Stories

Once Upon A Time...

Personal Brand

I’ve had the good honor to know some great people.

Grinders.

Like my friend, Ryan.

Enter the Terminator

He was an instructor of Muay Thai when I was a student. Before I was his boss. But things didn’t change. Before or after.

He was a fighter. Branded a Terminator. That was his name. Thus, that’s the way he fought: Always forward, always on offense. Unfeeling. A machine. One mission. Chopping leg kicks, demoralizing body kicks, knees, elbows, smash.

Game over.

One of the hardest things for the guy was finding fights. Not a lot of opponents wanted to face him, a common problem for the guys who are great but not yet at the major league level.

He was like Inigo Montoya, except without the singular goal of vengeance, just the itching boredom and existential crisis of not making it, of not taking it, higher.

He patiently watched as the UFC and Strikeforce exploded onto the mainstream, quietly wondering why an exciting striking art like Muay Thai was still such a fringe sport.

Eventually, he came to a crossroads.

Retire or evolve.

He decided to get to work.

While he was a world-class striker, he was a novice in the ground game, a necessary component in today’s mixed martial arts. A strong clincher from a decade of practicing Thailand’s national sport, his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game was almost non-existent. BJJ allows a person the unique ability to be dangerous while lying on their back, traditionally a very vulnerable position. BJJ allows a much smaller person to be quite formidable in defending themselves, often being able to counterintuitively use their opponent’s bigger size as an asset and not as a liability.

I couldn’t get into it. I respect the heck out of it, and know a few things, but at the end of the day, getting strangled by people ain’t my bag. I understood, I got, liver kicks, not blood chokes.

But anyway, I’d see Ryan, working with the BJJ team. Getting tapped out. Getting choked out. Night after night.

It was humbling to watch the master striker turn into the novice grappler. But I could see he was hungry. And his ego, while bruised, was stronger than most, stronger than mine, and could handle it.

And therein was the value of his personal brand.

Recognizing the reality that we sometimes bring a knife to a gunfight and that the only way out is to learn how to shoot (or run), stat!

The Importance of Being Earnest

That’s the important takeaway for me. For you. That you can be the best-in-the-world at something, anything, but it doesn’t always translate to the next thing. The other thing. Which is okay.

It’s okay.

Embrace the beginner mindset.

It’s okay to get your arm pulled in ways God did not intend. There’s a valuable lesson, there. Namely, don’t let that happen again!

That’s what having a personal brand, a leading brand, is all about. Continuously testing your merits. The downside of leadership is you can get complacent, lazy, and blind. Weighed down by the spare tire around their waist called knowing-it-all.

Remember the adage in all martial arts: Always keep your head up. Keep your hands up. Alert. Otherwise, Pokemon Go get knocked out.

The way to defeat the sloth of having “made it” is to be eternally curious. To be young again. To begin, again, always. It’ll keep you from acting your age, which is a good thing, the older we get.

Whatever it is you’re going after, whatever that is, it’s going to take your getting put on your rumpus, over and over again, to achieve it.

You may as well embrace it. Have a smile on your face. Have some fun.

We’re good at this as kids. As beginners. We are supposed to fail. To laugh during the process. Why does it have to change when we master something. Shouldn’t the desire to improve, to grow, increase once you get a taste of mastery?

Because, as all people, black belts and novices alike, learn, that chase, this goal you seek, is what your personal brand, what your life, will be all about.

Here’s a secret: When you learn it all, you learn you know nothing at all.

YOUR CROSS TO BEAR

And it’s time to go again.

Once more around the world.

That’s the mark we wear. Our personal brand constantly torched, burning and turning to ash, and rising once again, a different yet familiar animal.

Relish being at level one. All the fun starts here. That’s your personal brand to bear.

What is something you know you have to do but haven’t because you will have to start at the beginning?

Go do it. It will lead to something amazing, I promise. But it’ll come with bruises, it always does. But you will wear them with the honor that comes with the earnest progression towards a dream.

Personal Branding

For a long time, for too long, I wore a mask.

It would slip on as easily as a dress shirt, tie, and suit. And indeed, it was integral to the ensemble.

I’d wear it like armor.

Protection. Insulation. Separation.

If the world was a stage, I’d play my part. Say my lines.

“Professional” me was just that. A pro. Nose to the grindstone. I was who I thought I should be at the appropriate times. A different mask for every occasion. A carousel ride of personas.

As a result, my personal branding was all over the place.

To some, I was a gregarious, swaggering, fellow. To others, quiet and reserved. Around and around it went.

The truth, the truth, got lost somewhere in the stack of visages.

This all changed, much of it, all of it, when I became a father.

Having a child, raising a child, demands purity, authenticity. You show your true self here in this vocation called parenting.

There are no lies told at 4 a.m. with a feverish baby.

Or when he looks at you with a glimmer in his eye. Or when you’re wiping booty.

He sees me. Because I am me. Almost two, he can already tell if I’m acting. If I’m being true. If I’m really laughing or just faking it. And if I’m faking it, he’ll fake it, too. Mocking my disguise. Matching guffaw for guffaw. Calling me out.

I need that.

So I’m me now. Again. From here on out.

He needs that.

There’s a latin phrase, qui docet, discit, which means “he who teaches, learns.” And I know now that for every lesson I impart to my child, he more than returns the favor with a lesson of his own.

It’s like looking in the mirror.

And seeing a long lost friend, breathing fire.

He’s The Villain, You Get That Right?

I was at a tailgate event for the local college football team.

It was a bring the family thing for our clients and team. A rainmaking thing. A community event.

And I was sitting at a table, eating a little barbecue and there was this little boy, maybe five or six years old, sitting with a coworker.

And the subject came up that I enjoyed martial arts, and of course that meant that I was a ninja. At least to a little boy of five or six. It’s easier to explain it this way.

I suppose it is easier for some adults, too.

His eyes got wide at the revelation. A ninja! He got very quiet. Very still. His mind in deep thought. After a while, he leaned over to whisper to the coworker a question for me. Which was simply this:

“Are you a good ninja or a bad ninja?”

Good is Good

I remember reading an interview with actor Michael Douglas talking about his most famous role as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. And how people, even decades later, would come up to him and thank him for his portrayal as the uber financier, saying that his role was the spark that made them become a stockbroker, fully embracing his infamous line that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good” and its accompanying mentality.

The thing I remember most, though, is Michael’s response to their effusive praise:

“You guys know he’s the villain, right? He’s the bad guy.” He was stupefied to think all of these people had been led to a vocation based on a role meant to serve as a cautionary, rather than heroic, tale.

And what stood out to him was their vacant stares. Their minds elsewhere. Suddenly inward. Asking themselves, perhaps for the first time:

Am I the bad guy?

Villain Worship

We are doing that, more and more, now.

Saying hello to the bad guy.

I suppose we always have.

But there’s a distinctive line between appreciating an Oscar award winning performance and living your life based on the part played.

When did we start wanting to emulate the villain?

And when will we stop?

Heroes, Though

I get it.

Heroes are boring.

All the action is with the villain.

The best lines.

The dastardly deeds.

The keeping-up-with-the-Gekkos.

But that’s why it’s important for us to remember the purpose of it all. How the bad guys don’t get to play forever. How they inevitably fall from grace. And the heroes just keep grinding, because that’s what heroes do.

Every single day.

Punching the clock.

Doing work.

I’m not sure when doing the right thing, the boring thing, became so passe. But it’s time to stop thinking so.

Out of the Mouth of Babes

Who are your role models?

Who are your heroes?

Do you even have any anymore?

Are you cheering for and patterning your life after the right person?

I suppose what I am getting at is just, well, one thing.

*dramatic pause*

*whisper*

Are you a good ninja or a bad ninja?

Singularitan

This is going to be a road trip post. An outlier. A side quest. About an issue I’m equal parts fascinated and troubled by.

Come with?

Impossible Questions

What happens at the end of forever?

When the irresistible force meets the immovable object?

When infinity meets zero?

In about 30 years or so, give or take a few, we enter a phase in our lives where we may find out.

Infinity & Zero = One

But first, a physics lesson from a guy who has no business giving physics lessons.

Say you were in outer space. Just chillin’. And you see a black hole. Being a black hole, it draws you in. And you, being just a person hanging out in the ether, get sucked in.

When a black hole grabs you, you’re done. Toast. Hasta la vista, baby.

Why? Because not even light can escape a black hole. It eats light!

So in reality it would shred you up to mini-bittles but say you had something in you that made you able to enjoy the ride.

Down the Black Rabbit’s Hole

When you hit the point where you can’t turn back, when it’s impossible to do anything but go forward, a really weird thing happens:

Time stops.

For you.

The rest of the universe goes on. But for you, the tick-tocking is over.

And because of this, while you continue down the black rabbit’s hole, the rest of the universe just sees you “stuck” right where you are.

Frozen at the point of no return.

Forever teetering at the lip of the black rabbit.

This is all because time has stopped for you and not for others, so all that the entire universe will forever see is your silly mug sitting on the precipice of annihilation, but never actually diving in. So make sure you pose in a way people can appreciate. Consider it the final snapshot in the celestial family album.

By the way, they call this flashpoint the event horizon.

Singularity

Here is where it gets really strange.

There’s no way you’d make it anywhere close to this stage, and if you did, you would be stretched out like putty through a straw, but hey, this whole thing started with you hanging out in space, so let’s continue to use our imagination.

When you reach the center of the black hole, infinity meets zero. And they become one.

Infinite levels of mass, gravity, and density “fit” into an infinitely small dot and even the space-time curves infinitely. I have no idea what that all means so let’s just say infinity meets zero.

And what happens there?

No one has any idea.

All the stuff you learned and forgot in physics class are irrelevant at the bottom of a black hole, because they no longer apply.

And because we have to call something we don’t know something fancy, we call this place of crazy a singularity.

What’s this have to do with me?

Will you be around in 30 years?

I hope so.

And here’s what you may find.

You may find out what it means to be you, in the truest sense of the world.

There is a growing number of people who believe that due to the exponential growth (to the Nth power stuff) of technology, we are going to hit another event horizon.

This time one we can definitely live to see.

It’s the point where technology has improved so quickly and so powerfully, that the meaning of what it means to be you will be forever changed.

Technology will be so intelligent it will be many times above our own, so much in fact that we simply do not know what will happen.

All the limits of our mind will be reached and surpassed.

On the other side of forever is the Singularity.

This time, the technical one.

And what’s this have to do with identity?

Who are you when the phone you are already overly attached to, is attached to you? Or when you can Google from your brain?

Or when you can upgrade your everything?

Who are you, what will be left, after all the laws have changed?

These are scary questions, ones we should be spending a lot more time discussing.

Because it’s happening fast. We are all hurtling forward, to build better, faster, smarter things. We are being pulled into the center.

Thankfully, though, we are still three decades away, not quite at the event horizon of this Singularity, so there’s still time.

This isn’t a doomsday thing, though it might be.

This is the end of the world as we know it, but not the end of the world.

A big difference.

But, once we jump in, we can never jump out.

You can’t push the power button off if there is no button.

Blood cell sized computers as powerful as your iPhone. Technology that can build upon itself, billions of times faster than us. That’s just the lip of the funnel. Do we really think it’s impossible?

Down the spiral we go.

Dreaming of Electric Sheep

The shepherds of tech, that is, you, me, and every one of the more than 3,000,000,000 people online have to ensure when the time comes to make the point-of-no-return leap, we are all prepared to see what’s on the other side of infinity and zero.

That we are prepared to see what happens when we have no idea what will happen.

It will require a faith in us and what we have created. A faith not unlike the one possessed by the One who created us.

What will happen to humanity when it becomes Singularitan?

Independence day.

But which will it most resemble?

Our revolutionary declaration of freedom or a big budget save-the-human-race sci-fi movie?

I have no singular idea.

Do you?

Teacher

He was a bit tipsy, but happy. Grinning that Thai grin. Beaming over flowing wine and ample cuisine, joking and laughing but distant. Barely 5 and a half feet tall and weighing a buck thirty tops, he was a walking weapon but you’d never know it, by size or manner.

Brotherhood

When you practice muay thai, when you start to show up consistently, and demonstrate you care about the craft, care about the art, the Thai teachers, they embrace you.

Eventually.

And because they are often struggling on an martial arts instructor’s wages, you do the right thing and take them out to eat. You provide them an avenue to have some fun. You do this out of respect. To say thank you.

I did this a few times. And this was one of those nights.

Personal Branding 101

“Alex…”

One of the Thai teachers called out my name. I looked at his face, suddenly deadly serious, eyes furrowed. He said:

“I have a big heart you know.” He pointed to his chest then took his hands and cupped an imaginary honeydew melon.

“I know.”

“I’m a fighter, Alex.”

“I know, Enn.”

He shook his head, clearly I did not understand. So he continued:

“I die before I quit. Understand?”

I nodded. And, after a moment of studying my face, seemingly satisfied, he went back into his revelry.

The rest of the night was uneventful, but I still remember his words, all these years later.

The Two Things

Heart. Fight. Death.

What he wanted to convey that night is a bit of a mystery. But what I walked away with was a reminder of the power of conviction. Of absolute belief.

Here was a man who knew who he was. So certain of his identity. Of his name:

Fighter.

And how he wanted me to know it. Know his heart. He wanted me to understand him. To share.

He wanted me to know that there are some things in life even more important than life itself.

The lesson for us is that we must all learn two things: What is worth living for and what is worth dying for. There is wisdom in knowing where the two meet, and when they diverge.

These are the only two things to learn in our walk together.

This I learned from a fighter I called teacher. Many years ago.