We Are Spirits, in the Material World
As promised, this week’s post is something different — the first ever Refound Annual Update. It was one year ago today when I hit publish on refound.com and took it live ... What I wanted to do today was to try — without writing a book about it — to share a bit of my personal story, which is of course inextricably intertwined with Refound’s (don’t you just love that phrase?). I wanted to see if I could share a bit more of the “Why?” of why I launched Refound, the problem I set out to try and solve, what I’ve learned from all of you over this past year, and the changes you’ll see in this coming one.
Here’s the punch line: I created Refound because I believe we are at a tipping point moment in human history — where the line between personal and professional growth is dissolving. And, that if we look closely, we’ll realize that that line is an illusion.
That realization started for me back in May of 2015. I was coming up on my four-year anniversary at E-Myth (the business coaching company behind the well-known book), first as it’s CEO and then as its Chief Brand Officer. It was a wild ride, for the first time in my career finding myself at the helm of a global brand, facing the challenge of trying to transform a forty-year-old business and having a large audience for my ideas on the blog, webinars, etc. It wasn’t any particular thing, but over time I noticed myself start to disengage.
I realized, as much as I was trying to say something new, that I was representing a brand and an industry that was built on a set of values and ideas about personal growth, spirituality, and the purpose of business that didn't speak to the deepest parts of me. I felt like I was diluting what I really believed about personal and spiritual growth to try and put it in a package people would buy. At the time, I didn’t see any other way.
Over that same period, I was involved with a spiritual/psychological teacher and philosophy that I genuinely believed in. It was the latest of the approaches I’d tried since diving headlong into my own growth journey back in 1998, the day I quit my day job as a junior associate in a big Manhattan law firm. When I go in, I go all the way — a strength that’s also a weakness — and so I went: Deep into Buddhist meditation, hardcore into yoga, training in somatic psychotherapy, studying alternative healing methods, and so on. I had jobs and ventures to pay the bills, but my heart was in the search.
It all came together in a strange way. As I was getting ready to move on from E-Myth, I'd made the difficult decision to put that spiritual teacher behind as well. It’s a story that would take a book to do justice, but the relevant part was this: Like all the other personal and spiritual traditions I’d explored over the years, it fell apart when it came to applying the ideas in the fast-paced, easy-to-get-overwhelmed, and hugely complex interpersonal dynamics of a modern business. And, perhaps more pointedly, it saw the material and business world as a necessary evil — the thing you did to pay the bills so you could do the ‘real work.'
I was trapped without realizing it. In my professional life, I felt like I had to leave essential elements of who I was out of the equation for fear of scaring people away. In my personal/spiritual growth life, I felt like I had to deny or apologize for my worldly ambitions for fear of polluting the quest.
I wanted to do deep inner work AND have work that was an expression of my truest self AND have that work make a positive impact on the world around me AND make a great living doing it.
At the time, it felt like I’d just crashed and burned on all fronts. That is, until my wife Aleks asked me the one question that changed everything. ‘What if it’s a gift?”, she said. Seeing that I wasn’t quite getting it, she went on: “What if now you can share your experience in a way you couldn't before, that by living that split all the way out and seeing how it doesn’t ultimately work you can help people avoid that for themselves? Thank you, my love.
She helped me own something else along the way too. The truth is that I had already begun to change in the two years leading up to that time. I had started to manage and lead my team from a different place. I was listening more, slowing down, and challenging myself to mentor in a far more personal way than I'd taken the risk to do before. And the best part was that those qualities were translating to the rest of my life — I was becoming a better husband and father at the same time. I didn’t have a language for it, and it was far from a straight line, but I was becoming refound. That's where the name comes from.
The tumblers in the lock started to fall from there. I began to question the core assumptions I’d been holding without realizing it. I started with a new assumption, that there must be some belief — some sacred cow in me — that was keeping me split. In the end, I realized it was the same thing that was bothering me about the coaching industry all those years, why it felt limiting to me. It all conspired to a moment where I was willing to ask myself one question which turned into a series of them, a place that I hadn't yet dared to go.
What if we — what if I — have been doing it backward all along? What if trying to figure out who you are on the weekend —psychologically, emotionally, spiritually — and then trying to bring that to work on Monday is the problem? What if personal development, emotional maturity, and self-actualization are impossible if they're not interwoven with the work you're doing out in the world? What if that’s the very purpose of work in this new meaning-driven economy, and why no matter how hard we try most company cultures are still such stifling places to work? And that raises and promotions are an awesome, wonderful, but, in the end, secondary effect of the work you do on yourself to become a better teammate, a more transparent leader, a more direct communicator, and so on. And, finally, what the heck would that world look like: where personal and professional growth were one thing, and not two?
The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became with the prevailing wisdom on employee engagement and company culture. I'm not the only one trying to offer a different way, but the industry I’m part of is mostly treating personal and spiritual growth as a fad — a new fangled perk to do the same old thing: to get better business results. And in that way, nothing changes: The business still comes first. It's still not about the individual human being and helping them grow, as the primary motive. That’s what’s interesting to me, and the experiment that Refound is embarking upon.
In the same vein, the marketing of traditional personal growth and spiritual paradigms in the corporate and HR world is accelerating. You see more and more people aggressively advertising serene and beautiful practices like meditation and yoga as the latest strategy to achieve higher performance and productivity. If you’ve ever studied either of these traditions in any of their many variants, you get how cosmically thick that irony is.
In the months leading up to my decision to leave, and without a personal path on the side, the fire to write a book about all this started to flicker in me. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time but was never quite sure what I would write about. But I knew that I needed to create a new platform — a blank slate — to give this idea a fighting chance. I put in my notice, took a few weeks off, and then went to work.
I wanted to see if I could create a brand and business that did the one thing I’d never seen done, the thing that was missing from my life. I wanted to see if I could create a method from the work I'd started doing in those last years — a way of managing people and leading teams that brought the personal and professional together in a way that honored the human being at the center. And as committed as I am to building a business that goes beyond me, to be willing to put my story out there as an example of the messy and non-linear process that it takes to become a leader who puts the growth of others at the top of the agenda.
So that brings us back to today, and the concrete things I want to share with you as I looked back on this first year and plan for the second. There have been many good signs along the way. It's been incredibly rewarding to see how these ideas, and the questions and conversations they've started with many of you, are having an impact. The metric I’m most proud of in this first year is that the unsubscribe rate from this email list is less than 1% (and right behind that is the open rate on the blog, running at 40% which if you’re not a marketer is outrageously good). Whether you ever spend a dollar with me, know that you inspire me every time you open an email, letting me know that these ideas are striking a chord with you, speaking to something you feel is missing in our world too.
I don’t have a formal mission statement for Refound, but it’ll probably end up sounding something like this: To give you everything you need to have life-changing conversations with each human being on your team.
I have no idea what the next year will bring. It’s the first time in my life that I’m putting my ideas out there without anyone sanctioning them — without a famous founder or a charismatic spiritual teacher telling me I'm on the right track. For the people who know me well, I come across as confident and clear of what I see and where I’m going. That’s true about me in some way; I've always had some core belief in myself. And as I've gotten older I've learned to embrace how scary it is to put myself out in the world, to risk rejection, to fall and pick myself up and try again. It’s coming in handy these days because I’m scared, excited, nervous and curious all at the same time.
Thanks for reading.