I’ve been traveling around like a mad thing over the past 6 weeks and took some time off from work at Escape the City to do it.
It wasn’t so much the meandering, say-yes-to-your-adventure kind of travel, but more of the recovery kind. An attempt to make good on important stuff I’d been neglecting. Loved ones back at home. My parents. My brother and sister. My 92-year-old grandpa who was in the hospital (he’s out now). Hometown friends. And largely, myself.
I’m okay and everything is great — I just needed to heed my own advice: zoom out and check back in with my motivations for everything. It was the classic taking a step back from working in my life to work on it.
It’s been a full-throttle two and half years.
Since moving to London to join Escape the City, the startup has grown from 6 people to over 16 (maybe more since I’ve been away!). We launched a friggin’ school in heart of London. At least ten thousand people have come through our doors to attend talks, workshops, meetups, and courses. We’ve designed education programs that have helped hundreds of people pursue more fulfilling work and/or start businesses.
From a business perspective, in 2015 Escape turned over £1 million in revenue, more than its first five years combined. There are buzzing Escape communities in New York, Munich, Madrid, Rome and elsewhere. It’s incredible really.
There’s a hunger for this stuff. It’s not just a hobby or a fad; it’s a damn movement and we’re lucky enough to be part of that conversation. There’s a huge societal — probably cosmic — shift going on in the world. I’m sure it’s way bigger than any of us can fathom. This is the stuff I dreamed about being a part of while standing in a Serbian kitchen four years ago. And to be doing this alongside people I respect and admire — wow, what an honor.
This stuff comes at a cost though.
The work is rewarding and exciting and powerful, but like anything transformational, it’s also deeply emotional. And running hellbent toward something way way bigger than yourself can take you to new heights and dark depths.
One moment sits in my mind. It was February 2015 and we were midway through an Escape Tribe program that I was leading. Rob Archer, a career psychologist and one of our core teachers, was about to facilitate a session on mindset and psychological resilience.
I pull him aside. I’m near tears.
“I’m having a hard time with this, Rob. I’m absorbing everyone’s challenges, their stuckness, their pain, their suffering.”
A few days earlier I had broken down and was sobbing on a bench to my girlfriend. What was happening? I literally had no clue why I was crying. But as I began to talk, stuff came out. I just wanted everyone to be well. I wanted to fix everybody.
I know what they’re going through. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I care about this work.
I felt personally responsible to cure everyone of their pain. Of course, I couldn’t do that. I can’t do that. But that didn’t stop me from absorbing what felt like the whole world’s concerns like a sponge. I wanted to detach.
“Don’t detach. Go deep into that. Give yourself to it. Just also make sure to give yourself recovery time.”
As Rob spoke his eyes opened to reveal another deeper level. A soulful level. He felt me. He understood.
I joined Escape as an inspiring story, a role model of sorts. My transition from IBM consultant to writer to publisher to [fill-in-the-blank-project] resonated with people. I was sometimes called an “Escape poster child” for embodying the principles and practices we preached. In that role I was able to help a lot of people come alive, gain clarity on their own direction, and put exciting new career steps in motion.
As the business morphed, so did my role. I became part coach, part teacher, part therapist, part camp counsellor – while simultaneously wearing a business, marketing, sales, and product development hat to design and sell the programs we were running. It was challenging and rewarding in equal measure. And it was happening so rapidly I hardly noticed it. It was taking me into new professional heights and equally, deep emotional depths.
I wasn’t alone. One of our co-founders Rob Symington wrote in detail about his burnout experience. I won’t say I went full blown burn out, or even half way there (here’s an article Rob shared about The 12 Stages of Burnout), but this much is clear: we’re playing with fire here. And if we don’t look after ourselves, learn to love ourselves unconditionally, better understand when we’re about to break — it can be scary business. Like Rob says:
All I know is that the experience of burning out this year has shown me that an entire way of operating was unsustainable to me and has forced me to look my demons in the eye.
It’s one thing to be at a startup where goalposts are constantly shifting, the landscape perpetually morphing. It’s quite another to be in a startup whose business model is centered around helping people wrestle with life’s biggest questions.
Who knows–maybe this is the new normal. Maybe business will look more like this going forward. Small agile teams working on big hairy problems that matter. That’s fine, as long as we learn to take the time we need to recenter ourselves and not kill ourselves in the process.
After what felt like a two and a half year sprint, I was due for recovery time. Time to recenter myself. Time to remember: Why am I here? What is my intention? What’s this story, my story, all about?
It was time to enter the woods again. This time for realz.
For 11 days in August I entered the wild woods of the San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado to begin something called a vision quest. It was with an author and guide I admire, Bill Plotkin of Nature and The Human Soul and Soulcraft, among other books, along with nine other participants and three other guides.
It was total immersion in nature, including four days of fasting from food and three days fasting from other humans. The vision quest is a rite of passage made popular by Native Americans but practiced the world over in some way by most early human civilizations.
The temptation for me is to try to explain my experience in words, but I’m afraid I cannot. Some of my experiences, like Rilke says, remain “like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” The words simply aren’t there yet.
There are practical things I can and want to share about the quest — important stuff because I believe we all could use more nature-based quest-like experiences in our lives — but that’s a post for another day. For now I’ll leave you with this, my intention for the quest.
I went to the woods, on my vision quest, because I wished to recommit to my own unique path. A path that only I can know (even if, like books in foreign tongues, it remains largely hidden).
I also went in an act to deepen the work I’ve been doing on myself over the last four years since I started this blog. Another notch on the lifelong pursuit to know myself, improve myself, and better understand my unique place in the world.
In part, I’m recommitting to my path as a writer, a creator, a sharer of stories. I’m tired of denying it. I’m sick of avoiding it, dancing around it. When I sit down to write, when I dig into some experience or thought or question that catches me, when I share something I’ve learned with you all — it fills me up like nothing else.
The problem is, I block myself. I hold my writing on such a high pedestal that I have a hard time sharing stuff consistently. Days, weeks, months go by and I don’t share. Worse, I don’t write. It’s Steven Pressfield’s Resistance. It’s self-sabotage. It’s fear. It’s all of those things.
Of course, I shouldn’t need to say I’m recommitting. I should just do it. So I’m not going to make any big commitments or promises to you, but I will leave you with the intent: to write more, more regularly, and continue to improve my craft as a writer. I have big dreams. To write big and powerful stories. Stories read the world over. Stories lit up on big screens. Stories that touch hearts, expand minds, and move feet. That requires doing the work.
Knowing that you’re on the other side of this email, hearing my intention, it helps. So, thank you. I guess my only request, at least at this moment, is your continued support.
(Of course if you want to help with the upkeep of my site and the handwritten postcards I send to new subscribers, I’d appreciate that too! You can donate here.)
My hope is that in being open and honest about my personal pursuit to better understand myself, my place in the world, to reach my own potential — it helps you find comfort in yours.
If GiveLiveExplore is about anything, it’s about the pursuit. It’s about my pursuit. And it’s about your pursuit.
And when things get hard, as they sometimes will, it’s okay to take a breather, recenter and check back in with yourself. After all – if you don’t, who else will?