfare.  But when someone is dying to work but just doesn’t know how, or can’t get in the door, then that check can be just as discouraging as it is necessary.   Somehow we’ve got to connect this need for a work onramp to the consumer—to the population at large.  And we’re off to a good start.  Where else other than Rhode Island does the average granola aficionado realize that refugees are being resettled around the corner and they can play a part in welcoming them.  This is reverse marketing.  The product markets the mission.  As our bars get into coffee shops, more people will be learning about and connecting with an important vulnerable population.  That’s a pretty big accomplishment for some granola.

So how do you be unashamed? It’s getting easier.  I preach at myself from time to time.  Once a minister always a minister, I guess.  I keep one of the Hebrew Psalms above my desk that’s all about shame. It’s an acrostic poem—basically an elaborate left-brain, carefully engineered piece of art.  But the tag line before it starts is “Of David.  When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.”  For some reason that inspires me.  Maybe I’m acting crazy.  Maybe this whole idea is crazy.  But it’s kind of working, too.  We’re growing.  We have a board now, so we get to act and think crazy together.  We’re churning out granola this week like you wouldn't believe.  For our new granola bar wrapper, we chose to put a bear on a bicycle.  It seemed like an appropriate image to fit the risk and craziness and fun of what we're doing.  (And for sure, elephants don't belong on snack food wrappers.)  And even if we fail—if we get driven away—I hope it will have been worth trying.  If it works it could make a big difference in a lot of peoples’ lives, and not just refugees—other vulnerable populations, too, plus everyone who connects and welcomes and gets to know them.  That’s something to be unashamed about.

If it fails? I’m going to take up writing acrostic poems.

Are we done?  Hmm.  Let me think.  It doesn't seem like much of a conclusion.  But let's finish later.