We Didn’t Set Out To Be Assholes, by Jason Garner

This is a post by Jason Garner, reposted here with permission by the author. See the original post at Jason’s blog and check out his book, And I Breathed.

I don’t have many memories of my dad … other than his leaving. I have feelings, the ones I buried deep inside me, the ones I’ve cried about and learned to embrace in therapy, yoga, and meditation. I remember the fear ― lying in bed listening to my dad yell at my mom, throwing plates and breaking things as I clutched my Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animal, the one with the little red shirt and “Pooh” written across the chest in yellow cursive letters. I remember the confusion — wondering why my daddy didn’t love my mommy. I remember the abandonment — not quite believing my mom as she explained to me the divorce wasn’t my fault. I remember always feeling that maybe, somehow, if I’d been a little better … a little smarter … I could have figured out a way to keep them together. Or perhaps at an even deeper level, had I been a little more lovable maybe my dad wouldn’t have left me.

The day my dad packed his bags, he inadvertently packed my stuffed animals with his things. One of the few clear memories I have is going to visit him about a year after the divorce to pick up old my friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. My dad had remarried and was living with his new wife and her children. I went to my dad’s new house that day under the auspices of picking up Winnie-the-Pooh, but at a much deeper level than I was willing to admit at the time, I went there to see this new family he’d chosen over ours. I remember watching him joke and play, effortlessly, with those other kids … the ones he’d picked to love instead of me. And I remember sitting in the car on the ride home, crying and clutching the only thing I had at the time … Winnie-the-Pooh. Years later my therapist asked me if that moment was confusing for me, if my little boy mind was confused about the adult nature of divorce, about moving on and creating new families. “No,” I said. “It was all very clear.” I remember my therapist looking at me curiously. “What was clear?” Through a flood of tears I told her the truth that had lived inside me all those years as I clawed my way to success. You see, that night on the ride home, holding Winnie-the-Pooh in my arms, I understood, once and for all, that I wasn’t lovable. That day, watching my dad with those other boys, had given me all the evidence my broken little heart needed ― why else would my daddy choose to love them and not me?

Let’s take a few deep breaths together. Can you go there with me? Can you let go a bit and meet me in that place of insecurity? Breathe and walk with me now. Feel the desire of a little child to just be loved. Not an adult desire, but the longing of a tender little boy, yearning for the love of his daddy. Find a place in your own life where this is real. Can you connect with me there? Let’s breathe again together. Really breathe.

I think, in many ways, I became a leader to erase that pain. Running around the office holding Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t quite work for grown-up boys. Instead, I grabbed hold of greatness. Not for greatness sake, but because I knew the great ones got to choose their own teams – they never get left out. My dad had chosen his team, and I was left sitting alone with my teddy bear. So from that day forward, I never gave life a chance to do that to me again. I became the chooser. The captain on the elementary school yard, the smartest kid in class, the supervisor of the flea market parking lot, the concert promoter, the executive, the CEO OF GLOBAL MUSIC … the guy even the stars had to play with. I wanted to be so big, so important, that no one would ever, in their wildest imagination, think of leaving me behind again. They couldn’t, because I was in control. Or so I thought.

I revisited this sensation this week as I read the Amazon exposé in The New York Times, the unflattering portrayal of the company and its founder and leader Jeff Bezos. I read the accounts of staff crying at their desks, employees pitted against one another, and an environment that drove people to the breaking point in a quest to dominate the global retail market. It was sad … the kind of story that makes you hate business and despise business leaders. After all the work that Bezos has done to create Amazon as a trusted brand, the story left me with a lone word to describe him and it … asshole.

It’s easy to judge when we encounter someone or something that’s not in line with our values. Doing so is one of the ways we know ourselves – like a submarine’s sonar system, we ping off of our surroundings constantly. We create labels and descriptions and, in defining others, we define ourselves as the contrast between them and us. After reading that article my sonar had decided that Jeff Bezos was an asshole and that I was … well … something along the lines of a saint.

While contrast is human nature, it’s also dangerously intoxicating for the ego. And just as my ego was about to do a victory lap around the track of spiritual elitism, my teacher, Guru Singh, showed up. I don’t mean he actually walked into the room; instead he popped through the door of my mind the way Kramer used to pop through Jerry Seinfeld’s door. In he walked, orange turban, long beard, white robes, jangling bracelets and all. With a naughty sparkle in his eye and a sly, challenging tone in his voice he asked me … no … challenged me with, “Find yourself in the other … how are you Jeff Bezos, Jason?”

Where contrast is easy, finding similarities in those with whom we disagree isn’t quite as satisfying for the ego. But it’s a task that Guru Singh and my other teachers have challenged me to do again and again over the last few years – see yourself in the other. So I looked inside the way they’ve taught me to. I went back to the days when I sat at my desk feeling the pressure to perform, to meet my numbers, to be the best. I remembered the stress, the constant pressure to succeed, and the immense fear that accompanied it. I remembered the people I pushed and prodded. I recalled the times that I’d made others cry. And all the decisions I’d made under the auspices of “winning” but were actually motivated by a deep fear of failure, of losing my mask and perhaps, most of all, the fear that if I let up even a little, everything I’d worked so hard to build would come crumbling down on top of me and I’d go back to being that little boy sitting with his Pooh wondering why daddy didn’t love him. I couldn’t bear to go back there, so I too had acted like an asshole (and the truth is, there are probably times when I still do.)

Then I re-read that Times article. I began to wonder if Jeff Bezos felt that fear. I wondered if, while I chose global music to hide my pain, he perhaps chose global domination for the same reason. I wondered if all the pushing and prodding and demanding greatness of his team is just a cover for a little boy who doesn’t want to be left out … who just wants to be loved and doesn’t know how. In the article there was a clue, a sentence or two that provided a glimpse into his heart. When Jeff was 10, the article said, he’d made his grandmother cry. Not because he was mean, but because she smoked and that scared him, so he’d calculated the number of years she had already cut off her life by smoking. He told her she was going to die with such bluntness that she’d cried. At 10 years old he was already holding his world together, figuring it alone, scaring family members into doing what he wanted, defining his worth … just as I had mine.

I don’t think any of us set out to be assholes. That’s just not the way human nature works. Instead, we start out on a path in hopes of doing something great, to be someone special, to leave our mark on the world … all in an effort to be loved. We want to help our grandmothers not smoke, to make our dads love us, to show society we’re good enough. We hope to inspire, to lead others to take away some of the pain in the world, and to ease the pain we intimately know in ourselves. But then we get lost. We forget the mission, we lose sight of the why, and, we get trapped in the how. Numbers and plans and quarterly returns take precedence over our hearts. And soon we begin looking like the assholes we set out to never be. That’s true for me, I think it’s probably true for most of you at some point, in one way or another, and I wonder if it isn’t true for Jeff Bezos. If he hasn’t forgotten why, and gotten lost in how. That’s not an excuse for bad behavior, nor is it a way of absolving him or ourselves of the responsibility to play nice. Instead it’s a way of understanding our way back – by seeing where we got lost we can find the path home.

This is important because at the heart of all of these stories linger some serious questions for us all:

Is it possible to succeed at business and not be an asshole?

Can I have both love and money?

How can I truly live while I make a living?

Those are big questions for which I don’t have all the answers. I’ve climbed the mountain, had a look around, and learned some things along the way up … and down. And while I don’t have a magic solution, I have learned some tools. Tools for filling the hole. Tools for uncovering the love. Tools for returning to why and not getting quite as lost in the how. Tools to remember that underneath all the hopes and dreams and behind all the planning and striving is the simple desire of a little child to be loved.

This is what my daily practice has given me – tools to experience that love. A dedicated time (or times) each day when I sit down and remember to be present to my needs and to love me. Not the title, or the job, or even the hopes and dreams, but me. The way I used to hug little Winnie-the-Pooh, I now hold myself as I stretch, meditate, and nurture my body.

There’s a little bit of asshole in us all. I think we know that’s true. We didn’t set out to behave like that, we didn’t hope to one day grow up and act like bullies. We just get lost along the way; while desperately looking to feel loved, we sometimes get drunk on the power, lost in the struggle, or blinded by success and we lose our way.

This week I invite you to join me as we find our way home and reconnect to our why. Sit with me … stretch yourself beyond the tactics, close your eyes, meditate, and allow your why to shine, nurture your body with nutrient-dense foods, and feel the power of love fill your being. And then, from a place of balance and wholeness, go out and share that with the world. We all have dreams of greatness, but there is nothing greater than who you already are … all you have to do is find your way home.

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