Learning to Make Good.
An extended bio, a half-apology for my youth and a full embrace of success on your own terms.
When my mother had cervical cancer in 1989, it was clear I would remain an only child. She survived, my parents divorced, and my mom set her eyes on continuing her education and advancing her career. She went to night school to finish her Bachelor’s and obtain her Master’s, and she hoped that by encouraging my creativity she might solve the problem of child care by enabling me to entertain myself. I wrote poems and songs, took drum lessons and practiced endlessly, read books aloud to myself and played them back on cassettes, and was, briefly but famously (among my friends and family at least), the host of The Erick Show, southeast Oklahoma City’s most infamous late night talk show that no one ever saw. My interviewees included my stuffed animals or my dog and cat (my imaginary audience always loved when those two would get riled up), musical guests were vinyl records I’d introduce and cue up, and sometimes I’d even sit in with the band, singing my own songs or playing along with the records on a guitar or drums.
The Erick Show is what led me to realize that I had a passion for speaking in front of people and creating meaningful conversations, I just didn’t get the people or the substance until later. It was authentically me.
My first job after college was terrible — one of those scam So-and-So Marketing Groups that didn’t actually have a product to sell, just salespeople to drum up business that could eventually justify hiring someone with the ability to create. I was hired to write, record and edit radio commercials, develop new client relationships and spark the team’s creativity. What I actually did was sell the billboard space outside of Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Bricktown, using my own cell phone and laptop to call upon friends and family from the lobby of a shared office space. Once, I recorded a commercial for a client using the headphones of an iPod Nano, plugged into the input jack on a laptop which inverts the signal from speaker to microphone. The script? Written on a napkin in pencil at lunch. Noise bounced through the halls of the shared workspace, phones ringing and footsteps clanging. I wrote something snarky on my blog about that experience, then quit — disenchanted and ashamed — after 30 days.
Oh yeah, my blog.
You should probably know about this because it was a landmark of my early days, and there are clear traces of my personality that stem from this era. I took a creative writing class in 2004 and our semester project was to start a “web log”, a new online journaling idea that was maybe going to gain momentum. While most of the class built something generic on Blogger, I built my own website from scratch, branded it — The Inner Monologue — bought the domain (theinnermonologue.com — you can find scraps on The Internet Archive still if you dig) and built a relentless writing habit — I published hundreds of posts, ranging all sorts of topics, with keyword tagging and shareable links long before that was a thing. It became the homepage of my university’s computer labs and received hundreds of hits a day. It went to my head.
I was always candid and always talked about things that entertained people, but the more it grew the more provocative I became as a writer. I wrote about our rival fraternity’s secret rituals — handshakes, door knocks, pass-phrases — and the university received complaints that students were busting into the fraternity’s weekly private meetings by pretending to be alumni. I wrote about the things we all think about in sexual encounters and in dating that no one wanted to discuss. I did surveys and focus groups to gauge opinion on classes, teachers and pop culture. I decided to leverage my blog for my senior thesis, and launched content marketing and advertising strategies to see what brought in more traffic and more money. At its peak, the blog averaged more than 200,000 hits a week, and leveled off to an average of about 8,000 unique visitors each day after the height of the experiment.
So where is it now, this masterpiece I created?
I was told if I didn’t remove it, I’d be kicked out of my private university. I couldn’t move it, I couldn’t start a new one, I couldn’t do one anonymously; the agreement was that I would remove it entirely and not write anymore until I graduated. So I did. Then, six weeks after graduation, my hard drive crashed (this is before the backup drive or cloud storage days) and I lost all the original posts, designs and comments. It’s just a memory now, but it’s one of the first stories college friends ask me to tell when we run into each other, even still.
The Inner Monologue was a resounding success but it was undoubtably inauthentic, crass and built to generate conversation and controversy. The hangover from it was real — I felt addicted to the attention, and without it, I realized I had no idea who I was, because I hadn’t made authenticity a priority for a very long time.
I spent several years after my bad experience at So-and-So Marketing Group working in retail, lamenting that I’d never escape it and that my life, time and skills were being wasted. I was so focused on what other people thought of me — that I was wasting my education, that I was a failure, that I wasn’t worthy of the love I had been given — that I didn’t notice that the skills I was accumulating would be invaluable to me in advertising, marketing and life, and that the efforts I made to listen to customers would be crucial to building new relationships and developing meaningful engagements with the people I’d meet every day.
When I got my first real job in advertising — one that was offered to me not because of my resume or my portfolio, but because someone who didn’t have anything to gain took time to give an unqualified person a chance— I thought I’d actually earned it. My ego convinced me that I’d been immensely qualified the whole time and someone finally noticed. I came in cocky, entitled and ready to take over the world. I pretended a lot. And for awhile, I excelled, mostly by accident or chance.
I was a very bad leader because I was a very good mimic.
I thought success was imitating your boss, and for a very long time, I had a very bad boss. I found success in betraying my team’s confidence, in embracing drama and gossip, in doublespeak and bullshitting. My intentions were to impress someone, not to do good work. I thought I was at my best when I was up against a wall, fists out, fighting my way out of a room in an effort to “protect my team,” or “defend the cause.” My wife pointed out to me that this behavior that I thought showed my leadership was actually what showed my biggest weaknesses: defensiveness, indecisiveness, inauthenticity and people-pleasing. She gave me the most pivotal advice of my career:
When everyone else is fired up, be calm. When everyone else is on autopilot, dial in and take control. When everyone else is freaking out, be the voice of reason. When everyone else is talking, listen, then when everyone else is listening, talk.
That advice signaled the turning point in my career and the moment when I discovered that I could not trade my authenticity for success. In embracing authenticity, I ultimately failed at that job — or I thought I did, for a time. Now I see the dozens of people who have succeeded elsewhere and I am so unbelievably proud to have been even a small piece of their stories.
Now, as my wife and I grow in our marriage and in our careers, we’re realizing there’s another piece of this puzzle. Looking back on the last several years, we see that we’ve wasted a lot of our time, energy and skills on the wrong people, places and things. We need new nouns. We’ve failed each other by not taking enough time for each other, for not pursuing what we love and for not connecting to things we care about. In our effort to set criteria for how to fix this, we stumbled on a game-changer:
Authenticity + good intentions = success.
We found the missing piece, and we found the importance of pairing these things together. There are plenty of authentic assholes, bullshitting or steamrolling or manipulating their way to a corner office, an impressive title or a big payout. And there are plenty of people phoning it in with good intentions, doing what they’re told, following the rules, dressing the way they’re supposed to, showing up at the right place at the right time, but it’s not them. Their hearts aren’t in it.
Authenticity and good intentions make a very powerful and meaningful combination.
Focus on these things in your own lives, in your career and in your relationships, and I believe you’ll find success.
That perspective triggered my recommitment to a pay-it-forward mentality I had always preached but never practiced with any real authenticity. It’s the parallel of my own first big break—giving someone else a shot when there was nothing in it for me. Earnestly connect with college students, interns, young professionals in classrooms or networking groups or personal friendships, coworkers and peers and bosses and strangers and anyone who made eye contact. Invest in them.
I needed to do my part to make good things happen for good people. And you know what? So do you.
In learning to focus on the right things, I rediscovered my authenticity. In learning to help others, I discovered my good intentions. And in empowering others, I have learned to combine those things into what I define as success.
So here’s my advice to you, dear reader, wherever you are on your journey, whatever you’re struggling with, take time to refocus and reprioritize. Shift your gaze to how you can make good people wherever you go, whatever you do. Make good neighbors. Make good communities. Make good voters. Make good students. Make good graduates. Make good interns. Make good employees. Make good coworkers. Make good presentations. Make good meetings. Make good listeners. Make good problem-solvers. Make good writers. Make good networkers. Make good teams. Make good on the values you say you care about. Make good on the promises you’ve made to yourself. Make good on the success you’ve attained by helping the next person along. Make good on the opportunities you’ve been given by giving them to others. Make good on the lessons you’ve learned — like how to overcome the stigma of “not making it” right out of college, underestimating your worth, your skills and your experiences, whether you obtained them at an Ivy League school or a big agency or a community college or a coffeeshop or a warehouse — by taking time for others who are struggling with the same thing.
Make your own success by making others successful.
I’m going to set the same expectation for you, dear reader, that I set for everyone I meet for coffee, every intern I have ever interviewed or hired, and every person I agree to spend meaningful time with: You are now part of this circuit, and I expect you to answer the phone when someone reaches out to you for an opportunity.
Let’s make good — everywhere we go, in everything we do, every chance we get.